Have artist-run shows lost their market-making power?

This April marked the 150th anniversary of the first Impressionists’ exhibition in Paris in 1874. Frustrated by rejections from the official annual Salon, the young Monet, Renoir, Degas and Pissarro founded the co-operative Société anonyme des artistes peintres, sculpteurs et graveurs, etc. and mounted their own month-long group show of 165 works that also featured more than 20 other artists, including Cézanne, Morisot and Boudin.

Monet and Renoir respectively raised just 200 francs and 180 francs from sales. Degas sold nothing

The event, located in the former studio of the photographer Nadar at 35 Boulevard des Capucines, attracted mixed reviews and few sales. Louis Leroy in the Charivari famously dubbed the participants “Impressionists” after being underwhelmed by Monet’s sketchy 1872 harbour scene Impression, Soleil levant (impression, sunrise), ambitiously priced at 1,000 francs. At the time, this was equivalent to the entire annual wage of an engine driver, France’s best-paid manual worker. In his seminal 1946 History of Impressionism, John Rewald estimates that Monet and Renoir respectively raised just 200 francs and 180 francs from sales. Degas sold nothing.

Monet’s Impression, Soleil levant (1872) featured in the first show of the artists who became known as the Impressionists
© musée Marmottan Monet, Paris/Studio Baraja SLB

The paintings from this early phase of the Impressionist movement can now seem more pretty than revolutionary. But as Paul Tucker points out in the catalogue of the 1986 Washington, DC and San Francisco exhibition The New Painting: Impressionism 1874-1886, this inaugural show was a seismic moment in the history of Western art and its market.

“For the first time artists had banded together to show their work to the public directly without the sanction of the government or the judgment of a jury,” Tucker writes. “The participating artists quickly were recognised as the avant-garde, and their show became the touchstone for all such future Modernists’ efforts.”

Today, 150 years on, Impressionist works bring in hundreds of millions of dollars at auction annually, and the group show is still recognised as the most effective vehicle for contemporary artists to attract the attention of critics, curators, dealers, collectors and (hopefully) a wider public. But now that Modernism and its avant-garde are art history, does the group exhibition retain the capacity to re-route the aesthetic and commercial agendas of our culture?

Institutionalising the avant-garde

Last month’s opening of the 60th Venice Biennale is not the only reason to ask the question. In March, for instance, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York unveiled its 81st biennial, billed as “the longest-running survey of contemporary art in the United States”, with works by 71 artists and collectives. The cohering theme of this latest survey is the exploration of the “permeability of the relationships between mind and body, the fluidity of identity and the growing precariousness of the natural and constructed worlds around us”, according to the Whitney’s website.

This snapshot of what is new in US contemporary art, like most biennials and other major group exhibitions today, has been assembled by professional curators for an established institution. Yet the reviews suggest that it has little verve and even less connection to life as it is lived in 2024. After seeing the show, Jason Farago of The New York Times opined: “Artists emerging today are intelligent but terrified. Exhausted by culture’s surrender to the market, badly outmatched by Silicon Valley’s image regimes, they conclude that small-scale (and museum-compliant) acts of demonstration and recalcitrance are the safest bet.”

Dwindling originality

There is still a vestigial yearning among those who visit major group exhibitions to discover something truly original and radical. Yet the nature of these presentations makes this less and less likely.

The German critic Peter Bürger wrote in his influential 1974 book Theory of the Avant-Garde that the “European avant-garde movements can be defined as an attack on the status of art in bourgeois society”. Museums and the market had conferred a deadening “institutional” status on art among the late 19th century’s cultured middle classes. For Bürger, radical movements like Dada and Surrealism were an attempt to reconnect art with lived life.

Now that there is not much in the way of a bourgeois society left to attack, and institutional curators and commercial dealers have become highly effective gatekeepers of the art shown in galleries, it is hardly surprising that the very idea of the avant-garde seems a quaint and remote anachronism.

New groups, new contexts

But the art world continues to try its best to come up with innovative presentations and to find artists who have something fresh to say. London-based independent dealers held two group shows in March that tried to do things a little differently.

Over in the east of London, Gertrude and Canopy Collections—two online platforms that aim to encourage a wider audience to buy serious yet approachably priced contemporary art—collaborated to mount Pourquoi, a three-day group show of around 70 works by more than 40 emerging UK-based artists in the atmospheric interior of an early 18th-century house in Spitalfields. The organisers say that around 1,500 people visited over its 72-hour run. The first Impressionist exhibition took a month to attract 3,500, according to Rewald.

Intimate rather than intimidating

“It was a lot less of an intimidating place to look at art than a white cube. The domestic setting helped anchor work into a context that people could perceive within their own lives,” says Will Jarvis, a co-founder of Gertrude. “We feel the industry could be more broad.”

Several of the artists who participated in Pourquoi also featured in the Camden Art Centre’s recent New Contemporaries group show, such as the London-based figurative painter Thomas Cameron, a sort of Edward Hopper for the iPhone era. Two Cameron paintings tagged at £5,000 and £4,500 each were among the 15% to 20% of works that Jarvis says had sold from Pourquoi by 1 April.

Punchier prices, louder art

The prices were generally punchier, the art generally louder in Mayfair’s No.9 Cork Street rental space for Bump, the first large-scale group show held by Matt Carey-Williams, the former senior director of the Victoria Miro gallery. With 25,900 followers on Instagram, Carey-Williams is one of the London contemporary art scene’s foremost online influencers.

His 16-day show featured around 40 paintings by a mix of established figures, like Flora Yukhnovich and Antony Micallef, and less familiar names, like the Essex-based artist Dean Fox and Christian Rex van Minnen from California, both skilful, self-taught riffers on historic art whom Carey-Williams discovered on Instagram. Fox’s starting point is Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, while Van Minnen’s is 17th-century Dutch still-life painting, which he luridly transmogrifies with surreal biomorphic forms.

You’re going to find new artists on Instagram before anywhere else

“If you want to find new artists, you’re going to find them on Instagram before anywhere else,” says Carey-Williams, who adds that around half the works in the show had found buyers by the time we went to press. Fox’s 2023 canvas The Artists, inspired by Renoir’s 1876 painting Under the Arbour at the Moulin de la Galette and priced at £6,000, was the first piece to sell. Four small oil sketches by the market superstar Yukhnovich, with whom Carey-Williams worked at Victoria Miro, were surefire sellers at £22,000 each.

But do online platforms and independent dealers give emerging artists enough autonomy to enable transformative group exhibitions such as the first Impressionist show in 1874 and Freeze, the landmark 1988 selling presentation staged by Damien Hirst and his fellow Goldsmiths students in an abandoned building in the London Docklands? In both those breakthrough shows, young artists audaciously endeavoured to take control of their own markets.

A real place, a real audience

“In 2024 there’s a lot more agency for a young artist under 35 than we saw in the immediate post-war period. Their agency is not fulfilled, but at least propelled by the digital universe,” Carey-Williams says. “Our job is to keep it as IRL [in real life] as possible. Artists want to have the opportunity to show their work in the flesh in a real place to a real audience. Technology has made this endgame much more competitive,” he adds, referring to the millions of artists jostling for attention on digital platforms like Instagram.

Maybe in the current economic environment, mould-breaking, self-organised group shows of works by young artists are a thing of the past, along with the avant-garde. But in an art market dominated by mega-galleries, mega-collectors and mega-prices, some enterprising independent dealers are at least reimagining the Impressionists’ 150-year-old formula to try to reconnect selling exhibitions with lived life.