Art-Dealing in the Decentralized World

Eric Russ


Despite prevailing sentiments that globalization has expanded our world and opened up new markets, the art world remains tied to an old way of conducting business.  Yes, collectors and museums have emerged in new markets like Dubai and Beijing in the last several years, but the art business has been very slow to capitulate to a new model.


The long lineage of powerful art dealers, begun by larger-than-life characters like Joseph Duveen and Leo Castelli, continues with today’s big players, like Jay Jopling of White Cube Gallery in London and Larry Gagosian (of pretty much everywhere else).  In the face of charges that the art market will finally outgrow an Old World way of doing things, today’s super-dealers have so far managed to maintain their stranglehold on the art market, and at least for the moment, continue to dictate how business is conducted.


The history of art dealing is a storied one, with grand personalities taking turns stepping into the spotlight to usher in new artistic movements and thus, forever changing the narrative of art history.  Without Paul Durand-Ruel, the Impressionists might not have had their day, or without Peggy Guggenheim, we may not have learned to appreciate the Surrealists.  Time and again, the story of art has seen the art dealer herald the latest thing in the visual arts.  These figures become tastemakers through their advocacy and support for the artists they believe in. 


As the era of the global art market dawned in the last decade or two, questions were raised as to what impact a decentralization of the art world would have, not just on business, but on the art itself.  Indeed, the narrative of art history up until the current moment has been one in which the locus for the best art can be readily identified as a specific place at a specific time.  For example, there can be no doubt that Paris at the turn of the century was  the  hub of art.  Beginning with World War I, many prominent artists began to move from Europe to New York, thus shifting the epicenter of the art world to the United States.  New York has maintained its prominent role in the art market ever since, however the rise of other art centers in recent years points to the beginning of a new era in which the art world has become truly international.


 In a paradigm in which all of the major artists, critics and collectors of a given moment live in the same city, it is relatively easy for a dealer to rise to prominence.  Having exhibited the hottest new artists, a gallery owner can continue to remain relevant within their community.  Shifting gears as we have, into a much larger international market, the art history narrative has outgrown its reliance on location, and has entered into an era in which artists can contribute to the dialogue from virtually anywhere in the world.  This process has put pressure on art dealers of this generation to prove themselves relevant in an increasingly large art market.


One of the ways in which art dealers have managed to combat the decentralization of the market is by creating art fairs.  These events allow art dealers to establish a presence internationally, and therefore broaden their client base beyond the confines of a single city.  Artworks are notoriously costly to ship and to insure, making participation in art fairs a challenging prospect for most galleries.  Increasingly, dealers are feeling the financial burden of traveling to foreign art markets in order to sell art.


A new model seems to be emerging to address the growing international demand for art.  Larry Gagosian, who has become the undisputed king of art-dealing over the last 20 or 30 years, has led the charge in opening galleries in as many art markets as possible.  With 11 galleries spread over seven countries, Gagosian is making a strong effort to build his brand into a truly international empire.  While he is not the first dealer to open locations in more than one country, no one has done so on anywhere near this scale.  Art collectors can now buy work from Gagosian in New York, Los Angeles, Geneva, Paris, Rome, Hong Kong, London and Athens. 


Other dealers are taking note and are now making a foray into building an international presence.  Those who have the means will likely be rewarded for their efforts.  However, as emerging art markets grow, local players will begin to grab market share, making it  more difficult for American art dealers to succeed in those markets. 


Larry Gagosian seems well-positioned to maintain his dominance over the art trade, having beaten everyone to the punch in addressing the newly globalized art market.  Only time will tell whether a new generation of super-dealers will emerge to carry on the legacy of the many characters that have appeared throughout the history of the art market.  It seems clear, however, that those who do will have done so by addressing the increasingly disparate and globalized art market.



Author Bio:

Eric Russ attended New York University where he received a Bachelor’s Degree in ‘The Sense of Self,’ an interdisciplinary investigation of human identity.  He holds a Master’s Degree in Art Business from the Sotheby’s Institute of Art and is currently writing about the art world.


Photo on the main page: Painting by Willem de Kooning, 1949

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Loz Pyock, Flickr -- Gagosian Gallery, London
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