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The opening night of David Zwirner’s anniversary show in New York, “25 Years,” resembled a rock concert. It’s the most accurate way I could describe this atypical opening. Although the gallery has never been an average operation, this show felt especially different.
The exhibition reads something like a crash course in today’s contemporary art world. With work by (now bear with me, it is a long list) Yayoi Kusama, Jeff Koons, Dan Flavin, Lisa Yuskavage, Félix González-Torres, Jason Rhoades, Marcel Dzama, and Marlene Dumas, the gallery has seemingly morphed into a contemporary art museum before our very eyes.
How did something that started off as a simple white box space in SoHo transform into a worldwide cultural platform? How does this gallery earn career-long loyalty from both artists and staff? What makes David Zwirner gallery so special?
Perhaps the answer lies in Zwirner’s unique ability to foster an environment of teamwork while promoting independent leadership. Senior Partner Kristine Bell explained to me recently that this is achieved through clear communication. “With open dialogue, everyone can participate and that keeps people engaged and responsible for their contributions. David welcomes all ideas and is very supportive.” Zwirner possesses a sincere confidence in his staff and partners alike.
Like, Hanna Schouwink. She started at the front desk where her talent and dependability showed, and over the years, she was promoted to Senior Partner. Schouwink has grown with the gallery, watching the operation develop and the staff increase from two to 165. The gallery opened a new space in Hong Kong last month and is building a new Renzo Piano-designed headquarters in New York.
Senior Partner Christopher D’Amelio shared another explanation. He describes Zwirner’s commitment to quality and exposure to the masses as key elements to the gallery’s success. This emphasis on the art itself, especially with the growing commercialization of contemporary art, is a welcome one. Partner David Leiber reiterates this in his description of the public’s response to Kusama’s show, “Festival of Life.” “To me this felt like a modern-day pilgrimage, perhaps art replacing religion, and confirming that art has a real place in our lives beyond the commercial bonanza,” said Leiber.
And the artists Zwirner represents are among the most successful in the world—a success beyond monetary measurements. He selects great artists, cultivates their careers, and carefully builds a collector base.
Later, on opening night, while admiring a work by Yuskavage in the back room, Zwirner came in carrying a rather large Josh Smith painting. As he leaned the work against the wall he joked, “Who says I don’t do anything around here?”
We laughed because the reality is that, in such a large operation, the average viewer regards Zwirner as less of a person and more of a name. Yet, it is the person that has fostered these incredible artists’ careers, partnered with an incredible staff, and developed a passionate collector base, that created the prestigious gallery we all know and love.
I had the great opportunity to interview David Zwirner—the person, not the name.
REMA HORT: What was it like to grow up in the art world? What do you think the difference is between your experience as a child of a gallerist, compared to your own children’s experience?
DAVID ZWIRNER: I feel incredibly lucky to have grown up in Cologne. Cologne was, and still is, a vibrant place for the visual arts and I learned a great deal growing up there. That said, the art world has become much more global since I was a child, and New York is a truly international city. While I was exposed primarily to European and a few American artists growing up, my children have been able to spend time with artists from all over the world. They’ve also had the opportunity to see so many wonderful international exhibitions, like the Michaël Borremans show we just opened at our new Hong Kong gallery—a great Belgian painter showing half way around the world.
RH: I know you started off as a drummer, going to NYU for music. What made you transition away from music? What made you want to start an art gallery?
DZ: Well, I came to New York initially to study music at NYU, and thought that I would maybe become a professional musician. I had a lot of fun, studying jazz and playing with some great, great people but I realized that I wasn’t going to cut it as professional musician. So, soon after I came to this realization, I got a job at Brooke Alexander’s gallery, and after a few years working for Brooke, I decided that maybe I should think about starting my own gallery.
New York has always been an incredible place for the visual arts, and there were a lot of exciting things going on during that time. Now, in 1993, the art world was a very different place—it was a fraction of the size it is now, and when I decided to open my gallery, the art market was also in the depths of a severe recession. In SoHo, where I first had my gallery on Greene Street, it seemed like for every gallery that opened, at least 2 closed. This, for some reason, didn’t dissuade me, and neither did the fact that my first show, with the artist Franz West, which I thought was beautiful, yielded not a single sale, with the exception of a work not in the exhibition, that your grandparents, and great collectors, Susan and Michael Hort, bought from my back room.
RH: How is your personal taste in art reflected in the work you show? Has your taste changed? How do you define success in the art world?
DZ: It is interesting because the choices that I made in ‘93 made it clear that the gallery would not favor a specific medium—we had shown video, painting, sculpture, drawing. There was no regional point of view of the gallery—artists came from all over the globe. And while of course I was looking mostly at my generation, Franz West was about 20 years my senior, making it clear that we were not just looking at budding talent. And I think that actually, this is all still true, even now, 25 years later.
After the first year was over, my most important realization was that if I wanted to succeed, then the artists had to be front and center. They were the raison d’être of the gallery, and our DNA. The phrase “artist facing” is thrown around a lot, but I really do believe that the gallery is artist facing, and I am proud that that is what we were then, and that this is what we are now.
RH: Your gallery is visited a lot by people who don’t normally go to art galleries. Are you proud to expose a wider audience to the art world? Do you ever feel any pressure to cater shows directly to these “non-insiders”?
DZ: Again, everything that we do is driven by our commitment to the artists and the estates, who have entrusted their careers and legacies with us, and our responsibility to them is to present the work in the very best spaces, with the very best lighting, and under the best conditions. This is the case whether it is in my gallery in Chelsea in New York, or in London, or, now, in Hong Kong, as well as in museums throughout the world. As such, the pressure to cater shows to the audience is not relevant; if we honor and respect the artists and their work, then it seems that the audience will come and engage with the work as a natural outgrowth of this commitment.
One of the most interesting aspects of this commitment is how we can engage people who aren’t necessarily able to come to the gallery or see the work in a museum. We have been developing our digital platform, so that we can engage people through our website/online viewing rooms, or on social media, or, soon, through our podcast series. Recently, we expanded our website so that we can connect visitors to the gallery’s program through our online viewing rooms and expanded content on our artists and exhibitions, in addition to connecting them to our publishing activities at David Zwirner Books, and generally expand the gallery’s reach to include and engage people who may not be able to come to the gallery or who may not have traditionally been interested in visiting a gallery in the past.
Social media is another way that we have been able to connect a very wide and diverse audience to the artists of the gallery. The response on social media, particularly Instagram, to our recent exhibition of Yayoi Kusama’s work was unprecedented, and the majority of visitors to the gallery first came to be interested in Kusama’s work through social media. This is an artist who has been active for over six decades now, and her work has been able to captivate a whole new audience through social media.
We are also in the beginning stages of developing a Podcast series, which will feature artists, but in a way that is different and hopefully interesting—so artists will steer the content of the Podcasts, determining who they are in conversation with and what topics are of interest to them, as opposed to the gallery setting the content.
“David Zwirner: 25 Years” is on view through February 17 across the gallery’s New York locations.