The New Yorker has covered the art market before with varying degrees of success. Today Nick Paumgarten has an excellent profile of David Zwirner which is more of profile art dealing in the 21st Century. Here are just a few of the interesting paragraphs:
- Zwirner, the son of a famous German dealer, opened his first gallery in 1993, in SoHo. Since then, he has risen to be one of the most prominent dealers in the world. He is not really a pioneer, in terms of the art he has championed, or the style in which he has presented it, or the people he has sold it to. He is, in many respects, one more boat on a rising tide. Still, the brightwork gleams. People often say that he’s angling to be his generation’s Larry Gagosian—every era has its dealer-king—but his approach is really nothing like Gagosian’s, or anyone else’s. He brings the calculating eye of an efficiency expert to the historically improvised hustle of buying and selling art objects.
- The sales staff are paid on commission, so technically they were competing with each other, although at Zwirner’s gallery, to stave off conflict, they are bound by a written code of conduct, which Zwirner guards as a trade secret.
- “One of the reasons there’s so much talk about money is that it’s so much easier to talk about than the art,” Zwirner told me one day. You meet a lot of people in the art world who are exhausted and dismayed by the focus on money, and by its dominance. It distracts from the work, they say. It distorts curatorial instincts, critical appraisals, and young artists’ careers. It scares away civilians, who begin to lump art in with other symptoms of excess and dismiss it as another garish plaything of the rich. Of course, many of those who complain—dealers, artists, curators—are complicit. The culture industry, which supports them in one way or another, and which hardly existed a generation ago, subsists on all that money—mostly on the largesse and folly of wealthy art lovers, whether their motivations are lofty or base.
- Art is transportable, unregulated, glamorous, arcane, beautiful, difficult. It is easier to store than oil, more esoteric than diamonds, more durable than political influence. Its elusive valuation makes it conducive to extremely creative tax accounting.
- Auctions, in theory anyway, determine price and possession in accordance with the laws of supply and demand, and adhere, again in theory, to some measure of transparency: if you want something, you just pay more for it than anyone else will, and the price—but not the purchaser—will be a matter of public record. Gallerists, by contrast, unilaterally determine a sale price, and then anoint a buyer, based on their own arcane calculations of what’s best for their artists, their clients, or themselves. They rarely reveal the buyer or the sale price, making that information almost as valuable as the work itself. There are few industries with information as asymmetrical as that of the art business.
Why Are So Many People Paying So Much for Art? (The New Yorker)