Understanding the Art World with Museum Master Michael

Two mentions of the blessed Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

by Michael Sheridan

Arts Co-Editor

Museums, exhibitions, non-profits, galleries, residences – there are a lot of terms for different spaces in the art world that for the casual visitor may be confusing. Luckily, I have written a handy guide to understanding all these places and in the context of New York.

Everyone, of course, knows what a museum is. It would be hard to find someone who has never been to one, especially as New York has some of the best and largest in the world. Officially, “A public museum is defined as an institution with a permanent collection, governed by an elected or appointed board, founded by civically minded people, existing for the stewardship of its collection and the education of the public.” Almost all museums in addition to their permanent collections, have spaces to put on temporary exhibitions. Some museums in fact, such as the Guggenheim Museum and the New Museum are almost completely dedicated to exhibitions. Exhibitions, which are often also referred to as shows, usually are organized around a single artist (which is referred to as a retrospective) or a theme/concept. Exhibitions also tend to rely heavily on loans from other institutions, which makes art more accessible to those without the resources to travel. Museums, overall, are generally considered to be places of education where the public goes to learn about art.

However, this definition is now being challenged with the rise of the new phenomenon of so called private museums, in which wealthy collectors, arrange their collections for display in private spaces. Sometimes these spaces are accessible to the public and sometimes only invited guests are allowed to see the art. These museums are for profit and thus can do many things that public museums cannot do, such as sell art or restrict access to visitors. They are often criticized as not having a systematic or scholarly approach to the art. Private museums are a very recent trend and it is uncertain what their impact will be, however most scholars find the move from public to private to be troubling.

A museum is quite different from a gallery, although non-art people sometimes use the terms interchangeably. A gallery is a commercial space, which is set up with the goal to sell art for the gallery to make money. Usually, the art has been very recently created within the past few years, although occasionally galleries exhibit historical works as well. Individual galleries to focus on a specific medium, such as photography, or a type of art, such as conceptual art. Furthermore, every gallery has a specific roster of artists in which they “represent” giving them the exclusive right to sell that artists’ works in exchange for allowing them to exhibit in the gallery space and for the gallery to actively market their artists. In order to make the most money possible, galleries change the work on display often, usually every 4 to 6 weeks. Visiting galleries is always free, but don’t get your hopes up that you will be able to buy the work being sold. The prices in an average gallery can range from several thousand, to several hundred thousand, to even millions of dollars. Galleries tend to cluster in neighborhoods, and are now located mainly in Chelsea, but are also found in Soho, the Lower East Side, and Buschwick.

Also set up for profit, but very different, are auction houses. Auction houses should be familiar to most people. Auction houses differ from galleries however in that they do not sell an artist’s works. They instead sell works that have already been bought and are being resold. This is mainly because auction houses will only accept works that they know will sell for large sums. Thus, to ensure this, only works by recognized artists that have a historical precedent for selling high will be accepted. The works sold are also usually very rare and of a limited quantity, which is why collectors often spend outrageous sums of money. The auctions themselves are very exciting and usually open to the public, but once again don’t get your hopes up – the most expensive painting sold at an auction sold for a stunning $179.4 million dollars.

Auction houses also sell much more than just art. They also sell jewelry, cars, rare wine, historical memorabilia, manuscripts, furniture, real estate, and really anything that can make the auction house money. The top auction houses in New York, and thus the World, are Sotheby’s, Christies, and Philips, with Bonhams and Swann also well regarded.

Finally, there are non-profit and residency spaces. It is hard to put a concrete definition on such spaces as they vary widely, but generally these places are very niche and cater mostly to artists themselves. Residency spaces are spaces in which artists are allowed to work for free, with free supplies, and usually receive some sort of stipend or award and a gallery show once the residency is complete. Residencies are thus highly sought after by artists and can really help advance careers, but as money in the art world is limited, residences are usually extremely competitive. While many non-profits host residency programs, others serve as spaces for performers to put on shows, as places where classes are taught to often underprivileged groups, or simply exist to provide funding to artists and their projects. They are all funded almost exclusively through donations and the scope of their work varies widely based on how much money they can fundraise.

Hopefully this article cleared up some confusion about the terminology of the art world. While the majority of casual visitors only ever go to public museums, it can be exciting and different to visit galleries or a live auction if one gets the chance. Overall, the art world might seem daunting to those unfamiliar with it, however it is really simple to navigate once the purpose of each space is understood.

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