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Interview with collector Marc Straus on transitioning to dealing: “The gallery business is a terrible concept”

Despite reservations, the former oncologist and “fierce” collector has become a dealer in contemporary art

Marc Straus is not one to sit on his laurels. The now “mostly retired” oncologist began collecting art as a 20-year-old medical student. He has since curated museum and gallery shows, written for publications including Flash Art and published poetry. He and his wife Livia founded the non-profit Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art in 2004 and Straus launched an art gallery last year. It opened in its permanent location, a renovated tenement building in lower Manhattan, in January.

The Art Newspaper: Why did you decide to open a gallery?

Marc Straus: I went into this knowing it was a horrible idea, but I wanted to do it. The gallery business is a terrible concept—it is almost the only business where you have fixed overheads, and yet have to reinvent yourself every month.

Why did you open in Chinatown?

Someone said that I should open in Chelsea, but I didn’t feel at home there. I could have the 12th biggest box in Chelsea, but who gives a shit? I really wanted to rehabilitate this old immigrant building. I wanted to work on something I care about, and I love the idea of being with good, young galleries.

You used to work in this building as a child, folding sheets in your father’s textiles business. Do you now own it?

Yes. I wouldn’t have done this work if not—the building doesn’t deserve what I did to it! My dad was an orphan immigrant. He got off the boat when he was 15 years old and went to work on Delancey Street for a dollar a day, 16 hours a day, six days a week. Then he opened his own store just across the street in 1943: this whole area was textiles. When I was 13, I talked him into buying this building, and another three across the street. I had a vision of turning this building into the gallery. I wanted to maintain the history. It’s personal.

Your father knew artists including Frank Stella and Milton Resnick. Did he buy art?

My dad would have never wasted a penny buying art. One time, he came home with a photograph of a painting. I knew nothing about art but was an amazing baseball card collector. This painting was by Utrillo and cost $10,000. My father had just made enough money that the thought of having this iconic name on the wall was appealing, but it wasn’t a great picture. A couple of days later, I said to him that I found something for him to buy instead, and showed him a picture of an 8ft-high skinny bronze sculpture. He said to me in Yiddish: “What in the world do you see in this emaciated Holocaust figure? Somebody would pay $10,000 for this?” I had done my homework—the sculpture was a Giacometti, but he was never going to buy art.

How did you start buying art?

The first piece was a 1966 Kenneth Noland, a “Chevron”.

I worked at weekends for two years to pay for it. The third work I bought was an Ellsworth Kelly: in 1970, he had done 14 paintings called the “Chatham” series, which were filthy because they were kept in dirty stacks. We picked out the riskiest one, but I then needed to pay for it—it cost twice my intern salary. The bank said I needed to have collateral, and I didn’t actually know what that meant. It took me two and a half years to pay the loan off. When I made the last payment, I saw that my dad had guaranteed it because I would not have got the money on my own. I never told him I knew, and he never told me he did it.

How did you decide on the gallery programme?

The focus was always going to be on international artists, most of whom had never shown in the US. A lot of my history is doing a zillion studio visits all over the world. My wife and I did about 350 studio visits in eastern Europe, and were the first people to show Adrian Ghenie’s work, for example. Our biggest find was Croatia. It has no commercial scene but the kids there go to the greatest art school I have ever visited, which has a six-year PhD programme. We represent the two best painters to come out of there, including Zlatan Vehabovic—they gave him every prize they could give him, but they don’t have collectors.

How have you seen the market change during that time?

There has been such an enormous increase of collectors in the world. When I started, it was almost all regional. I was buying European art by the 1960s, but the change happened dramatically in the 1980s when the market heated up with neo-expressionism, and German angst painting, which was very seductive in New York.

In articles you have stated that the market is at a crossroads.

It is a totally bifurcated market. To see Phillips sell a dozen things below $500 and to see a major sculpture by Toland Grinnell that [the gallerist] Mary Boone had once sold, sell for $63 [during the auctions in New York in September 2011]—we don’t know how to talk about that stuff. The only thing you ever see in the press is the $61m sale. If you lose a little heat in this market, it becomes a lead balloon.

Where do things go from here?

You have to have a long view. A lot of galleries take the money when they can get it, but it’s often a bad strategy. In the 1980s, it started becoming fashionable to own art. Within a couple of years there was a very quick shift in what the market was about. Tastes kept changing and the market expanding as the number of people willing to move assets into art grew. When the market crashed in the 1990s, it drove out a high percentage of people who didn’t come back. It destroyed artists’ careers and most of them didn’t recover.

You have to nurture careers. The moment you escalate prices too rapidly, the artist is going to have trouble. It might feel pretty good for a while, but it needs to be consistent with the healthy growth of their career and a proper support base. I knew before we opened a show by Paul Pretzer that we could sell out, and that prices could have been considerably higher.

How much did the works cost?

They range from $3,000 for a small work to $15,000 for a 6ft canvas. It takes time and an enormous ability to paint these works, and we could have charged much more but I worry that if something becomes too expensive, then you may devalue it. Saying that, there are many collectors and institutions that don’t even come in until something is $75,000, $100,000 or $200,000—they don’t think it is established until it is a crazy price, and they won’t take a risk at the beginning.

What was your focus as a collector?

I have one focus: getting exactly the piece I want, not taking second choice. I am fierce. I did it for many years with no money. I worked hard at it—I have some amazing stories. If galleries didn’t sell me the one I wanted, I knew that sooner or later they would if it was in their interest. These days they usually do. You need to make it easy for the gallery and put yourself in a position where you get access, whether it means visiting an artist’s studio or going to see the show during set-up. One of the concerns we had about opening a gallery is whether we would still have the same kind of access.

How do you juggle being a collector and a dealer?

I would not buy anything that I would then sell here. It’s not going to happen.

Are you tempted to keep the best works from your shows back for your own collection?

There have been times when, as collectors, we’ve been miffed when that’s happened. I didn’t like it when I thought people were playing games with me—I resented it, so I am mindful. It is possible to do both. The best woman gallerist of the past 50 years was Ileana Sonnabend, and she had one of the greatest collections in the world. How did she do it? Quietly: she kept one piece from every show.

What is in your collection?

There are fewer pieces than people might expect. It’s in the many hundreds, but we have had it for more than 40 years. We don’t collect any artist in depth: the discipline of having little money meant that if we bought one piece by an artist, we were tapped out and didn’t want to get another by that person. We don’t buy 40 or 50 pieces a year. On the other hand, I knew I had to narrow it down early, so we don’t really collect photography and I have an aversion to editions. We own major sculptures: Richard Serra made a piece for my living room. We bought a huge Richard Jackson. We would buy the most difficult works in the 1970s and 1980s when no one else wanted these big things. It used to be a joke—if a gallery couldn’t place a work, they would call me.

What are your plans for the gallery?

I want to compete, I want to get into good art fairs. I want to start to develop people’s careers and to do it effectively I have to have the right staff and a great director. I need to try hard to bring people to pay attention to the art. Then it will take care of itself: people will then begin to own the art, and make a commitment to having art in their lives. I opened this gallery and did it the way I wanted to and it’s as serious as anything I have ever done in my life—and I was a very serious physician.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 232 February 2012