When I first heard the word gallerist spoken in conversation, I couldn’t tell whether it referred to an art dealer, a gallery owner or an independent curator. As an unnecessary substitute for any of these terms, it seemed like a passing novelty and I was sure it would never make it into print. But I was wrong. It now strides fashionably across the occasional headline, but is usually repeated in the text alongside the indispensable dealer, director and curator.
So, why gallerist? How would a gallerist differ from the person we now know as an art dealer? Art critic Grace Glueck addressed the puzzle in 2005 with a short piece for The New York Times that reported the attitude of a few major dealers, each suggesting that a gallerist was an individual that represented living artists and did no business in secondary markets. Whether this opinion reflected an interpretation ascending upwards from struggling gallerists, or was sent down from the blue-chip stratosphere was difficult to determine; though a tapping out of the art market pecking order was unmistakable.
The word itself makes an irrationally circular reference that declares no real alignment with anyone or anything beyond a rented storefront. It is particularly troublesome as a substitute for curator in any setting, commercial or non-profit. The word curator describes an individual devoted to keeping a work of art and the artist who made it inseparable. Originating from the Latin word, curare (to care for) a curator has a professional obligation— as their title clearly states—to present art as close to its original intent as possible. From what can be inferred from their title, a gallerist would be dedicated to filling the space with lots of art.
Similar to words like pharmacist, florist and tobacconist, gallerist implies an individual‘s stock in trade is the gallery itself, which is not only an absurdity but assumes a stealthy impertinence, as it places gallerist and artist in semantic equilibrium. By that logic, the word gallerist would better suit a “highly creative” curator whose personal expression supplants the art they select to exhibit. It is difficult to ascertain what the word contributes to a larger conversation on the influence of the art market. Discussing it recently with an array of art professionals, my inquiries were met mostly with ambivalence. Steven Madoff, Chair of the MA in Curatorial Practice at the School of Visual Arts could see no advantage or disadvantage to the word’s use. As it identifies, according to Madoff, a person working in a commercial gallery, its application would simply beg specific information as to the gallerist’s actual duties, which could be receptionist, registrar, curator, director or owner. Allegra LaViola, director of her self-named gallery, has no objections to the term, but never felt the need to use it, particularly in reference to her position as a gallery owner. She was as puzzled as I was about the real purpose of the word, but expressed a belief that it is typically used, “in reference to an individual holding a position of responsibility in a gallery, like an owner or director.”
However, for artists who run alternative art spaces, the gallerist always seems to be the other guy. Lars Kremer, an artist who along with colleagues Liz Atzberger, and Kevin Andrew Curran opened Airplane on Bushwick’s Jefferson Street in 2011, consider their basement space a gallery, but not a business. They exhibit work by artists they admire. Kremer does not consider himself a gallerist, but an artist with access to an exhibition space he and his partners see in purely cultural terms. A gallerist to him is someone with an exhibition space who fosters relationships with collectors. Deborah Brown, of Storefront and several earlier Bushwick spaces also sees herself as an artist first. Like the folks at Airplane, she does not see the exhibition space as a business asset, but a place where shows can be mounted for an art audience. Sales are made occasionally, but the exhibition of art takes precedent. She believes a gallerist to be a person operating a gallery on a strict business model, representing artists in the traditional manner.
The only enthusiastic supporter of the word I could find was Carlo Lamagna, a professor in the NYU Masters in Arts Administration program, who first heard the word gallerist in its English form in Germany and the Netherlands more than a decade ago. According to Lamagna, it was used then to describe the proprietor of a traditional art gallery with a focus on building careers for the artists associated with the space, which is the meaning Lamagna passes along to his students. He likes the way it distinguishes a gallery owner from a consultant or broker, but admits that it has not enjoyed the same popularity on this side of the pond. A gallery’s activities are both commercial and cultural, and any sensitive art dealer will of necessity find themselves juggling responsibilities of widely disparate viewpoints, which demands flexibility. To my ear, the term gallerist sounds too final. It does not reflect that sense of possibility that is so much a part of New York’s entrepreneurial tradition. It glosses over the real-world aspect that defines an art dealer’s multilevel liaison with a public.
Art galleries are just rooms; rooms that may be dedicated to displaying art for sale, or for contemplation, or for private enjoyment, or for curatorial study, or for political advocacy—or any of the above. Its purpose depends on the orientation of the visitor as much as the proprietor, with neither obligated to assume just one orientation at a time. Frankly, there is enough mystification between the art world and the rest of humanity without renaming art’s primary gatekeepers with a word that paints a mental picture of an enigmatic wizard overseeing a magic white box. Illusion and mystery are better left in the hands of artists.