Nick Olney is not Paul Kasmin. But that was never his goal. Three years after the enigmatic British gallerist passed away and Olney became president of the 33-year-old Kasmin Gallery, the business has grown and evolved, all while staying true to its founder’s idea of what a gallery should be: large (a kind of mini-mega) but personal, driven by artists as opposed to profits.
For the art market, succession plans at major galleries are a hot topic, and where the mega-galleries are concerned, the question tends to hinge on heirs: David Zwirner, Pace’s Arne Glimcher, and William Acquavella all have family to pass their galleries on to. Hauser & Wirth, too, is a family affair. Gagosian gallery’s situation is compelling precisely because Larry Gagosian does not have heirs–and hence all those rumors last fall that Gagosian was being acquired by LVMH. But, when Paul Kasmin died in 2020 at age 60, and though he had two daughters, Olivia and Charlotte, who weren’t heavily involved with the gallery, the way in which he planned his succession—not to mention the story of his gallery since his death—is instructive.
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Kasmin died in late March 2020, just as New York was going into Covid lockdown. The loss of an irreplaceable founder could have left the gallery in disarray. But the late gallerist, who, by all accounts, was a singular and charismatic figure, had cultivated a gallery culture that could outlive him. The Kasmin Gallery was and is structured like a collaborative creative space, with each director empowered to pursue their own interests and passions. Meanwhile, Kasmin had spent years preparing Olney, who joined the gallery in 2007 after six years at Berggruen Gallery in San Francisco, to take over, long before he was diagnosed with cancer in 2018.
Kasmin worked to the end, even with the weight loss and weakness that accompanied his declining health. As the rest of the art world moved to its Covid-era appointment model, Kasmin worked from his upstate home in Millbrook as he received hospice care. There was much to do: construction was finishing on a new suite of offices, the gallery had just opened William N. Copley: The New York Years in Chelsea, a new exhibition, Matisse in Black and White, was due for the fall, and Ali Banisadr was at work on his first solo show, These Specks of Dust, which would open in 2021, long after Kasmin’s death.
“I don’t think Paul would have ever retired, he was too passionate,” Olney told ARTnews.
Still, according to Olney, Kasmin had long ago tapped him to take over the gallery as president. Olney had been the gallery’s managing director since 2016 and was the longest tenured person at the gallery and, perhaps most critically, he had the trust and respect of Kasmin’s directors. Olney and Kasmin also shared an intellectual curiosity outside of art, what Olney described as an “intuitive connection.” And because of Olney’s time working with John Berggruen, who like Kasmin was a second-generation gallerist, they thought about dealing art in a similar way.
“I think for me, having worked with two galleries that were connected to this ‘older way’ of doing things very much informs how I approach the gallery today,” Olney said. “Traditional things like building relationships, talking to people in person, seeing things very candidly, the handshake deal.”
Today, the Kasmin Gallery continues the program Kasmin had made his signature, one that embraces art history—particularly Surrealism—while also growing a roster of contemporary talent. On the former front, even before the Metropolitan Museum of Art had its big Surrealism show in 2021, Kasmin was planning its show last year of Dorothea Tanning. On the latter, last September, the gallery held a solo show of ambitious sculptures and installations by vanessa german titled Sad Rapper and, earlier this month, Kasmin announced they would begin representing the Nigerian artist Nengi Omuku, who first showed at the gallery as part of a group show last year curated by Katy Hessel. And plans that began while Kasmin was alive for living artists like Diana Al-Hadid and estates like that of George Rickey have since come to fruition. In this particular succession, success looks, more than anything else, like stability.
“It’s tough to think of the change in leadership as a seismic shift,” Eric Gleason, who along with Edith Dicconson and Mariska Nietzman, has been a senior director at the gallery for a decade, told ARTnews. “We didn’t lose any artists, and we’ve always been halfway between the 20th and 21st century. Paul cultivated an environment in which we all trust each other and where the best idea wins, regardless of whose idea it is, and we continue to operate that way and trust each other in that way under Nick.”
Not that there hasn’t been some gear shifting to suit the times. Gallery partnerships have become important, something Kasmin did not make a priority in his time when galleries played things close to the vest, but which has helped the gallery expand to meet his aspirations. Alma Allen, for example, is represented by both Kasmin and Blum & Poe, and the gallery now shares multiple artists with Galerie Max Hetzler in Europe.
One thing that can’t be replaced is Kasmin’s unique vision, what Billy Copley, son of William Copley, the artist whose show opened on the cusp of the pandemic, called his “secret sauce.” But, to Copley, Olney has his own idiosyncratic eye.
“[Kasmin and Olney] are different people, but they have many similar qualities,” Copley told ARTnews. “Nick may be a bit more understated than Paul was, but Paul was never showy. He was engaged and he was passionate. Nick is the same. And most importantly they both did what’s right for their artists, which is always what’s best for the gallery.”
For a founder, perhaps the key to a smooth succession is knowing how to step back.
“To me, what really happened after Paul died, is that we all turned up the volume,” Dicconson told ARTnews. “When he became really sick, he stepped back a bit and let us rise to the occasion. He knew it would be different, but the spirit is the same, perhaps even more collaborative.”