For art-world gallerists these days, it’s go big—or go away.
In the past few months, a handful of galleries have chosen to substantially widen their footprints, and more expansions are in the pipeline.
Why now? One reason is obvious: real estate’s cheaper. But there’s more to it than that. Dealers and artists say changes took place in the art world during the boom, changes in artists’ contracts, in collector habits and in art itself, that now make it preferable—if not imperative—to supersize it. The trend is “all about shock and awe,” said Richard Polsky, an art dealer and author of I Sold Andy Warhol (Too Soon) a recent and autobiographical history of the art market. These days, with sales still sluggish for many dealers in the contemporary art world, “if you’re not in the top 10 percent, you’re treading water.”
Who’s growing? David Zwirner is expanding his current space and bought a building on 20th Street. Stefani Bortolami’s old headquarters building on 25th Street has sold to Pace (which already has three galleries in New York and one in Beijing), and she is moving downtown to a 6,000-square-foot space, also on West 20th. Gavin Brown has taken over the back half of his Greenwich Street building, and will open Gavin Brown Enterprises Saturday, May 1, in a space double his gallery’s previous size. In Europe, Thaddaeus Ropac supersized just outside Salzburg, and Larry Gagosian expanded last month in Los Angeles, adding, among other Richard Meier–designed bells and whistles, an oversize steel-and-glass sliding door so that artworks can be brought in off the street. Another gallerist reportedly weighing an expansion is Zach Feuer, who shows, among other art stars, Dana Schutz.
In Chelsea especially, “landlords are willing to give dealers very good prices, because they’ve proved themselves to be good tenants,” said Elliott Arkin, an artist who is also a real estate broker in New York. “These spaces have been sitting empty for a long time, and if landlords rent to another kind of business, they have no faith they will be able to sustain themselves in the Chelsea marketplace.” Meanwhile, on the dealer side, the feeling is: “I can now play in the big league. It’s machismo.”
Most gallerists cite the ability to handle larger artworks, to compete with the auction houses and to do ambitious museum-quality shows as the reasons behind their expansions. But dealers’ museum pretensions have Wal-Mart realities: The economies of scale of running larger or multiple galleries go way beyond a volume discount on white paint. Big-box dealers can take on more inventory and artists—and current economic realities indicate they have to.
During the boom, changes took place that make bigger galleries attractive to dealers today. First of all, when art was superhot, some artists were able to negotiate better “splits” with their dealers. For decades, the traditional relationship has been a split of 40-60 or 50-50 on sales, but gallerists say some top artists negotiated the lion’s share of commission, meaning the marquee name is no longer the most profitable to the dealer. More artists also rejected traditional exclusive relationships with dealers in favor of “constellations”, in which an artist might have different dealers in London, Berlin, New York and Los Angeles. That further split up the pie.
Artists wanted more wall space, too, and were making installations that needed it. One Chelsea art dealer said he was told by an artist, “‘I don’t think your gallery is big enough to show my work.’ I said, ‘I don’t know if you’re successful enough to tell me that. Just do good work.’” Not that this growth spurt doesn’t sound familiar. It’s reminiscent of a building boom about five years ago by London dealers. Jay Jopling (Damien Hirst’s London dealer) built an enormous, 12,500-square-foot White Cube Gallery in the West End on a site that formerly housed an electricity substation. He followed similar moves by a slew of galleries, from Gagosian to Hauser & Wirth. But their moves came as art prices were on a meteoric tear, and that’s not currently the case.
Indeed, this expansion comes at a time when art auctions have been doing reasonably well (see related story page 54), but traffic is light in many of the city’s gallery districts. There are so many gallery centers—in Manhattan alone, Chelsea, the Lower East Side, Madison Avenue and 57th Street—that it is difficult for any to draw a critical mass of collectors anymore. But some dealers say the dour climate is exactly why they are thinking big: In the past, the dealers who rode out dips in the volatile art market were the ones who owned their own spaces or were reliant on more than a couple of artists. Mentioned by more than a few dealers as another justification for expansion is Gagosian Gallery’s sweeping exhibition last year of Pablo Picasso works (He’s showing late Monet this month). Because it was reviewed much as a museum show would have been, he was able to grab the spotlight from auction and dealer rivals during the peak May art-sales season.
Which brings us to another issue: Fresh thinking. Do these new spaces have to be the same-old, same-old white boxes, which have been the dominant way to look at art for decades? In the 19th-century, gallerists traditionally showed art against red-velvet or richly colored walls. Dealers need to break out of the mold in these new spaces and not only go big, but think big, too.