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Succession: the art gallery as a family business

The art gallery business is rich with family dynasties. At Zwirner, Pace, Lisson, Almine Rech, and Nara Roesler, at least two generations are involved, with the younger either playing supporting roles or taking over from the founders (even if, perhaps, there aren’t the same machinations that make HBO’s Succession so entertaining).

The children of dealers often have the advantage of growing up immersed in the gallery’s culture. At the same time, the art market has grown dramatically over the last two generations.  Whereas art galleries were once operated by just a handful of people, now even medium-sized galleries are complicated businesses with multiple properties worldwide, diversified investments, and complex financial arrangements. Their rosters can stretch to dozens of artists. So, the younger generation is faced with maintaining a very different business while preserving the same ethos.

Nicolo Cardi’s father, Renato, founded Cardi Gallery in Milan in 1972, showing artists such as Lucio Fontana, Piero Manzoni, and Cy Twombly. Nicolo studied economics, always with an eye to joining his father: ‘Because I love art,’ he says, ‘when I have one dollar, I spend two dollars buying an artwork.’ He got involved in 2005 and has taken over in the last decade.

‘I grew up with artists coming to our house, having lunch,’ says Cardi, ‘when I was very, very young, I was kicking a ball against the paintings with Enrico Castellani and they were laughing. How different everything was at that time!’

After launching two galleries in the early 1960s, Annely Juda (1914-2006) established her eponymous London business with her son David in 1968. They became known for showing Russian Constructivism, Bauhaus, and De Stijl, then rarely shown in England, and went on to work with an array of contemporary artists. The gallery has long represented David Hockney in the U.K., along with dozens of other artists and estates including Christo, Anthony Hill, Leon Kossoff, François Morellet, and Sarah Oppenheimer.

Sometimes, the second generation first pursues other experiences, but they can be useful. David Juda was a waiter on cruise ships from 1964 to 1967. ‘There are some similarities, believe it or not,’ he says. ‘You learned how humans behave. It was very hard work and you had to get to know your clients.’

‘I did that to decide what I really wanted,’ he says, ‘and I decided I did really want to do this and not be a waiter for the rest of my life. And I was very fortunate to have a mother who was a good teacher.’

Swiss dealer Urs Meile established his eponymous gallery in Lucerne in 1992. As one of the first Western gallerists to focus on China, he has worked intensively with Chinese artists since 1995, and opened a space in Beijing’s 798 Art District in 2017. Meile’s father – a collector and dealer in Modern art – had advised him against going into the gallery business: ‘if you want to earn money, be an art dealer.’ Dealers don’t typically need large, costly showrooms, and may deal only in secondary market material, without the expense of supporting the careers of artists and splitting the sale proceeds. ‘Art is a long family tradition. My first profession was an architect, then I was an auctioneer, then I went to the Kunstmuseum Basel, where I had an apprenticeship in paper conservation and restoration and helped set up some exhibitions.’ But Meile did finally open a gallery in 1992, and was soon invited to participate at an alternative to Art Cologne called Unfair, organized by young galleries unable to exhibit at the main fair.

The family first visited China in 1995, at the invitation of collector Uli Sigg, who was then the Swiss ambassador to China, North Korea, and Mongolia. Meile later invited Chinese artists to stay with his family in Switzerland. Fascinated by the culture, Meile’s son René studied sinology and economics. ‘He always told me he didn’t want to be a gallerist,’ says Meile, ‘then he worked on a construction site, and said, “It’s bloody cold out, can I work at the gallery?’” His involvement grew quickly and naturally, says Meile. René, now 39, is in charge in China, while Meile’s second wife, Karen, runs the show in Europe. The gallery represents established artists such as Wang Xingwei, Xie Nanxing, Qiu Shihua, Not Vital, and, with the involvement of a younger generation, a growing roster of emerging artists such as Cao Yu, Ju Ting, Miao Miao, and Rebekka Steiger.

Lucy Mitchell-Innes and David Nash parlayed their extensive experience at Sotheby’s – where Mitchell-Innes headed the worldwide contemporary division, and Nash led Impressionist and Modern – into a New York gallery. They became leaders in the secondary market before beginning to work with contemporary artists. Their daughter Josephine first tried another career, working on Charlie Rose’s television show. ‘That was intense, and she wanted a break,’ says Mitchell-Innes. ‘I said, “You can sit in the front and answer the phone.” She showed natural leadership quite quickly. About three months in, she came into my office and said, “I really have tremendous respect for what you do.” She saw the difficulties and the challenges.’

‘She started with marketing, and she had a good grasp of that,’ says Mitchell-Innes, ‘and then began attending art fairs and overseeing relationships with artists. What was interesting was to see just how much someone who lives with art and hears it talked about in the house just absorbs. I was amazed how much she knew.’

In each case, the younger generation maintains continuity with the founders, though they may bring different skills. Crucially, they are a link with younger collectors.

‘I act exactly like my dad in that I want to keep the relationship with artists and estates the same,’ says Cardi. ‘I want to build real collections, not just find buyers to speculate. I want to keep the specialized audience because that’s what I love, but I’m not blind and I also need to pay the bills, so sometimes of course we need to adapt. But this doesn’t mean that we change our identity.’

Juda, too, acknowledges that he continues the gallery tradition while bringing some different talents.

‘My mother had enormous talent at seeing things for what they were and cutting away the bullshit,’ he says. ‘I’m probably a little better on the economics, which is quite necessary, because to run even a modest gallery now, you have annual overheads of 4 or 5 million, minimum.’

‘But,’ says Juda, ‘having a gallery is about showing good art and good artists. If it were just about making money, we could open a very expensive chocolate shop.’

Meile and Mitchell-Innes both say that having a younger person at the gallery, especially in Asia, is crucial. ‘Our collectors in Asia are mainly between 27 and 40,’ says Meile. ‘If someone is the same age, they speak the same language. And certain curators would not even think to approach me; they go directly to the younger generation.’

Although, as Mitchell-Innes points out, there are exceptions: ‘There was a man who came into our booth at Basel and went straight to my husband and engaged in a conversation about a Pope.L we had in the booth, and so he sold his first Pope.L.’ However, the opposite is also true:  ‘Some people walk straight past us and engage a younger person. That’s who they can identify with.’

Brian Boucher is a writer and art market commentator based in New York City. Published on July 17, 2023.

Caption for full-bleed images, from top to bottom: 1. Artwork detail by Jacolby Satterwhite, presented by Mitchell-Innes & Nash in the Parcours sector at Art Basel in Basel 2023. 2. Artwork detail in Annely Juda Fine Art’s booth at Art Basel in Basel 2023. 3. Installation view of Mitchell-Innes & Nash’s booth at Art Basel in Basel 2023. 4. Artwork detail in Annely Juda Fine Art’s booth at Art Basel in Basel 2022.