Boasting a European accent, sharp tailoring, and a clearly evinced passion for the intricacies of art history, Emmanuel Di Donna represents exactly the type of person you’d conjure up in your mind if asked to visualize a typical blue-chip art dealer. And while his career path from worldwide vice-chairman at Sotheby’s (which he left in 2010 after 17 years), to partnering with Harry Blain to run Blain|Di Donna gallery for five years before launching his own gallery in 2015 might seem fairly straightforward, Emmanuel – and his eponymous gallery – are anything but.
Rather than simply morphing into a private advisor like so many before him, Di Donna has chosen instead to channel his creative energy into organizing two genuinely museum-quality exhibitions per year at his gallery space on Madison Avenue. With a staff of only 14 people, Di Donna Galleries is by no means the largest gallery, but its impact and stature in the secondary market far outstrip its relatively small size. In fact, Di Donna’s clients represent a small but powerful nexus in today’s global market. Older, well-established, and usually possessing deep and well-respected collections, his regular clients trust his taste and advice in a way that many other dealers can only dream of. Equally as interesting, is Di Donna’s longtime focus on Surrealism and the showcasing of often overlooked or under-appreciated artists from across the 20th century. And there is perhaps no greater delineation of that focus than the gallery’s recently opened ‘Surrealism in Mexico’ show which features artists such as Lola Álvarez Bravo, Leonora Carrington, Esteban Francés, Gunther Gerzso, Kati Horna, Frida Kahlo, amongst others. Before taking The Canvas on a tour of the exhibition as it was still being installed, we sat in Di Donna’s
large, lushly appointed office for a wide-ranging interview that covered everything from his perspective on various art fairs, to an exploration of the gallery’s business model, and his inside take on the rising Surrealist market. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity purposes.
The Canvas: Thanks so much for sitting down and talking with me today, Emmanuel. I know you’re preparing for TEFAF NY Spring and then Art Basel in Basel about a month afterward so I’m wondering if we can begin the conversation there. While this will eventually publish a few days after the fair ends, are there any details that you are able to share about what you’re bringing to TEFAF? And then, building on that topic, do you find that certain pieces play better at a fair like TEFAF NY vs. Art Basel (or vice versa)?
Emmanuel Di Donna: The booth we’re planning for TEFAF revolves around the female form, and we’re bringing a variety of pieces from artists such as Miró, Victor Brauner, Max Ernst, Tom Wesselmann, and a rare early wood carving by Calder,
among others. It’ll be heavy on surrealist artists and classic 20th century painters – the types of artists who you’d come to expect at a fair of TEFAF’s caliber. In terms of how we decide which pieces to bring to a fair, it’s really a matter of which pieces I’m exposed to and working on in the months leading up to a fair that are of good quality and would also go well together in our booth. So, it’s an evolving process as we begin to think about the fairs and as I see works in private collections that I feel would find a receptive audience at a fair. I will say that TEFAF and Basel are two of the best fairs, in my opinion. The collectors who attend each of them really share many of the sensibilities we try to represent in the gallery. They have refined tastes and a discerning eye, so I’m always thinking carefully about bringing truly great works to each fair.
The Canvas: Besides TEFAF NY Spring and Basel in Basel, I believe you also participate in Art Basel Miami Beach. Can you walk me through how you decide in which fairs to participate? I feel like Frieze Masters, Art Basel Hong Kong, and TEFAF Maastricht would all be logical choices, as well. Perhaps also the ADAA Art Show and a carefully-chosen regional fair every now and then…
Emmanuel Di Donna: Those are all great fairs, but you have to keep in mind that we’re a secondary-market gallery that really tries to focus on the top tier by offering very special pieces, and there’s a scarcity of those works. So, there are really two factors we consider when choosing to participate in a fair. First, the availability of material to bring to a fair, and second, the bandwidth of our team. We’re a small gallery with 14 people on staff, and our mission – beyond private sales, which
is the core of our business – is to put on two museum-quality shows per year, with each exhibition accompanied by a high-quality publication, as well. So, I view my schedule for the year as follows. In April and May, we’re focused on opening one exhibition, and then in October and November we’re focused on opening the other exhibition. In between those, we have Art Basel Miami Beach in December, TEFAF Spring NY in May, and Art Basel in June. Participating in any other fairs would really stretch our resources and pull our focus away from the gallery shows.
The Canvas: I completely understand that. Participating in fairs can become your entire life. Let’s talk about how an exhibition at Di Donna comes together. Using ‘Surrealism in Mexico’ as an example, can you take me through the process of how the idea for the show was originally generated? How long does it take to put together one of these museum-quality shows?
Emmanuel Di Donna: I have a number of ideas swirling around in my notebooks – sometimes for years at a time – but when we settle on an idea, it takes approximately six months to put a show together. It begins with pure research on the history and the concept, exploring the artists that are key to the theme, and sometimes making unexpected discoveries. Then, we start identifying works that are central to the exhibition and locating them, often convincing museums, foundations, or private collections to loan works, given the caliber of these exhibitions. ‘Surrealism in Mexico’ is a continuation of the gallery’s long-term interest in Surrealism and global Surrealism across many different regions. We had explored some of the artists featured in this show in our exhibition last spring, which looked at the Surrealist’s fascination with masks from the Yup’ik tribe of Alaska. Ultimately, we also looked at the timing and the perspective of the world right now to decide that this
was the right time for a rigorous exhibition about what happened when the European Surrealists fled the continent for Mexico during World War II.
The Canvas: The show features a number of lesser-known Surrealist artists, as well as more femaleartists. Is that the next iteration of the Surrealistn market? Have the truly great Magrittes and Mirós stopped coming up for sale? Is there a lack of traditional, top-tier material for now? From your perspective, will the Surrealist market now be about trying to build out the markets for more under-appreciated, lesser-known artists?
Emmanuel Di Donna: The great Magrittes and great Mirós are still around, and they do come up for sale from time to time. However, the price level is much higher and addresses a different kind of collector. The Surrealist market is much wider that Magritte, Miro, and Dali, and collectors and curators alike are beginning to understand and appreciate that greater range. So, I suppose that I disagree with the premise of the question: this is great material, it’s just lesser- known. In Mexico, some of these artists are so revered that collectors won’t part with them at any price. Ultimately, with shows like this, we are trying to show great material in context. It just so happens that in Mexico at this time, female artists like Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo found a voice, and their market is undervalued, and I think it’s time for an expansion and a correction of that. In the nextfew years, you’re going to see a significant number of museum exhibitions that will also feature important Surrealist artists that may not be as “well known,” as well as Surrealist artists in a more international context.
The Canvas: Let’s backtrack for a second and talk about the rise of the Surrealist market from a more generalized perspective. The top ten Surrealist works that have sold at auction have all occurred within the past nine years. The majority of those ten lots were Miró, Magritte, and Dali. And this past fall, we had another prominent Magritte, ‘Le Principe du Plaisir’ (1937) zoom past its estimate and sell for $26.8 million (with fees) at Sotheby’s. While it’s not particularly surprising that the Surrealist market has risen over the past decade considering that the overall art market has risen significantly in that timeframe, why do you think Surrealist art has recently attracted the broader attention of collectors? In my own experience, I’m seeing more and more examples of really solid Surrealist works exhibited at galleries and brought to fairs. And then finally, back in the fall you said in an interview that Magritte’s market is undervalued. Do you still consider that to be the case?
Emmanuel Di Donna: I think you’re right to point out that the Surrealist market has risen in tandem with the broader art market overall. That’s an important factor to keep in mind. But I definitely still feel that Magritte’s market is undervalued. Take
for example, a mid-level Picasso from the 1930s. At auction it would easily sell for $25m-$35m. Prices like those are what a top-tier, magnificent Magritte would achieve. So, there’s definitely still room for Magritte to achieve higher prices and greater appreciation amongst collectors, at least from a monetary perspective. But I do think that’s beginning to change. If you look closely, people are starting to show a greater appreciation for Surrealist art because, in a way, it’s almost more accessible and easier to comprehend than other genres. People inherently understand that what they’re looking at isn’t supposed to make logical sense, and they’re therefore able to get past that psychological barrier that other genres, such as Abstract Expressionism, might present in the minds of broader, less-informed audiences. But in my experience, dating back to my time at Sotheby’s, there’s always been a group of passionate, dedicated collectors of Surrealist art. Now, though, that market is expanding.
The Canvas: I was wondering if we could touch upon your time at Sotheby’s for a second. You decided to leave back in 2010. Auction house fatigue has become a very real trend these past few years. Do you agree with the premise that Christie’s and Sotheby’s are having trouble retaining top talent? If you do agree, why do you think that is? It seems like the executive leadership teams at the houses aren’t really interested in keeping certain business-getters and specialists who command large compensation packages and cost them a lot of money. Do you think that the Christie’s and Sotheby’s brands and their entrenched market positions are enough to fend off competition from galleries and private advisers in a shifting environment?
Emmanuel Di Donna: It certainly doesn’t seem like they care about retaining talent. They keep on losing some pretty top people, many of whom come with deep expertise and long client lists. But from my experience, in many of the cases you
hear about, it’s the individual who wants to leave the auction house due to the relentless pace and cyclicality of the auction business. It never ceases and they don’t get to exercise any creativity on a day-to-day basis. I will say that in many ways, I consider our gallery – and others – to be in direct competition with Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips. We’re all dealing with the same pool of high-end, global collectors, and some of them specifically don’t want to sell their works at auction. They’d rather work privately with a dealer or an advisor. Many of the clients who do specifically want to sell at auction are the lawyers and trustees of estates who have a fiduciary responsibility to prove that a work achieved the highest sale possible in a public bidding contest. As I’m sure you can appreciate, that’s very much not how we run our business.
The Canvas: I’m glad you brought that up as I do want to ask about some of the specifics of the business model of the gallery. From what some other prominent secondary-market dealers tell me, a lot of the sales action for the type of museum-quality shows Di Donna puts on takes place in the run-up to, and organization of, the shows themselves. As you’re arranging loans and calling collectors, it often becomes clear that someone is open to the idea of selling a work. So, while there might not be any works for sale when the show actually opens – as was the case for the Pérez Simón exhibition you did in the fall – a number of sales can take place directly preceding the opening. Is that accurate? Do you mind walking me through the business model of the gallery?
Emmanuel Di Donna: That’s sometimes the case, yes, but we really feel strongly about not pushing our clients. We take a very deliberate, delicate approach. If, in the course of organizing a show, clients come to me and clearly state that they’d like to sell a work, then that’s great, but it’s not the goal. Putting on the exhibitions is more about making sure the gallery’s name is out there and associated with scholarly research, and really high-quality material. The exhibitions themselves are not really about sales. The sales usually occur when I see a painting somewhere and then think of a specific client who I believe would be interested in purchasing it for his or her collection. This obviously requires knowing my clients very well. If I take them a painting and they tell me they’re not interested, then I always make sure to ask the reasons why. It’s a constant dialogue. And, I’m proud to say that many of our clients have been clients for many, many years.
The Canvas: How would you describe the gallery’s clients? What’s the typical collector profile? Where do they live, how old are they, and what’s the typical type of background for a Di Donna client?
Emmanuel Di Donna: They’re definitely on the older or more established side. And, for the most part, they’re only interested in the highest-quality artwork. Geographically speaking, they’re split pretty evenly between Europe and the United States
(New York and California mostly), with some Latin American collectors mixed in as well. They’re who you would normally expect to be the collectors of this kind of art – very successful, highly intelligent, and enormously curious.
The Canvas: Last few questions and then I’ll let you go. Are there any plans to open up additional gallery spaces? Will we ever see a Di Donna Hong Kong or Di Donna London?
Emmanuel Di Donna: There is a long-term plan and additional gallery spaces are something we’re actively considering. That might very well happen.
The Canvas: Since so much of the gallery’s raison d’être is tied to the organization of one or two museum-quality shows per year, with what feeling do you want people to walk away after experiencing one of these exhibitions at the gallery? In past interviews, you’ve said that you want to “leave something behind,” which you posited wasn’t necessarily possible in the auction business. How would you describe the gallery’s mission? What do you want to leave behind?
Emmanuel Di Donna: After seeing one of our shows, we want people to have a feeling of great surprise and discovery. Through our exhibitions and publications, we aim to push the boundaries, to point the viewer’s gaze in a new direction, and to expand and deepen the understanding of 20th-century art history. I see the art world as an ecosystem. The auction houses play a big part and want total market share, but they can’t do exhibitions like this. We also play our part in this ecosystem. We have seen that the shows that we do can get museums or collectors excited about something unexpected, and then that leads to something happening on a bigger scale, in both commercial and curatorial terms. For instance, for ‘Surrealism in Mexico,’ we’ve already had a number of museum curators who are very energized by some of the avenues that this show opens. At our opening the other night, I was blown away by how many people were impressed and surprised – finding new connections or encountering artists in a fresh context. I think that’s a wonderful thing.