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Mega-galleries

A generation of dealers is going global by opening additional spaces worldwide

Is this new international gallery explosion a good move?

Javier Peres, owner of one of Berlin’s newest galleries, sounds surprisingly chipper for a man who has just flown nearly 20,000 kilometres in four days. That’s no rare occurrence for Peres, one among many in the new generation of dealers who spend their lives on long-haul airplane flights. “I had to go to Los Angeles for a weekend for the opening of the show ‘Ecstasy’ at LA MoCA”, he explains. “In California, I just tried to keep on Berlin time. The last night I stayed up until 2am, but it felt like staying up until 11am.” Welcome to life owning two galleries, nine time zones apart, in today’s art world, a milieu moving with amphetamine speed.

Peres might seem an extreme example. He opened Peres Projects of San Francisco in mid-2002, moved it to Los Angeles after nine months and less than two years later leased a 500-square-metre building in the Kreuzberg area of Berlin. He launched his gallery there last October.

Yet Peres is hardly alone. High-powered Zurich dealer Iwan Wirth opened a New York space with David Zwirner at the age of 29, then three years later launched his massive London gallery just off Piccadilly Circus. Yet this international approach is not limited to galleries with Wirth’s vast financial resources or the aggressiveness of Peres. It’s now hard to keep track of all the dealers announcing far-flung second galleries.

To some extent, this phenomenon is nothing new. But in the past only the most well established art galleries tended to go global, setting up high-profile spaces in market centres such as New York, Paris or London. With the right clientele and a steady flow of big-ticket works of art, that model has paid in spades for major dealers such as Larry Gagosian, Karsten Greve and Thaddeus Ropac. What’s different today? The urgency. “I see a lot of young galleries who seem impatient to establish an international presence,” says Art Basel director Samuel Keller. “Many look at the model of Gagosian or Iwan Wirth and want to do it for themselves.”

One might view this impulse simply as an effect of the strong market, an art-world equivalent of the late-1990s dotcom boom. And certainly, strong markets do reduce the risk involved in opening supplementary spaces. “When you’re selling paintings for $40,000, $50,000, or even $70,000, it doesn’t take much to break even in Berlin,” Peres points out. “We’ll bankroll the building of the new gallery and its first-year costs with sales from our first two shows.” Even for galleries with less aggressive pricing and sales, the risk of opening a second gallery today might be a few hundred thousand euros less in profits. In a tougher market, of course, the extra running costs could drive a miscalculating dealer into bankruptcy.

Nonetheless, short of global economic collapse, few art world insiders predict a complete retrenchment from those secondary spaces, because their establishment has been driven by many of the same fundamental changes transforming the market role of the gallery. “With so much of our business taking place at fairs, by email and on the cellphone, we don’t have to be so committed to sitting in the galleries,” explains Vita Zaman, co-founder of Ibid Projects, which waited only eight months to open its space in Vilnius, Lithuania, after debuting its London gallery in 2002.

The trend also reflects a major shift in the way dealers derive power in today’s art world: where once their leverage lay in the ability to sell the work of their artists in a certain city, region or country, now it depends on the ability to project an artist’s presence worldwide. Dealers who achieve that for the artist can rapidly become the primary nexus for their market; others find themselves marginalised.

Thus, many galleries have drawn up expansion plans precisely to target new power bases. “New York and London are great centres for contemporary art, but there are other important spheres of influence, that we would be foolish to ignore,” explains Harry Blain, co-founder of London’s Haunch of Venison, which bought Zurich’s Galerie Judin in June and makes no secret of its plans to open a space in Shanghai. “Those collectors might come to London every six months,” Blain continues, “but if we put a show on their doorstep they’re more likely to see it. Still, we’re not opening galleries for the sake of it—we’re looking for strategic placements that create better platforms for our artists.”

Given all the expense and hassle of launching new spaces, why don’t today’s dealers simply deploy classic promotion tactics: funding the participation of artists in biennials; participating in fairs; lobbying the curators of prestigious foreign institutions; and partnering with other galleries? Because all four types of exhibitions require the dealer to yield some degree of control, be it over the timing of the show, its budget, the installation of the works, or the context in which it gets shown. And just as multinational corporations now view their products as global entities with a single “persona”, today’s galleries flinch at relinquishing power whenever their prized artists are presented elsewhere. “There are still places where forming friendships with other galleries makes more sense,” Blain says. “But in our own spaces, obviously, there’s an extra level of control for us and for the artist.”

Peres cites this as a direct factor in his Berlin move. Several of his artists were being actively approached by excellent German galleries, he says, yet ultimately Peres preferred to launch a Berlin space. Why? In part due to uncertainty over how shows might be handled, but also to avoid the potential frustrations involved in sharing a highly popular artist. “We did a show of Matt Greene’s work in London with Modern Art,” he recalls, “and all we could give them was three paintings.”

Opening a second gallery often also brings new artists into play for dealers: “Part of the reason for doing a gallery in Seoul was to discover Asian artists for our programme”, says Steve Sacks of New York, whose digital-art gallery Bitforms opened a South Korean space in September. “We’ve already found one artist there whom we’re talking to about potential representation.”

Just as often, and with far more immediate revenue ramifications, those new recruits can be existing art-market stars. Opening galleries abroad can give a dealer access to artists who currently work with their local competitors at home. If the ploy works, “the second gallery can bring that work to art fairs, which fortunately and unfortunately undercuts the whole concept of geographic exclusivity”, points out Berlin gallerist Matthias Arndt, who himself opened a Zurich space last spring.

To some degree, of course, it remains hard to generalise about today’s expansionism because it takes such different forms. Most obviously, there’s the China Syndrome: Western galleries such as Frankfurt’s Lothar Albrecht, Italy’s Galeria Continua and Patrick Painter of Los Angeles setting up outposts in Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong, respectively. But this was just the first wave; today many major dealers are scouting for Beijing locations, envisaging an Asian Eldorado once enough of China’s nouveau riche finally buy into contemporary art collecting as a status-confirming activity.

Feeding off a more proven art-meets-money dynamic, Zurich’s art scene now benefits from the addition of three major foreign galleries in the space of nine months: Arndt & Partner, Haunch of Venison and Cologne’s Galerie Gmurzynska. And while the rumoured Gagosian Berlin space turned out to be yet another Maurizio Cattelan hoax, other big players from abroad are aiming to franchise there. (Zaha Hadid is believed to be the architect for one project.) In Berlin, the issue is not targeting local collectors, but trying to latch onto the cool vibe of Berlin and its concentration of artists, a fact noted by foreign dealers who have found themselves travelling constantly to the city while scouting for their rosters.

Next, there are the Stateside bicoastal projects: young New York dealers such as Christian Haye, Zach Feuer, Michelle Maccarone and Elizabeth Dee flying across three time zones to oversee second spaces they’ve established in Los Angeles. And now some European galleries are even taking trial runs to test the waters among the city’s mellow artists and Hollywood collectors. Playing into the trend, local dealer Daniel Hug has been inviting foreign galleries—such as Poland’s Raster, London’s Ritter Zamet, Berlin’s Guido Baudach and Ibid Projects together with Ruediger Schöettle of Munich —to take up temporary residency in the Rental Gallery, a Chinatown space he established with Joel Mesler of Preuss Press.

Finally come the pure idiosyncrasies. “I always wanted to do something in Vilnius, to be intimately connected with the scene there,” explains Ibid’s Vita Zaman, who is Lithuanian. “For our artists, Vilnius is a rehearsal space for taking risks. There are no collectors living there, so there’s no market pressure.” A third Ibid space, in the Swedish homeland of co-founder Magnus Edensvard, remains a matter of serious consideration, Zaman says. Then she laughs and adds, only half-joking: “Even if it means we have to give up even more of our personal life and age even more prematurely.”

Indeed, the human cost of playing on a broader geographical terrain cannot be ignored. “I deal with the Europeans in the morning, run the New York gallery during the day and am on the phone all afternoon and nights with Los Angeles”, says Elizabeth Dee, who has the eponymous gallery in New York and is a partner with David Quadrini in LA’s new QED project space. “I’m on the cellphone all day long, but I consider that a wonderful life. Can it be overwhelming? Absolutely. But it’s offset by the energy I get from these projects”.

Multiple galleries also demand a far more corporate approach. Arndt’s fair stands are planned to the end of 2006; his gallery shows through March 2007. He has more than doubled his gallery’s headcount, raised its prices, hired a full-time registrar and now holds an unprecedented number of staff meetings. Harry Blain, Arndt’s new neighbour in Zurich, also says Haunch of Venison’s global ambitions are only plausible due to its large and centralised back-office staff, which handles all the logistical problems unleashed by the deals being cut by its squad of jet-setting dealers.

Interestingly, most of the art world’s veteran major players, such as Greve and Gmurzynska—often equally corporate in their structures—have played the expansion game more cautiously, keeping their additional galleries within a single European time zone. In New York, the power players usually keep their spaces just a quick stroll or cab ride apart. Matthew Marks has announced a fourth Chelsea space, Perry Rubinstein just opened his third and Paula Cooper has two galleries across the street from each other. And let us not forget PaceWildenstein, which between its 57th street headquarters and two massive Chelsea spaces now has 50,000 square-feet of Manhattan real estate.

“The global approach seems logical—why would you want to give business to other dealers—but we gave it a try and decided against it,” explains Marc Glimcher, president of PaceWildenstein, which in the mid-1990s opened a Los Angeles gallery and a London office, only to close them within a few years. “The right person to represent you in another city usually already has their own gallery, or wants to, so you often end up with the wrong person representing you. Sure, the model works for Larry Gagosian. But that’s deceptive, because Larry has a special talent: clients don’t expect to see him, they’re happy just getting the aura of Larry. The rest of us sell work by personally persuading people that our passion is also their passion.”

Even before he opened the Berlin space, Peres found himself facing this issue. Some of his California collectors and colleagues acted as if he were skipping town. To fight the perception, he recalls: “I had to spend time reassuring them that I’m a bundle of fucking energy and I can do it in both cities.” Perhaps that’s true, but Keller—one of the few men in the art world who functions on as little sleep as Peres and also knows firsthand the difficulty of managing two operations an ocean apart—questions the sustainability of the globalised gallerist model. “How many examples exist of people doing that successfully?” he asks. “First of all, you have to give over so much control to your staff. Yes, that can be made to work, but the real problem in the end is always your own physical presence. That’s why countries have only one capital—because in the end there is only one president.”

If Keller and Glimcher are right about the crucial role of presence, then the notion of a single person heading up multiple galleries spread across several time zones is not tenable long-term. Thus, the current flurry of satellite galleries may only mark a transitional stage. In time, some of these satellites will spin off into their own orbit as their directors go solo, having been so well trained in day-to-day dealings and become so well connected to collectors.

Nonetheless, as the art world grows there will surely be more room for multinational-corporation-style galleries like Gagosian, their programmes less defined by the power of

a single personality than by their ability to leverage money alongside access to works of art and collectors. Some dealers will succeed with this strategy, no doubt. But others may realise, too late, that rather than expanding their power geographically, they have merely diluted and diffused the very individualism that allowed them to first make their mark.

A taxonomy of art world globalisation

As dealers open second and sometimes even third spaces all over the world, it’s to dizzying to keep track of all the action. Here’s a snapshot of recent and impending moves, compiled as The Art Newspaper went to press (and sure to be outdated by this summer.)

The Red-Eyed Bicoastals: New York dealers with projects in Los Angeles. Jetting across the heartland allows these dealers to tap into the radically different artist communities and collector bases on the West Coast.

Examples: Elizabeth Dee, Zach Feuer, Christian Haye, Michelle Maccarone

Transatlantic Transplants: Dealers with galleries on both sides of the Atlantic. Generally speaking, Europeans hoping to cozy up closer to American artists, collectors and curators.

Examples: FA projects (London/Los Angeles), Yvon Lambert (Paris/New York), Emmanuel Perrotin (Paris/Miami), Riflemaker (London/Miami), Iwan Wirth (Zurich /New York/London)

New China Hands: Western dealers setting up Chinese franchises. China’s economy is producing new millionaires almost every day; surely, some of them will start collecting contemporary art, and the Chinese tend to prefer dealing with someone present locally. Examples: Lothar Albrecht (Frankfurt/Beijing), Galleria Continua (San Gimignano, Italy/Beijing), Patrick Painter (Los Angeles/Hong Kong)

Swiss Finance Players: European Union dealers with galleries in Switzerland. A mix of major financial advantages and access to the strong Swiss collector/museum scene make Zurich an attractive location.

Examples: Arndt & Partner (Berlin/Zurich), Galerie Gmurzynska (Cologne/St Moritz/Zurich), Haunch of Venison (London/Zurich)

The Idiosyncratics: Dealers setting up satellite spaces in unexpected places, often for reasons more personal than commercial.

Examples: Bitforms (New York/Seoul), Ibid Projects (London/Vilnius), Peter Kilchmann (Zurich/Mexico City), Javier Peres (Los Angeles/Berlin/New York), Sfeir-Semler (Hamburg/Beirut)

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Double spaced: the new international gallery explosion'