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20 minutes with: Gagosian COO Andrew Fabricant

Andrew Fabricant returned to the mega-art retailer Gagosian 2018, 23 years after leaving to become a partner at the Richard Gray Gallery in New York, and shortly thereafter found himself navigating a global operation virtually, through Zoom calls and e mail messages in the morning.

As Gagosian’s CEO, Fabricant, 65, is involved in all aspects of running one of the world’s largest art dealers, a network of 18 galleries representing 70 artists and artists spread across the globe.

Started by Larry Gagosian 40 years ago, the retailer represents some of the biggest names in the contemporary art world, from Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, Jeff Koons and Richard Serra to Mark Grotjahn, Jenny Saville, Jonas Wood and Titus Kaphar. As Fabricant says, Gagosian̵

7;s ability to “buy and sell art from the 20th and 21st centuries is at a level that very few people have achieved.”

Manufacturer recently spoke with Penta. An edited version of the conversation follows:

PENTA: How did you become interested in art?

Andrew Manufacturer: My mother would take me to art exhibitions and museums with my brothers and I hated it. When I came to college, I had an influential friend who worked with Peter Selz, a former curator at MoMA (Museum of Modern Art in New York) and the first director of the University Art Museum, Berkeley (modern-day Berkeley Art Museum). I sat in a couple of his classes and was really struck by how much affinity I had with me [art].

I stopped working with Selz and wrote a lot on a book he wrote Art in our time. After graduating from college, I started working in a small gallery in San Francisco. I just dropped floors and wrote Rolodex cards. When I moved back to Los Angeles, I was hired by Gagosian in November 1983 as an art dealer, preparer. But I sold two David Salle paintings during the first week I was there. So I left that job description and continued. I was lucky.

What was it like returning to Gagosian 2018 and how did it differ from when you left in 1996?

In 1996, we just came out of a four-to-five-year trauma in the early 90’s, where companies died. Galleries were in danger. In 1994-95, the art industry just started to come back. Larry had opened the branch in California, and he had the gallery on Madison Avenue and he also had a gallery in SoHo, it was on Wooster Street. No foreign or foreign presence at all. He went from 30 to 40 employees to 300 during the time I was away.

What has it been like navigating the gallery through the pandemic?

It has been a challenge. It’s no secret that we had some help [Paycheck Protection Program]. We were able to retain all of our full-time employees. The transition to a digital world has been a challenge, but fortunately we had a real head start when it comes to our online viewing that goes back several years.

Working under pressure to produce results in online sales and viewing platforms and to keep staff informed and in line … it’s debilitating, because you’re famous for so much data and information at some point. You can not control it. You can say you will turn it off and slow down the flow, but you can not, not if you are in it to survive.

Jenny Saville’s Virtual, 2020, oil on canvas, 78 3/4 x 63 inches. Gagosian offered the painting on July 24 during its Artist Spotlight in Saville and sold it in a multi-million dollar transaction.

©Jenny Saville. Courtesy of Gagosian.

An initiative at Gagosian during the pandemic was Artist Spotlight, where you focused on a single artist and offered a work for sale.

The key there was that the artists were enthusiastic about it and gave us amazing things. That’s why Spotlight worked – without the artist’s participation, it will be a transactional exercise.

The pieces sold well. This often led to several sales. We had a situation where we had a small Capri painting of Grotjahn’s that sold directly, and he gave us another that sold directly, and another and that sold directly, and then he gave us a large one that sold directly. It was good.

We all live in this decaying time. Artists have this desire to create. Many have studio responsibilities, family responsibilities, all these fears are locked in at the same time. Giving them an outlet that is successful and has a broad research – it was good for everyone.

Did you expand what you learned to present art digitally during the pandemic, and where do you see this going?

The real challenge we have in our online program, and many galleries do, is to preserve information and shine information from people who are going [the] website. You would like people on your site to have opportunities to collect and who have some knowledge of the art world as such. Not because you want to discourage beginners, but you want to target the right people.

If you remove the social aspect of the art world – art fairs, dinners, openings, etc., there is very little opportunity to meet new customers. The conditions in the art world are important, they can last in a collector’s life.

Will resellers play a bigger role in digital sales from now on?

The digital piece now is our only way to get in touch with the public, to focus on our artists, to get our artists to work out there. [But], we are in a primitive, Neolithic stage when it comes to how we show art on a digital platform. There is little opportunity to browse for example. Virtual exhibitions are a joke … like a really early version of Grand Theft Auto without the suspense. We have the creative impulse, we need the platform and the means to do it better.

Global art sales decreased by 5% in 2019 in part because the art world has not managed to get new buyers. How does this change?

[One] the question is this bloating and redundancy and redundancy in the art world. There are too many art fairs; there is an auction every week. There is a certain tiredness that I felt not only in the last year but in recent years. The excess of the large amount of things going on at a certain time led to a certain apathy. The unintended positive effect of Covid, if there is one, is to get people to stand back and reconsider: What is a priority for my company, if I am in the art industry and for a collector, what are my priorities? What do I do to see art? What potential risks do I take? Is it worth risking my life to see that Raphael show [at the National Gallery of Art] in London [which has been postponed]? Perhaps. But is it worth going to Art Basel Miami? I do not think so.

Is there a need for the art world to attract new collectors?

Absolutely. And there is a need to bring people into the art world who may not have thought of it as a career or experienced it in any way. Because the art world is a successful place. These are elite people who act smarter than you. That must change. What you have seen in recent months and years, when it comes to a more diverse group of artists becoming more famous and more successful – this is the trend. We as an industry must make this industry more transparent and more welcoming to all people.

What can the art world and Gagosian do to deal with systemic racism?

It is action more than anything. For us, the plot is to continue trying to diversify our staff. The best way to do that is to encourage young people, college age, to get involved in the art world, become paid interns and see this as a really interesting potential career. It is one of my primary directives. For me, it is a basic, elementary way of generationally changing thinking in the art world.

The industry regarded your employment as COO as a signal of a succession plan. Are you going to take over one day?

Larry will never recognize a succession plan because he is immortal. We discussed the need to strengthen existing leadership and strengthen it. Because the business has grown so much, you need to spread the responsibility.

Which art is particularly meaningful to you personally?

My passion is from the 14th and 15th century Italian Renaissance painting. That’s what I love to see, especially in situ, which I will not be able to do for a long time.

That period, especially Italian painting from the beginning of the 14th century, was for me a moment where humanism finally crept back to a two-dimensional reality, but still perspectives had not been invented. Everyone is working through this rather primitive way of trying to portray particularly religious scenes, which you clearly see as content in that period. You see development in the 3D world – how far ahead they were in sculpture and even relief. But [they] could not really understand how to depict something on a flat panel. In addition, their use of color and shape is unmatched even to this day.

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