When author and journalist Michael Shnayerson set out to write a book about the big business of contemporary art, he admits that he approached the topic, not as an expert, but as a relative neophyte.
“I could tell a Pollock from a de Kooning,” Shnayerson said in a recent interview, “but didn’t know more than that.”
What he did know, however, was that the buying and selling of art had become big business over the course of the previous seven years or so.
“I was struck by how dramatic this new market was,” he admitted.
In fact, you could say it was a market that was booming.
“BOOM: Mad Money, Mega Dealers, and the Rise of Contemporary Art” is the name of Shnayerson’s new book which delves into the business of the art world over the course of the last seven decades. It’s a period that was first dominated by people like Peggy Guggenheim, dealers who were also strong advocates for up-and-coming artists, followed by dealers like Leo Castelli who paid stipends to artists he believed until they caught the eye of collectors. Finally, Shnayerson explores the realm of the more recent mega-dealers like David Zirner, Arne and Marc Glimcher, and, the most mega of them all, Larry Gagosian who has no fewer than 17 galleries in a dozen countries around the world, all selling work by the hottest names in contemporary art.
On Thursday, August 1, at 5 p.m., Shnayerson will be at the Parrish Art Museum where he will join museum director Terrie Sultan for a conversation about the meteoric rise of the largest unregulated financial market in the world, namely the contemporary art market.
For Shnayerson, like many of the topics he has written about in the past as a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and as the author of seven non-fiction books, this project grew out of his interest to learn more about a subject that intrigued him.
“I approached this not as an art critic or someone who really knows very much about art, but because I was curious,” he said. “I had a naïve idea that a journalist is allowed to look into anything, which is sort of true. But sometimes it’s more challenging than you anticipate.”
And by all accounts, this was a challenging book to write.
Initially, Shnayerson envisioned telling the whole story of contemporary art from the post war years until today, but he soon realized it was too broad a subject and that he would need to narrow it down in order for it to be manageable.
“That’s when I looked at dealers as the arbiters of the art world. You can’t have art without artists, but you can’t have it without dealers either,” he said. “In fact, I wanted to cover as many important dealers as I could find. I was really not motivated by any search for the dark side of contemporary art, I just wanted to tell the story of these very interesting characters.
“Dealers have always been in the center of the arena and that dovetailed well with my desire to make Larry Gagosian a very central character,” he added.
But long before there was Larry Gagogsian, there was Peggy Guggenheim who famously championed Jackson Pollock and took him from obscurity to fame.
“In the beginning it’s Betty Parsons, Guggenheim and [Sidney] Janis. They were the ones who scooped up this new art that came to be known as abstract expressionism,” said Shnayerson. “The irony was, there was no art market at this time. The dealers were art lovers and good friends of the artists they were trying to promote. The artists didn’t expect more than $1,000 or $1,500 for a piece of work. Everything modest then.”
“Yet by the end of the ’50s, the market was already changing.”
Shnayerson explains that in 1959 when Guggenheim returned to New York from Venice, where she had been living, she was shocked to find that people had begun purchasing art as if they were buying shares of stock.
It was the mentality of art as investment that would continue to inform the contemporary art market for decades to come.
“That’s also when Leo Castelli came in the picture and changed the market profoundly,” Shnayerson said.
Castelli was a European émigré who got into contemporary art out of curiosity. He got to know the artists and dealers, and among the young artists he took on was Jasper Johns, an upstairs neighbor of Robert Rauschenberg.
“Castelli paid stipends to his artists and kept them going. Later on, he ushered in the Pop Art era, but it was still not huge in the way of money,” Shnayerson said.
But that would soon change. Shnayerson points to the famous 1973 Scull Auction at Sotheby Parke Bernet as a turning point. Robert Scull had made his fortune as a taxicab owner and was a collector of Abstract Expressionist and Pop Art.
“He and his wife were crazed art collectors and through the ’60s they bought from Castelli and a lot of other dealers, including Arne Glimcher, who is still with us and overseeing the Pace Gallery,” Shnayerson said. “But the Sculls were notorious for bargaining prices, and Castelli would sell work for half the price. He’d say, ‘I think it would fit well in their collection.’”
“The auction in ’73 absolutely shocked the art world. The Sculls were getting divorced, Pieces went for $100,000 that had been only $1,000,” he explained. “It revved up the market and those prices started to define the market. It was really exciting.”
It was the beginning of a new active market in art and a whole generation of collectors who were mindful of its growing value. By the ’80s, the art world revved up that much more, noted Shnayerson.
“You began seeing art sold for $10 million,” he said. “By the ’80s, there was a sense of giddiness about the market. Jim Jacobs who became an art trader sometimes sold the same Warhols twice in the span of a day.”
By the 1990s, Leo Castelli was an old man and Larry Gagosian had become the biggest dealer in the business. An aggressive young dealer, Gagosian understood how to match buyers and sellers, even if the two parties initially had no intention of doing either. In 1986, “Rabbit,” a giant sculpture of an inflatable bunny by Gagosian artist Jeff Koons, sold for more than $91 million at Christie’s, setting a new auction record for a work by a living artist.
The landscape had shifted in a major way and the art business was booming.Shnayerson said he spent three years working to convince Gagosian to agree to an interview.
“It was only when I interviewed three other mega dealers that he decided maybe it would be good to be in that community,” he said.