In a rare conversation prior to his visit to Abu Dhabi Art this weekend, the globe-straddling art dealer Larry Gagosian talks about markets, recessions and the new shape of the art world.
There are certain cultural figures who have achieved such ubiquity in their field - whose very names have attained brand-like status - that it's something of a disconcerting Oz-like experience to encounter them in person.
Such is the case with the art dealer Larry Gagosian, whom I met in late October in his flagship gallery on New York's Upper East Side, as he was preparing to participate in Abu Dhabi Art, the new modern and contemporary art fair that opened this week in the Emirates Palace.
Just outside the door to his office were arrayed millions of dollars worth of abstract sculptures by Cy Twombly, widely considered to be one of the most important living artists. Seated behind a desk piled high with art monographs, Gagosian was relaxed and casual - with none of the swagger one might expect from the man who stands at the pinnacle of the art world.
Far and away the world's most powerful art dealer, Gagosian is as well-known for his tenacious deal-making and his museum-quality exhibitions as he is for being a quintessential self-made man, having risen to stratospheric heights from modest middle-class beginnings in Los Angeles, where he launched his career in the mid-1970s selling kitschy posters.
His clients have included the billionaire real estate magnate Eli Broad, the Conde Nast honcho SI Newhouse and the hedge fund baron Steven Cohen. He represents Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami, and regularly does deals far into the seven figures on modern masterpieces; his gallery empire now extends to architect-designed spaces in New York, Los Angeles, London, Athens and Rome.
His recent international endeavours - including two exhibitions in Moscow in the past two years - have made him synonymous with a paradigm shift in the art market. Once centred in New York, it now has a global reach; that boom-time expansion, as Gagosian and other dealers argue, has cushioned the market's latest downturn from the severity of the last one, which came with the recession of the early 1990s.
On the eve of his departure for the UAE, Gagosian had just opened a show of a pair of stunning new monumental sculptures by Richard Serra in one of his three New York spaces, just in time for the city's November auctions.
He'd come off a successful run at London's Frieze Art Fair, and subsequent participation in Paris's Foire International d'Art Contemporaine (FIAC), where he figured in the Project Moderne, a grouping of modern masterworks - an art fair booth as sprawling exhibition - spearheaded by French dealer Daniel Malinque that is being recreated, minus a few dealers, as the "Special Exhibition" at Abu Dhabi Art.
Like other prominent American and European dealers, such as PaceWildenstein, Acquavella and Hauser & Wirth, Gagosian was invited to participate by the fair's organisers, the government's Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) and the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage.
Gagosian's presence here represents more than just a natural outgrowth of his dealings on the art market's global stage. It's also significant insofar as it signals the Middle East's increasing importance on the art world's map.
"At this time, in the world economy and the art economy, I think most dealers are looking a little bit outside of their normal environment, outside their comfort zone," he says. "To other areas where there seems to be some strong collecting activity, or the potential for it."
Potential is the key word here. "What you have in Abu Dhabi is a bit of a blank slate," he continues. Referring to the Saadiyat Island museum complex, he says: "They may be getting pieces on loan from the Guggenheim and the Louvre, but essentially they are going to be creating collections. With the resources they have available, it's a significant opportunity."
Gagosian tends to limit his participation in art fairs to those at the top tier, like Art Basel in Switzerland and its sister fair in Miami Beach, and the Frieze Art Fair in London. When he shows at regional art fairs, as he did in Hong Kong in May, after opening an office in the city last year, it tends to indicate his desire to develop clients in a particular region.
The degree of his interest in Abu Dhabi can be gauged in part by a rare public speaking appearance during the fair: on November 20, he'll be discussing the subject of "Collecting Today" on a panel with the Iranian collector Dr Farhad Farjam and Dr Roger Mandle, the executive director of the Qatar Museums Authority. (Qatar's ruling Al Thani family reportedly bought Gagosian artist Damien Hirst's Lullaby Spring at Sotheby's, London, in May 2007 for the record price of $19.2 million.)
It would be all too easy to speculate that major projects could be in the works. Abu Dhabi Art's international committee includes the Gagosian artist Jeff Koons, who came to Abu Dhabi in March to discuss his work during a series of talks presented by TDIC and the Guggenheim.
With dealers buzzing about the potential for acquisitions for the Saadiyat Island museums, it's tempting to imagine that something along the lines of a massive Koons commission for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi could be in the works. After all, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art recently commissioned the artist to create a sculpture of a 21-metre-long steam locomotive for its entrance plaza, at a cost of $25 million.
But Gagosian is reticent on the subject of his clients. What he will say is: "It's become increasingly apparent that there are a lot of opportunities in my business for sales in that part of the world, and Abu Dhabi in particular has become a compelling situation because of not only the possibility for private collections but the very ambitious museums that are being built there."
That could mean opportunities for secondary market trade in modern works along the lines of de Kooning, Picasso and Warhol, but Gagosian's presence at Abu Dhabi Art is also an effort to expand the market and visibility for the 40-plus artists he currently represents. One that he's showing here is the Tehran-born portraitist YZ Kami, whom he began representing three years ago. "It's doing a service to your artists to open new markets and new clients and new museum situations," he says. "It's part of our obligation to our artists to expose them to new collectors and new possibilities."
Finding new possibilities for his artists has long taken the form of opening outposts around the world - even in the depths of a recession. In September, he opened his eighth space, in Athens, with an exhibition of Cy Twombly paintings, and he is reportedly doubling the size of his Beverly Hills gallery. "I'm more intuitive than strategic," he replies.
"I actually enjoy this way of doing business. It's personally very exciting. It energises me. I like going to cities that I like and having a gallery there. It's something that I'm comfortable with. I'm not opening a gallery in Athens or in Rome because the economy is slow. It doesn't really have to do with that."
He admits that "it's sometimes easier to do things when things are slow, because rents are maybe lower, or people are more willing to sell a building," but then shrugs off those factors. "I'm not quite that calculating. I enjoy building galleries. I like designing spaces. I like managing people. It's something that kind of turns me on, motivates me, more than just sitting in one place."
But the art market has had a rough ride over the past year, as a result of the global economic downturn. Prices have plummeted some 30 per cent, and volume is down at auctions. To Gagosian, however, the current slump cannot compare to the devastation of the depression that struck the art market at the start of the 1990s. "The early 1990s were an absolute nightmare," he says.
"It was brutal. I remember going to Sotheby's in November of 1990. And usually after an auction you meet up with some friends - collectors and co-workers and other dealers - and you go out for dinner and have a good time.
"Back then, nobody wanted to talk to anybody. You were numb. You walked in, and half the auction didn't sell. People weren't even bidding. It was just unbelievable, because in May there had been an incredibly strong auction. Huge prices. Records for many artists. Vibrant market. It just turned on a dime. And the ensuing recession in the art market was absolutely the worst thing I've ever been through in my career as an art dealer. The phone literally didn't ring."
He reflected on the overhyped market of the late 1980s, with its outrageous speculation, art funds and highly-leveraged Japanese buying. "It was like tulip mania, like a Ponzi thing, it was crazy. Everybody was making money and everybody was happy, and then when the music stopped it was just like a crushing hangover. This hasn't been the case now.
This has been a totally different dynamic." It is the exponential expansion of the market in recent years - and that includes patronage from areas like the Middle East - that Gagosian credits, in part, for keeping the current downturn from become so severe. "We're in a much more global art market."
That very global art market may come to threaten New York's position as the de facto centre of the art world, an eventuality that Gagosian, who first made a name for himself in 1985 by opening a cavernous space on Manhattan's west side with an exhibition of masterpieces from the famed Burton and Emily Tremaine collection, recognises.
"I think New York is still the centre," he says. "But it's considerably less dominant."
He adds that he doesn't know "if New York will be the centre of the art world in five or 10 years. There's been a shift, particularly to Europe. Obviously, you have a lot of buying power in the Middle East, and this exciting expansion of museums in Abu Dhabi, and Doha, that's kind of an outlier. But I think in general, there's been a move towards Europe."
Europe has lately been crucial as a portal to collector bases further east; Gagosian is particularly excited about Paris, where he has an office and is rumoured to be at some point opening a gallery. Collectors from Russia, Asia and the Middle East "tend to go to Europe more than New York. They're very comfortable in London and Paris". Since he opened a space in Rome two years ago, he has been, he says, "pleasantly surprised" to see collectors from these regions visit him there. "We find people who would never come to New York."
Twenty years ago the assumption was that New York was "where the world shops for art", Gagosian recalls. "Well, I think that's still somewhat the case, but less so. And I think there's been an autonomy now in the market in Europe that didn't exist 20 years ago. People feel they don't need to come to New York, that they can see a lot of things in Europe. They may still visit New York, but a lot of their art budget doesn't get over here."
As he prepared to leave for the UAE, Gagosian seemed confident that, after a dark period, the market could be on the rise. "It looks like we're improving. Recessions do end. Maybe they don't always end in the same way. Maybe there's some false starts and we slide back. I'm not an economist, but I do feel that things are improving in general. I'm becoming more optimistic."
Sarah Douglas is a staff writer at Art + Auction magazine.