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Opinion: Misunderstood Role Of Dealer Galleries

08 Apr 2024

With a number of dealer galleries closing their doors recently, we get an owners' perspective of why they're still vital in providing livelihoods for so many of Aotearoa's artists.

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AVID Gallery

Judith Carswell and Peter Cavanagh have owned Wellington's AVID Gallery for the last 10 of its 32 years. They plan to retire later this year, but are concerned about the future of dealer galleries in Aotearoa's creative ecosystem. They've explained why to The Big Idea.


Andrew Paul Wood’s recent article about the dire future for New Zealand cultural institutions should provide an urgent wake-up call for the wider arts sector.

There is no doubt that New Zealanders are facing some very tough times – driven both by external economic factors largely beyond their control and, more recently, a conscious ideological decision to return the country to a period of austerity.

Given these very real financial pressures, it’s perhaps understandable that art and arts institutions - where the benefits to society are often intangible and harder to measure - will not be given the highest priority.

History though shows us that things of infinite long-term cultural value and importance can be easily lost during short-term periods of economic downturn and austerity.

The current plight of the museum sector should cause us all to think seriously about what we really value about New Zealand art and culture - and what we would lose if some of those players were no longer there.

We should all be rightly concerned about the future of our museums and public art galleries and do all we can to help support them. 

But in our appreciation of the challenges being faced by the institutions which preserve, collect and display our art - we should not lose sight of the fundamental need to support and sustain the individual artists who produce the artwork we treasure.

Pivotal role of dealer galleries

A vital cog in the arts ecosystem – often unrecognised, under-valued and widely misunderstood – is the role of the dealer gallery.

We are the current owners of one such dealer gallery, AVID Gallery in Wellington, which has represented a large number of both senior and emerging artists in glass, ceramics and contemporary jewellery for the past 32 years.

AVID Gallery 2.jpg
Photo: Supplied.

As we prepare for retirement later this year, we are very conscious of the fact that many of the artists we represent rely heavily on us for their own futures – and that the decisions we make could very well determine whether they are able to continue working as full-time artists. 

It’s a responsibility we don’t take lightly.

While the term has come into greater prominence in more recent times, artists have been working in the “gig economy” for many years.  

Their income is like a patchwork quilt. Some sporadic funding is available in the form of grants from Creative New Zealand and a small number of private trusts and foundations – if your application is successful.  Modest prizemoney can be earned if you’re successful in arts competitions. Some artists are able to generate occasional sales through word-of-mouth or their own websites.

But the backbone of their income comes from their dealer galleries.

It’s the dealer galleries that provide the high-profile shopfront locations where an artist’s work can be professionally displayed and exhibited on a regular basis. It’s the daily promotion and marketing of artists by their dealers that helps to build recognition and reputation, exposing their work to potential buyers and collectors, championing their cause with art-buying institutions and national collections.

From a buyer’s perspective, one of the joys of visiting a dealer gallery is the opportunity to engage with each artwork in the flesh: to see the colour, form, scale and detail of the artist’s work for yourself.  This is particularly important for three-dimensional art objects like glass, ceramics and sculpture. 

It’s being in the physical presence of an artwork that creates true emotional engagement and the feelings that they can generate: awe, contemplation, inspiration.

Prospective buyers can discuss the artwork, the artist and their art practice with someone who has the in-depth knowledge to inform their buying decision.  Many people make multiple visits to a gallery and engage in numerous conversations with a dealer before deciding to buy an artist’s work.

Online art sales

AVID Gallery 3.jpg
Photo: AVID Gallery.

One disturbing recent development which runs counter to the rewarding experience of visiting a gallery is the emergence of online art-selling platforms, offering little more than a digital image and a “click and collect” type service. 

The superficial attraction of these platforms is that - with little more than a website - they can afford to charge a lower commission rate than brick-and-mortar dealer galleries (with their much higher overheads) and therefore provide a better return to the artist. 

But the benefits are likely to be short-lived.  By under-cutting and undermining the dealer galleries, the artists selling through the platforms risk jeopardising the regular, long-term, income stream provided by the galleries that they need to survive.

A number of dealer galleries have closed their doors in recent years. AVID Gallery, for example, is now the only gallery in Wellington representing New Zealand’s leading glass, ceramic and contemporary jewellery artists.

Labour of love

Being a dealer gallery comes at a cost. 

Judith Carswell.jpg
Judith Carswell. Photo: Supplied.

As alluded to earlier, the overheads involved in providing prominent shopfront gallery spaces – either through commercial rents or ownership – are high and the cost of insurance cover for valuable works of art has risen exponentially in recent years.

Like so many other roles in the arts, you wouldn’t do it for the money. 

To be a dealer gallery you have to love what you do, the artists you represent and the artwork they produce. 

We consider it a great privilege to come to work each day to be surrounded by things of such great beauty – but we also understand the great responsibility that goes with that privilege.

We do love this life and hope that whoever takes the gallery into the next chapter will work hard to maintain AVID Gallery’s place as a much-loved Wellington and New Zealand arts institution - and will love it as much as we do.

But in the meantime, maybe it’s time to re-evaluate and acknowledge the absolutely vital role played by New Zealand’s dealer galleries in nurturing and supporting the great artists of the past, sustaining the current generation of practitioners – and providing opportunities and exposure for the generations that follow.  

Without the dealer galleries, artists would be deprived of the regular income stream they need to support themselves, their families and their art-making – and New Zealand would be vastly poorer as a result.