“Content is king,” Microsoft founder Bill Gates proclaimed in a 1996 Internet essay. It’s now become a cliché, but for commercial galleries, content in all its forms, in real life and online, is the new frontier. .
Lucas Zwirner, David Zwirner Gallery Content Manager and Gallery Podcasts Moderator, Dialogs, launched in 2018, says it is “still hesitant” about the word “content”. “If I think about our operations, there is of course this content rush in the world, but we really want to be cultural actors and producers,” he underlines.
Zwirner, who was the editorial director of David Zwirner Books between 2014 and 2019, describes the gallery’s media initiatives as a “publishing trifecta,” comprised of traditional print media, digital media, which is “at a nascent stage for everyone,” and what he calls “event publishing”. The gallery recently partnered with New York Book Review on a free lecture series examining the intersection of power and culture. Building audience participation is key, Zwirner says.
As with David Zwirner, print publishing remains a key part of Hauser & Wirth’s operations. It even launched a self-contained publishing headquarters and bookstore in Zurich in June 2019, essentially creating a “showroom for our publishing arm,” as Michaela Unterdörfer, the gallery’s director of publications, describes it.
But in December 2018, the gallery also launched the quarterly glossy magazine Ursulawhich is overseen by editor Randy Kennedy, who was previously at the New York Times for 23 years. Unterdörfer says editorial independence is crucial for those working in gallery publishing departments. But they also need to have flexibility in terms of what gets published. And a critical part of that flexibility, she argues, is how they adapt to a digital future. “The economy is tough, we’re working in a niche area,” she says, noting that galleries offer generous budgets compared to many publishers. “It’s sad to see the print market change so much, but it’s good to rethink whether print, audio or video is the best medium,” she says.
Another gallery developing new audiences, both online and offline, is Gagosian, which launched its magazine, Quarterly Gagosian, Four years ago. “Initially, one of our main goals was to present as much context as possible around our artists and our exhibitions,” says Alison McDonald, the gallery’s director of publications. “Four years later, our most recent issues have also focused on dance, philanthropy, fashion, film, creative collaborations, poetry, books.”
She notes that the magazine is “expensive to produce”, but says her team “is very fortunate to have a loyal base of advertisers who appreciate the level of quality and value of what we do”. This allows Gagosian to offer “more content for less” – $20 per issue or $60 for the year, while the website is completely free.
Potential sales are always a welcome side effect. “If we do our job right, the magazine can offer collectors meaningful information about our artists and their work that could lead to an acquisition,” McDonald says. Contrary to Ursulawhich is not available online, most articles published in Quarterly Gagosian are uploaded to the website. In addition, the online version of the magazine offers videos of specific projects or exhibitions, as well as conversations between artists and other personalities from the art world. Films are on the rise: over the past 14 months, they have represented an average of 37% of the online magazine’s traffic. McDonald says additional reach came from Instagram TV posts of Gagosian videos– for example, a short film by Helen Frankenthaler has been viewed 127,000 times so far. Instead of having a separate profile, the magazine’s content feeds into the gallery’s Instagram profile, which has 1.2 million followers.
“Not all cultural initiatives need to be immediately monetizable”.
Lucas Zwirner, moderator of the David Zwirner Gallery Dialogues podcast
Perhaps unusually for an industry based on visual images, podcasts are increasingly popular among galleries—Sean Kelly and Lisson Gallery are among those who have taken their expertise to the airwaves. Lucas Zwirner explains that the gallery launched its podcast because “publishing had a much larger audience than expected and podcasts were a natural conduit for artists’ voices.”
He notes that each episode gets between 30,000 and 50,000 plays; the conversation between artist Jordan Wolfson and actor and playwright Jeremy O. Harris remains among the most popular. Meanwhile, the podcast is currently at around half a million downloads for seasons one and two. Zwirner expands horizons for season three. “We’re figuring out which conversations would be most interesting for a new generation of art lovers, or even culture lovers,” he says.
So how do these projects play into online sales initiatives? Zwirner notes that Raoul De Keyser’s online viewing room during Frieze London in October, which included a video by young artist Harold Ancart, resulted in a real “burst of activity” in terms of sales.
However, he points out that “not all cultural initiatives need to be immediately monetizable”. Zwirner adds: “The narrative around galleries is often about size – it’s about the size of the top three galleries, how many artists they sign. But instead, I think it’s time to really look at what each participant contributes in a thoughtful way.