Since closing his eponymous gallery in the spring of 2012, William Shearburn has been something of a question mark punctuating any talk of the city's commercial gallery scene. Shearburn had presided over one of the city's most prestigious galleries for roughly twenty years, trafficking in the so-called secondary market where he sold previously collected works by 20th-century heavyweights such as Mark di Suvero and Andy Warhol. But his Central West End space on McPherson Avenue was also home to a stable of local artists, so when he closed it, it begged the question: In the age of Artnet.com and a seemingly endless proliferation of high-profile art fairs, did an exhibition-driven gallery still make sense?
The answer, it seemed, was no.
"When I started it was very much the old model — you represented artists, you held shows," Shearburn said on a blustery spring afternoon. "I found that problematic in St. Louis."
Shearburn wasn't alone. For most of the 20th century, the traditional brick-and-mortar gallery had defined the commercial trade in contemporary art. Dealers such as Shearburn not only discovered artists, but they also managed their careers — promoting their work, placing them in curated exhibits and, most critically, introducing them to collectors whose deep pockets kept the system chugging along.
But these relationships began to shift in the 1990s as large auction houses, which had traditionally dealt in pre-war art, expanded into contemporary sales. Meanwhile, art fairs — vast, days-long bazaars where hundreds of dealers from around the country rent booths to sell their wares — began to rise in popularity, freeing collectors from the traditional gallery system. (According to The Art Newspaper there were only three such art fairs in 1970 — a number that by 2011 had ballooned to 189.) Buying habits have also changed with the rise of a newly moneyed international clientele. Flush with cash and looking to invest, this new cohort began flocking to fairs in cities such as Miami and New York, where they could visit scores of dealers in a single weekend. And that's to say nothing of that great leveler, the Internet, where a gallery in St. Louis can place a work on Artnet.com and quickly link up with a buyer in Hong Kong.
For a blue-chip dealer like Shearburn, the choice seemed clear: You follow the market.
"It's a numbers game: If you are dealing with a certain level of art, you need a qualified buyer, and there are simply not enough collectors here to support a gallery system," he says. "I can go to Art Miami and be in front of 50,000 highly qualified buyers in a week. I could sit in my space on McPherson and maybe see 1,000 in a year."
But old habits die hard, and this Friday Shearburn is set to open a rebooted version of his gallery in a bright new space of white walls and cement floors on the main level of the Dorchester apartments across from Forest Park. The new gallery, designed by architect Philip Durham, is marking the occasion with a group show that presents works by revered artists such as Jeff Koons, James Turrell and Sol LeWitt, as well local talent Sarah Frost.
"My plan is to do a fall and a spring show," he says, adding that along with his secondary-market offerings he'll continue to represent local artists such as Frost, Andrew Millner and Tim Liddy. "I want to have a space to show their new work."
Still, one has to wonder: What changed?
"It's important to be open to the public, but it's not essential," says Shearburn, who for the past two years has worked privately in Grand Center while traveling five or six times a year for art fairs. "I missed being around the art. I wanted to find a simple, handsome, elegant space where I can do a show. I want to do here what I do at a booth at a fair: give a clear idea of my aesthetic, minimally installed, that creates a dialogue between the works."
But Shearburn's re-entry to the city's brick-and-mortar gallery scene does not mean he plans to change his business model. He's planning to attend fairs in Palm Springs, Dallas, New York, Chicago and Art Miami, where he's been invited to exhibit for the past eight years. He also sits on a committee for the Downtown Fair, a new contemporary art fair in New York which is set to debut next month.
Shearburn's expanded role in the local and national scene hasn't gone unnoticed by the city's others dealers.
"Here's the thing: If you want to survive in this business you need national and international clients. William figured that out a long time ago," says Philip Slein, who, along with his business partners Jim Schmidt and Tom Bussman, is recalibrating the Philip Slein Gallery, fleshing out its stable of artists with an eye toward entering the art-fair market more aggressively. "But William is in the community, and he realized it's important to support the community. The art world is not just the artists. It's a mechanism of artists, dealers and collectors, and we need more people like Shearburn active in St. Louis. It's going to benefit everybody."