Is it as big a deal as when Garbo talked? Maybe: the circumspect dealer almost never takes the stage. But he broke that rule at a panel on collecting in the VIP lounge of the new Abu Dhabi Art Fair. GoGo’s charge was to offer “tips to the discerning collector” alongside Roger Mandle, director of the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar. But Gagosian talked mostly about the motives that drive buyers and the art market—”My business has taken a hit, I won’t deny that.” He even offered a personal account about how feelings of childhood inadequacy turned him into an art dealer. Being Gagosian, he closed with a sales pitch to the sheikhs on how buying art can change the world.
GoGo’s packed-to-the-rafters talk was the highlight of a government initiative that is attempting to build a local art scene in the United Arab Emirates much as you would bake a cake—by recipe. Take superstar art dealers and their wares, a wealthy clientele, a beachside palace, a couple of cutting-edge curators and voila: instant art world. Initially, it seems to be working (with caveats), as fair attendees included Jeff Koons, architect Jean Nouvel, Francois Pinault and Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong.
As for Gagosian, “I always thought I was a pretty good dresser as a kid,” he began. “We didn’t have a lot of money but I took pains in how I put things together, in the blue jeans I wore.” One summer at camp, another boy unpacked his bag and produced a bigger, brighter wardrobe, and several pairs of pants in all different colors. “I was embarrassed,” says Gagosian, a feeling that stayed with him. A couple of years later, forming his first collection—”Like many young guys, I started by collecting coins”—he asked a friend if he could see his collection. Gagosian saw his was the inferior one and he learned from that, saying that “collecting has a lot to do with envy and competition… in its rawest form.” It’s a lesson the elusive silver-haired fox, who represents artists like Ed Ruscha, Cy Twombly, Richard Serra, and the estates of Calder and Picasso, says he’s used often in his business since.
Gagosian said his own business is off from last year but he called the current downturn “very mild” relative to some in the past, like in the early 1990s. (So severe that dealers didn’t even want to go to dinner together after the auctions, he said, as if that was the height of distress.) In part, things are better this time around because the art world is much more global than it used to be, he added, particularly singling out the Russian art-collecting scene where he’s been active. So far, he said, there’s been no big distress sales of art.
Of course, it wouldn’t have been GoGo if there wasn’t a sales pitch. His booth at the Abu Dhabi fair includes both a giant (the size of an SUV) stainless-steel gemstone ring by Jeff Koons, on offer for upwards of $10 million, and Jeff Koons himself, who is selling “Diamond Red” from his personal collection. (Rumors abounded that the piece, and several others, had already been purchased by the Abu Dhabi government. Dealers either denied this or declined to comment.) In Abu Dhabi, a trio of museums, including a Guggenheim satellite by Frank Gehry, are under construction and will need art to fill them. Gagosian noted that “When you look back on the great museums, the Hermitage, the Pushkin, many were driven” by either one individual with a substantial collection or by a family, “a group of people deeply passionate about art.” That kind of commitment can change a culture and history, he said.
As a cautionary tale for buyers who may still be waffling about picking up one of his Warhols or Lichtensteins, GoGo quoted the Picasso dealer Jan Krugier, who near the end of his life thanked “particularly the people who did not buy works from me… because you made me a very wealthy man.”
Gagosian faced some criticism on the panel for the perception, said moderator and NYU Abu Dhabi director Mariet Westermann, that art dealers make too much money. (Tony Shafrazi called out from the audience: “Not all dealers, only some dealers!”) But when it comes to making profits, said Gagosian, who noted that his started his post-college career parking cars in Westwood California, “I don’t see exactly what the problem is with that.”