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Of the Framers and the Framed

The Value of the Art Gallery

The exhibition opening for Sallyanne Morgan at Lily Agius Gallery June 2019

I am often asked, does Malta even have art galleries? A quick Google or Facebook search reveals a list of perhaps two dozen galleries that enjoy broad reputational recognition and prestige. In this article, I speak to a few gallery owners and focus on commercial galleries, discussing the importance of their relationship with artists as a catalyst for the public development of an art education. 

There has been a strong culture of an antique art market in Malta for some time, run for the most part through dealers and auction houses, but with the new generations – just as we’re seeing on an international level – interest is dwindling save for the odd exception.

Buyers are however seeing the exponential growth in value of some (real) modernist works by the Malta-based artists of the early to mid 20th century, like Antonio Sciortino and, more recently, ceramicist Gabriel Caruana. They are therefore, starting to appreciate the value of investing in art. We want, and need, to create an art market almost from scratch, and quality art galleries are pivotal in creating an art market. 

When a gallery makes the right choices – the right choice of artist and their selection of work – the client is more likely to realise, in the long run, that the purchase was good in terms of value and investment, and subsequently buy more. The highest role of a gallery is to influence the art scene and create an art market that makes sure artists continue to produce. A professional gallery will also help guide the artist develop and a healthy symbiotic relationship should ensue. Being represented by a gallery means an artist is showing work on a regular if not permanent basis, with the financial risk mostly on the gallery. Gallerists are there to continually drum the artist’s identities into their trusting buyer’s heads. They have good contacts with the press and know the relevant collectors.

Pretty much all galleries in Malta send out custom designed personal invitations, write or commission informative press releases, and collaborate with physical and online publications to create good content in the name of the promotion of the arts and culture. In this way, a good gallerist would be once again be influencing the islands’ art scene and art market through effecting the public’s perception of what art is or should be from magazines and social media content. 

The gallerists should also pay for an opening reception, pay for the transport of the work, insure the works on transit, and on display and handle all requests. A good gallerist will also know to push to place work in significant art collections. In a nutshell, most artists simply do not have the time, nor the skills, to market themselves in this manner. And yet, very few galleries in Malta represent artists on an exclusive basis. Marta Obiols Fornell, originally from Barcelona, of Arthall in Gozo says “I think that I am not powerful enough as a gallerist to ask for exclusivity, and it’s not my goal either. Instead, I ask for an exclusivity of six months with the art pieces I show in my gallery.”

Arthall, Gozo

Lily Agius of Lily Agius Gallery says “Most of the artists I work with are exclusive to the gallery, tied to a contract, and some are long-lasting verbal agreements. All agreements vary, depending on whether they are already signed up to other galleries abroad or not and according to what they can commit to. My priorities lie with my contracted artists and those who I can trust and work well with – and I only work with artists whom I represent. It just doesn’t work if artists do not want to commit to providing a number of works a year to the gallery, or want to sell their art with various other galleries or alone – there are artists who respect and understand the significance of being represented by a gallery, which costs a lot of money, time and hard work.”

A gallerist will collaborate with overseas galleries to widen the reach of their artists. Arthall, for instance have regular contact with Spright Art Gallery in the Netherlands and are also building up a project with the Art Collector Club, based in India.

A gallery can also be a community space. Many galleries double up as event and workshop spaces bringing the community closer to the art. Any artist who is supporting this by agreeing to be represented by a gallery therefore becomes a source of financial support for these endeavours. Justine Balzan Demajo of Studio 87 in Valletta has this concept in mind. “Part of my aim is to also act as a community space, whereby artists and the surrounding community are brought together by means of different events, activities and workshops, allowing ideas to be shared and ensuring inclusivity and accessibility at all times.”

Finally, galleries reduce the stress and anxiety related to organising an exhibition and sales. As discussed above, a gallerist should be seen as an artist’s partner, handling sales through good connections. Christine Xuereb, who owns Christine X Art Gallery in Sliema, represents 18 artists and says; “Many artists don’t enjoy having people at their studio, as it takes from their time working on their art and they also don’t like to deal with pricing”

Christine X Gallery, Sliema

It is imperative that gallerists work to improve on their practices including striving to be selective with the works they sell and guiding artists to produce good work. I think gallerists should double their efforts to promote not just a static body of work, or singular artists, but to lobby for more exposure of the importance of art in general. And I think Maltese and Malta-based artists should support this effort by being loyal to a gallerist through effective discussion and collaboration, while buyers and collectors should strive to buy through a gallery and support its progress even if they know the artist well. If a buyer believes in the artist and wishes them well, they should know that in buying through a gallery, they are ensuring the future of both the artist and the art market – this will certainly ensure a better return to their investment.

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