Artists Commercial galleries Fairs United Kingdom

Battle for the best

With the stakes higher than ever, gone are the days when artists stayed with a gallery from college to grave

Rising star: Oscar Murillo’s 574# (detail), 2013, at David Zwirner (FL, C12). Photo: © David Owens

The battle to represent the best—as in most bankable—artists is being played out in public at Frieze London this week, as gallerists show work by their recent signings. “There is increasing competition for the few very successful artists because we are in a booming market,” says Iwan Wirth of Hauser & Wirth (FL, B11; FM, B5), one of several big galleries that made strong sales of works by artists new to their roster within hours of the VIP opening yesterday. The gallery sold large paintings by Mark Bradford (A Woman With A Bit Of Color, 2013, $725,000) and Sterling Ruby, whose SP246, 2013, sold to a private European foundation for $550,000. At Pace (FL, G8), collectors bought pieces by the gallery’s recent addition, the Brazilian artist Vik Muniz, whose Apollo and the Cumaean Sibyl, after Giovanni Domenico, 2007, sold for $80,000. And at David Zwirner (FL, C12; FM, F11; S15), works by the 27-year-old Colombian artist Oscar Murillo sold well, including Urgencies in Time No.3, 2013, for $120,000.

Artists in demand

The rush by big galleries to sign up artists whose work is in demand is taking its toll on smaller galleries. “It is a serious problem for us. Our artists are constantly being approached by big galleries, mostly from the US,” says Emanuela Campoli of London’s Campoli Presti (FL, G13). “I have been particularly upset by this,” says Liza Essers of the South Africa-based Goodman Gallery (FL, H8; FM, S3). “There are lots more galleries, and they are more competitive in the ways they attract and keep artists.”

The behaviour of some of today’s dealers has its roots in the mid-1980s, when there was a big shift in activity on the primary market. Galleries began to act more aggressively in pursuit of the hottest artists. But the stakes are higher now: the market is more international and the sums of money much larger, and this is forcing change. “The old ways of working can’t adapt quickly enough because we have very traditional, and quite uneconomic, business models,” says Marc Glimcher, the director of Pace. “Art dealers used to set the trends, not follow them. Now, the greatest dealer is the one who can sniff out the hottest trend. What’s happening is a necessity, but it doesn’t mean it’s right.”

As big galleries open more spaces and take part in more art fairs, they need more stock than ever before. Galleries including Hauser & Wirth, David Zwirner, Michael Werner Gallery (FL, G7), Gagosian Gallery (FL, C13; FM, C11), Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac (FL, F8) and Pace all expanded or launched new branches last year. More dealers are set to follow suit, including New York’s Marian Goodman Gallery (FL, G5), which plans to open a David Adjaye-designed space in London’s Golden Square next autumn.

Some are growing their business simply because they don’t want to be left behind. The French dealer Emmanuel Perrotin (FL, C15) opened in New York last month partly because he feels under pressure to keep his artists. “I don’t want to be the biggest; I just don’t want to lose,” he says.

The frenzy could have a negative impact on the art being produced, some curators say. “The worst thing a young artist can do is be lured by the ‘big dick’ dealers [who] explode their prices and their identity. The result is that they lose contact with their generation and become isolated,” says Francesco Bonami, the artistic director of the 2003 Venice Biennale. For Robert Storr, the dean of the Yale School of Art, the future is bleak. “The ecosystem of the ‘global’ art world is like that of the planet itself—overheated and dire. Rather than expecting a cleansing cataclysm, we can look forward to a relentless melting of aesthetic distinctions, dissolving of institutional barriers and fusion of cultures, resulting in a sludgy, sulphorous magma laced with gold.”

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One solution could be for large and small galleries to team up. The young gallery Carlos/ Ishikawa (FL, F33) works with Oscar Murillo, who was catapulted into the spotlight after one of his works sold for $401,000 at Phillips New York in September. Two years ago, they were selling for less than $3,000. Vanessa Carlos is happy that Murillo is also working with David Zwirner. “You want the best for your artists, and Oscar needs a bigger support structure,” she says. Murillo is flattered “that a gallery of [Zwirner’s] stature wants to work with me. It didn’t happen because my works are selling for whatever price at auction. I’m just in the studio doing my work.”

Zwirner also collaborates with Michele Maccarone (FL, D11) to represent the artist Carol Bove. “We can provide an infrastructure, while Michele is very hands-on. Most importantly, the artist is happy,” says Ales Ortuzar, a director at Zwirner. Such partnerships could ensure that sought-after artists don’t become “rarefied and removed”, the art adviser Allan Schwartzman says.

The skirmishes between galleries might have positive outcomes, Thaddaeus Ropac says. “In the end, the artist and the audience profit because everyone has to work harder. Competition is a healthy thing.”

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18 Oct 13
11:43 CET


It's amazing who decides what artists are important in today's society. I've been producing my surreal works for over thirty years and feel somewhat successful in my accomplishments. I've been in over two hundred exhibits, have work in six countries, been represented by dozens of galleries, and have been published in five different art publications. Yet, I have been overlooked by these major galleries, knowing my art is just as good or important as their hand full of "Master Artists" The big problem is money, galleries that have represented my art in New York made me raise my prices, because they say collectors think the works are not worth anything unless they pay a mint for them. Its a double edge sword, high price in hopes one collector buys or low price to survive. People buy cause someone else did....keeping up with the Jones!

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