Art's quiet matriarch hopes the market cools

Ms Marian Goodman regards keeping artworks out of auction and in public view, so that they are dealt with by responsible people and by museums, as one of the most important aspects of her job.
Ms Marian Goodman regards keeping artworks out of auction and in public view, so that they are dealt with by responsible people and by museums, as one of the most important aspects of her job. PHOTO: NYTIMES

In a globalised art world where auctions are thriving, revered dealer Marian Goodman prefers to deal with museums

NEW YORK • If you had been around a particular part of the downtown Manhattan art world at a particular time in the 1960s, you might have spotted bohemian playboy painter Larry Rivers roaring down the crumbling streets on his motorcycle. Clinging to him was a small, conservatively dressed woman who did not remotely seem to belong there.

To see that woman now - Ms Marian Goodman, one of the most revered art dealers in the world - makes the motorcycle story all the more impossible to conjure. "It gave me a very good education on how not to get killed," she recalled.

At 88, she carries herself with a quiet, unassailable authority that makes one think she could be a retired banker or a New York City schools chancellor or a high-level diplomat, a job she aspired to before falling under art's spell as a young mother in the early 1960s.

Her gallery enters its 40th year next month as one of the most powerful in the business, despite having operated in few of the ways other galleries have as the contemporary art world morphed into the sleek financial behemoth it is now.

Long on West 57th Street, it never branched out to SoHo or Chelsea. It never became a player in the auction market. While largely rejecting the expansionism of its peers - it set up a permanent space in Paris in 1999 and just added a new space there, after opening a London gallery only two years ago - it has still been able to attract sought-after young artists such as New York- based Julie Mehretu and Argentinian Adrian Villar Rojas.

The gallery became one of the most influential of its generation for a reason that might sound strange in today's aggressively global commercial art world, fuelled by fairs in every time zone.

But when Ms Goodman began, galleries and museums in the United States, still basking in abstract expressionism's ascendancy, were stubbornly provincial and resolutely nationalist.

The art dealer, who grew up in a liberal, intellectual Manhattan household surrounded by art, loved Europe and saw in its studios and galleries immensely talented but vastly under-appreciated artists and a largely untapped market, in that order.

Many artists she went on to champion - German painter Gerhard Richter, British film-maker Steve McQueen, French conceptualist Pierre Huyghe, Belgian poet-provocateur Marcel Broodthaers - have become critical stars.

Throughout all of her proselytizing, she has always operated resolutely in the background. She declines most interview requests, which she chalks up to intense introversion and to a general philosophy that art dealers should never usurp attention from their artists.

In the last few years, she has started to relent. In a wide-ranging interview, initiated at her request, she said she is stepping out from behind the curtain mostly because "I think I'm not as shy as I used to be".

But the motivation seems to be as much a desire to impart some cautionary advice to a business she views in almost moral terms.

"I think money speaks more than it ever has before," she said. "The auctions have been good for business, but I'm not sure it's been so good for the art world."

Last month alone, 18 older works by Richter, one of the most admired living painters, changed hands at auction in New York for well over US$100 million (S$145 million).

Richter has called such prices "hopelessly excessive" and was known for years to sell sizable new works for less than US$1 million.

Even now, Ms Goodman says, he has increased his prices, at her urging, only so much to make up for that disparity and discourage speculation; new paintings that would probably go for US$20 million at auction are priced at well under half that, closer to US$5 million.

She said disdainfully: "There are people who buy and sell art as if it were shares in ranches or something that like."

And one of her most important jobs now, she said, is "to keep the work out of auction so that it's dealt with by responsible people and by museums".

If she leaves any legacy, she said, she hoped it would be her success in placing her artists' work in public collections, a job she has done so well that it has occasioned criticism that she and four other prominent galleries - Gagosian, Pace, David Zwirner and Hauser & Wirth - are overly represented in major museum exhibition programmes.

For her part, a remarkable talent at choosing artists with critical staying power has played a role in that success. But so has her insistence on selling art mostly to collectors who pledge to donate their works to museums. Such sales sometimes make her gallery less money than other collectors would have been willing to pay.

In October, contemporary art organisation Independent Curators International gave her its highest honour. Presenting her the prize, collector Agnes Gund, another former president of the Museum of Modern Art, said: "I treat her gallery really as I treat a museum. I go to be educated, to grasp ideas, to see what she sees."

Ms Goodman did not see her destiny as selling art until she was well into her 30s. She went to Emerson College in Boston with thoughts of journalism and also of working for the United Nations. Married at 21, she quickly had a son and a daughter and worked mostly volunteering for their school.

But she came to know painter Franz Kline through a fund-raising drive for the children's school. He took her to Cedar Tavern, the fabled Greenwich Village painters' hangout.

And partly because of that encounter, she decided that her amateur interest in art needed to become professional if she was ever going to be serious about anything. She went to graduate school in art history at Columbia University and, as her marriage was faltering, she opened a small business selling inexpensive editions.

Her business might have remained at that level had she not decided, against grave reservations as a Jew, to travel to Germany in 1968 for the influential Documenta art exhibition.

Through that experience, she came to meet Broodthaers, whose unsettling, poetic, acidly funny work was a hard sell even in Europe. But she was besotted and became determined to sell it in the US, even if she had to open her own gallery to do so.

Which she did. And promptly found out how hard it was to bang her head against US parochialism. Business was terrible. She supported herself mostly with sales of inexpensive editions, had only one employee for many years and put up her visiting artists in her own home.

But it was a kind of dedication that drew artists to her. And it has kept them loyal over decades.

Coming up on the end of her ninth decade, she shows few signs of ramping down. Asked if she ever thought about what her gallery would do after her, she said: "I would like it to carry on and I am thinking about that. But I think I'll carry on until I can't." She paused, smiling tersely. "So far, so good."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 19, 2016, with the headline 'Art's quiet matriarch hopes the market cools'. Print Edition | Subscribe