Rome gallery opening: “Larry Gagosian has always expanded in a recession”

Why is the most successful contemporary art dealer in the world opening a branch in Rome this month?


"Rome is a sleeping giant,” says Larry Gagosian, and on 15 December the art world’s most successful contemporary art dealer will attempt to bring it to life by opening a new gallery in the heart of city. The 700 square-metre space is in an ornate 1920s palazzo just round the corner from the Spanish steps. Its elaborate exterior houses a high-tech minimalist exhibition space designed by London architect Adam Caruso with the Roman Firouz Galdo. The inaugural exhibition is of paintings and sculptures by Cy Twombly, and the artist, who has a studio in the city, is rumoured to be cutting the opening ribbon (Gagosian Gallery in New York is also hosting a Cy Twombly show, until 22 December).

The new venture seems far from a guaranteed money-earner. In Italy, the market for contemporary art has traditionally been focused in Milan and Turin, where most of the country’s biggest collectors are based. But then, Gagosian, 62, is a redoubtable trendsetter, famous for moving in where others hang back. He reopened his Los Angeles gallery in the early 90s recession and saw the city’s art market boom. “Larry Gagosian has always expanded in a recession, and if this one really kicks in, he’s sure to be opening yet more new spaces, in Moscow, India or China,” is the opinion of one ex-associate.

His reasons for adding a Roman gallery to his spaces in Los Angeles, New York, and London is partly that Twombly keeps a studio there. Another factor is his long-standing interest in Arte Povera, the Italian art movement of the 1960s. To acquire work by these artists, he needs an Italian base, and why not Rome, home to some of the world’s most sublime art and far more glamorous and cosmopolitan than the industrial cities of the north?

Pepi Marchetti, a former executive associate in the office of Guggenheim Foundation chief executive Thomas Krens, is the 35-year old Italian who will direct the new Roman gallery. She says: “Gagosian is extremely interested in established Italian artists of the post-war era and the market for their work is growing very strongly.”

In the last few years, works by the likes of Alighiero e Boetti, Mario Merz and Lucio Fontana have achieved higher and higher prices at auction in London and New York, but in Italy they can still be bought for much less. Gagosian has helped foster their market value by staging monographic exhibitions: Alighiero e Boetti (New York, 2001); Pino Pascali (New York, 2006); Mario Merz (London, 2006), as well as Lucio Fontana this year at his Britannia Street Gallery in London.

The 2001 Boetti show in particular was a triumph, devised in collaboration with the artist’s heirs and Germano Celant, the Italian critic who coined the term “Arte Povera”. It helped relaunch the artist on the international scene as one of the most conceptual exponents of the genre. Just last month, the New York dealer Barbara Gladstone, who represents the likes of Matthew Barney and Gregor Schneider, had a show of Boetti’s work (ended 24 November).

Gagosian wanted to inaugurate the Roman gallery with a Boetti show, but the Turin artist’s widow Caterina Raganelli, president of the Fondazione Alighiero e Boetti, and other heirs asked to postpone it until after the major exhibition of the artist’s work to be held at MADRE (Museo de Arte Contemporanea Donna Regina) in Naples in 2009, curated by the Italian art critic Achille Bonito Oliva.

Gagosian has also worked his market magic on another Arte Povera artist, Pino Pascali. His New York show last year gave centre stage to a life-size fake cannon by the artist made in 1965 out of wood and scrap (Cannone Semovente). Gagosian paid £1.57m ($2.6m) for it at auction in 2003. Pascali was then little known outside Italy, and critics believed Christie’s estimate of £500,000—four times more than any Pascali had fetched at auction before—was far too high. Gagosian secured the piece in a bidding war, and it was shown alongside works from the personal collection of Fabio Sargentini, an Italian dealer who made art history in the 60s and 70s with his highly experimental gallery in Rome, and who was very important to Pascali’s career.

Perhaps there is a hint here. Could Gagosian’s new gallery be the start of a big new hunt by him through the collections and drawing rooms of Italy?

Gagosian has already established a good network in the city. MACRO, Rome’s museum of contemporary art, has had recent shows devoted to two of his artists, the British artist Jenny Saville and the Egyptian Ghada Amer. In 2005, Gagosian opened a temporary satellite gallery in the Palazzo Borghese that also doubled as the headquarters for work then being done on a new catalogue raisonné of Cy Twombly’s work.

In 2006, in the Villa Borghese’s Orangery, a new not-for-profit gallery opened showing works donated to the city of Rome by Carlo Bilotti, an Italo-American businessman, close to Gagosian, who died later that year. Bilotti also exhibited studies commissioned from several of Gagosian’s artists: Damien Hirst, Jenny Saville, David Salle. In October, there followed an exhibition, organised with the support of Gagosian, who controls the De Kooning estate, of 16 canvases by De Kooning from 1981 to 1987.

Of course, Gagosian is not the only contemporary art presence in Rome. Italian gallerists such as Alessandra Bonomo, Stefania Miscetti, and Pio Monti, have long been working with international artists including Richard Long and Marina Abramovic. Lorcan O’Neill, previously director of the now defunct Anthony d’Offay gallery in London, opened his gallery in the city in 2003, showing work by artists including Tracey Emin, Richard Long, Kiki Smith, and Francesco Clemente. Paolo Bonzano, who died earlier this year, closed his gallery in Milan and decided to move to Rome in 2004 because “even though the market is sleepier here, it is much more glamorous and international”.

Next year, there will be a new art fair in the city, organised by Roberto Casiraghi, former director of the Artissima fair in Turin. It is expected to be the most international fair for contemporary art yet held in Italy and MAXXI, the highly anticipated National Museum of 21st-century art should open in 2009 in a building designed by Iraqi, London-based architect Zaha Hadid.