Mad Money, Mega Dealers, and the Rise of Contemporary Art
The meteoric rise of the largest unregulated financial market in the world -- for contemporary art -- is driven by a few passionate, guileful, and very hard-nosed dealers. They can make and break careers and fortunes.
The contemporary art market is an international juggernaut, throwing off multimillion-dollar deals as wealthy buyers move from fair to fair, auction to auction, party to glittering party. But none of it would happen without the dealers-the tastemakers who back emerging artists and steer them to success, often to see them picked off by a rival.
Dealers operate within a private world of handshake agreements, negotiating for the highest commissions. Michael Shnayerson, a longtime contributing editor to Vanity Fair, writes the first ever definitive history of their activities. He has spoken to all of today's so-called mega dealers -- Larry Gagosian, David Zwirner, Arne and Marc Glimcher, and Iwan Wirth -- along with dozens of other dealers -- from Irving Blum to Gavin Brown -- who worked with the greatest artists of their times: Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, and more.
This kaleidoscopic history begins in the mid-1940s in genteel poverty with a scattering of galleries in midtown Manhattan, takes us through the ramshackle 1950s studios of Coenties Slip, the hipster locations in SoHo and Chelsea, London's Bond Street, and across the terraces of Art Basel until today. Now, dealers and auctioneers are seeking the first billion-dollar painting. It hasn't happened yet, but they are confident they can push the price there soon.
Journalist Shnayerson (The Car That Could) traces the back-stabbing, money-driven history of the contemporary art market in this engrossing account. Drawing together historic documents and interviews with artists and gallery owners, Shnayerson reveals how colorful dealers propelled the market from one of the love of collecting in the 1940s into today's "big way that a lot of rich people were going to express themselves." Betty Parsons nurtured and promoted burgeoning talent in her Upper East Side gallery in the 1940s (representing Alfonso Ossorio, Theodoros Stamos, and Hedda Sterne); in the 1950s, Leo Castelli provided stipends and established satellite dealers worldwide, representing Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Robert Rauschenberg. The world of art dealing exploded in the 1970s, when Larry Gagosian evolved from struggling poster salesman in L.A. into the world's most powerful and controversial art dealer, poaching artists, selling art on the secondary market, and establishing galleries around the world. Other galleries followed his lead, and the price of art rose so high that, for many collectors, art became an even more lucrative investment than stocks. Focusing on personalities as much as business development, Shnayerson's writing is conversational and accessible, even for those without deep art knowledge. Fast-paced and eye-opening, this is a wildly entertaining business history.