Kenny Schachter is a prominent collector and dealer. But he brilliantly sees the satire lying right below the surface of Greg Smith’s resignation letter—published in the New York Times—from Goldman Sachs.
TODAY is my last day at Gagosian Gallery. After almost 12 years at the gallery — first as a summer intern in Los Angeles, then in New York for 10 years, and now in London — I believe I have worked here long enough to understand the trajectory of its culture, its people and its identity. And I can honestly say that the environment now is as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it.
To put the problem in the simplest terms, the interests of the collectors continue to be sidelined in the way the firm operates and thinks about making money. Gagosian is one of the world’s largest and most important galleries and it is too integral to the global art market to continue to act this way. The gallery has veered so far from the place I joined right out of college that I can no longer in good conscience say that I identify with what it stands for.
It might sound surprising to a skeptical public, but culture was always a vital part of Gagosian’s success. It revolved around teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients. The culture was the secret sauce that made this place great and allowed us to earn our clients’ trust for 33 years. It wasn’t just about making money; this alone will not sustain a gallery for so long. It had something to do with pride and belief in the organization. I am sad to say that I look around today and see virtually no trace of the culture that made me love working for this gallery for many years. I no longer have the pride, or the belief.
But this was not always the case. For more than a decade I recruited and mentored gallery girls through our grueling interview process. In 2006 I managed the summer intern program in sales in New York for the 20 college students who made the cut, out of the hundreds who applied.
I knew it was time to leave when I realized I could no longer look gallery girls in the eye and tell them what a great place this was to work.
When the history books are written about Gagosian, they may reflect that Larry Gagosian lost hold of the firm’s culture on his watch. I truly believe that this decline in the galleries moral fiber represents the single most serious threat to its long-run survival.
Over the course of my career I have had the privilege of advising two of the largest museums on the planet, five of the largest collectors in the United States, and three of the most prominent ruling families in the Middle East and Asia. My clients have a total asset base of more than a trillion dollars. I have always taken a lot of pride in advising my clients to do what I believe is right for them, even if it means less money for the gallery. This view is becoming increasingly unpopular at Gagosian. Another sign that it was time to leave.
How did we get here? The gallery changed the way it thought about directorships. Leadership used to be about ideas, setting an example and doing the right thing. Today, if you make enough money for the gallery (and are not currently an ax murderer) you will be promoted into a position of influence.
What are three quick ways to become a director? a) Execute on the firm’s “axes,” which is Gogo-speak for persuading your clients to buy art from our stable that we are trying to get rid of because they are seen as having a weakening career. b) “Hunt Elephants.” In English: get your collectors — some of whom are sophisticated, and some of whom aren’t — to buy whatever will bring the biggest profit to Gogo. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t like selling my clients art that is wrong for them. c) Find yourself sitting in a seat where your job is to sell any illiquid, giant, uncompromising installations and videos by the likes of Mike Kelley.
Today, many of the directors display a Gogosian culture quotient of exactly zero percent. I attend sales meetings where not one single minute is spent asking questions about how we can help clients. It’s purely about how we can make the most possible money off of them, especially the Russians. If you were an alien from Mars and sat in on one of these meetings, you would believe that a collectors success or progress in building a significant collection was not part of the thought process at all.
It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off. Over the last 12 months I have seen five different directors refer to their own clients as “muppets.” Vampire Squids? No humility? I mean, come on. Integrity? It is eroding. I don’t know of any illegal behavior, but will people push the envelope and pitch lucrative, dull and derivative Richard Princes to clients even if they are not the least bit good? Absolutely. Every day, in fact.
It astounds me how little Larry G. gets a basic truth: If clients don’t trust you they will eventually stop doing business with you. It doesn’t matter how smart you are.
These days, the most common question I get from junior sales assistants about Urs Fischer is, “How much money did we make off the client?” It bothers me every time I hear it, because it is a clear reflection of what they are observing from the directors about the way they should behave. Now project 10 years into the future: You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that the junior assistant sitting quietly in the corner of the gallery hearing about “muppets,” “ripping eyeballs out” and “getting paid” doesn’t exactly turn into a model citizen.
When I was a first-year gallerist I didn’t know where the bathroom was, or how to tie my Prada shoes. I was taught to be concerned with learning the ropes, finding out what a Twombly was, understanding art history, getting to know our collectors and what motivated them, learning how they defined great art and what we could do to help them get it.
My proudest moments in life — getting a full scholarship to go from Connecticut to the Sotheby’s Program, getting a Guggenheim Grant, winning a bronze medal for color theory at the Maccabiah Games in Israel, known as the Jewish Olympics — have all come through hard work, with no shortcuts. Gagosian today has become too much about shortcuts and not enough about achievement and gaining historical knowledge. It just doesn’t feel right to me anymore.
I hope this can be a wake-up call to other gallerists. Make the collector the focal point of your gallery again. Without clients you will not make money. In fact, you will not exist. Weed out the morally bankrupt people, no matter how much money they make for the gallery. And get the culture right again, so people want to work here for the right reasons. People who care only about making money will not sustain this gallery — or the trust of its clients — for very much longer.