Larry Gagosian’s feet of clay

By Felix Salmon
December 15, 2012

Carol Vogel has a good summation of the craziness at Gagosian right now. Within the space of a week, the largest and most important art gallery in the world suffered three massive defections: first Jeff Koons announced he would have a major show with archrival David Zwirner, then Damien Hirst said he was leaving Gagosian entirely, and then Yayoi Kusama said that she, too, was leaving.

It’s hard to overemphasize how unthinkable even one of these moves is, let alone three at once. Gagosian is the gallery you move to, not the gallery you move from. At every other gallery in the world, the big fear is that if they’re successful and help one of their artists become a global star, then Larry will swoop in and sign that artist up, grabbing all that juicy future income for himself. Because his access to the biggest and richest collectors in the world is rivaled only by the two big auction houses, an artist will always see their prices rise across the board the day they jump into his welcoming arms.

And if Larry really loves you, he’ll do the kind of thing that no other gallerist could even dream of: a simultaneous show of spot paintings, for instance, in eleven different galleries around the world.

But even that proved insufficient for Hirst, who has left Gagosian while remaining with his UK gallery, White Cube. (Similarly, Kusama is remaining with Victoria Miro in London.)

So what’s going on? Vogel quotes Sotheby’s contemporary-art honcho Tobias Meyer as saying that the world’s biggest artists are “self-propelled”, and bigger than any gallery. Which might be true. And Hirst and Koons, along with Takashi Murakami, are by far the most commercially-savvy artists out there, and the most likely to be able to go entirely self-sufficient. But neither of them is leaving the gallery system entirely; indeed, Koons is adding a new gallery to his list of representatives.

Rather, there seems to be some kind of issue with Gagosian specifically. Hirst, for instance, is playing well with everybody else: he was ubiquitous at Art Basel Miami Beach, and even recently painted a dozen crocodile backpacks for the Olsen twins. Meanwhile, Greg Allen is raising all manner of questions about Gagosian’s latest show in New York, of Bob Dylan paintings (yes, that Bob Dylan): it seems to be some weird art world in-joke, with a central role played by another Gagosian superstar, Richard Prince.

The obvious conclusion would be that Gagosian is losing his touch: maybe the Gagosian gallery, along with its network of tens of thousands of relationships, has become too global and sprawling for one man to manage effectively. All galleries — none more so than Gagosian — are an exercise in exploiting information asymmetries, and Larry Gagosian keeps his valuable secrets as close to his chest as anybody else. But that always raises a suspicion, in the eyes of all of his counterparties, that he’s profiting at their expense. Gagosian has a fiduciary duty to his artists, but does he really always do what’s in their best financial interest, rather than what’s in the best interest of the Gagosian gallery or its most valued collectors? To ask the question is to answer it.

No man is immortal, and there was always going to be a time when Gagosian was no longer a world-straddling colossus. What’s interesting about these developments is that we might be much closer to that point than anybody could have suspected, just a couple of weeks ago. And the implications for the art world are simultaneously enormous and unknowable. Many rivals, including David Zwirner, will aspire to take his place, but it’s likely that no one will, and that his unique role as the chief architect and beneficiary of the current contemporary-art bubble will turn out to be irreplaceable.

If this is the beginning of the end of Gagosian’s career, or at least the point at which the zenith of his influence is clearly in the past rather than the future, then Hirst’s move away from the gallery and increasingly into the luxury-goods space makes perfect sense. Koons and Kusama, too, surely made the right decision in diversifying away from Gagosian, and doing so before any possible stampede. It’s even possible to start making sense of things like the recent massive expansion by Sean Kelly: he’s positioning himself to be an attractive destination for any artist thinking of leaving the Borg. (Everybody from Hiroshi Sugimoto to the estate of Joseph Beuys would fit perfectly at Sean Kelly.)*

Essentially, the rest of the art world has two choices here: it can either expand to fill the void created by Gagosian shrinking, or else it can fall into that void. Expanding is expensive: if you sign on as the official gallery for someone like Koons, for instance, that involves committing, at least in theory, to buy just about anything he’s ever produced. On the other hand, seeing the entire art bubble burst would be much, much more expensive for all concerned.

The art world has had many years to build up the money and information needed to take over Gagosian’s role in the market. If it manages to do so successfully, then that would be a good thing for the art market as a whole: there’s an inherent fragility when so much power and influence resides in a single institution. On the other hand, if in stretching to fill the void the high-end gallery world just ends up overextending itself and making promises it can’t keep, then the alternative to a fragile unipolar world could turn out to be an even more fragile multipolar world.

There are a lot of shoes left to drop when it comes to this Gagosian story, and if you don’t know what’s really going on, then now is a very dangerous time indeed to be making big bets. The risk is that not making big bets could turn out to be just as dangerous.

*Update: It turns out that although Sugimoto is still listed as a Gagosian artist on the Gagosian website, he actually left for Pace in 2010.


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