Judith Barry on The Future of Art Galleries

Judith Barry’s “All the light that’s ours to see,” 2020. (Courtesy of the artist)
ACT at MIT

ACT Director Judith Barry was recently interviewed, along with artists Rafael Vega and Rhona Bitner, by The Nation for a piece about the future of the gallery system in a post COVID-19 world.

Barry Schwabsky, the author of the essay, begins by explaining that “the gallery scene in New York, long the most active setting for new art worldwide, had been showing signs of malaise even before the Covid-19 pandemic. Many of its problems are shared around the globe—notably the rise of art fairs, which have increased the cost of doing business while drawing many collectors away from brick-and-mortar galleries; other challenges, such as high rents, are more specific to New York. All of them are rooted in a broader sociopolitical context: the seemingly inexorable rise of income inequality and the winner-take-all economy. One result has been consolidation of the art market around a small number of mega-galleries and a squeeze on the rest. And when the galleries are ailing, it’s the artists who are most affected.”

As Schwabsky continues, he notes that these three artists have all had different experiences within the gallery system. Some excerpts about Judith Barry:

Judith Barry, an Ohioan by birth, lives in New York but commutes to Cambridge, Mass., where she is director of the ACT (art, culture and technology) program at MIT. She has exhibited her performance, installation, sculpture, and media works worldwide, including, most recently, solo shows at the Mary Boone Gallery in New York and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. She has also worked as an exhibition designer, often in collaboration with her life partner, architect Ken Saylor. Since the gallery and museum closings, some of her big projects have been put on pause while her teaching duties have migrated online, but her drawing and other preparatory work continue for future projects such as All the light that’s ours to see, an installation that reconsiders the history of home video and the transmutation of moving image culture as it became incorporated into domestic space.

Barry, coming into the art world toward the end of the 1970s, found things simpler. She was invited to show in biennials and other big international exhibitions almost before she knew it. “You were plucked out of school and given a budget to produce work—this was my de facto residency period. Yes, you made mistakes in public. But you made a lot of work because you had a budget. You weren’t working three jobs to pay two rents—home and studio, plus work expenses.” Galleries took an early interest too, but “it was a special kind of gallery who wanted to show” someone like Barry, whose experimental work is not often the type that attracts collectors. But sales are not necessarily the point. “I’ve had dealers who really love to sell and others who really don’t like it,” says Barry. “You’re with a gallery for a variety of reasons and it’s not always about selling. What galleries do really well is give you a context and that most important thing, the chance to exhibit your work. Not having a gallery means a lot of your work isn’t seen. That was often my case in New York, where for long periods I didn’t have a gallery. You have to recognize what they can and cannot do. They can’t make a market for you if there’s no market. They can’t get someone to write about your work if there’s no one who’s interested in writing about it.”

The full feature can be found here.