Larry Gagosian

Prisoner of the Hamptons: An Art Giant on Life in the Covid Age


By Katya Kazakina

AMANGANSETT, N.Y. (Bloomberg News) – Right about now, Larry Gagosian, septuagenarian bad boy of the art world, should be surrounded by the rich and beautiful, doing rich and beautiful things.

Like procuring a Picasso for a hedge fund titan and outbidding rivals at Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Or regaling billionaires and celebrities on the soft banquettes at his Kappo Masa restaurant, beneath his Madison Avenue gallery, where, in good times, a single roll of sushi might run $240.

But Gagosian isn’t doing any of that – not during a pandemic. Like so many New Yorkers, he’s social distancing. Only in his case, he’s hunkered down in the Hamptons.

The term “social distancing” sounds out of place in the context of one of the most powerful and connected figures in the art scene’s social order. And yet here’s the picture he’s painting now: Alone on a cold beach, without a mask, dashing whenever he sees a passerby who might be shedding virus. His silver hair, normally an impeccably cropped helmet, hasn’t been cut. He slips back into his palatial house, a captive in Hamptons paradise.

It’s from this Charles Gwathmey-designed modernist fortress that Gagosian has been running his empire for the past two months while all 18 of his galleries, which dot the globe from Hong Kong to Los Angeles, remain closed. The man, who likes his art in the flesh and still uses a BlackBerry, is coming to grips with the market’s new reality: Most sales now happen electronically. Clients are distracted. Transaction volume has plunged.

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

“When things go down like this you say, ‘Jesus, Larry, do you really need all these galleries?”’ he said by phone from Amagansett.

 ‘Scrappy Businessman’

It’s a striking question coming from the man whose “mega gallery” business model has been at the forefront of the art market’s global expansion for the past two decades. The pandemic brought the $64 billion industry to its knees, with galleries and museums shuttered, auctions and art fairs postponed or canceled and countless exhibitions derailed. The jet-setting art world faces a reckoning: Who will survive, and what will the New Normal look like?

The stakes are especially high for Gagosian, who employs almost 300 full-time staffers and has more than 175,000 square feet of prime real estate.

There’s also fierce competition from rivals including David Zwirner, 55, whose early investment in online platforms is paying off during the lockdown, generating more than $10 million in sales. Pace gallery’s new eight-story emporium in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood dwarfs Gagosian’s flagship, once the largest space in the city’s art district.

In his telling, the dealer is wired for tough times. A grandson of Armenian immigrants, he rose from selling posters in a parking lot in Los Angeles in the 1970s to becoming one of the art world’s most powerful figures, with all the trappings of his clients: mansions, a private jet and an enviable personal art collection.

Topics: art, Galleries

“My journey is different from some other major galleries because I started from scratch,” he said. “I didn’t have family in the business. I never worked for another gallery. I never worked for an auction house. So by nature, I’ve been a survivor and a scrappy businessman, which maybe in these times it suits me well.”

 Clients Preoccupied

So far the gallery furloughed part-timers and paid interns, but Gagosian is aware that more tough choices may have to be made.

“You want to keep your business healthy,” he said. “You are stupid if you just pretend that nothing is going on.”

Gagosian, 75, understands that clients are preoccupied with more important things.

“Buying art is not a priority even for active collectors,” he said. “They have other concerns now.”

But the biggest challenge is not having access to the galleries, where customers can see a painting on the wall, fall in love with it and buy it on the spot.

“That’s really what it boils down to,” Gagosian said. “It’s very difficult to even move a painting, to get a truck, to get someone to do a condition report. All the things the art world takes for granted have become very problematic.”

The strength of online sales surprised him, he said. This week, as Frieze New York opened its virtual edition, the gallery found a buyer for a $5.5 million Cecily Brown painting featured in its online viewing room. Sellers, who feel under pressure and are motivated to offer discounts, have been another active part of business lately, he said.

 Seeking Masterpieces

And then there are the major works.

“There is always a buyer somewhere for a masterpiece,” Gagosian said. “They say, ‘Maybe it’s not the greatest moment to buy something, but when will I get offered something like this again?’”

He recalled buying three significant works at auction in the wake of the financial crisis — by Gerhard Richter, Brice Marden and Christopher Wool. A large Marden painting from his “Cold Mountain” series had a low estimate of $10 million at Sotheby’s.

But Gagosian was concerned that if others took note of his interest in the work a bidding war would ensue, so he discreetly placed his bid with the auctioneer at the reserve price.

“He hammered it down,” Gagosian said. “Not one person bid.”

The final price, including fees, was $9.6 million. The same happened with two other works, and he still owns all three.

 Still Optimistic

Some of Gagosian’s galleries are starting to reopen, including in Hong Kong and Paris later this month. Selling at art fairs will be trickier.

While Art Basel moved its June edition to September, Gagosian is skeptical.

“Is that the first thing people will want to do when they start traveling, go to an art fair?” he said. “I’ve committed to my booth and I’m hoping for the best. I just don’t know. September seems like a long way away.”

Museums may also have a hard time getting back.

“They are in the business of selling tickets and attendance,” he said. “I can sell a painting on the telephone if I am lucky. Museums are participatory venues. That means you have crowds. And I don’t think people are going to be comfortable in crowds for a while.”

But Gagosian takes a longer view – and remains an optimist.

“It’s going to be tough for a while,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t make money or create a great painting.”

The other day, Gagosian was flipping through the sports section of the newspaper — which is rather depressing these days, he said, because there are no sports — and he spotted a photograph from the 1918 World Series, during the last pandemic.

“The photograph shows the batter, the catcher and the umpire all wearing masks,” he said. “It’s a fantastic image. And it made me think that this, too, will pass.”

(With assistance from Steven Crabill)


Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: