Flanking the Competition: Haunch of Venison Gallery Moves Away From Its Auction House Owner

jv wargames2011 01 Flanking the Competition: Haunch of Venison Gallery Moves Away From Its Auction House Owner

War Games (2011), by Joana Vasconcelos.

There are certain buildings that become palimpsests, and tell the story of neighborhoods. 550 West 21st Street is just such a building. Originally a trucking garage, night club maven Amy Sacco turned it into the blazing hot boîte Lot 61 in 1998, just as Soho’s art galleries began their migration to far west Chelsea. New York nightlife’s metabolism is swift; Lot 61 had its day, and in 2005 it closed down. The building sat empty until 2006, when Paris-based art dealer Yvon Lambert set his sights on it. Mr. Lambert already had a New York branch, a few blocks north at West 25th Street, but he wanted more space. He signed a lease on the former Lot 61 space, had architect Richard Gluckman make renovations and, in March, 2007, opened Yvon Lambert Gallery there. His director at the time was Emilio Steinberger, a tall, rangy man with dark hair and deep-set eyes that give the impression that he is in need of sleep—he looks a bit like someone you might cast as a mortician—and belie his genial nature.

On a recent sunny Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Steinberger stood outside 550 West 21st Street. In the span of four years, much was altered. Mr. Steinberger left Yvon Lambert in 2009 and joined the New York branch of the Christie’s-owned London gallery Haunch of Venison as its international director; Mr. Lambert closed his New York branch earlier this year and retired from art dealing. Haunch of Venison had been looking to move its New York premises out of the two-floor gallery at Christie’s headquarters at Rockefeller Center, and leapt at the former Lambert space in Chelsea.

In a gray suit with no tie and black sneakers, Mr. Steinberger watched the construction within, a remodeling by architect Annabelle Seldorf, and looked the building up and down. The gallery sits at the end of a block and, looking down the street on the same side, you can see the imposing facades of Paula Cooper, Larry Gagosian and then Barbara Gladstone. That day, the Yvon Lambert nameplate stood out in gray concrete on one of the building’s orange brick columns between two windows. Mr. Steinberger placed three fingers on the plaque.

“We’ve got to remember to change that,” joked Haunch director Robert Goff, who stood just behind him.

“We still have to figure out the solution because you can’t get new bricks. This is 80-year-old brick,” Mr. Steinberger said, stepping away from the column. “We’re going to have our name on the door, but obviously this isn’t going to say ‘Yvon Lambert.’ We may have to get a new one with ‘Haunch of Venison’ on it.”

A few minutes later he was joined by Giles, the mustachioed man with a tape measure on his belt leading who was leading the construction inside, and who explained his idea. “We look for the closest brick we can get and then we decorate it,” Giles said, drawing over the plaque with his hands. “It’ll blend in with the neighborhood.”

Mr. Steinberger nodded, pleased.

Haunch of Venison will make its debut in Chelsea next week, leaving the Rockefeller Center space above Christie’s, where it’s been installed since September 2008. Christie’s bought the London gallery, founded in 2002, in 2007 and the move marks the gallery’s effort to establish a perception of independence it hasn’t really known in New York. It also raises questions about what exactly it means to be a gallery these days, whether or not the financial backing of Christie’s raises an ethical problem or whether such an arrangement might be the only way to succeed in a business dominated by galleries with deep pockets like Gagosian and Pace.

“The galleries model is changing whether people want it to or not,” Mr. Steinberger explained over lunch at Cookshop down the street, an old haunt for him and Mr. Goff. As he sees it, the galleries of the future will be as indistinguishable from what they are now as they are now when compared with what they used to be in the 1970s. Much of this he attributes to the increasingly global nature of the market. “It used to be just New York or Paris, where you knew everybody. It’s just not the case anymore. We have financial support and stability that most galleries do not have.”

“The numbers are different,” said Mr. Goff, who joined the gallery last year, leaving his eponymous Chelsea space and bringing several artists with him to Haunch. “The money is different, the cost of art—young artists, even—it’s all accelerated. Because of information, because of technology, because of whatever, it’s become a much more expensive business.” The relationship with Christie’s lends a certain freedom, in that regard.

“Our checks do not bounce,” he added, with a laugh.

Besides throwing its financial muscle behind the gallery, until recently Christie’s postwar and contemporary department handled all of Haunch’s secondary market activity and in many ways Haunch’s very structure seemed a comment about how the business works today. A gallery qua gallery represents artists and makes sales through the primary market and secondary market, the latter category of sales meaning works that have been sold before and are not necessarily by artists that the gallery represents. Since Haunch was structured to relegate that third business to Christie’s, it allowed the gallery to embrace these first two roles, distilling its job to something closer resembling a talent agency for the artists it represents.

This isn’t to say that the relationship isn’t without its drawbacks. One doesn’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to imagine that an auction house that owns a gallery might use it to goose prices of an artist it’s in a position to sell at auction. The relationship has also been a problem for Haunch at art fairs, which are for galleries, not for auction houses, and in fact are perceived by many as a way for galleries to join together to combat the increasing competition from auction houses’ private sales divisions. Haunch raised eyebrows in 2007—when it was bought by Christie’s and Mr. Steinberger was still at Yvon Lambert—because its booth at the Armory Show featured no signs disclosing its relationship with Christie’s. That was the same year that, despite having shown at London’s Frieze since 2003, it was not selected to participate in that fair.

(The gallery’s founders, Harry Blain and Graham Southern, who sold it to Christie’s, are no longer with Haunch but have since opened a new gallery, Blain Southern, in London, and next month Mr. Blain, along with former Sotheby’s specialist Emmanuel di Donna, will open a gallery on the Upper East Side specializing in secondary market business in modern and contemporary art.)

As Messrs. Goff and Steinberger are quick to point out, these problems associated with their being owned by Christie’s are based on appearance—it’s not as if anyone’s caught them doing anything unethical. With new artists and the departure of their founders, a departure Mr. Steinberger described as “not voluntary,” the two directors want to reintroduce the gallery to New York, and dispel any chatter of coziness.

“It’s totally understandable why, at first glance, or when people are talking about it without a lot of knowledge, they would think that,” Mr. Steinberger said. “This separating from Christie’s will make what we do much more apparent.”

“I wish it was more useful to us than it is,” Mr. Goff said of the relationship with Christie’s. “It’s sort of a technical thing and people think there’s more to it, but there really isn’t.”

He gave an example.

“Someone at Christie’s,” he said, “when I first started, called me and said—about one of the artists I work with—‘We’d really love to get a painting for auction.’ I said, ‘You do know what we do here, right? We try to keep our artists out of your auctions.’ And they were like, ‘What do you mean?’ And I said, ‘Well one of our top tasks is to protect our artists. If they’re not quite ready for prime time, we don’t want them to be in auction. It can screw up a market.’

“I said, ‘I know that that’s what you do, but you clearly don’t know what we do,’” he said.

The move out of Christie’s headquarters at Rockefeller Center has been a year in the making. Perception problems aside, the third-floor gallery space put size limitations on the kind of work that could be displayed in the gallery, so you can expect some literally big things from the gallery in its early days. For instance, Joana Vasconcelos has incorporated a car into her piece for Haunch’s first Chelsea show.

Christie’s headquarters is not an unworkable space—a 2006 show of Donald Judd works there received a gushing reviews by just about everyone, including New York Times critic Roberta Smith, who worked for Judd in the 1970s—but Haunch’s directors both wanted room to show larger works, which was ultimately why they settled on Chelsea over the Lower East Side, though they thought the gallery would have worked there as well.

“You have Sperone Westwater, not exactly a new kid on a block,” Mr. Steinberger said, referring to the 36-year old gallery that relocated last year from the lower edge of Chelsea to a Norman Foster-designed tower on Bowery. “The New Museum is not as new either. So, yes, we’re not a young Lower East Side gallery, and we’re not trying to be, but the only question is the artists you want to show, and I think that really creates the atmosphere.”

“I like the Lower East Side,” Mr. Goff said. “It has a really good vibe, but most of the spaces are too small—you would have to build out some extraordinary building.

“I think this might be the final stop for the art world,” he added. “Because of the real estate situation, a lot of galleries own their buildings. Manhattan is not filled with new spaces one could go to. I think Chelsea’s here for good.”

The two hope that the move will also allow their artists to reach a broader audience, one that will eventually include spillover from the Whitney Museum when it opens under the High Line in 2015. Though Haunch’s artists don’t seem to mind the current space, there’s no question that they view Chelsea as an improvement.

“It’s fun to be casually walked in on as a show as opposed to having it be a destination,” said Isca Greenfield-Sanders, a Haunch artist who came to the gallery with Mr. Goff and used to show her at his ground floor space in Chelsea. She said she wasn’t sure how much casual traffic she received at a show of hers just this past April in the Rockefeller Center space. “I was only there six of seven times in the six weeks that it was up. For me, I think I’ll just hear more that people saw it in a Chelsea space.”

As for the fairs, Mr. Steinberger thinks they’ll come around. Though Frieze is set to make its New York debut next May on Randall’s Island, he didn’t seem to be concerned that Haunch will be missing out.

“We’ll see how that location, on that island, brings out people in general,” he said.

“As important as art fairs are, what artists really want is not to be at art fairs. What artists want is to be in museums,” Mr. Goff said. “We’ve been very good about getting our artists into museum shows. If we can spend all the effort that we would have spent worrying about art fairs worrying about getting our artists into museum shows, the artists will be really happy about it.”

After lunch, the two toured the gallery, which was still under construction so that you had to duck under as scaffold at the entrance, and everything smelled of paint and plaster. The most significant changes consist of a closing off of one of the windows for a second exhibition space at the entrance. The main gallery has only been modified slightly, but the ceiling has been painted white, replacing the formerly exposed wood and steel.

“It makes a huge difference, having worked here before, just shifting that entrance,” Mr. Steinberger said, as he walked through the main room, stepping over a tarp at the entrance. “The way it was laid out before, you only had one corner in the entire gallery.”

“He is obsessed with corners,” Mr. Goff said, shaking his head.

“For certain works visually there’s no end to it, you just have this continuous space,” Mr. Steinberger explained, walking through the spacious main gallery. “With the Enrico Castellani show, which is in November, he’s done new corner paintings that we couldn’t have shown otherwise. We would have had to build false walls. It contains the visual environment, to me.”

He stopped walking. “Yes, I am obsessed with corners.”

He pointed to the white ceiling.

“It’s like the base of a pyramid. Your eyes go up,” he said. “Large enough, but not crazy large. High ceilings but not cathedral.” He surveyed the room. “It’s just perfect.”

dduray@observer.com


This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: September 14, 2011

An earlier version of this article stated incorrectly that Christie’s handles Haunch of Venison’s secondary market sales.