The Accidental Art Mogul

Article excerpt

Byline: Blake Gopnik

Lesser figures in the art world live in ffear of Marian Goodman, a New York collector with a backbone of steel. Blake Gopnik on how she became a megadealer.

Marian Goodman, one of the world's greatest art dealers, does not look or act the part. She's barely five feet tall, talks in a tentative whisper, and, above all, does not like to discuss dealing in art. "I've made it a rule not really to talk about the business aspect," she says. She prefers the title "gallerist," with its evocations of white walls and challenging pictures, to the idea that she "deals." During an interview in her modest office, at the back of her white-cube gallery a few blocks from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, she wears black slacks and a red-and-black blouse, while her curly dark hair is suspiciously unflecked with gray. She admits only to being 39 years old ("like Jack Benny always did"), but evidence points to her being closer to 80.

Goodman is an unlikely art mogul, yet our boldest museums are dependent on her. The Tate Modern in London recently launched shows of Goodman artists Gerhard Richter, last of the great modern painters, and Tacita Dean, a Brit who is the best artist now working with film. In New York this month, at the Guggenheim Museum, Goodmanite Maurizio Cattelan has hung a lifetime of work from the rafters. Last year the Metropolitan Museum gave a brilliant retrospective to Los Angeles veteran John Baldessari, while MoMA surveyed the career of Gabriel Orozco, a major world star. Guess who represents them?

Of course, Goodman wouldn't be stocking those museums if she weren't also a force in the business of art, keeping all her star talents in paints. (And digital cameras, and video projectors.) As of Nov. 30, Goodman will be at the huge Miami Basel art fair, making money for herself and her stable--but, unlike many other of the fair's major sellers, the dollars will pour in because she cares less about them than the art. "She sees making art visible as her metier--as really what she does ... and the market is the least bad means of accomplishing that," explains Jeff Wall, the great Vancouver photographer who will be opening his latest Goodman show in December. He adds that he can't imagine doing better, financially, by moving to a more money-focused dealer: "On the side of business, she isn't doing less well ... We've been together for 25 years, and that tells you a lot." Kerry Brougher, deputy director of the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, calls her a "curator's dealer": "It's not enough for her just to sell it to a private collection for a great amount of money. The art has to be out there where the public can see it." Brougher says that he's actually heard Goodman complain when art prices rise. At a recent dinner for one of her artists, Goodman sat at a head table that included curators, artists, a critic, and various other culturati--but not a single collector.

"People on the periphery of the art world might not have heard of her, because she's not as flamboyant as Larry [Gagosian] or Matthew [Marks]," says Agnes Gund, president emerita of MoMA and a significant New York collector. But insiders, she says, are always asking, "'Have you seen the show of so-and-so at Marian Goodman?'?" She explains that she treats Goodman's gallery almost as a museum--as somewhere to go to see art that's significant, and challenging, whether or not she has any intention of buying.

If Gagosian stopped making millions, we'd count him a failure, as he himself might. Goodman, with 27 employees in New York and Paris, also makes millions--a major Richter painting can go for several million dollars and the largest Wall photos list at $800,000--but she stands or falls only by the art that she shows. And so far it's been all about standing.

Not that Goodman would ever say so. Though she must know her own status and power--lesser figures in the art world live in fear of her frown--it's almost impossible to get her to boast. …