Gallery Circut Ups and Downs

The fortunes of a photographic gallery owner, as related to a meeting of HCP in January.

In the short span of fifteen years the fate of photographic galleries has ricocheted from famine to feast to fasting, says David Mancini, owner of the David Mancini Gallery, Inc. in Houston. Mancini, the featured lecturer at the January 6th meeting of the Houston Center for Photography, noted that although photographs date from the early 19th century, it was not until 1968, in the US at least, that there was a significant emergence of galleries willing to feature photographs exclusively. As late as 1972 there were only a small number of American galleries specializing in photography. It was an emerging idea, and the David Mancini Gallery was one ofthe first in Philadelphia, opening in 1974. Mancini opened the Houston gallery in 1979.

"The growth of photographic galleries can be divided into three general time frames," reflects Mancini. "The first, starting in 1968 and ending in 1975, was heralded by Lee Witkin in New York City. His gallery was the first of its kind. These were the formative years. Exciting years. Years in which you would find yourself rubbing shoulders with the great photographers of the early 20th century. Galleries were courageous and visionary. The organizers and directors envisioned a need for the present and the future.

"The boom years for photographic galleries were from 1975 to 1979, when the buying and selling of photographs reached its peak. Around 1977 ideas about photographs began to change, with big businesses beginning to take an interest. Large corporations entered the market by accumulating extensive collections, and prices began to rise. Ansel Adams received the top price of $15,000 during this period. Toward the end of this time frame, however, the prices started to take a downward slide.

"The slide continued," recalls Mancini. "In 1980 photographic galleries entered a transition period where 40 per cent left the business, and almost 80 per cent moved."

At first, most galleries seemed to be expanding in the normal way profitable businesses hope to, but an alarming number began to fold. Most photographers can remember when there were no photographic galleries.

Then, almost overnight, there were more than they could see in two or three days of gallery hopping. Currently, however, it could take just as long to discover that their favorite gallery has disappeared.

Two nationally known photographic galleries that have quietly closed their doors to public purchasing are the innovative Light Gallery, and Photography Gallery, both in New York. Another shocker to photographers: Phillips Auction will no longer be handling photographs. The roll call of commercial photographic galleries in leading cities gets shorter and shorter: Philadelphia, none; Los Angeles, none; San Francisco, two; Chicago, one; and Dallas, one.

What caused the problems? What can galleries and photographers do to regroup?

"These are the questions we have to look into." says Mancini. "It is true that when the economy began to drop, people bought to hedge against losses, but as the economy continues in the present situation, the buyers are beginning to slow down." Even so, unlike many concerned photographers, Mancini refuses to blame only the state of the economy for the galleries' problems.

"Two difficulties that the photographic galleries encountered were the high operating costs and the exclusivity of these galleries. If they had diversified into prints, drawings, and paintings, it would have given the galleries a wider base of financial stability." explained Mancini.

"However, while Houston galleries have been affected by the same difficulties, area photographers do have a better outlook for 1983," reports Mancini. Photographic galleries are still operating in Houston and receiving a good reception in the private and business world."

Mancini believes that photographers need to print editions instead of unlimited numbers of the same print. When a buyer is assured of a limited number of prints from an edition, it increases the marketability of those photographs included.

"There is hope for the return of thriving photographic galleries to the art scene," Mancini assures us. "The good news is that the great artists in photography are once again commanding good prices which further assures that the photographic market still exists and awaits."

By Lynn Trafton