Boom: Mad Money, Mega Dealers, and the Rise of Contemporary Art

by: Michael Shnayerson (0)

The meteoric rise of the largest unregulated financial market in the world -- for contemporary art -- is driven by a few passionate, guileful, and very hard-nosed dealers. They can make and break careers and fortunes.

The contemporary art market is an international juggernaut, throwing off multimillion-dollar deals as wealthy buyers move from fair to fair, auction to auction, party to glittering party. But none of it would happen without the dealers-the tastemakers who back emerging artists and steer them to success, often to see them picked off by a rival.

Dealers operate within a private world of handshake agreements, negotiating for the highest commissions. Michael Shnayerson, a longtime contributing editor to Vanity Fair, writes the first ever definitive history of their activities. He has spoken to all of today's so-called mega dealers -- Larry Gagosian, David Zwirner, Arne and Marc Glimcher, and Iwan Wirth -- along with dozens of other dealers -- from Irving Blum to Gavin Brown -- who worked with the greatest artists of their times: Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, and more.

This kaleidoscopic history begins in the mid-1940s in genteel poverty with a scattering of galleries in midtown Manhattan, takes us through the ramshackle 1950s studios of Coenties Slip, the hipster locations in SoHo and Chelsea, London's Bond Street, and across the terraces of Art Basel until today. Now, dealers and auctioneers are seeking the first billion-dollar painting. It hasn't happened yet, but they are confident they can push the price there soon.

The Reviews

In 1980, after dealer Arne Glimcher arranged the sale of Jasper Johns’ Three Flags—which had originally sold for $900—for the sum of one million dollars, Johns wrote Glimcher a note. “One million dollars is a staggering figure,” he commented, “but let’s not forget that it has nothing to do with art.” Now, almost forty years later, after a questionable “Leonardo” has sold for $450 million dollars, Johns’ noble sentiment seems obsolete.Michael Shnayerson weaves together many great quotes and anecdotes in "BOOM" as he chronicles the spectacular growth of the international art market. Shnayerson is a well-connected and observant journalist and BOOM covers a great deal of territory while also introducing many vivid personalities. The book gains momentum slowly—first profiling the dealers and artists who made the postwar market—and then takes off in its final chapters as it describes the dizzying ascent of prices and general market madness of recent years. "BOOM" was not a “I can’t put it down” book, but I did find it readable and engaging all the way through.Shnayerson begins with the history of pioneering dealers like Betty Parsons—who had “mixed feelings” about Jackson Pollock but still gave him a stipend of $150 per month—to the current crop of “mega-dealers” like David Zwirner whose $50 million dollar, five story Chelsea flagship gallery is due to open in the fall of 2020. Larry Gagosian, the alpha dog of the mega-dealers, is a major character and his particular genius and mercurial temperament are vividly described. BOOM includes accounts of key developments, rising prices and a sprinkling of telling statistics to provide context.Shnayerson’s research is broad, his style is readable and the information he charts is accurate (with a few minor exceptions). For example: you won’t be surprised to learn that the world’s 2,208 billionaires (as of 2018) and their “demi-billionaire counterparts” are now among the largest buyers of high-end art. You will likely smile as you read about a dealer who dressed in a bunny suit for six weeks as a stunt and gasp when you read about artist Sterling Ruby and his 120,000 square foot Los Angeles studio. Did you know that there is a major art dealer who has intertwined a working farm and an art gallery? After reading "BOOM" you will know that and more.I recommend "BOOM" to art market junkies who understand that the book will tell them much more about money and marketing than about the passions that drive true artists and their supporters. "BOOM" is an informative and fair-minded book that ultimately made me somewhat depressed. It's effect was to remind me how the art I most often hear about is a high-end brand that mainly serves as a financial instrument for the wealthiest citizens of an increasingly unequal world.The world of wealth, vanity and manipulation that "BOOM" describes left me quietly hoping that Shnayerson’s next book about the art market will be titled "BUST".

I am so delighted with Michael Shnayerson’s, “Boom”; it even seems I had been waiting for something of the sort for a long time!When Mark Hampton and I married and moved to NYC in the mid-60s, Mark was studying for a Masters Decree in Art History at the NYU School of Fine Arts. After interning at both MOMA and THE MET, he eventually decided to become a decorator—but our life remained filled with museums, galleries, artists, dealers and auction houses. We partied with Andy Warhol, Henry Geldzahler, Arne and Millie Glimsher, Bill and Donna Acquavella, Lincoln Kirstien (and many others)—as well as numerous museum curators and auctioneers. We attended many auctions, some of which Mark helped organize.We were there—but never were fully aware of the process and progress of the contemporary art scene.Shnayerson’s excellent, well-researched book does a remarkable job of charting a world of art that has truly emerged and evolved with a “Boom”!P. S. The “Notes” section at the back of the book is an additional treasure.Duane Hampton

Truly a valiant effort, a remarkable road map of how an odd aspect of the so-called art world has gained fettishistic significance among a percentage of the world's most blessed, I mean ... financially. The names of distinguished dealers, many a gallery employee (some with the archaic designation, gallery girl), many individual artists (self-identified these days) who produce the product (at times "churned out'", p.276, p.285), some critics, museum significats, directors, etc. appear in a well organized index at the back. (I did not find the name of the overwhelmingly beautiful young woman enhancing the scene at Gagosian's terrible Currin show). Of course all cannot be included. But abstractionists Jack Youngerman and Adolph Gottlieb as well as aesthetically strong Pop guy Wesselman are not accorded their fair share of credit. Some are obviously left out due to their very minor contributions, sweeping, dusting, etc., others due to not fitting the held parameters of "contemporary" art. Early on, page 2, Shnayerson defines two terms: contemporary and modern art. A further clarification is needed. Dear perouser, say out loud the following two words, "contemporary" and "Contemporary". Note that when spoken they appear identical. But when written they are extremely different. The first is a common adjective, the second the name, the designation of a particular style in visual art, "Contemporary Art". On page nine the names of several recognized styles are noted, all capitalized. Unfortunately one significant style, Primary Structures, a direct precursor of Minimalism, is omitted. Some will recall the large Primary Structures exhibition in the Spring of 1966 at New York's Jewish Museum, an era when said museum staged a number of important exhibitions including one of Ad Reinhardt's "Black Paintings", late 1966-67. Consistency requires that whenever "Contemporary Art" is written to denote the style it must be capitalized. Is this important? Yes, critically so. Used improperly, as currently is all too common, the term excludes all contemporary art that is not Contemporary Art. In reality all art is contemporary, either to its time, to other work of its time, or to the present. Contemporary Art is nearly an all encompassing style, with just one limitation. It is not free to reference traditional art without making a mockery of it. The fact that art is secondary to money in this book is mentioned in several places. Since art is not wholly excluded its various permutations need to be seen more openly, on a so called level playing field. For reasons not given much of contemporary art seems to have been systematically excluded. Here are names of contemporary artists who would be included: Abstractionist Raymond Saunders; Realists: Andrew Wyeth, Lennart Anderson, Catherine Murphy, Balcomb Greene, Ann Lofquist, Avigdor Arikha, Neil Welliver (original work only, not reproductions), the still-life Jeffrey Ripple, Richard Maury, Alan Gussow, Ben Aronson, the early studio still-life paintings of Jacob Collins, Ben Kamihira, Sidney Goodman, the incomparable Spaniard Antonio Lopez-Garcia as well as the otherwise incomparable Vija Celmins; and the Neo-realists: Michael Ciervo, Red Grooms, Larry Rivers, Georgia O'Keefe, Alice Neel. Last (but not least) "anonymous", the wonderful Color-field artist who was teaching at Skidmore college near Albany in the early seventies. These names are significant not as historical figures which with "the test of time" they may become, not as celebrities, but simply due to the very high aesthetic level of their work. Of course, not necessarily in every example. The Old Masters had their occasional bad days too.

Boom is a whirlwind history of contemporary art, the art market and the dealers who trade in art. The book chronicles how the patrician world of small art dealers evolved to into a handful of powerful mega dealers (Gagosian, Pace, Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth) which have come to dominate the top end of the art market. It’s hard to say if the dealers commercialised the art market or if they responded to the increase in money from billionaires investing in art. Either way, the story has interesting parallels to other financial advisory professions (banking, VC) that have professionalised from small private partnerships to a handful of global brands.

In the past, my career has given me the opportunity to attend art fairs, gallery openings, and see the over-the-top parties that the art world is known so well for. Although I had gotten a glimpse to what the art world represented and the types of characters that it attracts, at the end of the day I never really understood exactly why the Larry Gagosians and Arne Glimchers of the world were so FILTHY rich. After asking some gallerinas about what they do for work and telling them how much it fascinated me at a party one night, they almost in unison told me to pick up this book. So happy I did because Michael completely crystallized all this information for me... It's staggering how much control these mega galleries hold in not only the world of art, but real estate, finance, etc. - their power really extends to so much (at least when we are looking at places like NY, LA, or London). This book really made me fall in love with a world that I was already lusting after - I just want to read more about it. If you think you have even an inkling of an interest in the way that the contemporary art world has come to exist or enjoy reading about the crazy and corrupt dealings of the 1%, please get this book! It should honestly be required reading for some business schools.

Boom: Mad Money, Mega Dealers, and the Rise of Contemporary Art
⭐ 4.5 💛 262
kindle: $12.99
paperback: $13.58
hardcover: $3.71
Buy the Book