In the art world, so often, there is one question that starts the game: Do you have the means, or perhaps the desire, to buy what some gallery in Chelsea has to offer? Do you have a market and if so, whom? Actually, scratch that: Who are you?
Jonathan Day Nālamakūikapō Ahsing, 22, knows what that feels like. He’s a Kanaka Maoli storyteller and up-and-coming artist based in Hawaii.
“I’ve definitely had negative experiences in the art market — People turning me away or not wanting to work with me because of the nature of my work,” Ahsing said, adding that he’s been around people who weren’t allowed to enter certain galleries based on the color of their skin or because they were from certain economic backgrounds.
“If a gallery is only concerned with the numeric value of an art piece and not concerned with the movement of empowering the community, it doesn’t feel like they really, truly care about the message they are trying to convey,” he said.
A few years ago, Ahsing was hosting an exhibition of his work when he struck up a conversation with the co-founder of Passage Arts gallery Alema Fitisemanu, 24, and his co-founders Reilly Clark, 24, and Reily Haag, 23.
Their conversation spanned inequity, racism, the mis- and underrepresentation of indigenous voices, and the unequal power dynamic between galleries, artists, and collectors.
Both Clark and Haag are white, while Fitisemanu is of Pacific Islander descent. Clark recognized his privilege as a white man but said young people in general — both artists and collectors — want inclusivity. They don’t want to leave galleries feeling as if they don’t belong. And everyone wants, no matter what their background, to be given a fair chance at an opportunity to do what they love, he said.
Ahsing felt relief at their transparency. Fitisemanu, Clark, and Haag opened Passage Arts last summer to help spotlight underrepresented artists such as himself, and they are currently working with five others.
“Unless you are one of the top 10 art dealers in the world, the system isn’t working for you,” Passage Arts COO Clark, told Insider. “We want to be the people that actually go out and meet new artists. To cultivate new collectors, on their own terms, their own turf, and their own time.”
A new generation taking exclusivity out of the art world with pop-ups and online galleries.
Passage Arts isn’t the only next-gen gallery that feels the art market has become too exclusive.
In New York, Destinee Ross-Sutton, 25, opened the Ross-Sutton gallery earlier this year, seeking to highlight artists from the African diaspora. It plans to host international pop-ups and make the gallery available online for “all to access.”
When Clark helped launch Passage Arts out of a small apartment in Salt Lake City, Utah, the goal now
, was to open the industry up to people of all socioeconomic statuses both online and in the physical world. It is self-funded, though the team plans to start fundraising as early as this year. The idea to launch Passage Arts came when Clark and Haag got together with Fitisemanu to speak about how to leverage their privilege to open the door for others.
“When you talk about artists in the United States, it’s starving artists and that’s a tragedy,” Clark said, while on the other hand there is “so much money moving around the art market.”
And that money is mainly going to white artists.
In 2017, Artnet reported 80% of artists repped by top New York galleries were white. The next year, the publication found that works by Black American artists accounted for just 1.2% of the global art market, while those of Latinx, Middle Eastern, Pacific Island, and Native American descent represented 2.1%, 1%, 0.2%, and 0.1%, respectively.
The digitization of the art market has helped democratize it in some ways, and Passage Arts has currently been focused on its online expansion, though it has plans to open a space in Los Angeles once the pandemic subsides.
Online galleries aren’t necessarily new, but they aren’t widespread either. The pandemic accelerated most galleries’ transition to the online world as the physical world shut down.
But the mission of accessibility is not simply moving an existing systemic structure to the internet. Darmo Art gallery cofounder Alexis de Bernede pointed out that many artists still struggled during the pandemic, even as the art world moved online.
That’s because many collectors still didn’t know where to find them, he said. That or the collectors were going to the same big websites, stalking on the same big names, without any exposure to what else the art world has to offer, Clark noted, saying the art world failed to cultivate new consumers during the pandemic.
And this doesn’t even include the artists who were always, and still are, excluded from galley representation and showcasing opportunities in the first place.
But increasing access, opportunities, and navigation are not just about finding the next Basquiat or Eli Broad — or then, again, maybe it is. More diverse collectors, buyers, and artists could lead to more diverse museum directors, trustees, and organization heads, Clark said.
“One of the fundamental ways to change the way these organizations operate is to get more people from all backgrounds into positions where they can become influential members of the community,” he continued.
“You don’t need an expensive retail space in Chelsea to support artists or to connect artists with collectors or to cultivate your collectors online.”