Zwirner Gallery goes to town with its expansion

Art dealer David Zwirner is known for conquering the art world with style, winning him the respect of his competitors.
Art dealer David Zwirner is known for conquering the art world with style, winning him the respect of his competitors.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • On a cold weekday afternoon on an upper floor of one of his Chelsea galleries, art dealer David Zwirner pointed out of the window at a corner lot on West 21st Street that is under demolition.

That, he said, is the site of what in the fall of 2020 will become the new heart of his New York operation: a five-story, US$50-million (S$66.7 million) gallery designed by famed Italian architect Renzo Piano.

Mr Zwirner is announcing this plan for the future even as he is looking at the past - with a 25th-anniversary exhibition featuring the artists who have shaped the gallery's programme since its founding. He is also celebrating the present with the inauguration of his first Asia gallery in Central Hong Kong this month.

"As fortune favours the brave, we are looking back exactly when we're opening in Hong Kong and looking forward," he said.

At a time when many small and mid-size galleries are being priced out of the business because of the costs of prime real estate and proliferating art fairs, his expansion is bound to elicit grousing about mega-dealers taking over the world.

To be sure, watching him gaze out at the property that will soon give him a third gallery in Chelsea, his fourth in New York City and seventh in the world inevitably conjures the image of a general surveying his spreading empire.

But though the tall, clean-cut Mr Zwirner, 53, has established himself as an ambitious entrepreneur - second only to fellow art dealer Larry Gagosian's operation in size and prestige - he has also made clear that he is a savvy businessman.

His gallery brings in well over half a billion dollars a year with 165 employees, including many who have worked for him for years, and a growing stable of more than 50 artists and estates.

Some in the often-backbiting art world undoubtedly resent his success, particularly since he has managed to draw some artists and estates from other galleries.

Among his recent conquests are artists William Eggleston and Felix Gonzalez-Torres, as well as the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation. Yet, many of Mr Zwirner's competitors also concede that they like and respect him.

"He's managed to do it with style," long-time dealer Robert Mnuchin said. "That's hard to do sometimes when you're aggressive."

Mr Zwirner said he is conscious of trying to achieve that elusive balance of any big dealer these days: being attentive to the artists - with personal contact and regular communication - as well as ambitious for them, placing their work with leading museums and top collectors (who will not just turn around and try to sell it for profit) and providing international exposure.

"Artists want you to stay small; they hate when stuff changes," said Mr Zwirner, who was born in Cologne, Germany, and speaks with a slight accent.

"How do you keep it intimate while being able to compete in the increasingly competitive art market?"

"On the other hand, if you don't move, some artists will feel you're not doing enough for their careers," he continued.

"They want to have intimacy, but they also want to have the reach."

Piano's museums have been acclaimed for balancing a focus on the art with architectural distinction.

"You kill art by making just white boxes, so you need to integrate emotion in some way," he said.

"You cannot be neutral, because otherwise you disappear."

Groundbreaking is to take place this spring. Meanwhile, to celebrate its quarter-century, Zwirner Gallery has invited all of its artists to contribute a work for an exhibition that will open on Friday. The show will occupy all the gallery spaces in Chelsea.

The show will include new work by established artists such as Richard Serra and On Kawara, as well as work by artists such as Gordon Matta-Clark.

Some pieces are being borrowed from museums and much of it will not be for sale.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 10, 2018, with the headline 'Zwirner Gallery goes to town with its expansion'. Print Edition | Subscribe