Among the many arcane conventions of the contemporary art world is the very manner in which the product is dispersed. Paintings, photographs, sculptures and such are displayed in galleries and are theoretically available for purchase, though prices are only grudgingly disclosed, and from the way top-rung dealers vet would-be buyers, one could logically construe it was the gallery paying the collector for the object. One might also imagine collectors could come to resent such a system, and indeed, at times they do. But there is one particular New York gallerist, Marian Goodman, who has managed to build a loyal clientele who feel downright grateful for being granted permission to spend a million dollars on a work of art.
Take art consultant Sandy Heller’s reaction when Goodman anointed him with her blessing to buy a highly coveted piece at a recent art fair. “I didn’t even ask the price,” says Heller, whose clients include such heavyweight collectors as Steven A. Cohen and who declines to name the artist out of deference to Goodman (he doesn’t want to ratchet up the pressure he presumes runner-up collectors are already putting on her). “I mean, she’s giving out gifts. I regard that as a gift to me.” Albeit, a gift with strings attached. After bestowing the prize, “she looked at me and said, ‘Sandy, if this piece ever goes to auction, I’m gonna kill you,’” Heller recalls with a laugh. “Her delivery was so sweet. She handles being tough the sweetest way I’ve ever seen.”
Such may be the essence of Goodman, a diminutive woman of a certain, unspoken age who over the past 30 years has built one of the art world’s most important galleries, introducing a host of exceedingly influential, primarily foreign artists to New York audiences in the process. Her stable of talent makes collectors’ and museum curators’ mouths water, with names like Gerhard Richter, Jeff Wall, John Baldessari, Thomas Struth, William Kentridge, Gabriel Orozco, Maurizio Cattelan, Lawrence Weiner, Tacita Dean and Rineke Dijkstra among the 38 now on the gallery’s roster. As Goodman is fond of saying, “The heart and soul of the gallery are the artists.” Over breakfast down the block from her West 57th Street gallery on a late-summer morning, Goodman, whose voice never rises above a near whisper—the kind that commands others to bend in close and pay attention—is speaking lovingly of her artists, who tend to speak the same way of her. “The artist really places a lot of trust in the gallerist,” she says. “I’m always touched by their ability to trust. It’s such a close relationship. It’s not like a marriage, for obvious reasons, but it’s certainly a long-term commitment—and it can last longer.”