Starting after the 4th of July, the normal gallery shows in the art world will be replaced for the most part by a dangerous mutant offspring: the summer group show. Like kudzu covering every inch of the roadside, the summer group show is an invasive species, crowding out all other offerings, creating a monoculture of culture.
The formula is simple: gather together a handful of artists already represented by the gallery, select 4 or 5 works each, and hang them in groups in the gallery space, covered by a catchy summer related title. Think of it as the pu pu platter of Americanized Chinese food: a thrown together sampler of otherwise unrelated items.
The origins of this mind numbing beast are rooted in the elemental turning of the seasons. As the months turn hotter, more local collectors vacate the city on the weekends for the beaches, and more drive-by tourists find themselves wandering lost in Chelsea. These two combine to create a meaningful slowdown in sales. The inevitable downward spiral probably all began at some point when certain artists began to complain about being given the summer slot for their solo shows, angling for a better Fall or Winter time slot when more people were likely to notice. At the same time, gallery owners probably started to connect the dots: if it’s a slow time anyway and no one wants to exhibit then, may be we can cut costs by doing some kind of group show of our existing stable? We won’t do much promotion (saving $), we won’t reframe everything (saving $), and we’ll reduce the number of hours we’re open (saving $). Genius!
The problem is that this simple set of logical decisions on an individual level has spiraled into a wasteland when adopted by the entire gallery world. From a collector’s perspective, there is literally no reason to spend any time visiting galleries in the summer, as there is, on the whole, very little of interest to see. Think of how ridiculous this statement is: “Sorry, I can’t join you for the weekend at your beach house. I need to stay in the city and see some important summer group shows.” Of course, the galleries are now on reduced “Summer Hours” and closed over the weekend anyway, but you get my point.
In a sense, the summer group show is the culprit here: the boredom created by these shows is so real that the whole system has broken down to the point that many galleries will just close their doors entirely until after Labor Day. The art world is on the way to following our education system in adopting a nine month work year.
I think the solution here is relatively straight forward. Rather than make better summer group shows (and to be fair, there are always a few well curated, thematic shows that have interesting connections and juxtapositions, rather than just a random grab bag of work), we need to abandon this crutch and go back to real thought-provoking shows.
Given the fact that the traffic and sales are somewhat lower during this period, I think the summer slot should be dedicated to first time solo shows by emerging artists, who have yet to earn a better spot on the calendar. An abundance of photographers would love to have a solo show at a gallery of substance any time of the year, even in the summer. Just think if the galleries were filled with fresh edgy work each summer; it would be like a meadow of wildflowers, rather than the weed strewn vacant lot that it is today.
The reality is that most people work for a living and can’t take two (or three) contiguous months off to enjoy the beach. So while many may decamp on the weekends, most folks are still in the city during the week, grinding it out like any other week of the year. If instead of the dead zone of summer group shows there was a vibrant scene of emerging artist shows, some excitement might just be created in those heat drenched days. Perhaps some mid week, warm weather, out on the sidewalk openings could suddenly be worth attending. Certainly the artists themselves would work to generate some interest, and given some discerning curatorial selections by gallery owners, some hot new artists might emerge.
A recent article by Charlie Finch on Artnet (here, via Edward Winkleman here) posits that it will be collectors that will need to lead the art world out of the recession. My answer as a collector is that this is almost certainly true; we as buyers need to grease the wheels of the system by prudently getting back in the game and supporting the galleries and artists that we care about. But my challenge to the gallerists out there is as follows: your summer group shows are driving real collectors away. And while I realize it is far too late to change the plan for this summer, you need to give us something to get excited about, and perhaps then we’ll pay more attention. Otherwise, we’ll see you again in the Fall.