Every month in The Hammer, art-industry veteran Simon de Pury lifts the curtain on his life as the ultimate art-world insider, his brushes with celebrity, and his invaluable insight into the inner workings of the art market.
The minute Patrick Radden Keefe’s in-depth profile on Larry Gagosian appeared in the New Yorker in late July, it became the most forwarded link in the art world. It was being sent to me by collectors, artists, curators and friends from all over the place. I haven’t bought a physical magazine for years and realized while reading the article that I was missing the New Yorker and bought a digital yearly subscription to it as a result of it.
The fact that this article became so much talked about at a time when lots of art professionals were starting their summer holidays is a tribute to the unprecedented success and achievements of Larry Gagosian. It certainly didn’t harm that he never gives any interviews and that this was only the first or second time he ever agreed to speak to a journalist on the record.
There are a number of individuals whose success in the art market made them affluent, well-known or both, but none have even approached the level of influence and dominance that Gagosian exerts. He has achieved financial success without ever compromising the artistic integrity of the artists that he represents, nor cut any corners in the way he presents art around his many galleries. I have never seen any Gagosian exhibition, catalogue or publication that was not done to the highest imaginable standard.
An outstanding eye, exquisite taste, immense charm (when he wants to use it), coupled with a killer business instinct and the most fiercely competitive streak ever, allowed him to create what is undoubtedly the sexiest brand in the art market. On more than one occasion I have asked collectors, the works of which artists they had bought for their collection. They would then concentrate very hard and be unable to articulate the name of a single artist but simply say that what they bought came from Gagosian.
A company becomes a brand when the brand is bigger than any individuals associated with it. In the art market so far there were only two such brands: Sotheby’s and Christie’s. They were started in 1744 and 1766 respectively. There haven’t been any descendants of John Sotheby or James Christie in either house for what seems like forever.
At any given moment there are rainmakers at either auction house who seem single-handedly responsible for pulling in the bulk of the business that is being conducted by these two firms. Whenever such a star leaves one of these two firms, it prompts intense gossip that it is going to be a huge blow for those companies. At the latest by the next auction season these fears are proven wrong because when anybody anywhere wishes to sell anything they first think of Sotheby’s and Christie’s, who have a duopoly. In other words, the brands are stronger than the names of the highly talented individuals who, for a while, create all the excitement at their respective houses.
If you look a bit back in time the businesses of most leading art dealers have ceased with the passing of their founders. They have left formidable legacies but in most cases not an ongoing business.
Ernst Beyeler was for years one of the most important, if not the most important, dealer in modern art, and his Galerie Beyeler in Basel an absolute must for any serious or ambitious collector. His legacy is the Fondation Beyeler which houses the world class collection he built over the years in a gorgeous Renzo Piano built museum in Riehen near Basel. It is being brilliantly run by Sam Keller, the former worldwide head of Art Basel, who year after year organizes one blockbuster show after the other, making the Fondation Beyeler the best attended museum in Switzerland. The Galerie Beyeler itself however wound up all its activities a few months after the passing of its founder.
Heinz Berggruen is another towering figure of the art market in the 20th century. His gallery in the Rue de l’Université in Paris was a place of pilgrimage for any art lover wishing to see first hand some of the best works by the leading artists of the late 19th century and of the 20th century. Towards the end of his life he secured his legacy by selling the core of his outstanding collection to the city of Berlin who put a magnificent building outside of Charlottenburg Castle at his disposal for the Museum Berggruen where it is accessible to the public in principle for perpetuity. The Prussian cultural authorities also put a very elegant apartment at the disposal of Heinz Berggruen and his wife inside the same building. The art dealing business of the Galerie Berggruen ceased to be a meaningful force after the death of its founder, although there is still an Espace Berggruen at the original Paris address.
Leo Castelli is the legendary dealer whose near totality of artists represented by him during his lifetime are now considered to be the most significant of their generation. His aura due to his exceptional discernment, charm and elegance will live on, but the Leo Castelli Gallery ceased to exist with him.
There are numerous other examples of course but I am using the above ones just to make the point.
There are very few living artists whose names have become brands, i.e. names that anywhere around the globe, people who are not part of the art world would be able to mention. Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Gerhard Richter and Yayoi Kusama are definitely some of them.
The world of fashion and luxury has been much more adept at creating brands that have outlasted their creators. Dior, Vuitton, Cartier, Gucci, Chanel or Saint Laurent are some of them. The rainmakers at these brands are the creative directors that are handpicked by their owners. Every now and then the profile of these creative dynamos threaten to become nearly as big as the brands themselves. However, whenever these designers leave or move on, and the analysts following these markets get concerned, the demonstration is rapidly made that these brands are stronger than their creative heads.
“Branding is boring” Lauren Taschen told me over dinner in Tuscany last week. “Luxury brands need the art world to look cool.” (Incidentally, her husband Benedikt Taschen has created with Taschen the ultimate brand in art book publishing, an area he has revolutionized.)
Bernard Arnault is the undisputed king of the luxury and fashion world. Nobody understands brands better than him. He has assembled under the LVMH umbrella the biggest collection of mega brands in existence. He has pioneered the collaborations between artists and his multiple brands. Before him some artists might have been weary of lending their talent to better sell luxury products. Today most artists would jump at the opportunity of collaborating with his brands. I have been getting some flack for suggesting on Instagram that the two collaborations between Yayoi Kusama and Louis Vuitton had done more to make out of Kusama the global pop phenomenon that she is, than any museum or gallery exhibition could ever have done. Nobody else has a more powerful marketing machine.
Bernard Arnault—like Larry Gagosian—has been at it for a little while, and continues to consolidate his position of total dominance in his field at unabated speed. About a year ago endless rumors were circulating about LVMH acquiring Gagosian. These have been strenuously denied from all sides since, including by Larry in the New Yorker profile. “Se non e vero è ben trovato” say the Italians: If it is not true it was well invented. Larry Gagosian has to my knowledge no children, whereas Arnault has five hugely talented children that are all running parts of his empire. At a time when the borders between art, fashion, music, cinema, gastronomy and the hospitality business are more and more blurred and melding into the maelstrom of contemporary culture, such a move could have made a lot of sense.
That is only if Larry Gagosian had the ambition of his business outliving him. His legacy is guaranteed in any way since wherever his formidable private collection will end will become a high octane cultural magnet. Larry Gagosian may be immortal and in case he was not, all the people who know him very well tell me that he just couldn’t care less. Could it be a case of “Apres moi le déluge!” the famous words attributed to Louis XV?
Simon de Pury is the former chairman and chief auctioneer of Phillips de Pury & Company, former Europe chairman and chief auctioneer of Sotheby’s, and former curator of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection. He is now an auctioneer, curator, private dealer, art advisor, photographer, and DJ. Instagram: @simondepury
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