Founded in 1921 by a young, 23-year-old immigrant from Naples named Nicholas, Acquavella Galleries first started out by showing Old Masters and Italian Renaissance art in its original building at 598 Madison Avenue. In 1960, when Nicholas’s son, William, joined his father to work at the gallery, the two expanded its program to show major works of the 19th and 20th centuries, including practically all of the masters of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Surrealism, and Cubism. Over the years, Bill managed to turn his father’s gallery into a financial juggernaut, pulling some of the most successful and audacious deals in the art market, and earning the respect, admiration, and business of many of the world’s top collectors along the way.
Late on a Monday morning in mid-October though, the legendary dealer’s desk in his floor-to-ceiling bookshelf-lined office in the gallery’s five-story townhouse space on East 79th Street, sits empty. Instead, Acquavella’s three adult children, Eleanor, Nick, and Alex, are spaced out in a socially-distance-approved manner, ready to take The Canvas through the inner workings of their notoriously private family run operation as it slowly makes the transition to the next stage of its evolutionary cycle. While not present on this particular day, the elder Acquavella has no immediate plans to step back from the day-to-day running of the gallery anytime soon. “He’s not slowing down in any way, shape, or form,” assured Eleanor, the eldest of the siblings who joined her father at the gallery in 1997 after studying art history in college, and completing stints at Sotheby’s and The Phillips Collection in Washington D.C.
The Canvas: Thanks so much for taking the time to coordinate your schedules so that I could speak to all three of you at once. I was hoping to start by discussing the division of responsibilities at the gallery. Is there a clearly defined delineation of the roles? Do you each have your own client lists that you cater to?
Nick Acquavella: How we divvy up our roles is definitely the question I get asked the most on a regular basis. My answer is always the same: we don’t. The three of us – Eleanor, Alex, and I – all feel strongly that from a business standpoint, we each need to have a firm grasp on pretty much everything that’s happening at the gallery. I think our greatest asset is that if one of us had a client meeting and couldn’t make it for whatever reason, the other two could easily step in as replacements while giving the client confidence that they’re still dealing with an Acquavella.
And then, when you go a step below that level, there are some slight differences in our responsibilities. Eleanor deals with Wayne Thiebaud. I handle Damian Loeb. Al now deals a lot with Tom Sachs. Eleanor does more of the HR oversight, while I may spend some more time on our alternative investments. But generally speaking, there are no big decisions being made at the gallery that don’t include all three of us, and there are no decisions that any one of us is making without first discussing it with the other two.
The Canvas: I see. What about how the gallery approaches its relationships to its artists? For instance, everyone knows that the gallery represents Lucian Freud and Wayne Thiebaud; while also regularly dealing with blue-chip secondary market works. But what about the work you guys do with artists like Damian Loeb and Tom Sachs? Can you perhaps share your perspective on what draws living artists to work with a gallery like Acquavella as opposed to a larger gallery with a more international presence and reputation for representing mid-career artists? And on top of that, is there any kind of unifying quality that you’d cite that draws all of the gallery’s artists together?
Eleanor Acquavella: First of all, I think there’s a very painterly aspect to all of the artists we work with at the gallery, and I think that directly connects back with the history of art we’ve shown.
Looking at it from the other way around though, I think living artists are often attracted to working with us for one of two reasons. The first is because they know that they’ll receive more personalized, one-on-one attention here than they would at many of the bigger galleries. And the second is because they recognize that they’ll be placed in conversation with the other artists our clients regularly buy – giants of the 20th century like Picasso, Matisse, Miró, and Monet. And eventually, when our clients are ready to look at some contemporary names, those artists know that Acquavella is best suited to ensure their place in some of the greatest collections in the world. I mean, who doesn’t want to be hanging in the houses of some of our best clients? It’s good company to find yourself in.
The Canvas: Of course, when the gallery was first started by your grandfather back in 1921, it didn’t represent any living artists. And while your father sold works by living artists on the secondary market, it wasn’t until he formulated the relationship with Lucian in the early 90s that the gallery was actually the entity responsible for nurturing the career of a living artist. Going forward, is that something that the three of you are actively interested in?
Nick Acquavella: Defnitely one of the great privileges for all of us was getting to know Lucian and seeing the relationship he had with our dad. Whenever any of us visited London, a highlight would always be our visits with Lucian in his studio to see what he had been working on. I genuinely feel that the excitement of working with a living artist and seeing what’s next deeply impacted us.
Now, to get back to your question, I think that for as long as the three of us are around, the gallery will remain a hybrid model that both represents living artists and deals actively on the secondary market for deceased artists. The reason why I don’t necessarily see us taking on a huge stable of artists in the future is because there’s just not enough of us to go around. And unless we change the makeup of the gallery and become interested in expanding both our physical and staffing footprint, I don’t see that changing. With that said though, I’m always interested in adding one or two great artists to the gallery...
Alex Acquavella: I think most of the artists who we’ve shown have been artists we’ve each had a real connection with prior to them joining the gallery, either from collecting their work ourselves or just knowing them on a personal level. That’s something that I think would always be a prerequisite for us. At the end of the day, it’s about wanting to work with artists we like and want to be around, and who in turn like and enjoy working with us. It’s not that easy to find that kind of rapport. Over time though, if it happens organically, I wouldn’t be surprised if the gallery continued to add more living artists to its roster.
The Canvas: Speaking of changing with the times, I was hoping to discuss some of the ways in which the art business has changed over the years, and especially changes that have been brought on or accelerated by the pandemic. The gallery has produced a podcast the past few years and you currently have an online viewing room option on the website. For a blue- chip gallery focused on works priced at the higher end of the scale, how important do you feel maintaining a digital presence is to the gallery’s business?
Eleanor Acquavella: To be honest, we see online viewing rooms as just another means of staying in front of our clients. Obviously, we haven’t been able to maintain those relationships in person for the past seven or eight months, and the online viewing room concept just felt like a quick solution to keep clients engaged while letting them know that the gallery is still getting great art in and that we’re thinking about them on a regular basis.
The Canvas: At the end of the day, do blue-chip, top-tier clients – the kind of clients who look to acquire high-quality works on the secondary market and who Acquavella predominantly sells to – buy digitally?
Nick Acquavella: I think it’s important to clarify what “buying digitally” actually means. We regularly sell works to clients after texting or emailing them JPEGs. That kind of thing has been going on for years. Our approach to digital has really been from a position of making sure we don’t underperform to our clients’ expectations. So, if someone asks if we have a viewing room on our site, we wanted to make sure that we’re able to say that we do and that we’re constantly adding to its features and capabilities.
Going back to what we said before, the three of us just want to add elements on top of what makes the gallery already successful. So while we’re never going to be the tip of the digital spear because of our size and it not making sense for us to hire a dedicated, full time person to build out our web platform, we’re also not just willing to say, “screw it” and cede digital altogether.
Alex Acquavella: I think that the pandemic has reaffirmed people’s need to physically be in front of the pictures themselves. At the beginning, I think everyone was surprised by how willing clients were to buy online. And I definitely believe that broadly speaking, it signaled a shift in the way the art- world approaches online sales. However, as the months have dragged on and things have begun to settle back down, we’re seeing a lot of clients want to physically come into the gallery again.
In a way, it goes against the entire premise of buying art if you’re not actually seeing it in person. No matter what people say, looking at something online doesn’t compare to actually standing in front of it. And that’s especially true for a gallery that deals mostly in paintings. You need to have a sense of scale. You need to appreciate the surface quality. And you want to see how the light reflects off the canvas. So, like Nick said, we’re always going to do as much as possible to facilitate our clients’ ability to look at art wherever they may be, but at the end of the day, we want people to come in and stand in front of the works themselves. The paintings do a better job of selling themselves than people ever could.
The Canvas: Let’s contrast the gallery’s approach to digital with its approach to fairs in recent years, because for a relatively small gallery, you were participating in a significant number of fairs...
Nick Acquavella: Yeah, we were doing all three Art Basel fairs, all three Frieze fairs, and TEFAF New York in the spring. We were really maxing out, to be honest. But from our perspective, notwithstanding the amount of time and energy they require, there really wasn’t much downside to the fairs themselves. Although, since we’re often bringing some of the highest value, secondary-market works being offered at the fairs, we’re not regularly selling out our booth at every fair. We always want to bring things that are special, but because there’s a strong possibility that a work in question won’t sell at the fair itself – which is totally normal for a work at that price level – we have to maintain a delicate balance where we don’t impede its chances of selling down the line just because it had already been shown at a fair.
The Canvas: Before the pandemic, one of the questions I would always ask dealers is whether their fair strategy was dictated more by a desire to meet new clients or wanting to catalyze a buying moment in the minds of their existing clients. Most of the time, the answer was that both were an equal motivation. However, since COVID brought an end to in-person fairs, I think there’s been a greater appreciation for the role that fairs play in sparking that buying moment in the market. Would you agree?
Nick Acquavella: I think it was also about the auctions happening at known traditional moments in the calendar. So, the November sales would act as the initial catalyst, and then a few weeks later when everyone was down in Miami, there’d be the residual interest.
Alex Acquavella: There’s also a real spontaneity to these fairs where you’re able to see and interact with people you perhaps already know, but to whom you haven’t actually spoken in recent years. And you learn a lot as a dealer or collector attending a fair. You see what other galleries are offering and you’re able to assess the market and hear what’s going on. That’s also an important factor that sometimes gets lost in the fair conversation. It’s just that there needs to be a balance in terms of how many fairs you’re willing to put your energy toward.
Nick Acquavella: At some point in the last 10 years, it went from being the right number of fairs to just too many. So, that energy and catalyzing effect that you’re talking about got dulled. And look at this way, even if we exclude Frieze New York and TEFAF New York since they happen in our backyard and require less of our time, we’re left with five fairs spread over 10 months (since many are on vacation in July and August). That’s still a lot of attention that we’re asking of our clients on a pretty regular basis. And I’m not sure how effective that kind of relentless pace is.
The Canvas: So, going forward, after the threat from COVID subsides, do you plan to pare back the gallery’s fair participation schedule?
Nick Acquavella: Well, the problem is that we’re on this train for the foreseeable future. It would be a big statement for us to say we’re not exhibiting at Art Basel Miami Beach next year. The market would think there’s something wrong at the gallery or that the three of us aren’t as interested in the business as we genuinely are. So, inevitably, because of the prominence of the gallery, I think we’ll probably ride the fair wave beyond the point where it’s particularly beneficial to the gallery’s business, because we need to support the overall ecosystem of the artworld.
Alex Acquavella: We definitely sell a decent amount from our booths, and then even more deals are subsequently generated from interactions that took place at or around the fair.
So, it’s not like the fairs are a drag on our business. It’s just that seven was probably too many for us while zero isn’t enough.
The Canvas: Let’s talk about the recent news that the gallery will be opening up a space in Palm Beach this season. This is the first time the gallery has ever opened a space outside of New York. Walk me through that decision. Has the pandemic really altered the marketplace and client behavior to the extent that the gallery is willing to experiment so significantly with its business model?
Alex Acquavella: We’ve talked about opening additional gallery spaces in the past, be it in London or elsewhere...
Nick Acquavella: If we see something shifting in the market then we really take that to heart and try to internalize it. That’s always been the mentality of our dad and I think he’s done a good job at passing it down to us.
Eleanor Acquavella: Exactly. Anything’s a possibility if it seems like a good business decision. I was out east this summer and was able to visit a number of the galleries that opened in July. From my point of view, it was already clear that clients were getting restless and would end up heading south for the winter during the next wave of the pandemic. And we were open to the idea of having a physical presence wherever our clients may be, but we just didn’t want the process to be rushed. We wanted to get ahead of things, and the right space, and do construction, if necessary. That’s really what informed our decision about opening in Palm Beach.
So, we’ll be there through Memorial Day weekend, and we’ll assess from there. Again, because we’re a small gallery, we have a staffing and bandwidth issue. We don’t have the luxury of just being able to say, “Okay, we’re opening in East Hampton; we’re opening in Aspen; we’re opening in Palm Beach.” We just don’t have enough people and have to choose our spots very carefully. And it’s important to us to be present. So, I’m literally moving down there for the season since we felt it was important that one of us actually be at the space for clients.
Nick Acquavella: If someone walks into Pace, or Gagosian, or Hauser & Wirth in late September, they don’t expect to bump into Iwan or Larry or Marc or Arne. But if you walk into Acquavella – wherever that space might be – you’re probably going to assume that one of us will be around. And that’s a fair assumption for people to have. We’re proud of that. This is a small, family-run operation, and we genuinely strive to give anyone who walks through the door that kind of personalized attention and focus.
The Canvas: Speaking of Gagosian and Pace, I was wondering if we could briefly talk about AGP. Since the three galleries teamed up to handle the Marron collection sale, you’ve now created a separate business entity to compete with the auction houses to handle prominent estates and collections. Broadly speaking, how do you view what AGP is offering prospective clients versus what the auction houses traditionally offer? Increasingly, between their private sales departments and now this, it feels like the blue-chip, secondary-market galleries and auction houses are competing more than ever for consignments. Do you expect that level of competition to continue increasing in the coming years?
Alex Acquavella: We’ve established a foundation for a model that can genuinely compete with the auction houses for estates. And yes, the auction houses have definitely become much more involved in private sales in recent years. If you look at it in a certain way, the major auction sales themselves are basically private sales since they’re just extensions of the conversations they’ve already been having with third-party guarantors leading up to the sale. But whenever a great painting or collection is coming to market, the consignor has to decide between the auction route and the private route. So, in that sense, Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips have always been our biggest competitors.
The Canvas: So, what’s the pitch that AGP is now able to make to estates and collectors versus what an auction house is able to offer?
Alex Acquavella: I think the auction houses have a much more heavy-handed approach while we’re able to offer a significantly more targeted strategy. If, for whatever reason, we’re not able to sell something, for instance, the consignor could probably still end up taking the work to auction if they wanted to without it being burned.
Nick Acquavella: As long as an estate is able and willing to give us a longer runway to achieve its goal, based on the combined strengths and selling abilities of Acquavella, Gagosian, and Pace, I’d say we’re pretty tough to beat. What’s interesting though, is that in the past, it seemed like the auction houses had reached an irrational level of willingness to chase after certain collections, even if it meant that it wasn’t necessarily profitable for them to do so. AGP has no interest in doing that. So, there will probably be many things that we will look at and determine that they’re not the right fit for us. But then, there will also be times when our interests and the interests of the sellers match perfectly – as was the case with Catie Marron and the executors of Don Marron’s estate. And while I can’t speak for them, I think it’s fair to say that they’re pretty happy with what we’ve achieved.
The Canvas: In the example of the Marron collection, that was a case where Don Marron happened to be a client of Acquavella, Gagosian, and Pace individually. What elements or characteristics of other collections would create the right fit for AGP to handle their sale?
Nick Acquavella: Each deal is so different that it’s really hard to say. But I could see a situation where a collection perhaps has one painting in particular with tremendous value that might not be a good fit for a public auction at a given moment in time. Privately, the three galleries can place that item and then proceed to work on the rest of the collection. We can
be very flexible and nimble, whereas the auction houses are probably a bit more set in their ways in terms of how they approach selling a collection. And yes, the auction houses may be good at private sales, but I’m confident in saying that the Acquavellas, the Glimchers, and Larry Gagosian are better.
The Canvas: Last question and then I’ll let each of you get back to your day. Whether it’s with the soon-to-open Tom Sachs show or at the gallery’s location in Palm Beach, what do you want clients to walk away thinking after coming to the gallery?
Eleanor Acquavella: I would say that the most important thing to us is that visitors and clients have a positive experience while at our gallery.
Nick Acquavella: While we can’t show art that everybody is going to like and respond to, we can control the little things. We put a lot of effort into producing great, high-quality publications that accompany each show. We hopefully have polite and courteous people working at the gallery and welcoming people at the front desk. And then, when it comes to transacting, we take a lot of pride in the fact that we have a very good reputation as honest people who put their clients first.
Alex Acquavella: In terms of going forward, I think the one thing we all know is that we need to work very hard and stay focused. We don’t take any of this for granted. We feel very fortunate to have this gallery that we’re running, and that we’ve grown to make even better since when we first joined. But it’s not something we can just leave on autopilot to function on its own. There will undoubtedly continue to be changes in the future, but whatever comes next will be built upon our grandfather’s and father’s legacies. After all, the future isn’t about going backward or receding, it’s about moving forward.