In Making Gavin Brown a Partner, Barbara Gladstone Is Betting That You Can Get Big and Still Think Small

In 2011, as she was celebrating 30 years in business, Barbara Gladstone told the Wall Street Journal, “there’s a relationship between being an art dealer and raising a family. Being a parent, a mother, means that you’re responsible for helping someone develop to the best of their potential.” She was speaking from experience: she had three children when she opened her gallery at age 40 in 1980. As a gallerist, she had helped artists develop to the best of their potential, among them Matthew Barney, to whom she gave over the gallery in 1991 so that he could climb the walls naked among sculptural implements that towed the line between medical harnesses and football equipment, and whose elaborate films she readily produced.

By the time Gladstone gave that 2011 interview, a new model had started to emerge among a handful of international art dealers—the mega-gallery. Pace, Gagosian, David Zwirner, and Hauser & Wirth had branches around the world with staff numbering more than a hundred. Gladstone had made gestures toward expansion: She opened a second space in the Chelsea art district in New York, where she was based, and an elegant town house gallery in Brussels. She added an equally elegant town house gallery on the Upper East Side in Manhattan. More important, she cultivated three partners in her business, chief among them Max Falkenstein, a dealer 40 years her junior who joined her in 2002 and now holds the position of senior partner.

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This past July, Gladstone expanded her business in a manner that may become more common as the art world adjusts to the post-coronavirus reality: she acquired a fourth partner in art dealer Gavin Brown, along with 11 artists and one estate from the roster of his own company, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, a 25-year-old gallery he had decided to close as a result of financial difficulties aggravated by the pandemic. In taking on Brown and the talent that he, in his own way, had nurtured, Gladstone, now in her mid-80s, is annexing an artistic vision, and ensuring that Falkenstein, by all accounts her successor, has a creative counterpart. In so doing, she may just prove that you don’t have to be a mega-gallery to thrive alongside them.

Arthur Jafa’s video work Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death became a worldwide phenomenon after Gavin Brown showed it in Harlem in 2016.

Arthur Jafa’s video work Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death became a worldwide phenomenon after Gavin Brown showed it in Harlem in 2016.

The pandemic and its economic fallout has further shaken an art world that was already experiencing seismic shifts. A survey conducted in April by the Art Newspaper predicted that galleries worldwide could face a 70 percent income loss due to the pandemic and that, on average, businesses of the sort had a financial buffer of just over two months. Mid-tier galleries like Brown’s had become dependent on a yearly spate of international art fairs even as the cost of participating threatened to drain them. Every art fair had become a gamble, engendering tens of thousands of dollars in booth rental and shipping fees in the hope that sales would cover that, and then some. Meanwhile, the mega-galleries had whole departments devoted to fairs, plenty of staff to send there, and ever-expanding artist rosters—talent they were poaching from the mid-tiers—producing works to sell there.

Brown was in a more vulnerable position than most when the pandemic hit. He had overextended himself on an enormous building in Harlem that failed to deliver the crowds he had drawn at the series of locations he’d occupied downtown since he first opened in 1994. He’d built his reputation as an impresario, a former artist who had chosen the gallery as his palette, known less for his business acumen than for his ability to produce spectacles and put on events that drew the best and brightest of New York’s avant-garde. Unlike Gladstone or the megas, he’d never made any of his directors partners, and one after another they had departed along with their institutional knowledge, as did many of his artists, headed for the bigger competition. He was living fair to fair—and then the fairs, potential super-spreader events heavily dependent on global travel, disappeared.

Urs Fischer turned Gavin Brown's gallery into a huge crater for his artwork You in 2007.

Urs Fischer turned Gavin Brown’s gallery into a huge crater for his artwork You in 2007.

It didn’t help that, over the years, Brown had been losing to larger galleries artists whose work had grown valuable on the market. He lost to Gagosian sculptor Urs Fischer, whom he’d once allowed to reduce his gallery to a 38-by-30-foot crater 8 feet deep for the artwork You, in 2007. And more important in financial terms, he lost painters who make the kind of work that sells more easily, and that makes it possible to do the more out-there, less saleable projects: Chris Ofili went to David Zwirner, Peter Doig to Michael Werner. After a short-lived relationship with Brown, Joe Bradley joined Gagosian, in fall of 2015, the same year his auction record hit $3.1 million. The young talent Avery Singer joined Brown not long before her work appeared in the 2019 Venice Biennale—not long after it opened, she left for Hauser & Wirth.

This past April, as Brown’s situation worsened, an offer came out of the blue. He’d reached out to Marc Glimcher, CEO of mega-gallery Pace, to “congratulate” him on his recovery from Covid-19. He and Glimcher got to talking, and Glimcher made an offer to bring him onboard. Back-of-the-envelope plans for the transition were sketched, but ultimately Brown decided against it. “He’s building a machine,” Brown recalled in September, speaking of Pace’s significant expansion plans over a glass of Montepulciano at the New York art world hot spot Bar Pitti. “You can’t have a spare part in that machine that’s shaking around each time you start the engine.”

To hear him tell it, Brown had been trying to close his gallery for as long as it had been open. “I’ve been trying to close since day one,” he said. “It took me 26 years to do it.” In 2007 he made what he calls his “ill-fated attempt” to open a gallery in Los Angeles with L&M, the since-split New York gallery then run by collector and former banker Robert Mnuchin and former auction house specialist Dominique Lévy. It didn’t work out, he said, because the cultures of the two galleries were “so far apart.” Brown was hoping to “sit at [Mnuchin’s] feet and learn.” But mostly, he wanted to be able to be freer from the transactional aspects of the art market—to get what he called “some autonomy from the dollar.”

One of the people with whom he’d been speaking about this over the years was Barbara Gladstone. They’d done business together: In 2005, auction prices for one of Brown’s longtime artists, painter Elizabeth Peyton, had reached a threshold, close to a million dollars, calling for someone to step in and manage Peyton’s secondary market. Brown called on Gladstone. “I knew I needed to do it,” he said. “And I knew she’d be better at it than I would.” Brown is described by those closest to him as someone who has problems trusting people. But he trusted Gladstone and Falkenstein. Even Peyton’s leaving for Gladstone a few years later didn’t dent his relationship with them.

This past April, Brown began visiting Gladstone at her home on Long Island’s North Fork, discussing details of what joining her might look like. The month of June put the final nail in his gallery’s coffin: a virtual version of Art Basel that brought in less than 5 percent of his usual take at the live fair in Switzerland. By July, plans were in place for Brown to become a partner at Gladstone, bringing with him his satellite gallery location in Rome and 12 artists from his roster of 25: Ed Atkins, Thomas Bayrle, Kerstin Brätsch, Alex Katz, Arthur Jafa, Joan Jonas, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Mark Leckey, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Rachel Rose, and Frances Stark, plus the estate of Arte Povera artist Jannis Kounellis.

Harlem would not be part of the equation.

Composite image of portraits of Barbara Gladstone, left, and Gavin Brown.

Veteran gallerist Barbara Gladstone, left, and enterprising gallerist Gavin Brown have joined forces.

Gallery mergers are rare. Acquisitions are only slightly less rare. In 2015, Berlin dealer Jörg Johnen announced that he was closing his 35-year-old gallery and that his inventory and a number of his artists, including Anri Sala, Rodney Graham, and Tino Sehgal, were going to the gallery of his Berlin peer Esther Schipper. He didn’t go with them. He wanted out of the business. Schipper started by taking a controlling stake in Johnen’s gallery, then took over both galleries’ business sides, and the Johnen location eventually closed.

The difference between Johnen/Schipper and Brown/Gladstone is that Brown himself is at the center of the deal, entering Gladstone’s employ. Gladstone said there are artists in Brown’s stable—now in hers—that she had admired for a long time. “I think we are both very interested in the 21st century,” she said, “and in artists who work with the technology of this century.” As Brown recalled of his conversations with Gladstone, “as I said to them and as they said to me, I can’t imagine doing this with anyone else.”

The most valuable artist coming with the Brown package is Alex Katz, the 93-year-old painter whose work recently hit an auction high of $3 million, and who was the rare artist to leave a mega-gallery—Pace, in 2011—and reject the advances of another (Gagosian) in favor of Brown.

Gladstone herself is one of several closely watched dealers in their 80s or 90s whose succession plans stand to affect the fate of some of the world’s most valuable and influential artists. Speculation runs deep in the art world as to how various succession plans might play out in time—and, now, how Brown might figure in Gladstone’s. Gladstone declined to go into financial details, but sources close to the gallery point to Falkenstein, the senior partner, as her successor, and someone with a significant stake in the gallery.

By her own account, Gladstone isn’t competing with the mega-galleries, and doesn’t intend for her gallery to become one itself. “The goal of our gallery does not involve having a global presence, which seems to me a core idea of a mega-gallery,” she said. “We do not need an outpost in every city, like a retail shop. Rather, my gallery remains attuned to the granular movements and energies that best serve artists and the spirit of their intentions in a localized and nuanced way. I still think of it as a small operation built solely on relationships and the hard work of getting better at what we do.”

While Brown has worked in the margins, Gladstone has always been at the center of the New York art world, first in SoHo and then in Chelsea. And if part of Brown’s troubles in Harlem owed to pouring money into renovating a building he was merely renting, Gladstone ensured her longevity by buying—teaming up back in 1996 with two other powerful galleries, Metro Pictures and Matthew Marks—to acquire and divvy up a 29,000-square-foot warehouse on West 24th Street.

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Gladstone has a reputation for being nothing if not deliberate. When she brought former SoHo gallerist Curt Marcus on as partner in 2002 (the relationship fizzled after a couple years), the deal was reportedly the result of six months of negotiations. And her comment to the New York Times when the news was announced seems telling in light of her latest move: “Fresh blood is a good thing. It’s a way of being more effective and efficient.”

Carroll Dunham, whose painting Big Men Up Close/one, 2019–20, is shown here, has been represented by Gladstone for almost 20 years.

Carroll Dunham, whose painting Big Men Up Close/one, 2019–20, is shown here, has been represented by Gladstone for almost 20 years.

According to people who have worked with her, Brown is one of the few art dealers whom Gladstone has ever openly praised, saying things like “he’s the real deal.” To me, she wrote over email that Brown is “truly original and has an incredible eye. He has started the careers of more artists who have proven to fulfill their early promise than anyone else I can think of. I have long admired Gavin for his unwavering vision, and I look forward to seeing firsthand just how he looks at art.”

Brown and Gladstone are very different. While Brown kept his gallery’s fire going with kindling, Gladstone has maintained hers with big, sturdy logs, burning slow and strong. The artists who form the core of her program—Matthew Barney, Anish Kapoor, Carroll Dunham, Shirin Neshat—have been with her for at least 20 years. And even the now independent Richard Prince, who left her after two decades to go to Gagosian in 2008, is once again presenting shows with Gladstone, among other galleries.

As an unnamed art critic told Michael Shnayerson for his 2019 book, Boom: Mad Money, Mega Dealers, and the Rise of Contemporary Art, Gladstone “doesn’t get that bounce that Larry [Gagosian] does, but she has picked important artists who have stuck with her. That’s a gold mine.”

“She doesn’t try to overexpose her artists to the point where you are just churning things out,” said Jill Kraus, a longtime collector who is on the board of the Museum of Modern Art. “She’s very discriminating in what she shows. She’s very good at getting her artists not to go for the market.”

Michael Ovitz, a leading collector and another MoMA trustee, is also a fan. “If there was a Barbara Gladstone fan club, I would want to be the president,” he said. “She knows her art and has amazing taste. She tells it exactly as she sees it. You are never not in the driver’s seat with her—about the art, about the deal. She’s very direct. She gives you her total attention.”

Brown, for his part, has a different reputation. “He’s a little less direct and a lot less tactful,” Ovitz said—while also adding, “if I were an artist, he’d be on my short list of who I’d want to represent me. Barbara could use Gavin’s network, his loyalty factor. If you put them together, they are right up there at the top.”

Brown himself acknowledges some of his shortcomings, at least in the managerial department. Asked how he would characterize himself as a manager, he said, “I wouldn’t.”

View of Gavin Brown’s Enterprise when it was located at 620 Greenwich Street.

View of Gavin Brown’s Enterprise when it was located at 620 Greenwich Street.

If Brown’s forte is his ability to act as a kind of creative coconspirator with artists, Max Falkenstein’s is in working with them productively, and being a rainmaker when it comes to placing their work in collections. Falkenstein came to New York to work for Gladstone in 2002, after a stint learning dealmaking at the London gallery of Gérard Faggionato, a former auction house specialist whose strength is the secondary market. (Faggionato has since closed that gallery and gone to work for mega-gallerist David Zwirner.) For Falkenstein, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise “was the epicenter for a youthful energy of experimentation and collaboration”—and Brown’s “maverick spirit is still there and it still inspires.”

It remains to be seen how Brown will adjust to life under Gladstone’s roof, where the trains run on time and each day starts with a strict morning meeting for all sales directors. Brown insists that despite what would appear to be his freewheeling style, he actually ran an organized operation and would have no trouble making what I had been told was the 9:30 meeting. “It’s 10:00, actually,” he clarified. “And I know how to get up in the morning.”

“I’m as obsessional as Barbara,” Brown said. “My obsessions are just different. There are details that matter to me.” Asked to name one, he thought for a while before declaring “I hate when we run out of food. It makes me fucking bananas. You invited people to a place and then you run out of food? It’s shameful!” He paused again, with a wry look in his eye, before insisting he was only harping on food “to reinforce people’s preconceptions about me.”

Indeed, food, and the community that sharing it generates, has always been an important part of Brown’s worldview. In Harlem, he had a kitchen in his exhibition space. (Gladstone, by contrast, is said to be very particular about lunchtime and to have an aversion to the consumption of smelly food in the gallery.) And food was part of what landed Brown in Harlem in the first place. He had lived in the neighborhood since 2010, but he hadn’t yet presented exhibitions there when he went looking for a space for a cooking project with Rirkrit Tiravanija, his longtime artist and one of his best friends, who specializes in performances that involve cooking for large groups of gallerygoers.

After seeing the 30,000-square-foot space encompassing four floors in a former brewery that he ultimately took over, Brown decided to move his gallery because, as he told ARTnews in 2016, he’d come to think downtown was “full of zombies”—an art world compromised by its obsession with money. He was disillusioned with all the market’s machinations. Harlem was a reach, considering its distance from so many other galleries, but one he felt was worth it. “I was always punching above my weight, which was a strain,” Brown recalled. “I was cocky, I guess. But it was clear unless you actually reach like that, you don’t really believe in what you’re doing.”

“It has been a strange year,” he continued that day in 2016, on the eve of his Harlem opening. “I’ve been at home mostly, and so have observed from a distance the continued expansion of this industry. And I didn’t really feel part of it.”

Up until he moved to Harlem, Brown had been the pied piper of downtown. But in Harlem, his build-it-and-they-will-come strategy didn’t quite pan out. “He could go wherever he wanted and always people came,” said art adviser Lisa Schiff. “Then he just went a little too far—and no one came.”

The lack of traffic was a drain on staff morale, a former employee told me, and going a year without a headquarters—despite a small space Brown had opened on the Lower East Side—broke the momentum the gallery had built downtown. Thinking back on the experiment, Brown turned reflective. “People aren’t coming to galleries as much as they were anyway,” he said. “It certainly was a challenge to get them up to Harlem.”

There were other complications too. When one of his most valuable artists, painter Laura Owens, opened her first career retrospective at the Whitney Museum in 2017, she and Brown were booed by anti-gentrification protesters who objected to her gallery/bookstore space in South Los Angeles, in which Brown was an investor. (Owens closed the L.A. space in 2018.)

The Harlem location and all the work that went into it proved also to be a financial drain. “I wasn’t dealing with it,” Brown said of problems that had been mounting. “I could have dealt with it a long time ago. I stuck my neck out a long way. I left a lot of money in that building. As my wife says, it was my Fitzcarraldo project.”

In 2015, Brown fulfilled his longtime dream of re-creating Jannis Kounellis’s Untitled (12 horses) from 1969.

In 2015, Brown fulfilled his longtime dream of re-creating Jannis Kounellis’s Untitled (12 horses) from 1969.

Gladstone and Brown were planning to announce their merger in the fall, but Artnet News got the scoop in July, and some longtime artist-friends and staff members in Brown’s famously familial fold were hastily informed. Artists who would not be going to Gladstone were suddenly without representation, and left whirling. (One of them, Rob Pruitt, got picked up not long after by 303 Gallery, which had shown him early in his career and which—the art world being a small one—had once employed Brown.)

Brown conceded that he could have done better in how he dealt with his decision, and he admitted that he lost friendships over how he handled the situation. “I’d taken it as far as I could,” he said. “I have regrets about relationships being disrupted, feelings being hurt—which is a mild way of putting it.”

“In Covid,” he added, “people were really looking to me to lead, and I didn’t do a good job. I was too distracted. It was a perfect storm. But I like that life can be different. Rirkrit said to me, ‘No one thought you’d take it as far as you did.’”

LaToya Ruby Frazier made a dramatic New York gallery debut at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise space in Harlem in 2017.

LaToya Ruby Frazier made a dramatic New York gallery debut at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise space in Harlem in 2017.

The artists who went to Gladstone with Brown feel assured that the special relationship they have entered into with him will continue. One of those artists is 38-year-old LaToya Ruby Frazier, whose 2018 exhibition in Harlem showcased her series of photographs documenting the water crisis in the African-American community of Flint, Michigan. Frazier had been the subject of museum shows in the United States since 2009, and she won a MacArthur fellowship in 2015, and shown with a gallery in Europe. But she didn’t feel comfortable signing with an American gallery until she was approached by Brown, who pursued her with great patience; they spent a year in conversation before she joined his roster.

“I respect him as a fellow artist,” she said of Brown. “He [marches] to the beat of his own drum. He created a subculture that runs parallel to the mainstream art world.” From her teens, she’d always respected Gladstone gallery as well, and so she eagerly joined a Zoom call with the two dealers this past summer. “I revere Barbara Gladstone for what she represents and her history,” Frazier said. “I’m an artist who is benefiting greatly from this merger.”

Others looking in from the outside wonder if the Gladstone-Brown partnership may be a sign of the times. “It’s the first consolidation,” said Kraus, the MoMA trustee. “I don’t think it will be the last.”

In New York magazine, Jerry Saltz wrote wistfully about the end of a gallery he had followed from its beginning: “[T]his isn’t the closing of a gallery that everyone imagined was on shaking foundation—it’s the closing of a gallery that was, in a profound way, the very self-image of the contemporary art world. People might wonder, If Gavin can’t survive then who can? What can? In which form? At what cost? Why?”

But the operators of some other galleries of similar mid-tier size took umbrage with the death-knell tone. Casey Kaplan, who opened his New York gallery in 1995, a year after Brown, said, “When I saw these doomsday articles on the demise of the gallery system because of Gavin’s closing I was offended and insulted. I have respect for Gavin, but his situation is his situation. That he is seen as such an icon that, if he couldn’t make it then the rest of us can’t, is ridiculous.”

For what it’s worth, Brown himself agrees. “I didn’t like that either,” he said. “Most galleries didn’t have my overhead. They didn’t hang themselves out there. A lot of galleries will survive.” Working with Gladstone, Brown said, gives him new horizons. It also, he said, “gives me an opportunity to get my life back.”

Schiff, the art adviser, sees Gladstone and Brown as a bulwark against the financialization of the art world. “Gladstone is one of a handful of galleries sticking to what matters,” she said. “It’s important to fight hard for the old way of value-making, a marriage between pricing results and criticality. Both Barbara and Gavin care about what what really drives a passion for art.”

Reminiscing over the past few years, Brown told me, a bit fatalistically, “I guess the possibility that Harlem wouldn’t work was in the front of my head.” That having been said, “I’m really quite happy,” he added. “I have love in my life. And I got to do a lot of dreamy things. And I’m sure I will keep doing them. I’m lucky. I’m very, very lucky.”

Gladstone is lucky too. Her roster is now at mega-gallery scale—with 72 artists and estates—but she is determined to remain in the model of a traditional gallery.

A version of this article appears in the Winter 2021 issue of ARTnews, under the title “The Biggest Little Gallery.”


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