In the early 19th century, French art seemed to have a solid and smoothly functioning institutional framework organized around the Royal Academy, the École des Beaux-Arts, and the annual salons, at which the works of accredited artists were displayed; their most important patron was the French state, and small-scale private collectors were few and far between. By the end of that century, a new system was beginning to take shape, one that relied on a network of private collectors and critics who came from outside the established institutions. Later dubbed the “dealer-critic system,” it helped popularize and champion the radical new art of Impressionism.
The romantic ideology of the artist as a rule-breaking creative individual worked hand in glove with the developing private market because dealers recognized, as Harrison and Cynthia White argued in their classic 1965 study of the French art system in this period, that “their own interests required them to look at artists more than at individual paintings. A current painting as an isolated item in trade is simply too fugitive to focus a publicity system upon,” while from the artists’ point of view, making sporadic sales, even at good prices, was no way to earn a living, so that the “independent merit of a painting in and of itself was a principle directly hostile to the institutional imperatives of the dealer-critic system, and to the social and financial needs of the artist.”
The dealer-critic system functioned well enough for more than a century, helping launch not only French Impressionism but wave after wave of the European modernism that followed. It came to the United States a bit late: In New York City in the period between the two world wars, when artists and collectors, dealers and critics were all rare birds, it struggled to take root. But the sudden appearance of an important homegrown avant-garde in the 1940s, and then the arrival of an unprecedented number of younger aspirants (many of them beneficiaries of art educations funded by the GI Bill), created a problem similar to that of early-19th-century Paris: too many contenders for admission to a system unprepared to handle them. Already by 1947, Clement Greenberg foresaw that in New York, the prevailing support structure for art—the 57th Street galleries and the Museum of Modern Art—was inadequate to the task, declaring that “it is still downtown, below 34th Street, that the fate of American art is being decided—by young people, few of them over forty, who live in cold-water flats and exist from hand to mouth…art-fixated misfits who are as isolated in the United States as if they were living in Paleolithic Europe.”
It may have been too early to recognize that “downtown” would soon gather critical mass, but at least for a short time, the misfits and young people in cold-water flats found ways to support each other and to create their own ways of making their work known without the help of the dealers and collectors and museums. Their aspiration was to create new kinds of exhibition spaces that would, as a young critic allied with them put it, become “a public extension of the artist’s studio.”