Gavin Brown’s Move to Gladstone Continues a Trend of Consolidation in the Art Market
Works by Rob Pruitt, 2013, presented by Gavin Brown's enterprise at Unlimited, Art Basel. Photo by Getty Images for Rob Pruitt.
When it was revealed last month that exalted dealer Gavin Brown was throwing in the towel on his own enterprise to work with Barbara Gladstone, eyebrows were raised about whether this would be the beginning of a larger wave of consolidations in the art industry. There had been nervous rumblings about the inevitable closures of small galleries due to the economic ramifications of COVID-19, and seeing an industry stalwart like Gavin Brown’s Enterprise disappear felt alarming. But given time to reflect on the implications of this news, many dealers, artists, and market observers see the merger as par for the course—and perhaps even a positive sign for the future of the art world.
“I have a deep respect for Barbara and the artists she represents,” said Joan Jonas, who had been represented by Gavin Brown since 2015 and will move with him over to Gladstone. “I look forward to [me and Gavin’s] continued inspiring relationship. I am honored to join Gavin and the other artists at Barbara Gladstone.” Similarly optimistic, Francesco Bonami told critic Jerry Saltz over email: “Barbara Gladstone rescued a beautiful dying species in order to become immortal.”
The move has precedents. Back in 2013, Chris D’Amelio joined David Zwirner as partner after working both solo on his own gallery for a year and, previously, partnering with Lucien Terras, under the name D’Amelio Terras. Similarly, Zach Feuer abandoned his gallery—which he first run solo before merging with Joel Mesler’s Untitled Gallery to form Feuer Mesler—to join the staff of nonprofit Art Omi in upstate New York.
“All these mergers happen because there’s some underlying problem that both parties in the merger think is going to get solved,” Feuer said. “At least in [Feuer Mesler’s] case, the underlying problem for me was just that I didn’t want to be an art dealer, so I thought that if I could find someone else who would do like half the work, then I could not be an art dealer.”
Though Brown’s new position at Gladstone is more consolidation than merger, there is a merging of the two galleries’ artist rosters. In a statement, Max Falkenstein, a partner at Gladstone, used language that makes the move sound like a merging of visions: “Gavin Brown’s Enterprise was one of the greatest and most influential galleries from the last two decades, and we look forward to working with him to continue building upon our program together.”
Along with Jonas, Brown will bring Ed Atkins, Kerstin Brätsch, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Arthur Jafa, Alex Katz, Mark Leckey, Rachel Rose, Frances Stark, and Rirkrit Tiravanija over to Gladstone, which already represents artists such as Carroll Dunham, Ian Cheng, Sarah Lucas, Ugo Rondinone, and Anicka Yi, to name just a few. Though there is a critical mass of 10 artists moving along with Brown, there is also a group of artists not making the jump, including Laura Owens, Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys, and the estate of Sturtevant. As of yet, there have been no announcements about where any of those artists will move.
Feuer speculated: “My guess is [the artists that didn’t move to Gladstone] are kind of freaking out, and everyone’s trying to get paid. Then, they’re all going to see what their best options are.” He added that this is not necessarily a bad scenario for those artists. “I am sure that also a lot of artists, once that merger got announced, started getting courted more aggressively by other galleries or were already in the process of that,” he said.
Of course, not everyone is so comfortable with the implications of the move. D’Amelio declined to comment for this article, but in 2013, he told Observer his decision to join David Zwirner was largely spurred by the economic hardships that come with operating a mid-sized gallery: “If you’re a mid-sized, respected gallery, even a highly respected mid-sized gallery, you’re always at this precipice. To get to the other side can be hard. You don’t want to slip off. To get into art fairs can be hard, to function financially can be hard, to deal with something like Hurricane Sandy can be hard, to deal with so many things can be hard.”
Presumably, much of this statement holds up today, substituting the COVID-19 pandemic for Hurricane Sandy. The current economic situation mirrors that of an earlier catastrophe, the 2008 global financial crisis, and doesn’t show signs of improving. According to a survey conducted by the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA), galleries expected to suffer a 73 percent loss in overall gross revenue in this year’s second quarter.
Dealer Kenny Schachter also drew a comparison to recent times of economic hardship, telling Saltz: “This is the harbinger of unprecedented gallery consolidations and closures far outpacing the retrenchment after the 2008 financial collapse.” For his part, Saltz concurred, writing: “This 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.” In the announcement about Brown joining her gallery, Barbara Gladstone admitted that “this moment in history is an important time to think of new possibilities in the art world.”
It’s not a secret that, regardless of the unique tumults of 2020, any gallery that isn’t one of the top five blue-chip dealerships is struggling to make it work. Mergers seem to be a way to keep less-than-mega-galleries afloat in some form. Since 2015, Van Doren Waxter absorbed Lower East Side space 11R; the Johnen Galerie merged with Esther Schipper; and Brett Gorvy joined forces with Dominque Lévy to create Lévy Gorvy, to name just a few team-ups. This year we’ve also seen top-tier galleries—ostensible rivals—collaborating, as when Pace, Gagosian, and Acquavella banded together to sell Donald Marron’s prized collection.
Aside from a general shrinking of the pool of galleries supporting new artists and hosting exhibitions, these mergers also inevitably come with job losses. The ADAA reported that in the second quarter of this year, 74 percent of contract workers have become unemployed, and even those top-tier galleries such as Pace, David Zwirner, and Gagosian have furloughed and laid off workers in recent months. A reduction in jobs in the art world inevitably leads to a future that is even more cutthroat, competitive, and exclusive.
Much of the speculation about the forces that led Brown to close his vast Harlem complex and join up with Gladstone may be due to the larger uncertainty about what the rest of 2020 holds, and beyond. “I don’t think that this is indicative of anything other than that [Gavin Brown’s Enterprise] needed to merge,” said Feuer. “I know there’s still small galleries that are making money, and that there are still artists who don’t want the mega-gallery vibe who are profitable.”