How galleries get top artists to join (and stay on) their lists

In 2019, after young New York painter Avery Singer parted ways with dealer Gavin Brown, the art world’s rumor mill told that she was hotly pursued by the biggest of the premier galleries: David Zwirner. and Gagosian.

When the dust settled, neither of them landed on the artist, who instead caused quite a stir by becoming the youngest stable member of the Hauser and Wirth mega-gallery.

The singer was told being offered just $ 1 million to sign with Hauser and Wirth, to claim the gallery categorically denied. Yet a the urban legend was born, and the small galleries tackled a glaring problem: how could they compete with the mega-galleries and their deep pockets?

Artist Avery Singer © Avery Singer. Courtesy of the artist, Hauser & Wirth, Kraupa
Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin.

The dance of seduction

A good dealer can support an artist’s studio practice, develop a business strategy to manage supply and demand, and connect artists to new networks of collectors, critics, and institutions. Today, the Big Four mega-galleries (Gagosian, David Zwirner, Pace and Hauser and Wirth) together represent 400 artists and occupy more than 330,000 square feet of exhibition space worldwide. Their influence allows them to make offers that few others can.

When wooing artist Titus Kaphar last year– whose much-requested paintings sold for over $ 1 million at auction – Gagosian’s then director Sam Orlofsky knew it was essential to show his commitment to the arts-based incubator program in Kaphar’s New Haven, NXTHVN. After Kaphar signed with the mega-gallery, Gagosian announced that he would fully staff the Incubator’s Paid Learning Program for high school students, invest in a professional development program and sponsor the expansion of the program to other cities.

Meanwhile, Pace added six new names to its roster this year, including the world’s most expensive living artist Jeff Koons, who left Zwirner and Gagosian in a major trade in allegiances.

Part of the deal, Pace Vice President Jessie Washburne-Harris told Artnet News the gallery was willing to step in and finance the production of the artist’s new work. (The perfectionist artist’s manufacturing process, which is notoriously expensive and slow, has already led to some high-profile lawsuits. Hthis next body of work should be ready by the end of 2023.)

Smaller galleries, of course, offer smaller and sometimes more original gifts and incentives.

To get the attention of iOn-demand surrealist painter Jamian Juliano-Villani, Jasmin Tsou of the JTT Gallery in New York City sent him a huge case of his favorite Starbucks Frappuccino. Veteran dealer Andrea Rosen tried another approach, sending Juliano-Villani a crystal dildo as a nod to the artist’s playful sense of humor. Other merchants turned to luxury goods: Italian merchant Massimo de Carlo sent him a Chanel handbag.

But for the artist – who says that gifts are his “language of love” – ​​gifts are just a starting point. Her relationship with Tsou, whom she calls “Original gallery mom” benefited from the sustainable growth of its market. Its auction record of $ 405,781 was hit last summer.

Jamian Juliano-Villani. Photo by Lia Clay Miller.

Build meaningful relationships

Indeed, the merchants say that courting and keeping artists is not just about offering money and goods.

“I don’t believe money makes competition work,” veteran gallery owner Dominique Levy told Artnet News. “I think if we look at a relationship and ask ourselves, ‘How do I make sure my artist has the creative and courageous conversation he needs? Then you shouldn’t be afraid. If an artist is well taken care of and for the right reasons, they won’t leave.

Or, as mid-career painter Cynthia Daignault, who recently joined the Kasmin Gallery list, puts it: “I want a romantic marriage, not a marriage of strategy or convenience.

“There are a lot of places that would work with an artist without a pragmatist – their work sells or is popular with collectors or curators,” she added. “But I want the people I work with to really like and understand my work. Plus, I want them to trust me completely, so wherever my job takes me, they’re with me.

Artists powerful enough to make such specific requests sometimes have the advantage of arousing the interest of several dealers.

“Sometimes you can clearly see that you are competing with other galleries for the start of a new relationship, and I think the best thing to do is to be really authentic in your approach,” said Nick Olney, Managing Director of Kasmin, at Artnet News. .

“If I put myself in an artist’s shoes, it could potentially make me think if a gallery just wants to spend money to attract me, as opposed to [showing] a clear commitment to their approach in the treatment of the work of art and its promotion in the exhibition forum.

This means that there is no unique approach. Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who works with leading dealers Lisson, Continua and Max Hetzler, said his relationship was based on identification.

“If a gallery can’t move forward when an artist is struggling, I don’t think it’s a trustworthy gallery,” Ai told Artnet News. “The most memorable thing is that when I disappeared in China for 81 days, both of my galleries made a tremendous effort in their ability to demand my release.”

Pace’s Washburne-Harris said Koons joined the gallery in part because he enjoyed that it was “basically a family business”, which reminded him of working with his first major dealer, Ileana Sonnabend.

“That’s really the core of what we try to look for when we engage in these conversations – what can we do for them that another gallery isn’t providing,” she said.


Ai Weiwei’s “SACRED” during his historic art exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts on September 15, 2015 in London, England. Photo by Alex B. Huckle / Getty Images.

Be flexible and open to adjustments

Like all relationships, those between merchants and artists are bound to evolve over time and flexibility is essential. “I never want to be in a position where the performer feels like I’ve been bought off or handcuffed,” Levy said.

For her, this means allowing artists to develop their careers without being bound by restrictive covenants such as exclusive global representation agreements. This allows artists to work with galleries from other countries that can serve them in different ways. It also means being open to a rearrangement of financial conditions.

“I think at first the fair split is 50-50 [between artists and dealers on sales], because you are embarking together on an adventure that has not yet been tested, in uncharted territory, ”she said. But “when an artist has established a certain level of career, that’s when you redefine the partnership.”

Levy said she had a range of commissions with artists that ranged from traditional 50-50 to 60-40; she even has a 70-30 relationship. She stressed that this negotiation should not be rooted in “fear and territoriality” but in response to the varied needs of artists. Do they require significant resources? Full time staff? Or just a space to work and grow?

Levy added that she often adopts a break-even point if that makes sense to her artists.

“Remember, they bring creativity,” she said. “They are the reason we exist, and I think the market has forgotten about it.”

Above all, she said, it is about creating a mutually respectful partnership.

“You don’t want to overwrite your artist, and you don’t want the artist to overwrite the gallery.”

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Aurora J. William