Like the dirt the broom sweeps under the rug, the conditions for art’s production, valuation and sale represent aspects of the art market many would prefer not to look at. But beneath the sheen, the highly personal drivers of what we know as the art world are the group of people holding the broom, though they often go uncredited. One might reasonably assert that those with the broom produced not only the dirt under the carpet but sold the carpet too.
In 2007, the Getty Institute in Los Angeles acquired the substantial archives of pioneering Dusseldorf gallerist Alfred Schmela. Key to the furthering of Conceptual art in Europe and abroad, Schmela showed Yves Klein’s monochromes for the gallery’s opening in 1957, Gerhard Richter’s first solo exhibition in 1964, Joseph Beuys’ How To Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare in 1965, and, in the late-’70s, Gordon Matta-Clark and Bruce Nauman, among many others. An article about the Schmela archive published in 2009 in the Getty Research Journal states: ‘Schmela conducted his business through a large network of personal relations. The correspondence […] tells a fascinating story of an impassioned gallerist at work while evoking the contemporary art world in Europe in this era.’ The Getty’s description is telling. It makes no mention of other figures involved in Galerie Schmela’s history, and the focus of Jay Chung & Q Takeki Maeda’s exhibition at Isabella Bortolozzi in Berlin: Alfred’s wife Monika, daughter Ulrike and granddaughter Lena, the first two of whom took over the business after Schmela’s death in 1980 before continuing, precariously, to run it until 2008, despite sometimes oppressively hostile conditions. Ulrike, who directed the gallery, was 26 at the time. (Her daughter Lena Brüning closed her own Berlin gallery in 2013.)
Even today, galleries often operate as mid-sized family businesses, a fact particularly acute in the Rhineland, where personal and family connections have historically been the norm for art’s sale: Schmela’s was ‘the most human gallery in the world,’ as a Tate curator once put it. Just as one might easily overlook the human circuitry underpinning the processes of art exchange, it would be easily to miss the detailed, intensely interesting account on display here, which rightfully casts light on the women that have always operated, often behind the scenes of the behind-the-scenes. Presented in the gallery were just three discreet artworks (all 2014), ‘portraits’ of the three Schmela women: Monika, a roughly head-sized chunk of chiselled stone; Ulrike, a flat, garden spade-shaped rubber mat whose metallic appearance inevitably recalls one of Carl Andre’s floor pieces and Lena, a quiet, mauve woodblock print. The ‘portraits’ seem deliberately, slightly eerily arbitrary, just as the arbitrating face of art renders its workings abstract. The object-based display is partly unconventional for Chung and Maeda, who have worked with conceptually-influenced photographic portraiture and diagrams in the past to examine power mechanisms.
Then again, the most essential artifact here was the historical presentation that lay quietly, domestically in the first room: a meaty A4 booklet. The artists mined the Schmela archive at the Getty, paraphrasing selections from the fraught, intense, and occasionally tragic gallery correspondence after Schmela’s death. The objectivizing, impersonal tone of these summaries – dated and presented non-chronologically – belies the emotional and ruinous content of the letters which read like an epistolary novel with multiple plotlines: through-the-teeth cordiality, grey-area deals, a delivery van parking in front of the gallery (‘blocking visitors’), fruitless attempts by the Schmela family to sell to once-friendly collectors and public collections, warm family and business gossip alternating with stern business memos (often to the same person), occasional blunders, minor successes, gallery artists such as Beuys and Polke leaving invitations unheeded, the ‘threat’ of the ‘painting wave’, logistical accidents – in short, the usual, complicated, contradictory and personal processes of selling art.
In one letter from 1980, Monika Schemela diplomatically answers a questionnaire for the art publisher Kunst und Technik: ‘one cannot speak, in a general sense, of a ‘crisis of the Modern’ since 1974’. Today, the former Galerie Schmela – the beautiful quasi-Brutalist Schmela Haus in Dusseldorf – is owned, but dismayingly underused, by the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen. As an exposé of a series of commercial crises – all the more relevant today, in a female-owned gallery and during a new ‘painting wave’ – this exhibition was a welcome, fascinating, and jolting account of the crucial machinery of the art business that the rest of us are not always made – or allowed – to see.