Gavin Brown: The Heir Apparent

On a brisk but sunny Saturday afternoon, Gavin Brown’s art gallery seemed the only hub of activity on the quiet,

On a brisk but sunny Saturday afternoon, Gavin Brown’s art gallery seemed the only hub of activity on the quiet, semi-industrial and more-or-less deserted Greenwich Street on the far West Side of Lower Manhattan. Despite Chelsea-esque white walls, poured concrete floors and two gallerinas up front, the space had its own offbeat character—from its relatively remote location to the string of puzzling text printed along its bright white facade. A work by artist Martin Creed, it read: “the whole world + the work = the whole world.”

“Gavin Brown’s enterprise,” as the gallery is dubbed, is in many ways an island, as far as the greater New York art world is concerned. But, in two weeks, that island is set to double in size. With his landlord and co-tenant, famed downtown butcher Pat LaFrieda, decamping to New Jersey, Mr. Brown has finally gotten his hands on the back half of the building. He’ll inaugurate it May 1 with a conceptual show by New York art star Jonathan Horowitz, “Go Vegan!”, that will hang works in LaFrieda’s old butchery and dry-aged coolers.

The gruff and reticent dealer, 46, admitted it’s something of a dream come true: “I have been looking at it for a while—since I moved in, really. I never assumed it would become available but obviously I imagined it.”

The expansion will increase the footprint, and the power, of an art dealer already influential, wealthy and under fire both for too-close ties to the New Museum and for operating something (depending upon which side of it you are on) of an exclusionary art-world clique. But another development in May is also poised to push Mr. Brown more into the spotlight: If that old adage is true—when one door closes, yet another opens wide—then someone stands to gain something in gallerist and Soho impresario Jeffrey Deitch’s pending exodus from New York. And a lot of people are betting the heir apparent is Gavin Brown.

On that Saturday, the casually dressed, heavily bearded dealer was holding court upstairs in the gallery loft where he sometimes presides over cozy, post-opening dinners. As he talked about his gallery and artists, he was demure and more than a little oblique. He became enlivened only when speaking about recent projects (such as Jeremy Deller’s Conversations About Iraq at the New Museum). And, he stressed, he is not such a fan of the sort of hierarchical terms and distinctions divvying up the art world today. “I don’t really know what a gallery is—it’s just a space for potential imagination.” His role sometimes, he explained to The Observer, is less gallerist than “lobbyist.”

Friend and colleague Tom Eccles accused the dealer of having something of an “outward obnoxiousness.” But “he’s actually a bit of a soul brother at heart,” Mr. Eccles, of Bard College, added. “He needs to have artists whom he really feels close with, and he will stick with them long term. It’s different with Jeffrey.… Gavin is a lifer. With Gavin, everyone grew up together—he and his artists.”’

There are vast differences between the two men (and in their respective operations), of course. If Mr. Deitch, the constant, even visionary purveryor of hip, throws the art world’s parties, Mr. Brown runs a private club. Not exclusive, per se, but (and much like his program) tight-knit, with openings that are intimate, almost uncomfortably so. Mr. Deitch shows a slew of artists, some of whom he doesn’t even formally represent; Mr. Brown has had relationships with many of his for years. One man is famous in the broader world; Mr. Brown has long flown, by choice, far lower on the radar.

But there are similarities, too. Over the past 15 years, the British “dealer” has built a reputation that is predicated on close working relationships with the artists he represents, some of whom have stuck with him since the very beginning, Peter Doig, and Elizabeth Peyton among them. (Notably, superstar Chris Ofili, whom Mr. Brown represented during the high-profile “Sensation” controversy nearly a decade ago, has moved to David Zwirner.) Through the years, Mr. Brown enabled their whims and fancies—be it in his own gallery (Urs Fischer’s ground-excavating You, 2007) or in someone else’s (Rob Pruitt’s freewheeling “Art Awards” at the Guggenheim last year). He helped many of them earn institutional attention and support; the Museum of Modern Art, for instance, has acquired no less than 16 Doig works and about 30 Peyton drawings and paintings.

Gavin Brown: The Heir Apparent