The head of an expanding New York, London and Hong Kong gallery empire
Zwirner’s gallery, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2018, boasts a half-billion-dollar annual turnover, a stable of more than 60 artists and estates, and locations from New York (three galleries) to London to Hong Kong, where a new 900sqm space opened in January. Not prepared to stop there, the dealer has announced plans for a new $50m five-storey gallery in New York, designed by starchitect Renzo Piano (the first commercial gallery by the Italian), for delivery in 2020. Zwirner needs all the exhibition space he can get: this year alone he took on Rose Wylie, Lucas Arruda, Josh Smith, Harold Ancart and the estates of Franz West, Roy DeCarava, Joan Mitchell and Diane Arbus (the latter in collaboration with Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco). While longer-standing gallery artists, such as Wolfgang Tillmans, Kerry James Marshall and Yayoi Kusama (to name just those who feature on this list) continue to push boundaries and set new agendas for the role of art today.
Such growth may have put Zwirner in a reflective mood – at the juncture between looking back on a quarter century that has seen the art market grow to a scale undreamed of in the early 1990s, and forward to a future he has the power to shape, Zwirner knows his decisions have consequences: when the subject of gallery giants whose size threatens to destabilise the art ecosystem was raised at an industry conference earlier this year, he proposed that art fairs ‘tax’ the biggest galleries in order to subsidise the participation of the smaller ones. A few months later, Art Basel announced just such a policy. This wasn’t merely abstract musing on the part of that gallerist – when plans for Zwirner’s Hong Kong gallery were announced last autumn, it turned out that dynamic young gallerist Leo Xu would close his own six-year-old gallery, Leo Xu Projects, to head up Zwirner’s Hong Kong operation.
‘Artists want you to stay small; they hate when stuff changes,’ Zwirner said in January, asking, perhaps rhetorically, ‘how do you keep it intimate while being able to compete in the increasingly competitive art market?’ How to square that circle has depended on Zwirner’s careful attention to keeping the focus on the artists and their work, while assiduously navigating their reputations through the increasingly turbulent and ever-deepening waters of the global art system. It’s perhaps why, even when Franz West left him in 2001 for Gagosian (West was the artist who inaugurated Zwirner’s first gallery, in 1993), the artist’s estate returned to the Zwirner fold this year. And nurturing art-historical legacies is as important as steering current careers: when the estate of Anni Albers (together with husband Josef's) came to Zwirner in 2016, the pioneering textile artist (who died in 1994) had been all but forgotten. Since last year, retrospectives of Anni Albers’s work have opened at the Guggenheim Bilbao and Tate Modern.
Besides all that, the gallery is now operating an expansive publishing arm, and not of the type solely dedicated to boosting the careers of those in whom the gallery has a vested commercial interest (though it does that too). Headed by Zwirner’s son Lucas, David Zwirner Books’s recent publications have included Jarrett Earnest’s portrait of the state of art criticism (a series of interviews with prominent critics titled What It Means to Write About Art), Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes’s tribute to ordinary people (The Sweet Flypaper of Life), Donald Shambroom’s account of Marcel Duchamp’s final hours (Duchamp’s Last Day) and a reprint of John Ruskin’s 1860 analysis of Giotto’s Arena Chapel (Giotto and His Works in Padua). All of which puts Zwirner in a position to raise the bar for what a commercial gallery can be, how it can operate and how it might integrate with the broader, changing artworld of today.