Interview
Commercial galleries

Dominique Lévy: ‘I just don’t think big is better’

She started off as an apprentice clown and did a stint as a currency trader, but it’s as a dealer in works of art in the vanguard of social change that Dominique Lévy has found her true calling

Dominique Lévy, the co-founder of the Lévy Gorvy gallery, which grabbed the Art Basel Hong Kong headlines last year by selling Willem de Kooning’s Untitled XII for $35m © Zenith Richards

Dominique Lévy is bored of being a woman, or at least talking about it.

“Look, I don’t go into work every day thinking, ‘I’m a woman dealer.’ I go into work thinking, ‘I’m a dealer,’” says the 52-year-old Swiss co-founder of the Lévy Gorvy gallery. That said, “there’s still a boys’ club,” she concedes, adding: “There are some limitations that I’ve experienced [as a woman], or things I’ve seen—particularly at art fairs. That boys’ club is really annoying.”

We meet at the Madison Avenue gallery of Lévy Gorvy (Brett Gorvy, former chairman and international head of post-war and contemporary art at Christie’s, has been Lévy’s business partner since 2017), where Lévy proudly shows me the museum-worthy Warhol Women exhibition, complete with fuchsia pink walls and 1960s soundtrack.

The red brick Upper East Side building is the size of a large townhouse. “It has soul,” Lévy says. Its proportions are on a very different scale to the cavernous warehouses of Chelsea, where Hauser & Wirth, David Zwirner and Pace are currently engaged in a gallery building race—Pace’s eight-storey monolith is due to open in September.

Lévy’s view? She shrugs: “I have a very, I don’t know, maybe old-fashioned, maybe European, or maybe from a woman’s perspective… but I just don’t think big is necessarily better. I admire it, but I don’t envy it.”

For lunch, she has chosen a competitor’s restaurant—Larry Gagosian’s Japanese Kappo Masa, in the basement below his Madison Avenue gallery. Gagosian, she says, is a “phenomenon—he has created what Gap is to fashion”. Yet she is disparaging about the “five or six men [who] looked at that and said: ‘This is what I want.’ Then you get exactly what we’re seeing now, which is that bigger is better, more is better, sometimes to the detriment of the art.” The wannabe mega-dealers are, she thinks, the root of “a lot of the weakness in the art world right now. They follow the same model. There’s no imagination, no emotion.”

I don’t go into work every day thinking, ‘I’m a woman dealer.’

Born in 1967 in Lausanne, Switzerland, Lévy has a reputation for being a tough dealmaker, with a tenacity and business nous instilled in her by her father. She was “groomed to go into finance” as he had, and cut her teeth doing work experience as a currency trader in the 1980s.

She never felt at home in Switzerland, though. With grandparents from Syria, Lebanon, Belgium and Germany, she describes herself as “a pure diaspora product”. But she did feel at home in a big top. “I would go to the circus and feel emotions that I can’t really express to this day,” she says. “I love it. It’s that thing where you can’t really breathe for a second, and you feel big, big, big, and small, small, small, and it matters. I think I constantly search for that feeling now with art.”

Hard to imagine, but the immaculately dressed Lévy trained as a clown for a while before handing in the red nose and shoes (though she collects the latter). “I don’t have a circus talent,” she says. “I tried theatre, but I don’t have a theatrical talent. Where am I going to be able to find this feeling?”

The key was reading Raymonde Moulin’s book, The French Art Market: A Sociological Perspective. “She had a theory that art is always ahead of any sociological movement,” Lévy says. That clicked, and Lévy knew art was her calling after curating her first show aged 18, inviting artists to “inhabit the rooms” of a semi-abandoned 18th-century house between Geneva and Lausanne. She still talks of her desire to create a gallery that is a “salon”, with poets, musicians, dancers and artists.

Her father, though, was unimpressed. “He said, ‘Do you want to be a dilettante?’ For him, art was not a profession.” But she made it one, with stints at Sotheby’s and the London dealer Anthony d’Offay, before launching the private sales department at Christie’s. “I’m so happy that before he [her father] died, he saw that I had made it a profession.” That was two months before she opened her own gallery in New York.

“I really wondered what the world was telling me,” she says. “I’d gone out on my own [in 2012 she split with Robert Mnuchin, after running the L&M Arts gallery with him for seven years], my father was finally at peace with my career, and he was coming to my opening. It felt like someone had taken a baseball bat to my legs.”

Being in a duo suits Lévy best: “When I left Bob, it was because the partnership was not working any more—we grew apart. I felt really drained, and sad. It was like a divorce.”

Last year, Lévy Gorvy’s sale of a $35m Willem de Kooning painting was the headline stat at Art Basel in Hong Kong, but Lévy insists she remains humbled by such figures. “You can’t underestimate the sum of money some of these works are being traded for. I take it incredibly seriously.” But is it right? “I can’t answer if it’s right. It is a market—it’s about supply and demand. It could be a diamond or real estate—art has reached the level of an asset class. So the question is: what calls for these prices?”

Art, she thinks, gives “unique pleasure” as an investment—but not if locked up in a freeport surely?. “Some people have rooms in a freeport, where they just go and look at the art,” she says. “The real point of freeports is really for the dealers. It’s nice to be able to store [art] in a freeport with the ever changing laws. In England we’re all putting things away, because we don’t want to be hit with an import tax [for shipping works to the EU after Brexit].” The London gallery is kept “very light” on stock by “keeping it in Switzerland or even a bonded warehouse in London. None of us are rich enough to suddenly be hit [by fees].”

It’s a bit patronising: why should we still be talking about women artists? Have you ever heard someone talking about Rothko as a man artist?

The press “has contributed in a very unhealthy way to this idea of an opaque art market”, she says, adding that transparency cannot always be reconciled with clients’ privacy. “Opaque doesn’t mean dirty or unethical or dishonest. I’m sure it could, but to me it doesn’t.”

She admits, though, that there are “runners, flippers, sometimes even advisers… a segment that doesn’t have a stake in what they do, that just runs and tries to make money. I think that is where you have the dodgiest situations and people. I’m incredibly careful—I’ve gotten burnt so many times.”

I return to the subject of women, specifically the current concentration on female artists. Lévy has a “complex reaction”, mainly due to the uncomfortable smack of opportunism. “It’s a trend, it’s politically correct. First, it’s great because it’s needed. But second, it’s a bit patronising: why should we still be talking about women artists? Have you ever heard someone talking about Rothko as a man artist? No. So why should we talk about Georgia O’Keefe as a woman artist?” She trails off: “It’s a fine line. Of course, there should be more women represented—look, half my programme are women. But I don’t know the answer.”

Lévy describes d’Offay, for whom she worked in her 20s, as “one of my heroes”. Last year, the retired dealer was accused of inappropriate behaviour by several women (he denies the allegations, and no charges have been made). “I was shocked,” she says of the claims. “I cannot completely believe it… maybe some inappropriate remark or flirtation could have been construed. I can’t say it’s not true because I wasn’t there. But what I can say is I’ve never seen, felt, heard [an inappropriate word or gesture], even from a colleague… nothing! I won’t turn my back on him.”

Dominique Lévy CV

• Born in Switzerland in 1967, lives in New York

• Lévy joined Christie’s in 1999, where she founded and was the international director of the private sales department in New York

• Left Christie’s in 2003 to launch

her own advisory before co-founding L&M Arts with Robert Mnuchin in 2005

• Founded the Dominique Lévy Gallery in Manhattan in 2013 and London in 2014

• In 2017, Brett Gorvy joins to launch Lévy Gorvy, which now has spaces in New York, London, Hong Kong and Switzerland and represents artists including Enrico Castellani, Gego, Frank Stella, and Günther Uecker, as well as the estate of Yves Klein