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Gagosian Commotion: Cracks in the ÜberDealer&#146s Fortress?

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Larry Gagosian

I’ve long wondered whether the Gagosian Empire—now expanded to 12 galleries in seven countries, with 304 names on its roster of exhibited artists—was over-extended.

Now, with the news (in Georgina Adam‘s Financial Times scoop) that Gagosian art star Damien Hirst has abruptly left the gallery after 17 years, it’s time to wonder if the mega-dealer’s formidable, unprecedented dominence of the blue-chip contemporary art market has peaked.

The Hirst defection followed close upon the surprise decision of another superstar, Jeff Koons, to show his work this May at one of Gagosian’s prime competitors, David Zwirner. (Koons did not say he was cutting ties with Gagosian.)

[RELATED NEWS: Immediately after I posted this, I saw Charlotte Burns' report in the Art Newspaper that Kusama is also leaving Gagosian. Will the trickle become a stampede?]

In the days when Gagosian’s dealer-mentor, Leo Castelli, ruled the roost, gallery owners had close relationships with those they represented, in
ways that went far beyond the pecuniary. Many dealers still follow that benevolent model. But it’s impossible to be a close friend and adviser to 304 artists whose only discernible relationship to each other is robust market potential. While his shows are of high quality, often informed (as were Castelli’s shows) by the insights of respected scholar/curators, the Gagosian “aesthetic” is, above all, financial.

Stories have long circulated in the artworld (and occasionally in the press) about Gagosian’s aggressively hard-nosed business tactics. But the public airing in court papers of this e-mail that he sent to a prospective buyer may have marked the beginning of what may become an erosion of his market hegemony:

Seller now in terrible straits and needs cash. Are you interested in making a cruel and offensive offer? Come on, want to try?

Even if meant tongue-in-cheek, this suggestion of turning the screws on someone under duress was indeed “cruel and offensive”—so much so that It may have given pause to some of the artists he represents, not to mention to the distinguished scholars who have thrown their weight and reputations behind Gagosian’s gargantuan enterprise.

Gagosian’s modus operandi has been to poach artists from galleries that have developed those artists’ reputations, rather than to discover and nurture talent. As New York/London galleristZwirner told Sarah Douglas in the Economist: “I think he [Gagosian] never wanted to be known as a talent finder. He wanted to be known as the guy who could really maximize the career.”

Like Gagosian, Castelli was a shrewd businessman in supporting the market for his artists. Leo essentially franchised his stable to other galleries in the U.S. and Europe, spreading his geographic reach. But his tireless work on behalf of his artists did not necessarily line his own pockets. In her indispensable book, Leo & HIs Circle: The Life of Leo Castelli, Annie Cohen-Solal said this about Castelli’s income in the early 1960s:

By all accounts, Castelli’s finances were so precarious that very often he did not know how he would make ends meet. It was only through acrobatic maneuvers that he managed to keep the enterprise solvent.

Thanks to his strong, reciprocated appreciation for and unstinting support of his artists throughout their careers, Castelli was known as an artist’s dealer. (He was also unstintingly gracious and generous in talking to the press and others with a sincere interest in his artists.) Gagosian, while respected for his eye and for his ability to promote and enrich his artists, is regarded primarily as a collector’s dealer, particularly if those collectors are super-rich.

Just as we need a return to a more art-focused (rather than investment-focused) form of art collecting, we need to redirect the artist-dealer relationship towards art, not money. Perhaps in the post-Gagosian era, if and when that may occur, the overdue recalibration may begin.

an ArtsJournal blog