The Enterprising Gavin Brown

It's VIP Day at Frieze New York, which means half the designers in town have hightailed it to Randall's Island to ogle the art. Gallerist Gavin Brown talked to about his love-hate relationship with the fashion business.

Published May 09, 2013
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Frieze New York, the art-fair import from London, kicks off today, and with it comes another round of cocktail parties, "intimate" dinners, and late-night bacchanals—most sponsored by fashion and lifestyle brands, and all inevitably bigger and louder this time, owing to the runaway success of last year's Frieze fair. Gallerist Gavin Brown calls the mutually beneficial schmoozing endemic to art fairs (see Art Basel Miami) "the fashion/art death lock." The British-born Brown has a way with words that rivals his way with artists—Elizabeth Peyton, Urs Fischer, and Alex Katz are all on his roster at Gavin Brown's Enterprise. At Frieze, he'll showcase the work of Bjarne Melgaard. Who better to discuss the way New York's culture producers make their livings by feeding off of each other? Just don't get Brown wrong—he might be ambivalent about all the art/fashion shenanigans, but he still likes to be invited to the party.

NP: Frieze is back for another year here in New York. What did you make of last year's fair? What did it do for the New York art scene?

GB: I'm not sure what it did beyond add to the noise—which is already very loud.

What does Gavin Brown have in store for this year's fair?

Sales, hopefully.

Last year, you fried up anti-fracking sausages with Mark Ruffalo, and you won the Stand Prize from Champagne Pommery.

Did I? I don't remember that.

At the time, I believe, you said Pommery's 10,000 pound prize was "better than a poke in the eye." You seemed bemused but also slyly aware of the benefits that kind of publicity can bring. True?

This was, in fact, in London. I was a little embarrassed. Winning a prize for a booth is silly in the first place. And for me to win it was sillier still. There were many galleries—younger galleries—for whom a win like that would make a serious impact. Of course, I absolutely deserved to win. There's no doubt about that.

My mistake! What do you think about fashion and lifestyle brands sponsoring art shows? What do they get out of it?

I doubt they pay for the whole thing. Barely a fraction. The organizers make vast sums from the exhibitors, who in turn are the attraction that brings in the paying public, who spend a few bills to get in and gawk, but not spend. It's a very complex and interdependent food chain or ecosystem. What do the brands get? I guess this is at the crux of the question around the fashion/art death lock. They get to put on the Technicolored cloak of the mystery that is art. While they wear it, they seem more interesting than they think they are.

The give-and-take between fashion and art isn't new, of course. Do you remember a time before mega-brands were hosting parties for the art crowd?

Yes—absolutely. It mostly happens at art fairs, but actually, as I think about it, it happens everywhere now. Dinners for museum shows are sponsored by fashion companies, and half the people there are from the fashion world. It wasn't always like that. The shift was easiest to see comparing each successive Miami Basel—you could see the change happening before your eyes. It was in Miami, of course, that the fashion/industrial complex felt safe to show its face. It seemed to give itself permission to move in—like colonists in an Arcadian land. Swapping beads for an entire cultural history. Before they arrived, we were still an oddball backwater. But as everything else became exhausted, as it inevitably would, art was all there was left.

Photo: Courtesy of Gavin Brown

Do you ever want to go back to the halcyon days before artist/designer collaborations? Did they ever really exist?

Yes, they did exist. They were days when one threw a party to have fun. Not sell a name…. Ah, innocent days. Those parties are probably still happening—I'm just not invited. I never was. That's why I threw my own parties.

How interested are your artists in collaborating with fashion brands? Has facilitating such partnerships become a bigger part of an art dealer's job?

Some are. It makes sense for them. It's part of the language they speak. Others are not. But the extraordinary profile of these businesses—they exist in the imagination like nothing else—is something that is a powerful lure to someone whose goal in life is to communicate. As to it being part of my job, not really. When it does happen, my job becomes more damage control than anything else.

How can such collaborations affect an artist's career—for the better? For the worse?

Totally depends on the players involved.

Have we reached the art/fashion collaboration tipping point? Or did that moment come and go long ago?

I hope not. Now we are in it, let's win it! I want more!

Do you have any dream collaborations, for yourself or for your artists?

I'm not sure. It's not my job to think about that. I would love to throw some people in a room and see what happens.

Mark Leckey and Google, Urs Fischer and Norman Foster, Alex Katz and Marc Jacobs, Jeremy Deller and the Pentagon, Peter Doig and the Metropolitan Opera, Jonathan Horowitz and McDonald's, Laura Owens and Walmart, Thomas Bayrle and Ford, Rob Pruitt and Claire's. The list could go on and on.

What do fashion people get wrong about the art crowd? And vice versa?

The fashion crowd doesn't get anything right about art. The two tribes speak two entirely different languages. You are either on one side or the other. This is a particularly interesting week to think about the difference: the punk Met Ball and Frieze Art Fair. Both sides using the other to dress themselves up as something they are not, and destroying something essential about themselves in the process. The punk Met Ball was particularly hideous. The final enslavement of one of the most powerful postwar social movements. Reduced to Sarah Jessica Parker's fauxhawk. A sad and accurate diagram of the state of our culture. A crowd of shiny morons turning reality inside out so it matches the echo chamber of their worldview. Would Sid have been invited? What would he have thought? Is this what Mark Perry meant by "This is a chord, this is another, this is a third. Now form a band"? The English art schools of the sixties and seventies—the cradle of this creative movement—must be writhing in their supply-side straightjackets. It only emphasizes to me that fashion—whatever that is—sees art (and artists) as an idiot-savant gimp, and they keep them on a leash, begging for glam snacks. And fashion follows along behind art, picking up its golden shit.

How different is the art world from the fashion world, in the end? Hasn't all of the madness around collecting, and the obsession with which artist is up and which artist is down, eclipsed the art?

I see the fashion world with my nose pressed against the window, but from that perspective it seems dynamic, fast, frothy, and 99 percent empty. But that really isn't so different from most cultural worlds—including the art world. There are creative and talented people doing incredible things at the heart of each arena. But both fashion and art suffer—in different ways—from the crushing weight of capital. And in this sense, they have both been co-opted to do capital's bidding—as it reaches into every corner of the globe. Wherever you find an LVMH store, a brand-name contemporary art gallery will surely be very close by. The right bag and the right painting are the clearest ways possible for those with money to recognize each other.

What does art get wrong about fashion?

We think it's important.

What are you looking forward to seeing at Frieze?

Roberta's Pizza!

Photo: David X. Prutting /
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