This interview with Acquavella Galleries’ Michael Findlay comes from Art Media Agency‘s regular weekly newsletter about the art market. You can subscribe to that newsletter here.
Michael Findlay is one of the four directors at Acquavella Galleries, one of New York’s best known and established art galleries. Opened in 1921, the Galleries specialised in Italian Renaissance, before turning towards Impression, Cubism and Surrealism; and today represent some of the most iconic names in art — Monet, Giacometti, Miró, Braque, and Freud —, to name a few. Transferring his knowledge from Christie’s auction house to the world of dealing, AMA talked to Michael about making this career change, how Acquavella operates and the Galleries’ plans for the future.
You officially retired from Christie’s as Head of Impressionist and Modernist Paintings in 2000. Why did Acquavella Galleries appeal to you?
It was while I was on a long-haul flight, reading through some material from human resources, that I discovered you could retire at 55, which I didn’t really forget! I’m not someone that’s planned their life; things just seem to happen at the right time, or at least this did.
I was with Christie’s for about 15 years — it was an experience that broadened my outlook and brought me in touch with artists and genres that I wouldn’t have necessarily have known anything about as a dealer. But it is a very demanding, 24/7 kind of life, that doesn’t leave a lot of room for much else. I was recently remarried, and although the gallery business is busy and exciting, it allows one to have a reasonable personal life as well — which was what I was looking for.
I’ve known the Acquavella family for a very long time. When I came to New York aged 18, I was aware of the gallery and knew the father of the current owner. My first job was at Richard Feigen’s gallery which is literally two blocks from where I’m sitting today, so in 50 years I’ve managed to come two blocks! It’s a small world and I’ve been in it for a long time…
Where are the majority of Acquavella’s collectors buying from?
The majority from America, after that Europe, and then Asia. That’s a general comment, I don’t know what people’s passports are — they may have homes in several places. Unlike auction houses we don’t keep track!
Acquavella sells pieces by artists who are regularly present in auction houses – what kind of relationship do you have with sellers like Christie’s and Sotheby’s?
The gallery has sold a great many Impressionist and 20th century works in its 90 years of existence and many of them are bound to — during their lives as second hand paintings — go through auction. A lot come back around to us as well. One of the problems with the media is that it often looks at the obvious, they mostly take their cues from auctions that represent less than half of the art market, it counts for something like 47% of a global art market at any price level. So, there are great paintings and expensive paintings, and paintings that aren’t so expensive or great, which are sold every day by galleries like ours.
How does the gallery obtain most of its works?
[laughs] Well, certain things have to remain secret! We still have some living artists, so we get our works from them — James Rosenquest, Enoc Perez, Wayne Thiebaud, Nigel Boselo — and private collectors who sell pieces with us, in the same way that auction houses get their works. Sellers have a choice of going with an auction house or privately; and I think it’s about who you feel comfortable with, who you have a good track record with; and it’s whether you want to something in public, or more privately.
In your opinion, what is the gallery’s strength?
As a family business with a 90-year history Acquavella incorporates an unrivalled experience and expertise in the fields of Impressionist and Twentieth Century art and sources great works of art from long-time private clients in the U.S. and Europe. Moving forward with the third generation into contemporary art, we can offer our international clients top quality works by Monet and Degas, Picasso and Matisse, Warhol, Lichtenstein and Freud, as well as the living artists we represent. Another strength has to be our team: in addition to the four members of the Acquavella family; there are four directors — two European-born, one Japanese and one Chinese —, so our backgrounds are very diverse.
Acquavella Galleries began specialising in Renaissance painting – how has its taste developed since then?
Shortly after William Acquavella started working with his father Nicholas, the founder, in the early 1960s, the focus shifted from Old Masters works to Impressionist, post-Impressionist and Modern. Over thirty years ago the gallery was devoting exhibitions to artists such as Anthony Caro and Robert Rauschenberg, while more recently we have invited guest curators like Dieter Buchhart, Judith Goldman and Vito Schnabel to work with us on high-profile exhibitions — designed just as much for the general public as for our collecting clients.
In your career, you’ve worked predominantly with more traditional media — painting and sculpture. How do you feel about performance art and other experimental practices?
Personally I do not believe that what is traditionally conceived as “fine art” should simply mean painting, drawing and sculpture. Since the 1960s I have attended and sometimes participated in many performance events by pioneers of the unconventional, like Ray Johnson. In my book, The Value of Art, I describe a fire event by John Van Saun that I “produced” in SoHo in 1969.
Acquavella host four to five exhibitions per year: what are your criteria?
Other than shows by the artists we represent, we seek to innovate either by showing the work of artists we think deserve attention (Manolo Millares, Zeng Fanzhi, Miguel Barceló, Fausto Melotti) or by way of exhibitions that illuminate and educate by examining groups of works that have significant affinities, such as “Robert and Ethel Scull: Portrait of a Collection” and “The Pop Object—The Still life Tradition in Pop Art”. Some of these exhibitions are loans from museums and private collections, and many works may not be for sale.
With the current trend for relocation and expansion among galleries and museums, do you see Acquavella staying in the same place?
I know of just a handful of galleries today following what one might call the Marlborough Gallery model of satellites, but this seems to be very much the exception, rather than the rule. For almost 50 years we have had generous space in a high-traffic area, close to major museums and this continues to serve us well. Obviously, I can’t rule out any kind of future expansion but where we are and how we are seems to be working, for us.
What are Acquavella’s plans going forward?
Helping serious collectors build great private collections takes time and patience. This is our core business and although our clients’ tastes may develop and change, we will continue to work hard to find top quality works for them, whether they are putting together Impressionist or Minimalist collections. We also get new clients through our reputation and friendships with existing clients, as well as the art fairs that we participate in — Frieze Masters, ArtBasel, ArtBasel Miami, ArtBasel Hong Kong and our domestic Art Dealer’s of America art fair in New York City.
We want to continue to offer exciting and unusual exhibitions to the public such as our most recent, “Jean-Michel Basquiat Drawing – From the Schorr Family Collection” — which was a loan exhibition of extremely high quality works still owned by the artist’s first private patrons.