When the National Gallery of Art in Washington and three other major museums decided to postpone a Philip Guston exhibition in 2020 because Guston’s imagery included cartoonish Ku Klux Klan hoods, the commercial gallery that represents Guston’s estate, Hauser & Wirth, responded by mounting its own Guston exhibition. The decision was gutsy. Guston’s imagery had generated heat and hostility in the wake of a summer of Black Lives Matter protests, but the Hauser & Wirth show focused precisely on the decade — 1969-1979 — that had proved too controversial for the museums.
Hauser & Wirth is one of four megadealers, so called because they’re the world’s most powerful commercial galleries, working with some of the world’s most acclaimed artists; the other three are Gagosian, David Zwirner and Pace.
The megadealers love museums. They need them. They’re the best of friends. But there’s no longer any hiding it: They’re also trying to clone them, to do what museums do — just better. And they’re willing to go where museums have lately been too afraid to venture.
Earlier this year, an exhibition at Pace Gallery, headquartered in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, paired the White Southern photographer William Christenberry with RaMell Ross, a younger Black photographer. The show included Christenberry’s “Klan Tableau, 1962-2007,” a disturbing installation of scores of dolls dressed in Klan hoods, illuminated crosses and Confederate flags inside a cramped, makeshift cabinlike room. Christenberry (1936-2016), like Guston, loathed the KKK, and his work expresses that loathing. But after the death of George Floyd, the worldwide racial reckoning it triggered and then the Guston postponement, there’s no way any prominent museum would dare show it. Pace did.
The David Zwirner gallery recently restaged a Diane Arbus retrospective. The exact same show, a watershed in the history of photography, had been mounted 50 years previously at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Arbus is canonical. But her photographs of subjects she affectionately referred to as “freaks” can also be controversial. (Was she exploiting them or honoring them?) One of the hypotheticals raised by Zwirner’s restaging was: Would MoMA be eager to mount such a show today?
Perhaps. Certainly down the track. But probably not in the current climate.
Expansionist, corporate, cashed up and ambitious, the megadealers are effecting changes that have drastically changed the art world, upending a delicate ecosystem, built up over generations, that links artists to commercial galleries, collectors, museums and the public. These dealers are hugely dependent on museums, but they also have the freedom to do things that museums have lately found difficult.
“Museums have lots of constituencies: their staff, their audiences, their donor class,” says David Zwirner. “They have to navigate and negotiate all this, and we [commercial galleries] don’t have to do that. So that gives us a leg up.”
Although there are hundreds of commercial art dealers in Manhattan alone, and thousands across the country, there are only four megadealers. Scale, as the term suggests, is their main distinguishing feature. Gagosian alone brings in more than $1 billion in annual revenue and occupies more than 200,000 square feet of very expensive real estate. The big four represent more artists and artist estates — at least 100 each (although not always exclusively) — than other commercial galleries. They also have more venues and mount more exhibitions.
The Guggenheim Museum, in its most expansive phase under Thomas Krens in the early 2000s, had seven locations, but it couldn’t sustain so many and as of 2025 will have four. Gagosian (not counting stores and bookshops) has 19 galleries, Hauser & Wirth 18, David Zwirner 11 and Pace eight. These venues, some small but others sprawling, are scattered across such cities as New York, Los Angeles, London, Hong Kong, Seoul, Paris and Rome. You can also find them in bespoke travel destinations including Minorca, Spain; Gstaad, Switzerland; Somerset, England; Beverly Hills, Calif.; and Palm Beach, Fla.
It’s not new for top commercial dealers to mount historically important exhibitions. Dealers including Acquavella Galleries, Pace, Gagosian and Craig Starr Gallery have organized these kinds of boutique shows (sometimes with loans from major museums) for decades, partly for the love of it, partly because they add luster to the gallery.
What’s new is that, on many fronts — not just exhibitions — the megadealers are essentially imitating museums. They offer museum-quality interpretive amenities: podcasts, videos, live events, libraries and archives. They have thriving publishing arms. Some have cafes, restaurants, even farms. They run residencies and education programs and support their artists’ favorite charities. They also hire experienced museum curators and art historians to write for their catalogues, former arts journalists to do their PR, and diversity, equity and inclusion officers to bring in groups that might otherwise have limited opportunities to see art.
These are all things museums have been doing, or trying to do, for decades. They are not things commercial galleries ever did.
And all this is happening at a time when museums — as one former museum curator who now works with a megadealer told me — “have dropped the ball.” Many are underfunded. Their attendance figures are still recovering after covid-enforced shutdowns. The blockbuster era of major retrospectives of such canonical figures as Rembrandt, Manet, Van Gogh and O’Keeffe appears largely over (insurance and shipping costs are sky high). Those shows have been replaced by more modestly crafted exhibitions and a general shyness about telling big, bold stories that might spark excitement and debate.
Since 2017, when Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till in his open casket at the Whitney Biennial and Sam Durant’s “Scaffold” sculpture in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden at the Walker Art Center triggered protests and outcry, museums have been understandably anxious about attracting criticism from segments of the public they want to win over.
From 2020 to 2022, museums also made blunders that made many question their commitment to art over institutional risk management. Postponing the four-museum Guston retrospective was a nadir. Other low points included the departures of several experienced curators and directors, among them SFMoMA’s Gary Garrels, the Guggenheim’s Nancy Spector and MoCA Cleveland’s Jill Snyder, who left distinguished museum posts after supposed missteps at a time of febrile reckoning and institutional paranoia.
Buffeted by financial headwinds, museums are also wracked by internal squabbles. Their generally underpaid staffs are unionizing. Institutions as august as the Metropolitan Museum of Art have had to confess to fostering (over their long collecting history) White supremacy and answer calls to “decolonize.” And they’re having to meet demands for the restitution of works in their collections to their countries of origin. All these crises and concerns can be regarded as opportunities, but they’re also major headaches.
The megadealers, meanwhile, are no saviors. They attract considerable hostility. Detractors dislike the corporate ethos they’ve brought to the art world. The megadealers, they say, have introduced a business model aggressively pinned to global sales in a market where, as Roland Augustine of the gallery Luhring Augustine speculates, perhaps “7 out of 10 collectors are buying because of investment and not because they love art.”
The dominance of the “big boys,” as they have been labeled (not so long ago, the leading dealers were women including Marian Goodman, Barbara Gladstone, Paula Cooper, Andrea Rosen and Mary Boone), has also left established but smaller galleries struggling, in part because their best artists are continually being poached. And the megadealers’ close ties with museums — funding museum exhibitions and pushing their artists into museum collections — are, critics say, having a corrupting influence.
The hostility the megadealers attract is part of what makes Zwirner, for one, wary of being lumped with his competitors. “I hate the term ‘megadealer,’” he says. “It’s like a mall or something. And if one megadealer is doing something they shouldn’t be doing, then we’re all held responsible for it. I just like to be David Zwirner.”
Agility and advantages
Zwirner’s distaste for the terminology aside, there’s no doubt that the megadealers have brought new levels of ambition and dynamism to the art world and that, in many respects, they’re giving museums a run for their money.
“It’s very positive for the public that they’re doing shows of that quality and sophistication,” says Max Hollein, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “They’re seeing and learning from museums. [But] the goal of their activities is not the same as the museums.”
It’s not in the megadealers’ interests to be seen as competing with museums. On the contrary, they do all they can to assist them. But as they move into cultural territory once reserved for museums, the megadealers have some enviable advantages.
Cost is one. Museums can charge $25 or more for admission. Commercial galleries are free. West of 10th Avenue, Chelsea was an industrial wasteland before Gagosian opened a gallery there in 1985. The neighborhood now boasts the High Line, hotels, cafes and bookshops, and you can walk into any of nine galleries run by the four megadealers, not to mention Matthew Marks, Gladstone Gallery, Luhring Augustine, Lehmann Maupin and dozens of other top-flight galleries, without paying a cent.
The megadealers are also more nimble. “Museums plan shows three, four, five years in advance,” Gagosian says. “We very often have seven- or eight-month lead times. If I want to do a show, I don’t need to go to a board for approval. I just do it.”
The megadealers are also brilliant at accumulating kudos for artists in a fast-changing cultural climate. Over the past decade, as society started to clamor for art offerings that better reflected America, the megadealers created markets for dozens of overlooked female and Black artists. They moved quickly to scoop up emerging female artists and artists of color such as Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Deana Lawson and Titus Kaphar, and to boost the reputations of long-neglected artists including Sam Gilliam, Jack Whitten, Charles Gaines and Ruth Asawa. Many of these artists’ works now sell in the millions.
“The market can pivot very quickly from being exclusionary to extremely inclusive,” says Pace Gallery CEO Marc Glimcher. “What matters is if it’s hot.”
Commercial galleries never used to care about the size or diversity of their audiences. They cared about selling art, which meant bringing in collectors. Their front-of-house staff was notorious for not acknowledging — and occasionally scowling at — members of the public.
“It was almost like a cliché,” Zwirner says, “that when you walk into a gallery it’s all foreboding, and if you ask for a price list you enter purgatory.”
But the megadealers are now whistling a new tune. At Zwirner, which recently hosted a Yayoi Kusama exhibit that had lines around the block for almost its entire eight-week run, staff are trained to greet visitors and be helpful. The gallery also employs a diversity, equity and inclusion officer, Erika Moore, who, on Mondays, when the gallery is closed to the public, organizes tours for kindergarten students and individuals impacted by incarceration and homelessness.
Playing the market
Larry Gagosian, 78, is the best known of the megadealers. Like Arne Glimcher, the founder of Pace, Gagosian (who started out in the early 1970s selling posters from a patio in Los Angeles) has been staging historically important shows for decades. (“We don’t monopolize this lane,” Gagosian says. “But we did put it forward in a more systematic way.”) When asked whether mounting museum-quality exhibitions of Bacon, Giacometti and Picasso was motivated by altruism or money, he laughs and replies with his trademark gruff charm: “I wouldn’t want to be labeled altruistic!”
“But,” he adds in earnest, “if it’s not altruistic, it’s civic. People sometimes stop me on the sidewalk and say, ‘This show is such a great gift to the art community or the city.’ It’s gratifying.”
Like the four Big Tech companies (Google, Meta, Amazon and Apple), the megadealers have different styles, different approaches. Gagosian is the most expansionist; Pace positions itself as the most future-oriented; Zwirner is the most professionally focused and disciplined; Hauser & Wirth (with its Somerset farm, “education labs,” bars and restaurants), the most improvisational.
David Zwirner, who is German, and Iwan Wirth, who is Swiss, operated together for almost a decade before going their separate ways in 2009. Hauser & Wirth — which is led also by Manuela Wirth (Iwan’s wife) and Marc Payot — remains the most self-consciously European in spirit.
Gagosian is the one who showed the other megadealers what was possible in terms of scale (“They didn’t learn from me, they copied me,” he jokes), but also the one they least want to resemble. He has, in some corners of the art world, a reputation for unscrupulousness. This might be competitive envy (he’s an incredibly effective businessman).
On the other hand, Gagosian has admitted that he is not overly interested in the morality of whom he sells art to (“If the money is correct, if the transaction is correct, I’m not going to be a moral judge,” he told Patrick Radden Keefe in the New Yorker). He is known for hosting lavish parties sprinkled with celebrities and beautiful models, and more recently for dating his gallery’s youngest artist, 28-year-old Canadian painter Anna Weyant.
Although his competitors present themselves, by contrast, as models of ethical professionalism, Gagosian appears unimpressed. When Zwirner once commented on Gagosian’s aggressive business tactics, Gagosian replied that Zwirner “had a lot of nerve trying to burnish his ethics on my hide.”
The reality is that all four megadealers are there to make money by selling art. So the question becomes: Why are they doing so many things — none of them cheap, by the way — that are normally done by museums?
To figure this out, it’s important to recognize that scale is not the only distinctive thing about the megadealers. It’s also how they play the market.
“If you look under the hood,” says Zwirner, “a megadealer is a gallery that’s very committed to both the primary and the secondary market.”
Traditionally, commercial galleries sold work that came straight to the gallery from artists’ studios, sharing the revenue with the artist — the primary market. But dealers can also buy and sell works that come onto the market after that first sale — at auction, for instance. Commercial galleries never used to pay attention to this secondary market. But these days, it’s vital that they watch it closely.
When the art market began to boom, about 50 years ago, the big money was all in impressionists and moderns: Monet, Renoir, Picasso, Pollock. But as those works migrated into museum collections and the market expanded to Asia, Russia and the Arab states, the inventory of “Imps and Mods” (as they were known) began to run out. This caused a major shift in the 1990s and 2000s.
“The past had dried up,” says Tate Dougherty, a former senior director at Hauser & Wirth. “So everyone was forced into speculating on the future.”
At the same time, contemporary art became extremely popular. In Britain, the massive success of museums like Tate Modern and the prominence of collectors like Charles Saatchi made contemporary art sexy and contentious — good media fodder. In the United States, such artists as Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Cindy Sherman seemed ever more central to the culture. Collectors saw opportunities.
“You could feel the rumbling,” Dougherty says. “But at that point it was still considered taboo to sell a contemporary artist at auction. The whole idea of trading and making money from younger and living artists was antithetical to what we did, which was about nurturing.”
That has changed. Now there is huge money in contemporary art. But the long-term value of living artists is not yet guaranteed, so the market is inherently speculative. “Collectors started flipping work,” says Marc Glimcher of Pace. Prices would skyrocket, he adds, but “what goes up can come down.”
The megadealers try to stabilize this dangerous situation by acting on the secondary market, where the internet has made transactions easy to track. “We observe every single lot that is being sold at auction,” says Payot, of Hauser & Wirth. “If it’s something good, we activate our network [of collectors] and try to get them to act to include the work in their collections. If necessary, we also buy it ourselves.”
This is where museums come in.
“Every artist will only last through the accumulation of cultural capital,” explains Dougherty. “That’s where your long-term legacy is going to be made and respected.”
And that’s why museums matter so much. “The more institutional support there is for an artist,” Zwirner says, “the higher we can go with the [primary market] prices in a comfortable way.”
At Pace, Glimcher says, getting museums genuinely interested in acquiring Pace artists’ work “is our number one goal.”
The drive for museum validation is behind a common strategy that dealers refer to as “BOGO” — or “Buy one, get one.” If a particular artist is in heavy demand, dealers will tell eager collectors that they must agree to buy two — and give one to a museum.
The mechanism, Dougherty says, “points to the dealer’s valid interest in securing the cultural capital of the artist.” And that, he adds, “is good business. You’re trying to make sure the artist has a long, stable career as opposed to a flash on the market.”
Roland Augustine of Luhring Augustine believes such strategies can compromise the integrity of museum collections. All but the wealthiest museums, he says, “are very much at the mercy of their trustees” and “need to appeal to the trustees’ tastes as much as to their curators.” So they fall too easily, he believes, into the arms of the megadealers.
Still, despite their growing influence, the megadealers know they don’t ultimately control museum curators and acquisition committees. What they can increasingly do, however, is accrue museum-like prestige for themselves. The more the megadealers look and behave like museums — hiring museum curators, opening restaurants, developing education — the less they must depend on actual museums for validation.
‘In the driver’s seat’
The megadealers say they’re providing costly add-ons, such as education programs and community outreach, for their artists. Galleries, Zwirner says, are like talent agencies: “We’re in the business of branding our artists. We do a lot of interlocking activities that further our artists’ audiences. And of course that usually helps sales.”
Winning the right to represent the best and most bankable artists breeds intense rivalry among dealers. “There’s a fierce competition for talent,” Iwan Wirth acknowledges. “Artists have realized their strength. They’re not objects. They’re in the driver’s seat now.”
The simplest path to success is to promise the talent more money, and that often works. But there’s a danger in prices rising too quickly, and, besides, many artists don’t want to feel too mercenary. They want to feel looked after. They want to belong to a gallery that has artists with whom they want to associate and values with which they feel comfortable.
“If you sign up with us,” says Iwan Wirth, “you’re signing up to so much more than the shows and your short-term financial gain.”
In some cases, the megadealers’ emphasis on outreach and education is tailored to their artists’ beliefs. “The practices of artists like Rick Lowe, who just joined Gagosian, and Mark Bradford, at Hauser & Wirth, are deeply rooted in the idea of art playing an important role in a social context,” explains Met director Hollein. “They both created nonprofit organizations. It would almost be bizarre for them to see their work exhibited in a clandestine environment for three weeks and end up in a private home, and not to create strategies to be a part of a broader conversation.”
Bradford’s influence on Hauser & Wirth has been enormous. “When we met Mark, we felt an instant connection,” says Manuela Wirth, a former teacher who has made education central to Hauser & Wirth’s activities. “He believes that art can transform lives.”
Some artists pursue projects that can be extremely costly to make and have little chance of selling, but they add invaluable cachet to a gallery. This may be why Glimcher describes the artists at Pace as “the laboratory” and the gallery as “the granting organization.”
But of course, in the end, the megadealers need to sell art. And they do. Dougherty, who long ago left a job on Wall Street to work in the art world, says he realized it was time to depart Hauser & Wirth when he found himself discussing global sales on a conference call with more than 100 people. (Dougherty still says Hauser & Wirth is the most congenial of the four megadealers.)
The big auction houses used to derisively call the commercial galleries the “mom-and-pop stores.” Now, says Dougherty, “all these megadealers are just distribution points to a huge marketplace.” They have professionalized the industry, moved into the secondary market, outmuscled much of the competition and expanded from local to global markets.
Are they now trying to supplant museums?
“We are not doing what museums do,” says Iwan Wirth. “We are a business. We might do shows and build buildings that look like great museums. But we’re not interested to compete with them in any way.”
That may be true. But the megadealers have rational motives for evolving further toward the museum model. They will never have the collections of Old Masters, let alone the treasures of ancient and global art that America’s best museums boast. But when it comes to contemporary art, they have clear advantages.
If museums don’t assert their autonomy and recover their mojo; if they struggle to attract funding, or are poisoned by internal politics; or if their curators are simply more excited by what the megadealers are doing, more and more museum professionals will migrate that way. The public will go wherever the action is.
In the spring, an exhibition of photographs opened at Gagosian’s gallery on West 21st Street in Chelsea. To mark what would have been Richard Avedon’s 100th birthday, the organizers of “Avedon 100,” which opened shortly after a much smaller show uptown at the Met, invited about 150 celebrities, artists, art historians, politicians and fashion models to choose their favorite Avedon photographs.
The star-studded curatorial team included Kim Kardashian, Anderson Cooper, Paloma Picasso, Leonard Lauder, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, Brooke Shields, Spike Lee and Elton John. Kardashian selected a portrait of Elizabeth Taylor. The literary agent Andrew Wylie chose a 1960 portrait of W.H. Auden. The Harvard art historian Sarah Lewis, who wrote an essay for the catalogue, selected Avedon’s 1963 portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. with his father and son. Calvin Klein chose a 1980 portrait of Brooke Shields, and Shields chose one of herself.
The show was sexy. It was political. It was anthropological. It filled a vast, high-ceilinged gallery, subdivided by elegant partitions with cutaways affording voyeuristic views to distant pics of Tom Ford, Stephanie Seymour, Rudolf Nureyev and Dovima with the circus elephants.
Did the exhibit looked like it belonged in a museum?
It did and it didn’t. It had a glitzy, subtly commercial aura that Avedon would probably have hated and that would have felt odd in most museums.
But seeing it at Gagosian, it was hard to object too strenuously. All those taut, kinetic bodies and noble, ravaged faces were incredibly magnetic. Aesthetic intensity and star wattage combined to mutually enhancing effect, and in very short order you were seduced. Converted. Sold.