Research Findings

“They just won’t sell to you”: When businesses are gatekeepers of customers

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November 12, 2020

Gatekeeping is defined as the work of assessing who is “in” or “out”; to identify those deemed worthy of passing through a gate. But while this important classic theory is often used to consider who gets to speak, in terms of the selection of artists, journalists and other producers of content, gatekeepers also practice this essential selection work with customers.

The gatekeeping of consumers is often not considered as a form of gatekeeping. Nonetheless, the idea of gatekeeping customers is logical when we think about credit cards, home loans, nightclubs, R-rated movies and many other areas where consumers have to be qualified. But, what about customers given access to high-end culture, such as rare pieces of fine art?

Gatekeeping buyers of high-end art

In our recent research we considered how gatekeepers practice gatekeeping with consumers in terms of who is allowed to purchase artwork and who is left out. We focused on the gatekeeping work of fine art gallerists in the high value international art market.

In addition to their existing gatekeeper role—determining which artists should be shown in the gallery—gallerists at the top of the market carefully allocated artworks to particular buyers. They targeted some buyers and they deliberately excluded others. Was this due to elitism or snobbery, as we were often asked, or was there another reason?

With interviews in New York and London, survey results and secondary data, we wanted to understand why gallerists practiced this careful gatekeeping with buyers.

Gallerists at the top of the market were not allocating artwork through the highest price, as found in auction houses, and it was certainly not first-come, first-served, as in normal retail sales. Instead they practiced what we term “strategic placement.” Gallerists wanted to sell to collectors who were “serious” and to place work in “collections where they will make an impact.”

Mirroring the well-understood dynamics of gatekeeping in the creative industries, gallerists focus on the long-term impacts of patrons and collectors on artistic recognition. The goal is to protect the reputation and status of the producer of art, in this case by ensuring the buyer has the appropriate reputation and status, or at least excluding speculators.

Professor Olav Velthuis from the University of Amsterdam labels these practices as efforts to “control the biography” of the artwork. One of our interviewees, artist Henrik Potter, aptly pointed out what that actually entailed.

“You can’t walk into Victoria Miro, [a prestigious contemporary gallery in London] and go, ‘I’d like [to buy] this.’ …they’ll say, ‘Well, first of all, we’ve sold out this show a month before we put it up. Second of all, there’s a two-year waiting list for this artist’s work. And third of all, who are you? Can we have your name?’” (artist Henrik Potter, London).

We also examined how gallerists not only control entry, but also monitor later behavior. For example, if art buyers behaved badly or engaged in damaging speculation, they could be blacklisted by the gallery. Or for minor offenses, buyers might simply be offered less premium work or take a position further down the waiting list.

These practices are similar to the Champagne grape market, where sellers may charge buyers more if they fail to conform to local norms.

When gatekeeping furthers inequality

The insightful quote above from artist Henrik Potter, who was also a manager of the Free Art Fair at the time of the interview, also highlights the potential dark side of gatekeeping in terms of elitism and exclusion. Put plainly, gatekeeping can be a tool to further inequality. That might include anything from bouncers who let in the pretty people and hiring managers who fail to consider diversity, up to blatant exclusion like racist and sexist membership policies.

The double-edged nature of gallerist gatekeeping was indeed noted by some interviewees. Though understanding the goal of enhancing artistic careers, some found selective allocation of artwork problematic. In the words of an art critic we interviewed, “The stock market is much more democratic. No one knows who is buying. All they want is my money.”

What this means for organizations and social life

While the exotic world of the high-end international art market provided many colorful stories, the idea of gatekeeping consumers is also relevant for many organizations and areas of business, particularly since hiring is also a type of gatekeeping.

One of the broader implications of our research is that gatekeeping is particularly important when decisions have a moral impact, such as a psychologist turning away clients because they have a prior relationship, or animal breeders blocking buyers who might engage in cruelty. Of course, companies can also be poor gatekeepers, as seen when credit card companies oversell credit products, highlighting the relationship between gatekeeping best practice and conflicts of interest.

Without forgetting the inequality implications of gatekeeping, when we consider gatekeeper goals like duty of care, upholding quality, ensuring categorical coherence and maintaining market order, we can see the many ways in which professional gatekeeping practices are integral to organizations and markets. As such, targeting these practices is an excellent area for social change. As with the announcement that only films with a diverse cast and crew will be considered for best picture, it is indeed through a focus on the very gatekeeping processes themselves that we can find additional ways to address inequality.

Read more

Erica Coslor, Brett Crawford and Andrew Leyshon. “Collectors, Investors and Speculators: Gatekeeper use of audience categories in the art market” in Organization Studies 2020. For a free, pre-publication version of the article, please click here.

image: Dan Sumption via flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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