‘The Gallery System Itself Is a Redistribution Scheme’: Commonwealth & Council’s Founders on Pooling Its Resources for the Collective Good

0
6

When Young Chung opened Commonwealth & Council out of a one-bedroom Los Angeles apartment in 2010, it was an artist-run space in every sense: Chung, who uses “we/us/ours” pronouns, was an artist showcasing friends, most of them artists of color, LGBTQ+ artists, and women. By the time I started visiting regularly in 2011, Commonwealth & Council had moved to its current home, the second-floor space on Seventh Street in Koreatown, with big windows and weathered wood floors. It always felt welcoming. 

Hospitality has always been a priority. Chung wanted the gallery to feel like a gathering place for friends, where supporting and sustaining each other was part of the mission and atmosphere. The gallery introduced me to artists I came to love (EJ Hill, Gala Porras-Kim), and embraced artists I already admired (Katie Grinnan, Mariah Garnett). 

In 2016, Kibum Kim, a lawyer by training, moved to Los Angeles from New York, and opened the project space Skibum MacArthur along MacArthur Park. The vibe was similarly warm and, over the space’s short life, Kim introduced L.A. viewers to Isabelle Yellin, Carment Winant, and Christina Quarles, who had her first solo show there. Kim joined Commonwealth & Council as a partner in 2018, only a year after the gallery began officially representing artists, further cementing its transition from artist-run space to gallery-as-business. 

Their partnership was still new when the pandemic hit, and they began hosting regular zoom check-ins with all the artists on their roster. The idea for the Council Fund and Commonwealth Trust came out of those meetings, as programs that would help provide for artists’ needs long-term. To build the fund, collectors and institutions would be asked to forego the discounts typical in the industry (which can range from 10 percent to more than 20 percent), so that the money could instead be placed in a discretionary fund for artists. All 36 Commonwealth & Council artists benefit from the fund. 

The trust works differently: artists can opt to include work in the trust, which loosely resembles a modest version of the ill-fated Artist Pension Trust. The works will, ideally, appreciate in value and, when they are eventually sold, profits will be shared among participating artists. Right now, there are two active trusts, one for artists who belonged to the gallery’s program between 2010 and 2020, and one for artists who belonged between 2020 and 2025 (artists from the first group may opt into the second, but not vice versa). 

Finally, there’s the Commonwealth Collection, works the gallery has acquired from artists over the years. When that art sells, profits will be shared among the collection’s artists. These initiatives are still evolving, and questions remain—such as how to store all the works from the Commonwealth Trust and Collection over time. As our conversation began, Kim explained what it felt like to still be figuring everything out.

P. Staff, Still from <i>On Venus</i> (2019). Courtesy of the artist and Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles, Mexico City.

P. Staff, Still from On Venus (2019). Courtesy of the artist and Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles, Mexico City.

Kibum Kim: We’re very much actively grappling with what it means to honor and retain some of the founding, initial ethos, values, and desires of what the space was supposed to be, and carry that through in what is, for better or worse, a real business now—one that doesn’t make any profits. But it’s an ongoing dialogue among us, and among the artists. To use a cliché, it always feels like we’re building the plane as we’re flying. Everything that we’re perhaps talking about today may also evolve and change.

The last time I talked to Young about it, there were a lot of questions about how the fund would be dispersed. But maybe we should first define the Council Fund. It’s what comes from the discounts foregone by collectors, right?

Kim: Yes, and museums. Many museums have signed on, which frankly has been really welcome, and a bit more surprising. You know, museums have to go through many more hoops to make the decision. The curators have to get the development people on board. They have to talk to the acquisition committees. 

Young Chung: Even though we’re not marking [art] up, and we’re not asking for additional money, this is a challenge for us because everyone is so used to the discounts. Everybody wants to feel special.

Kim: We will say—and I think this is one of the most beautiful gestures—one of our supporters actually just sent us a check, unrelated to a sale, to be like, “this is such a wonderful initiative and I want to support it.”

Chung [getting up to retrieve the collector’s note that Kim mentioned]: We should frame it before all these paper bugs eat it.

Kim: I didn’t know you kept it.

Chung: Of course I kept it.

Kim: Some collectors have told us “I will not take discounts from you at all from here on out.” They become another circle of our community. It really reiterates the truth that the art world is this inextricably intertwined ecosystem. And everyone plays a role in the environment where art can be made and shown.

Chung [addressing Kim]: Do you feel like our supporters feel pressured [to contribute to our Council Fund] in order to get access to works from our artists? 

Kim: Being frank, this has made the job Breanne [Bradley, who joined the gallery as a director in June] and I do more difficult because it adds a step. We secure the sale and then we have to [explain the fund].

Chung: I think sometimes it’s better to just lay it out from the initial encounter. You just dump it on them.

Kim: But you can’t do that, especially with new people. For newer folks that we meet, we’re just another gallery with a booth at a convention center, or we’re just another gallery where they found an interesting artist. So usually my approach with those folks has been just having no expectations. We really try to emphasize that this is voluntary; this is something you should feel good contributing to. I think it speaks to the ethos and history of the gallery, and the extent to which we have tried to do things differently and support artists in a different way.

But also, I think it has made [some collectors] rethink this inherited status quo, and their expectations about discounts, especially from smaller galleries like ours. Taking this discount means less money for the artists and the gallery that they want to support. 

Chung: We haven’t distributed any of the [Council Fund] money yet. We had a meeting—

Gala Porras-Kim, <i>One clump of raffia reconstruction</i> (2016). Courtesy of the artist and Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles, Mexico City

Gala Porras-Kim, One clump of raffia reconstruction (2016). Photo: Joerg Lohse. Courtesy of the artist and Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles, Mexico City.

What has that conversation about distribution been like?

Kim: We’ve had a few meetings about it, because it is something that we are leaving to the artists. We have more than 30 artists so—let’s be real—not everyone is exactly on the same page. 

Chung: And a lot of them got healthcare during Covid.

Kim: Because that was one of the initial impetuses for us to start something like this. While we were having this pandemic health scare, we realized artists didn’t have health insurance, whether through Obamacare or not.

Chung: I do think we should still take care of any out-of-pocket costs for healthcare. 

Kim: But the general sentiment has been that [the artists would] like to grow this pot of money, and they want to be really deliberate and do something together. So we’ve been just collecting the money so far. 

Chung: Recently, we did release one work from the Commonwealth Collection to a collector, and then we profit-shared. No one really does that, right? Most galleries, when they buy an artwork, it belongs to them.

Kim: Some do give a small portion as a resell right. But we give 50 percent. I feel like, in some ways, maybe what we’re doing is not so novel—to me it’s also in tandem with what W.A.G.E. has been trying to do for art workers and artists, and there have been attempts to create an artist’s union. We’re just one thread of a larger fabric of activities.

Chung: I mean, these are all working models. We don’t know the outcome of the Council Fund and the Commonwealth Trust. I think what’s inspiring is when our colleagues are also excited about it. We have 36 artists, which is a lot, but that’s nothing compared to all the artists who are out there. So if there are other galleries, other artists groups, who are actively imagining this together with us, then you could really make a difference. I don’t know if, in our lifetime, we’re going to change the system.

Kim: Changing it for 30 artists is still something.

Chung: Yeah, at least we have these initiatives. Otherwise it’s the same shit again and again: programming for the gallery, taking works to however many freaking art fairs, seeing the same people, meeting new people. I’m burnt out.

Carmen Argote, <i>Dog on Fence</i> (2020). Photo: Ruben Diaz. Courtesy of the artist and Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles, Mexico City.

Carmen Argote, Dog on Fence (2020). Photo: Ruben Diaz. Courtesy of the artist and Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles, Mexico City.

I’m teaching a grad class about experimental art spaces, and sometimes these spaces just can’t last because there’s not enough energy and it’s really hard work. How do you sustain, despite the exhaustion?

Chung: Well, someone has to believe, right? 

Kim: I was in New York earlier this week, and I was having a conversation with one of our artists. They’re having to move apartments in New York City. They got one of these Covid deals, and then of course the landlord wants to jack up the rent. So now they’re being forced to find a new place, and thinking about building a long-term career in the art world, after they’ve had multiple teaching jobs and a full-time art practice for almost a decade. 

And I was speaking about what I’ve been feeling, and what we’ve been grappling with as a gallery, including feelings of burnout. The word that kept coming up in our conversation was agency. That’s the part that really hits at the core of a very basic human dignity—that we often don’t feel agency over having a roof over our heads.

We as a gallery, and a lot of our artists, have been incredibly fortunate to achieve a lot of our goals. But oftentimes, it doesn’t feel like we’re in the driver’s seat. So the Council Fund and Commonwealth Trust are our small and big gestures to carve out spaces for ourselves that feel more authentic and essential to how we want to be. 

Chung: When we initiated [the fund] we had a couple of artists reach out to us, crying. They were so excited about it. And some also acknowledged, “I know my work isn’t selling right now, and I know I’m not actively contributing to the Council Fund, but maybe there are other ways that I could contribute.”

Kim: At the end of the day, in my mind, everyone understands that the gallery system itself is a redistribution scheme. We’re not the only ones. Even Hauser & Wirth, with their 100,000 square feet a couple miles from us—I don’t know how many artists they have, 80 artists or whatever, and definitely not all 80 artists sell, all the time. It’s a handful of artists who are keeping that entire operation open. 

At least for now, what we’re trying to build collectively is our own kind of economic, social and cultural space in the art world and society at large. [Our artists] want to participate in that, and that’s why they work with us. But that may not always be the case for each of them, and that’s fine. What we’re building together is not contingent on any one person. 

Chung: Yes, artists need money, but I think they also want to belong somewhere. And I think our mission statement, our ethos and these initiatives, are incentives for them to stay. 

Kim: This is an industry where a lot of transactions take place, where a lot of money is moved around, but it really privileges relationships. Even when an art object sells to a person, it’s a commitment to take care of the work, to champion the artist. That’s the part that’s really rewarding. 

But the thing that gets enervating about the current market is how it sometimes feels like we’re trying to adopt neoliberal ways for the sake of growth, for the sake of efficiencies that really crowd out these beautiful, inefficient exchanges that are not transactional. 

Chung: That part is wholly uninteresting to me. I feel like if you want to make a ton of money, there are many, many better spaces to go than the art world. 

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here