When news broke recently that three of Larry Gagosian’s biggest artists — Yayoi Kusama, Damien Hirst, and Jeff Koons — were defecting from the gallery in one way or another, it challenged the dealer’s reputation as “the leading Lothario” in the “courtship wars” over top artists, as the New York Times once put it. It’s a title he has earned for moves like convincing sculptor John Chamberlain to end his 30-year relationship with Pace, doubling John Currin’s prices after recruiting him from Andrea Rosen in 2003, and offering German painter Albert Oehlen a greater “global presence” than London dealer Thomas Dane last year.
So are the recent developments payback for all the poaching? Perhaps, but those with longer memories know that the megadealer’s market power hasn’t always translated to artist fulfillment. Among those who have left the king’s stable over the years are Alec Soth, who gave notice on Gagosian’s birthday last year that he was moving to Sean Kelly Gallery, Mark di Suvero, who went to Paula Cooper, Tom Friedman, who joined Luhring Augustine after five years at Gagosian, Ghada Amer, who headed to Cheim and Read, and Hiroshi Sugimoto, who, along with the Willem de Kooning estate, went to Pace in 2010.
The loudest complaint is that the gallery operates more like a factory than a family, welcoming only members who can maximize profits. Before his suicide earlier this year, Los Angeles artist Mike Kelley described to Artillery magazine how it felt to leave his longtime gallery Metro Pictures for Gagosian. “Gagosian Gallery, unlike other galleries I have worked with, is not very familial,” he said. “I knew most of the artists at Metro Pictures personally. Gagosian is run in a much more businesslike way. Artists come and go.”
“[G]alleries are more self-interested than ever before and work under conditions that reflect an inherent conflict of interest,” said London dealer Kenny Schachter. “Dealers cannot serve buyer, artist, and themselves without giving someone short shrift.”
Pop legend James Rosenquist, who defected from Gagosian years ago and now shows with Acquavella Galleries, echoed Kelley’s sentiment in a 2003 interview with Creative Loafing Tampa: “I left him because I couldn’t talk to him. But he was always straight with me. He sold my paintings and he paid promptly.”
Gagosian’s recent legal entanglements may not help either. This year, Jeff Koons has witnessed once private contractual details go public amid Gagosian’s ongoing lawsuit with former client Ron Perelman. “Maybe Koons was pissed off about the pending Perelman lawsuit,” said Schachter, “about not being apprised of the details of his dealer’s dealings.”
It’s an issue Rosenquist alluded to as well. The artist was working with the gallery just as Gagosian became a target of a federal tax-evasion investigation and was implicated in the Sam Waksal insider-trading scandal. “I’m glad to be out of there with that aroma around him, but he was a straight shooter with me,” he said in 2003.
Of course, the artists’ decisions could be pure business. Hirst’s market has suffered in recent years and perhaps the move on his part signals an effort to stay relevant. Hirst and Kusama, Schachter said, “might be disgruntled, as no matter how great the gallery, no one can create demand that doesn’t exist or has faded.”
— Rachel Corbett