Lévy Gorvy In Asia: "We Want The Gallery To Be Like A Think Tank"
Everyone in the art world always seems to be in a hurry. In a hurry to place a bid for a painting ... to visit the artist’s studio ... to board a plane for the next art fair ... to make a call to their art adviser ... to meet that young collector who’s burst onto the scene.
But that’s not how gallerist Dominique Lévy works. “We’ve been looking to open a gallery in Hong Kong for the last two years, but we were not in a rush,” says Lévy. “We looked at so many spaces, but none of them corresponded with what we wanted. It had to be the right thing.”
Lévy’s patience has paid off. At the end of last month, Lévy and business partner Brett Gorvy opened the doors of the first Lévy Gorvy gallery in Asia, a 2,500-square-foot space previously occupied by the jeweller Graff on the ground floor of St George’s Building in Central.
“When Laurence Graff decided to move, we knew it was right for us,” recalls Lévy. “This space is of such quality in terms of location, ceiling height, proportion, being on the ground floor—it corresponded to everything we were looking for.”
Most importantly, the space was far more than a soulless white box. “We wanted to open an haute couture space in Hong Kong,” explains Lévy.
“A space that can be an exhibition space but also a salon where you can host people, you can host poetry readings, you can host performances. We’ll also have a library there. We want the gallery to be like a think tank, a place where you can experience something.”
A Place For Education
On top of hosting a more varied programme of events than the Hong Kong outposts of some other international galleries, Lévy Gorvy’s business model is different, too. At its inaugural exhibition, which features works by artists the gallery works closely with, including Zao Wou-ki, Pierre Soulages and Pat Steir, as well as works by artists it doesn’t, such as Claude Monet, Wassily Kandinsky and Wu Dayu, much of the art isn’t for sale.
“The tendency in the past for galleries from America and Europe opening in Hong Kong has been to bring their programme [to Hong Kong] and basically just sell their products to Asian audiences,” says Gorvy. “But I think a larger role that galleries can play, especially because there isn’t yet a large museum presence in Hong Kong, is to be a place of education, a place to experience things— and those things don’t necessarily have to be for sale.”
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Lévy Gorvy pioneered this model at its other two galleries, which occupy an imposing three-storey heritage building on Madison Avenue in New York and the first floor of a listed Italianate townhouse in London.
“At our last exhibition in New York, Calder / Kelly, Alexander Calder is represented by Pace Gallery and Ellsworth Kelly is represented by Matthew Marks,” says Gorvy. “We worked with the estates of both artists as well as with those galleries because we wanted to have a great show. Most of the works in that show were on loan—they weren’t for sale. That’s the kind of collaboration we want to continue to do in Asia.”
The gallery can only afford to operate in this way because, as Gorvy admits, “we have other revenue streams”—and very successful ones at that. Although Lévy Gorvy does represent leading contemporary artists, including Frank Stella and Seung-taek Lee, it specialises in private sales on the secondary market, dealing in works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Alberto Giacometti, Pablo Picasso, Cy Twombly and many others.
In Asia, Lévy Gorvy may be best known for selling a Willem de Kooning painting at last year’s Art Basel in Hong Kong for US$35 million, breaking the record for the most expensive work ever sold at the fair. That sale was announced to the press, but most of Lévy Gorvy’s sales are negotiated privately—and some of them involve works even more valuable than that De Kooning painting.
“Working in the secondary market, you don’t even need a gallery,” says Gorvy. “You can have a small viewing space and that allows you to have a one-on-one with the client. But when Dominique and I first formed Lévy Gorvy, we both had this sense of, ‘If we’re going to do this, we’re going to have a space and we’re going to have a space that allows for shows.’"
"Something that Dominique and I fundamentally believe in is that when you’re doing these shows, you have to have a strong viewpoint on something and do the show not just to sell paintings but to have some purpose in the trajectory of art history. Ultimately, the gallerists that we have great admiration for throughout history—the Pierre Matisses, the Leo Castellis—when they did a show, it actually moved the paradigm of art history forward.”
See also: Art Insider: Pascal de Sarthe
First Show In Hong Kong
Lévy Gorvy’s first show in Hong Kong, Return to Nature, reflects this ambition. Featuring a wide range of artists, the exhibition explores how painters have responded to crises throughout history, be they moral, economic, cultural or political.
“I think there are two ways that artists deal with crisis—they either react in anger or they return to a sense of nature and to a fundamental aspect of spiritualism in their work,” says Gorvy. He sees this recurring throughout history in various countries, whether it was Wu Dayu secretly— and illegally—making abstract paintings during the Cultural Revolution in China or Claude Monet pioneering impressionism in Paris in the upheaval of the 1860s.
The pair’s sense of what is right for the Hong Kong audience has been honed by years of work in the city, including Lévy’s participation in Art Basel in Hong Kong since it was founded.
“At Art Basel in Hong Kong we’ve always put together a curated booth. We’ve always tried to do something that we would be as proud to show in Switzerland, Miami, Paris or London,” she says. “It’s the same approach with the gallery. We are not looking at Hong Kong as a third location or a fourth location. We are looking at Hong Kong as the core of what we do.”