David Zwirner & Goliath
Nick Paumgarten just published an expansive profile on the contemporary art impresario David Zwirner in this week’s edition of The New Yorker. If you have an interest in the business and about half an hour to kill, I highly recommend diving in. It’s currently outside the pay wall, so all it will cost you is time.
My major take-away from the piece centers on the friction between how Zwirner thinks about the business and how practically all other gallerists think about the business. Today, the art world is still dominated by a reliance on staggeringly primitive business practices. The gallerist I worked for here in LA routinely described the contemporary art market as a “cottage industry.” It seemed preposterous when I first heard him say it back in 2005, but after seven years of seeing million-dollar commissions sketched out on junk mail envelopes and the grade school farce that often passed for record-keeping in blue chip transactions with major collectors, I understood what he meant.
Zwirner has clearly broken rank by developing a more rigorous, forward-thinking “corporate” strategy. Some of the elements include evolving and refining the stale, monolithic hierarchy of the traditional gallery in favor of a more nuanced and adaptable model; pumping resources into a holistic marketing strategy that goes beyond just shelling out for a full color ad in Artforum every month; and building a robust research arm that hints at the use of market analytics.
This methodology runs so counter to the status quo thinking of gallerists and dealers that it borders on iconoclasm. Paumgarten highlights the tide of resistance more than once in the profile, even within the upper reaches of Zwirner’s own staff. It illustrates what I saw over and over again during my career: that the overwhelming majority of people in the industry, from artists to curators to gallerists, want to maintain the illusion of the contemporary art world as something like a historical theme park - a place forever immune to the alleged corrupting influence of the modern world. This is particularly ironic when you consider that the contemporary art market’s boom times largely owe to an expanding client base full of hedgies, oligarchs, and speculators who have amassed their fortunes by employing exactly the types of systematic business practices the fine art industry so fiercely resists within its own ranks.
Through this lens, the contest between Zwirner and his peers begins to parallel Malcolm Gladwell’s reinterpretation of the titular David and Goliath story in his new book. Gladwell argues that the Biblical David was not, in fact, an underdog; he was instead an overwhelming favorite who used advanced technology to assault a lumbering, developmentally challenged foe. Zwirner has assumed a similarly devastating advantage by utilizing business practices far more powerful than the antiquated norm hampering the rest of the industry. So far, his results appear to be just as one-sided and predictable.
I expect the gallerist sector’s repulsion to “corporatization” to dissolve more and more over the course of the next generation, until the point where the current minority opinion becomes the majority one. Zwirner’s early adopter strategy has helped position him as the leading light of the post-Gagosian era of gallerists. It would be shocking to me if more of his competitors, especially those rising up among the even younger set, rejected the lessons to be learned from his career. However long it takes for the scales to reverse, the day they do will be the day the art world passes out of its extended adolescence and into adulthood. Doing so will mean most art world insiders have finally left behind the (self-deluding) view of the industry as something unique and unsullied, and instead accepted it as what it truly is: a modern business that, in many respects, can and should be run as systematically as any other. But it’s not a change that will happen overnight, and if I was Zwirner, I would hope the art world’s contempt for my methods delayed the tipping point as long as possible.