How a Smart Digital Strategy Is Keeping David Zwirner at the Top of His Art World Game Amid the Pandemic

Julie Belcove
·22 mins read

As late winter gave way to spring, which melted into summer, gallerist David Zwirner, accustomed to jetting to international fairs, biennials and exhibition openings, waited out the pandemic at his getaway house in Montauk, on the far tip of Long Island. For Zwirner, who commands an art empire that brought in nearly $800 million last year, with spaces in London, Paris and Hong Kong as well as three in New York, the tiny hamlet of Montauk is usually his happy place. He comes here to disconnect from the 24/7 demands of the global art world and surf some of the biggest swells on the East Coast. “I’m one of those guys who likes to separate work from home,” he says.

But Zwirner hasn’t caught too many waves this summer. “Now I work eight, nine hours,” he says over a lengthy video chat, wearing a navy-blue polo shirt at his desk, the brilliant light, which has drawn generations of painters to the area, pouring in through the large windows behind him. “I see the waves. I’m not going out. I’m on Zoom, on this, on that. In the beginning, it was clear we had to be extremely focused because the business model itself was under assault. I mean, when you have physical galleries on three continents and they’re all down, you’ve got a problem. You have to step up.”

Luckily for Zwirner, who had shrewdly targeted digital efforts for growth last year, he could take that step without completely losing his balance. As cities shut down and the world migrated online, most galleries flailed. Pace and Gagosian, two of Zwirner’s biggest rivals, quickly announced furloughs. Everyone had a website, sure, but purely digital exhibitions were a rarity. Art is meant to be experienced in person, and the contemporary art community is an inherently social one, with a nonstop calendar of packed openings followed by collegial dinners. In short order, Zwirner pivoted online, forging new ways of presenting and selling. Still, with economic recovery unsettlingly uncertain, he and his competitors are confronting existential questions about the future of the art world.

The silver-haired 55-year-old is a rare example of a second-generation gallerist who forged his own distinct path. His father, Rudolf Zwirner, operated a prominent gallery in Cologne, Germany, on the ground floor of the family home. “I could not go into the house without seeing what was in the gallery. His viewing room was essentially the first floor, which was live/work,” Zwirner recalls in a light German accent. “I would come home and see a Cy Twombly ‘Bolsena’ painting and be like, ‘Wow.’ Then we would talk about it. He never pushed. We had conversations.” A steady stream of 20th-century greats visited. Meeting the likes of Joseph Beuys, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter became second nature for Zwirner, even if he did take it all for granted. “When I was a teenager, I had no interest in it. I wanted to be a musician.”

In 1979, Rudolf brought the family to New York for a year. They lived in SoHo, then still gritty and full of artists’ lofts, and Zwirner attended the progressive, now-defunct Walden School uptown. He describes it as a “very liberal, wonderful, crazy school,” with Kyra Sedgwick and Matthew Broderick among the artsy alumni of his era. He also met Monica, his wife of 31 years, there. “It was funny because I would say 90 percent of the student body was Jewish, and then there were the two German kids, my sister and I. I had to navigate that.”

He recalls his 10th-grade history teacher announcing to the class they’d be studying the Third Reich. “Everybody turned around and looked at me,” he says with a smile. “Good news is, growing up in Germany, we were conditioned to feel implicated, complicit, even though if you were born in 1964 you cannot be a perpetrator. But you feel like one. That’s exactly what’s missing in the United States about slavery. Nobody feels like they have any responsibility for that. Meanwhile, this original sin is catching up with society and creating havoc. In Germany, while nothing could be made undone, at least there was a concerted effort to keep it front and center. Monica’s Jewish, so we’re living that life, and it’s been very fascinating.”

Zwirner returned to the city to study composition and the drums at New York University, and again when he decided to try art dealing after a brief stint in the music business. (His love of music hasn’t faded, but his unpredictable schedule stands in the way of joining a band, so he now contents himself with listening, especially to live jazz.) His dad had retired, but Zwirner feared being overshadowed by Rudolf’s outsize reputation if he stayed in Germany. “Also, it’s funny how one doesn’t think things through in one’s 20s, but intuitively I knew that if you do something in New York, it’s so much easier to get the word out,” he says. “I use the analogy of throwing a stone into water. In New York it goes like this,” he explains, extending his arms in progressively larger concentric circles. “The repercussions move in all directions.”

Another choice was equally consequential. Rather than following Rudolf’s business model of mounting one-off shows with blue-chip artists—but not representing them—Zwirner intended to assemble his own roster of artists and build their careers over time, in the manner of influential gallerists Konrad Fischer, Marian Goodman and Paula Cooper. That strategy would mean catering to his artists’ every need—and their many eccentricities.

In the early days, Zwirner scouted talent the way he had briefly searched out musicians at gigs. At Documenta 9, the 1992 edition of the quinquennial exhibition in Kassel, Germany, he found three of the first artists he would show after opening his gallery on Greene Street in SoHo the following year: Franz West, an Austrian known for his irreverent sculpture and hard living; Stan Douglas, a Canadian filmmaker; and cerebral Belgian painter Luc Tuymans. All three are still with him, though West, who died in 2012, took what Zwirner calls “a little detour” at Gagosian before his estate recently returned to the fold. (In subsequent years he added even more artists from Documenta 9, including Marlene Dumas, Raoul De Keyser and James Welling.)

Drawn also to the California scene, Zwirner met the influential artist Paul McCarthy, who already had representation but introduced him to a favorite student, Jason Rhoades. When Rhoades later visited New York with photos of his work, “I offered him a show on the spot,” Zwirner recalls. “I think he also had appointments at Gladstone and others. I was just lucky that he came to me first.”

Zwirner was proving he had a good eye—and ear—for talent. Also on his side: timing. The art-market collapse of 1990 dragged on for several years. His prospects may have looked bleak, but Zwirner says the industry had only one way to go: up. Moreover, the slump may have worked in his favor for recruiting artists. “Because the art market was in such bad shape, these artists gave me the time of day,” he notes. “Luc had offers from other New York galleries, but I was very persistent. I went there three times. You have to be persuasive.”

A loan of about $60,000 from his father covered one employee and building out a gallery—or rather half a gallery. “I couldn’t afford the whole space, so I went all over town asking for a partner in the lease,” he says. That dealer folded after a year, by which point Zwirner could afford to take the rest of the space. Rudolf’s cash also paid for the first show, with West. “That was it. Then it was gone,” Zwirner says. “And, of course, a bank wouldn’t touch me with a 10-foot pole. Then in September we came out with Jason Rhoades, his first show in a gallery. We introduced a young American talent to New York’s collectors. We sold out the show. And we were on our way.

“You have to prove you can find talent as a young gallery,” he continues. “If your clients believe you can do that, they’ll stay with you.”

The way to attract—and keep—that talent, Zwirner says, is by focusing every aspect of the business directly on the artists. The best gallerists have always been equal parts shrewd Hollywood agent and nurturing psychotherapist. “Artist management is about support. It’s not about control,” he says. “If you start controlling them, they get unhappy, and before you know, they don’t want to work with you,” a scenario, some have speculated, that drove West away.

In the press, Zwirner is often pitted against Larry Gagosian, the power broker behind the mega gallery, most recently in the much-reported struggle over West. Zwirner says that despite some “unsavory stuff” in that instance—there was even a soap-opera-style deathbed revision of West’s estate plans—the case was sensationalized. He even tries to make nice, calling Gagosian, who is 19 years his elder, “a pioneer in our industry” and “inspiring.” “I have a lot of respect for him,” Zwirner says.

As that dust-up illustrated, the competition among dealers is all about the artists. To use another Hollywood analogy, moviegoers don’t care who produces a film; they come to see what’s on the screen. Collectors go where the art is. Some savvy additions on Zwirner’s part have included Chris Ofili, whose depiction of a Black Virgin Mary with clumps of elephant dung enraged conservatives in the ’90s, and Yayoi Kusama, whose iconic “Infinity Mirrored Rooms” invariably draw long lines and rule Instagram. Zwirner lured Kusama from Gagosian in 2013, the same year he first coaxed Jeff Koons, an independent artist who had long shown at the rival gallery, to mount an exhibition with him.

Cutthroat as the business can be, Zwirner operates on a handshake. “I have no contracts with my artists,” he says. “Luc Tuymans and I, we have a handshake for 27 years, and we’ve done millions and millions and millions of business together. That doesn’t exist anywhere in the world of business.

“If I don’t do a good job, they can just leave,” he continues. “It’s wonderful. It also creates quite a bit of pressure. Also, careers go in waves. An artist can be extremely successful and drive the gallery. Then things slack off—there’s that famous midcareer valley—and that’s where you prove yourself as a gallerist. That’s where you don’t just pivot to where the heat is and where it’s easy to sell. It’s an imperfect science, but you want to make sure everyone feels you’re paying attention. That’s absolutely crucial.”

Zwirner shows some of the highest-priced artists around—Koons, Richard Serra, Kerry James Marshall—but also some who have never been big moneymakers. “Diana Thater has been at the gallery from year one,” he says. “Diana has done so much for the gallery’s reputation vis-à-vis curators but hasn’t been an income driver. I think she knows I’ve always had her back.”

Stan Douglas vouches for Zwirner’s unwavering support, which has included financing his films. Douglas’s gigantic six-screen Secret Agent cost $600,000 to make in 2015 but has sold only one copy. “David always had the secondary-market thing going, so he is never concerned about pushing artists to make salable works,” he says.

A gallery’s roster serves as its “calling card,” as Zwirner puts it, for other artists, and indeed, Carol Bove says a Tuymans exhibition she saw in 2000, when she made her debut at a nearby gallery, convinced her “that’s where I want to show when I ‘grow up.’” Upon joining Zwirner in 2011, she gave him a small piece that incorporates a hardware nut that once held a Rodin sculpture in place, which he instantly recognized as a metaphor for his role: “He supports artists on their frame.”

Asked if there is a thread through his roster, Zwirner says he responds to the “singular voice” rather than a particular style. As examples, he points to painter Lisa Yuskavage, best known for her cheeky female nudes; the late Fred Sandback, who constructed deceptively simple installations from yarn; and the late Roy DeCarava, a Black photographer. “When I don’t understand work, that’s when my little alarm bells go off,” he says. “Then I probe. Most work, unfortunately, I can file quickly in sets of issues these artists are working through. Not that that’s good or bad, but it doesn’t interest me so much. But when you see something you don’t understand, like Jordan Wolfson—the first time I saw his work, I was like, what is this guy doing?” he says of the interdisciplinary artist, whose oeuvre explores the underbelly of American culture. “There is a guy that’s moving the needle.” He had a similar reaction to Thater, whose art he initially encountered in the form of a small house in Pasadena, Calif., that she had turned into a video installation. “The entire house was all of a sudden a sculpture that you could see from the outside. I had never seen anything like this. That day I did maybe 10 studio visits, and that was the one I grappled with when I came home. So you want that resistance.”

In 2000, Zwirner teamed with Swiss dealers Iwan and Manuela Wirth of Hauser & Wirth, opening Zwirner & Wirth on the Upper East Side with a focus on the secondary market. “There was more money there,” says Zwirner, whose business now relies on the resale trade for about a third of its revenue. Nine years later, as their respective galleries were booming, Zwirner says the joint outpost was causing “brand confusion” and they decided to part “on the friendliest of terms.”

In 2002, Zwirner joined the gallery migration to Chelsea. Soon after, in a distinctly un-art-world move, he hired a management consultant. Though he still wanted to be judged by his taste in artists, “I realized I was morphing into an international entrepreneur, and in many ways, I was not prepared for that challenge,” he says. “The smart thing is to go to experts who can help you.” Though it sounds corporate—and galleries universally try to project a vibe that is anything but corporate—Zwirner asserts that his marching orders were still artist-centric: “Look, it’s all about the artists. It’s always, always about the artists. Are they happy? Are we doing a good job for them? There’s always something else we should be doing. And I can only do that with the best staff. That’s one of the big problems I see at some of the galleries. Artist management is so crucial.”

The consultant introduced a compensation structure that has helped Zwirner hold on to an abnormally loyal staff; four of his five senior partners have been with him for more than 20 years each. (They also happen to be women. “If anything, we need affirmative action for our male colleagues,” Zwirner quips.) Among his team: his son, Lucas, who oversees the book division and podcasts, and his daughter Marlene, who is on the artist-management side, though both also deal with clients. (His youngest, Johanna, is in publishing.) Zwirner says Lucas and Marlene have had a much easier time working for him than he would have had at his father’s gallery because of the enormous size differential. “I can create really autonomous spaces for them, where they can make decisions,” he says. “I’m certainly not there to micromanage.”

The one area that is inherently undemocratic is artist recruitment. “I always joke we have a constitutional monarchy,” says Zwirner, who can both veto artists colleagues want and overrule objections to those he loves.

Last year, he tapped McKinsey & Co. to galvanize the gallery’s digital push. Zwirner also credits his wife for that; Monica is the “MZ” in the popular handbag company MZ Wallace, which has a thriving e-commerce business. “In my conversations with her, I realized that our industry is literally 10 years behind,” he says. “Our product is much more complicated—art is maybe the most complicated product. A handbag is not. But other than that, the conditions are what I would call retail. I wanted to start an internal digital revolution.” He adds in typical understatement, “My timing was very good.”

When the pandemic hit, Zwirner was able to persuade some of the most sought-after artists of our time to embrace the online forum with a new initiative called Studio, which employs a sophisticated blend of videos, still images and text to tell the stories of individual artists. With prices ranging from $300,000 for a Suzan Frecon painting to $8 million for a Koons stainless-steel sculpture of Venus in his iconic “Inflatable” style, Studio has sold out. The Koons entry features early sketches of the nearly nine-foot-tall Venus, as well as photographs of examples the artist commissioned from a “professional balloon twister,” a video of Koons fashioning his own balloon swan, a description of the complex fabrication and an art-history primer. Koons says Zwirner, whom he calls “an amazing dealer,” convinced him to participate. “I never like to show too much of the process. I like to show the finished work,” he explains. “But I learn every day other people enjoy sharing some of the experience that brings you to that point.”

A second program, Exceptional Works, offers consigned pieces to an invitation-only clutch of top collectors, numbering anywhere from 500 to 5,500, creating the fear-of-missing-out urgency that gives auction rooms their electricity and sends billionaires fair-hopping. Among the items snapped up: a $2.5 million Sam Gilliam painting and a $3 million Giorgio Morandi. “That’s what we learned in the early days of the lockdown—if you just called up a client and said, ‘I’ve got a great work of art,’ they’d say, ‘Oh my God, leave me alone,’ ” Zwirner says. “But if you present something that is strong and it attracts the attention of more than one person, then they come back to you. So we have to turn it around and get our clients to reach out to us.”

But don’t expect a “buy now” button anytime soon. Online shoppers still have to pass muster with the gallery gatekeepers diligently trying to screen out potential speculators who flip artworks at auction, thereby endangering the price structures galleries carefully impose. (Galleries are fearful of an artist’s public, secondary-market prices rising artificially high and then plummeting, which can permanently mar a career.) Zwirner, though, says he foresees a time when he grants his most vetted clients—“the ones we know very well”—instant-purchasing privileges.

As it is, he serves as chief diplomat. The gallery “knows” more than 100,000 people, who can range from an art student or tourist signing the guest register to market-moving collectors such as Eli Broad (he of the Broad museum) or Emily and Mitch Rales (founders of Glenstone). Zwirner identifies about 10 percent as potential buyers; maybe half that figure have actually acquired art from the gallery. Roughly 1,000 are “superclients”—willing to pay at least $1 million for a piece—with much of the recent growth coming from Asia. Not one has abundant experience being told “no.” Zwirner calls managing client expectations “a science.”

Aware that small galleries lacked the finances and time to digitize quickly, Zwirner also opened his website to dozens of young dealers in the US and Europe, inviting each to feature one artist and handle the sales. Zwirner did not take a cut. Miguel Bendaña and Sam Lipp, partners in Queer Thoughts, a third-floor gallery in Tribeca, call the offer “an edifying show of solidarity.” They were able to move their March show of realist paintings by Megan Marrin onto the Platform project, where they notched not only several sales but also new clients. “The experience was a definite balm for the economic pain of lockdown,” the duo write in an e-mail to Robb Report. “We were very grateful to be included.”

Make no mistake: Platform wasn’t merely an act of charity. Zwirner, though among the more well-liked power dealers, is a businessman. “It was altruistic but also self-serving,” Zwirner says bluntly. He knew his staff, including his kids, who had taken him around to edgy galleries on the Lower East Side in sunnier times, would be jazzed by the fresh art. “I wanted to get my team alive. I could tell that my folks were frozen.”

His admitted penchant for being a control freak in terms of artist selection, he says, would keep him from buying or financially backing a small gallery in a type of farm-team setup. “If you bring in a young gallery that represents, say, 12 artists, I could never identify with all 12 artists,” he says. But he recognizes that the health of emerging galleries will eventually trickle up to his own; they’re where his stars of tomorrow are getting their start today. “You have all these intense young men and women who are almost like religious zealots,” he says of the gallerists, with perhaps a touch of nostalgia. “For the ecosystem of the art world, having young galleries nurturing young talent is absolutely crucial.”

The experiment, along with the entire digital push, is serving as a potential road map for future innovation, particularly with the destiny of art fairs in doubt. Art Basel, the granddaddy of them all, moved online this year, as did Frieze. As a December Art Basel Miami Beach looked increasingly insane, the fair finally pulled the plug in September. “But the fair business is under assault moving forward no matter what,” Zwirner says. “I would say if we’re lucky in the next 12 months—if it’s only 12 months—it will be brutally restricted. The fair business is exactly what, if you are a public health official, you don’t want: people traveling from other countries and congregating. So they’re bending over backwards to create models that will work, but they won’t work.” In late summer the gallery confirmed that Platform would become a stand-alone site.

Although he predicts the majors will survive, Zwirner expects the portion of his own gallery’s sales derived from fairs—historically, about a third—to drop as digital revenue rises from the single digits to 20 or even 30 percent of the total. The gallery’s online traffic has grown 600 percent during the pandemic, with users from 160 countries. “In many ways it’s superior to an art-fair model: wider reach, people can talk to you while they’re working,” he says. “The environment as a central issue of our lifetime has taken a backseat these last couple of months. It will come right back, and then again, the fair model is not especially conducive to environmentalism. But the online business certainly is.”

By early July, Zwirner’s galleries had reopened. There were visitors, masked and distanced. Regular announcements of artists joining the gallery—Andra Ursuta, the Juan Muñoz estate— continued to flow, and Zwirner predicted sales would drop 20 to 30 percent for the year, a serious decline but not catastrophic. About the same time, the gallery laid off almost 40 employees, mostly in the moribund events and fairs departments, while planning to add digital staff as Studio and Exceptional Works are here to stay. “Our [industry] will be impacted as long as there’s no vaccine,” Zwirner says. “I think the business will change fundamentally, and there will be certain gallery closures.” Within weeks of this interview, the respected Gavin Brown’s Enterprise folded.

Zwirner, though, is pushing ahead with a mammoth new Chelsea flagship, the first commercial gallery designed by the famed architect Renzo Piano, planned to compete with facilities of similar size from Hauser & Wirth and Pace. It has been in the works for years, but Zwirner now owns up to other expansion possibilities, namely in LA. “I’ve been cagier about it in the past,” he says. “My team really wants me to do it. There’s so much going on there. I could imagine [it]. Then I would feel pretty happy.”

Despite the market’s uncertainty, Zwirner has no fear that we’re exiting what has been a remarkable run. “The golden age of contemporary art has nothing to do with what we’re doing. It has to do with what the artists are doing,” he says adamantly. “More interesting art is made in more complicated times than when it’s just hunky-dory. Like the Weimar Republic, right? They had one crisis after the other and then it fell off the cliff, but amazing art was made in those years. The Bauhaus, for example, that changed everything, but it’s coming out of a moment of crisis. We’re going to see some great art, and great art is what creates a golden age.”

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