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Mapping the Emergence of the Modern Art Gallery

Story posted August 22, 2005

London As It Is-1
Detail, “Entrance to Strand from Charing Cross.” From Original Views of London As It Is. By Thomas Shotter Boys 1842. Courtesy Bliss Collection, Bowdoin College Library, Brunswick, Maine.

From the East Village to SoHo to Chelsea, New York’s traveling art scene has plotted a map to success for many a Manhattan real-estate broker. Indeed, art galleries are cultural barometers – and economic magnets – in major cities throughout the world.

There was a time in the not-so-distant-past when this wasn’t the case. Commercial art galleries, says Assistant Professor of Art History Pamela Fletcher, “only came into existence in the mid-19th century. Before that, people mostly bought pictures directly from artists, or at annual academic exhibitions, and auctions.”

Despite their significance, curiously little has been studied about the genesis of commercial art galleries and their impact on shaping the landscapes of modern art and modern urban centers. Fletcher is delving into the subject with an innovative, technology-based research project that visually plots the rise and fall of London art galleries from 1850-1914.

Fletcher says she chose London, “because the gallery system – in its recognizably modern form – seems to have taken shape in London around 1855-1865, and been very quickly adopted by other urban centers.”

To trace its evolution, Fletcher is working with Academic Communications Consultant David Israel and student research assistant Karen Fossum ’07 to create a GIS-based map of London. GIS -- short for geographic information system -- is a software system designed for storing, manipulating, analyzing and displaying large volumes of data in a geographic context.

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Pamela Fletcher, right, works with Karen Fossum ‘07, on their GIS-based research project at a summer workshop sponsored by the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education (NITLE). Photo by David Israel.

Israel and Fossum are using Fletcher’s original research on London galleries, much of it gleaned from old periodicals, ads, and art reviews, to create a dynamic, computerized map of London over many decades. The map will not only show the locations of its art galleries, but will display layers of social and geographic data that impact the relationship of galleries to the city over time.

“This is a wonderful intersection of the humanities and technology,” notes Israel. “When we are finished with the project, users will be able to locate galleries, see a photo if one exists, read Pamela’s annotated research, and view animations.”

“At the end of the 19th century you have literally hundreds of galleries in London, each with a separate identity,” notes Fletcher. “As these galleries proliferate, they split the audience for art into niche markets. Galleries gather groups of artists, collectors, critics, and viewers. You start to see a kind of fashion in art that is connected to the way it’s exhibited and where. It’s the beginnings of what you might call the ‘isms’ of modern art history.”

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Detail, “Picadilly, Looking East.” From Original Views of London As It Is. By Thomas Shotter Boys 1842. Courtesy Bliss Collection, Bowdoin College Library, Brunswick, Maine.

These new venues also gave rise to a new class of merchant: the art dealer. Dealers and galleries alike initially struggled for legitimacy, says Fletcher, “straddling the fine line between acknowledging they were businesses and aspiring to be something else.”

The map’s vectors will trace the leap-frog of art and commerce from the Strand to Trafalgar Square, up Bond Street in the West End, as fashionable London expanded. With growing respectability, dealers began to position themselves as purveyors of luxury goods, commanding up to 20 percent commission (contrasted with today’s fees of 50 percent or higher).

"The context in which you encounter anything is going to shape how you understand it."

While the map offers a multilayered picture of London at its commercial zenith, Fletcher says she hopes the visual information will help her abstract something subtler – some of the social contexts for the emergence of modern art.

“The late 19th century marks a tremendous shift in the interpretation of art,” she says. “Rather than its fidelity to the world around us, art was increasingly judged more on abstract, formal principles, ideas that still dominate how we think of art today.

“The context in which you encounter anything is going to shape how you understand it. Whether paintings were hung in foyers of music halls, or high-priced galleries, or more formal exhibition societies would have framed the painting differently. This technology will allow me to ask questions in my research that couldn’t happen otherwise – that doesn’t happen often in my field.”

Funding for the project was provided by the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education, with student support from the Gibbons Summer Research Internship Fund.

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