Interview USA

“Having a partner takes a lot of work, but it’s worth it”

The founders of L&M Arts, Dominique Lévy and Robert Mnuchin, discuss their partnership

Complementary: Mnuchin and Lévy, and right, their new gallery in Los Angeles

Art connoisseurs and formidable businessmen Dominique Lévy and Robert Mnuchin are co-owners of L&M Arts. The gallery is best known for its museum quality exhibitions of blue-chip, post-war and contemporary art. They act as advisors to high-profile collectors, and are known to have brokered some of the largest deals in the trade.

Lévy, the daughter of a Swiss financier, began her career in the late 1980s at Christie’s before working at European galleries including Anthony d’Offay and Daniel Malingue. She was headhunted by François Pinault to head the private sales division of Christie’s New York in 2000, before leaving to start her own art advisory service in 2003. She joined forces with Robert Mnuchin in 2005.

Mnuchin, a Yale graduate, spent 33 years at Goldman Sachs, leading the trading and arbitrage division during the 1970s before becoming a partner and head of equity trading. For part of this time he was also the director of the American Stock Exchange and the chairman of the Upstairs Trading Committee of the New York Stock Exchange. Since the 1970s, he has amassed an impressive art collection, focusing on post-war and abstract expressionist work. In 1993 he turned to the art business, originally setting up C&M Arts with Los Angeles dealer James Corcoran, who left the firm amicably in 1997.

L&M opened a Los Angeles gallery last year, principally focused on the primary market.

The Art Newspaper: How did your partnership come about?

Robert Mnuchin:
I thought that together we could make one plus one equal three, so I pursued her until she said yes.

Dominique Lévy: For the two years leading up to it, we were face-to-face in business deals, so we got to know each other. It came quite naturally.

What strengths do you each bring to the table?

DL:
We’re incredibly complementary. I’m a European woman, Bob’s an American man from the world of finance. Together we cover much of the 20th century. Robert’s expertise in American abstract expressionism is unrivalled, and my knowledge in post-war European was very strong.

Are you equal partners?

RM:
Yes, absolutely.

Dominique, you were in charge of the private sales department at Christie’s. How do you think the growth in private sales over the past decade affects the business of galleries?

DL:
It was obvious that auction houses would, at some moment, understand that with their incredible database of information, private sales was a logical evolution. However, it has never really come naturally to them. It’s still like swimming against the flow. I don’t believe they do it as much as we dealers, so much of their attention is on putting great sales together.

Do clients expect different things from dealers than the auction houses?

DL:
When you buy from a dealer, especially a dealer that you like and trust, you believe you are sharing the responsibility. The reality is that if a client buys a work of art, and a few years later wants to sell it, they expect not only that we can sell it, but also that we can make a bit of money. At auction, the client doesn’t have the same expectation: there’s a feeling that you’re bidding against someone else, and you take your own responsibility. The dealer’s responsibility sometimes has to go further, because if the client comes back, you have to be able to perform.

To what extent has the role of the gallery changed? With so much travel, so many art fairs and increasingly fewer visitors to the galleries themselves, is the current model sustainable?

DL:
We question it all the time. We don’t know. Do I believe that the constant expansion—multiplication of fairs, multiplication of locations—is possible? No. You can’t constantly go bigger and bigger for the sake of bigger.

We’re very clear on the role of an art dealer, whether it’s the ethics or the quality or the way you do it. But what the role of a gallery is today is really a question that we ask ourselves.

RM: One thing has changed: around 25 years ago, the art dealer was also a consultant to his clients, you could teach them about art. As the role of the art advisor has come into the world, they’ve become more important…so the role of the art dealer as consultant is much less frequent. [But] the relationship is much more than buying and selling—that’s just a segment of the work.

Is it true that you don’t charge commissions on sales?

RM:
When we buy for somebody at auction? We do not.

Why not?

RM:
Because we only do that for people who are clients, friends of the gallery. We do it as a part of the service that we offer clients here. We negotiate for them.

You’re famously active at auction. There was one occasion in 2006 when you spent $34.9m in one evening…

DL:
I remember that night; it was quite a funny night. We even ended up bidding against each other for different clients. But it was one of these evenings where a lot of our clients wanted to be active and felt better doing it through us. We’re very involved during the auctions, but that was just a particular moment.

You sometimes collaborate with auctions in terms of guarantees. It’s a divisive topic: some people think it’s just a helpful business tool, and others think the practice lacks transparency.

RM:
When auction houses guarantee things, they have to make an indicator that they are guaranteeing it. The only question is whether it’s their money or the bank’s money, or some dealer’s money or some collector’s money. I don’t see what large change there has been, other than the auction houses have found [that] they don’t have to do it themselves. When we’ve guaranteed work, it’s because it was financially desirable to do so.

Robert, how did you move from Wall Street to the art world?

RM:
I started looking at art at a relatively early age. Clearly I couldn’t do more than look at Pollock or De Kooning. The first thing I bought was a Picasso lithograph, where the frame cost more than the work. Altogether it was around $175. Over time, my eyes grew and my pocket book got a little better.

You set up a successful art fund. Can you tell me a little more about it?

RM:
I wanted a little vote of confidence in me. The amount of money that I raised didn’t matter. I just wanted to see if ten, maybe 15 people would put a little money up and say: “Robert, if you think you can do it, we think you can do it.” After all I was a collector, but I was a fairly significant Wall Street trader—I wasn’t supposed to be able to be an art dealer. I’ll have my 20th anniversary next year, and 70% of the small group who were in it are still in it.

Why did you open in LA?

DL:
There’s a creative energy there right now, and a fabulous number of talented artists living there. Not just young ones. If you think of the living established artists there, you think of Ed Ruscha, Baldessari, Charles Ray, Paul McCarthy, Barbara Kruger—they all live in LA. There are museums with an energy that’s quite unique. The creativity is comparable to what New York was like at the time of the [abstract expressionists]. Plus, we found a gorgeous building—it’s very beautiful.

RM: I was there last week, I was so proud of just standing in front of that building. I felt like it was one of my kids.

And the focus of the LA gallery is the primary market?

DL:
Absolutely. It was a natural evolution of the gallery. There’s always been a major interest in contemporary art. We had done some primary shows: Bob was the first to do a major Jeff Koons show. But in New York, the market is saturated. You have to enter into a big fist fight to work with some of the artists. In LA, that happens less.

How is the market in LA?

RM:
The only totally honest thing to say is that we see a tremendous amount of interest. We did one traditional show just to give a feeling of the range of what we do: a De Kooning show that I’m very proud of with great works on paper from 1947-52. But nothing was for sale, so the market could have been phenomenal and we wouldn’t have known one way or another.

You recently had a Günther Uecker exhibition. Is that a period of art you are keen to explore?

DL:
Absolutely. We both love post-war European art. That exhibition was not an odd direction: five years ago, we did one of Yves Klein’s most important shows here. Günther is still alive and because he trusted us, we had exceptional works.

RM: It was just a new generation. We did the classical period of Picasso when people didn’t even know what the classical period of Picasso’s was. So it wasn’t American vs European. But yes, we’re more with it, more cutting forward in terms of the European world, thanks to Dominique.

What are your hopes for the future of the gallery?

RM:
Every time we take down a show that we really like, we say: how are we ever going to do another one? We have a few ideas. We would like to continue to broaden the art that we have an opportunity to represent or be involved in. To maintain the kind of quality we think is tantamount.

DM: I’m very keen to understand what’s going on and how can we establish relationships with the collectors of tomorrow, to try to shape collections. We’ve been able to do that for the past 20 years, so would like to discover the new world for that. It could be anywhere. Asia definitely is part of it. And Europe, Russia and the Middle East.

Do you think teaming up motivated you?

DL:
It is an enormous plus. I definitely could not have had such an interesting life.

RM: I concur 100%. I’ll give you a tip: having a partner takes a lot of work, but it’s worth it.

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