In the bitchy little art world, few galleries have raised as many hackles as Haunch of Venison.
Luxury goods king François Pinault, the owner of Gucci, Chateau Latour and of Christie’s auction house, bought the London-based buzzy contemporary art gallery three years ago. In September 2008, he opened a huge New York branch of it around the corner from Christie’s and turned over the auction house’s private sales business ($200 million-plus annually) to Haunch.
Rival galleries objected, with the head of the Art Dealers Association of America, Roland Augustine, even raising the issue of whether the deal violated America’s antitrust laws. In part, dealers just didn’t want the deep-pocketed international player muscling in. But there was a significant appearance of, or potential for, conflict of interest.
Haunch of Venison might be able to bid against dealers at Christie’s auctions with insider information, so the fretting went, or circumvent other galleries entirely and build its own stars to showcase at auction. Collectors wondered: Since Christie’s parent company had a vested interest in some artists, would it push those more aggressively? Haunch, which was immediately barred from a couple of high-profile art fairs, seemed a powerful, game-changing behemoth.
It didn’t quite work out that way: Haunch, so far, has been known largely for a few very good shows (it represents artists Bill Viola and Richard Long), a slew of great parties (one with a sofa made of chocolate cake), occasional rumors that Mr. Pinault was selling it (always denied) and fairly high turnover. Earlier this month, things changed again. Haunch brought on well-liked Chelsea dealer Robert Goff, who has a good roster of artists and Chelsea credibility. It announced plans to add a gallery in that neighborhood and, on Sept. 16, will open a destination exhibition: acclaimed video artist Eve Sussman and fantastical sculptor Patricia Paccinini. Nonetheless, Haunch of Venison (named after a yard in London) is still wrestling with the rap that it is a front.
We talked to Emilio Steinberger, director of Haunch of Venison, about what’s ahead.
The Observer: O.K., give me the sales pitch on Haunch of Venison. There are bigger, better-established players. Why, as a collector, is it worth it to me to deal with you?
Mr. Steinberger: The interesting thing with Haunch of Venison … is that if I’m dealing with an artist, and we’re doing a show in New York, say of Tom Wesselmann, for example, I can plan one in London. There’s great support, and long-term support for the artist, and it draws more attention to the artist. … We have galleries and New York, London and Berlin. We closed the Zurich gallery last year, but still have an office there … so there’s more international standing [for the] artists. … And Haunch, in the right way, puts some financial backing into shows.
Before you joined the company last year, you had to have asked, ‘Isn’t this thing just run by Christie’s?’ Because that was the conventional wisdom.
When I was approached … it was just told to me that is not the case, that they are not involved. Christie’s is not taking an active role in managing the gallery, never has and [that’s] never changed.
How did the deal with the Robert Goff Gallery come about?
We were interested in working with a couple of artists working with him. Some of the artists he was dealing with had great potential. [Goff is bringing with him to Haunch the artists Ahmed Alsoudani, Isca Greenfield-Sanders, Kevin Francis Gray and Susanne Kühn.] We thought: This might be a really good combination.
Interesting that Francois Pinualt, owner of Christie’s, collects Ahmed Alsoudani (an Iraqi-born Yale M.F.A. grad) in depth.
So does Saatchi, so do a lot of museums. Hiring Goff was not [Mr. Pinault’s] idea. I actually never asked him.
How involved is Mr. Pinault?
Yesterday he called me. … He’s an interesting guy to talk to about art. He comes in, buys, sells, makes his own decision [not with an entourage, like many other collectors]. … I definitely enjoy talking art with him.
Would you say he’s more a client, a collector, than involved in the gallery?
Do you deal with Christie’s CEO Ed Dolman?
I know him. His attitude is: I trust what you’re doing, and I’ll see you later. No interference.