2019.03.25 Mon, by
From Basel to Hong Kong. An interview with Dominique Lévy

by Christopher Moore

Dominique Lévy has risen rapidly in the past decade to become one of the most successful and prominent art dealers in the world. Having herself worked for leading art dealers such as Anthony d’Offay in London and Daniel Malingue in Paris, Dominique embarked on a spectacular career establishing Christie’s pioneering private client division. Then in 2010 Dominique left the auction house to become an art dealer, along the way working with Robert Mnuchin and then independently again before joining forces with her erstwhile Christie’s colleague, Brett Gorvy. The reputation and success of Lévy Gorvy continues to grow and in 2017 they opened an office in Shanghai. Now they are opening a gallery in Hong Kong to complement their galleries in New York and London.

Just prior to Chinese New Year Chris Moore spoke Dominique Lévy by telephone to discuss Hong Kong and China, beginning by discussing why Lévy Gorvy first opened an office in Shanghai before opening the gallery in Hong Kong.

Rendering of Lévy Gorvy Hong Kong Exterior, 2018 Courtesy HS2 Architecture and Bill Katz Studios

Rendering of Lévy Gorvy Hong Kong Exterior, 2018 Courtesy HS2 Architecture and Bill Katz Studios

Dominique Lévy: “It felt a bit disrespectful to just open an outpost in Hong Kong, bringing Western art. [We wanted] first to connect with the Mainland clients we have been working with on an international basis. We realized that Hong Kong is a wonderful business trading place but that actually we want to understand and really start working with [Mainland] collectors, and they are more comfortable having conversations in Shanghai and in Beijing. And Brett and Li Danqing, who runs our Asia outposts, were very adamant that we first get to know everyone before we opened a space in Hong Kong. So, for the first two years, I particularly went to Shanghai and Beijing and all the different cities and met with collectors and really tried to understand what was interesting to them in Western art. ‘Why collect Western art?’ – is really the question you experience the most when you meet a lot of these collectors, because there is a true tradition of collecting in Asia. It starts with extraordinary ceramics, calligraphy, even the art of living: everything is full of tradition! And in the past five to eight years [collectors] have been curious to look at Western art too.”

In short, Lévy Gorvy opened in Shanghai first to better understand how to bridge Asian art and Western art. It is the obvious thing to do but they are among the few to have done it. Perrotin opened first in Hong Kong and then Shanghai last year. Lisson Gallery and Almine Rech Gallery are both about to open in Shanghai. But before this new wave, there were only a few Western galleries. Italy’s Galleria Continua opened their Beijing space in November 2005 in what is now the 798 Art District and around the same time Lucerne’s Urs Meile in an Ai Weiwei-designed building in Cao Chang Di district. Copenhagen’s Jens Faurschou followed in 2007, with New York’s James Cohan Gallery in Shanghai and the Ullens Centre of Contemporary Art (UCCA) and Pace Beijing all in 2008, and finally Hadrien de Montferrand in 2009. A number of other Western galleries maintain private offices in Shanghai.

Dominique Lévy: “Pace did something very different and quite extraordinary because they didn’t go there to sell Western Art but to understand Asian art and to bring Chinese artists to the front scene in America. So, they did something completely different and incredibly brave at the moment when nobody [in the international art scene] was going there. For other galleries [in Hong Kong], what Brett and I noticed was that, opening these galleries was a brilliant commercial outpost but was maybe not engaging people in a more meaningful conversation. So, we went a different way. [Which is why] our opening exhibition is a reflection on the conversation between Mainland China and East Asian art and American or Western art (‘Return to Nature’).”

In choosing a space in Hong Kong, Dominique and Brett, with their Asia Director Danqing Li, also formerly of Christie’s, decided against established gallery locations in Central, such as The Pedder Building and H Queens, instead opting for the exceptionally prominent ground floor of the St. George’s Building. With about 250 square meters of space, it will also be one of the largest art galleries in the center of Hong Kong, sending a very clear signal to the Hong Kong art market of the seriousness of their intentions. Added to their existing office in Shanghai, the new gallery indicates the scale of Lévy Gorvy’s ambitions for the Asian art market generally.

Dominique Lévy: “We went with the heart rather than the head, although the head confirmed what we felt. Last year and the year before we visited the Pedder Building and the H Queens building, and all these others, and Brett and I were literally going from one building to another and saying ‘No, we don’t feel it.’ We decided to change real estate agents and go away from the ones that were doing all the galleries and we went to the ones that are doing luxury spaces and we said, ‘look, we want something that’s smaller, but we need high ceilings, something with which we can share our taste. That’s why we hired [architect] Bill Katz to do it because he really knows what our taste is. And that space is the most incredible location, so everyone not, just from Asia or Hong Kong, who passes in front of it, but also anyone from New York who comes to Hong Kong, anyone from Paris or Zurich [too]. Also, at street level… [the space] has incredibly high ceilings, which in Hong Kong is unheard of – we have almost 4-meter-high ceilings!

Brett Gorvy Founder, Lévy Gorvy Photo: Zenith Richards Courtesy Lévy Gorvy

Brett Gorvy, Founder, Lévy Gorvy
Photo: Zenith Richards, Courtesy Lévy Gorvy

On Brett Gorvy

Dominique has worked with numerous leading art dealers over a long time, so I asked her why Brett is different and the right person to team up with.

Dominique Lévy: “Brett and I have been friends and colleagues together at Christie’s and then from separate sides of the Atlantic [Ocean] for more than 20 years. He moved to New York when I was running Christie’s private sales. He moved from being responsible for Contemporary Art in London to Contemporary Art in New York, and we immediately connected and worked very well together. Then when I left Christie’s and continued on my own, we stayed colleagues and worked against each other and with each other for over 20 years. So, the partnership, although very new, feels incredibly natural.”

I note that this is very rare.

Dominique Lévy: “You know, the beauty of it is that we’ve had very good successes together and we’ve had to deal with very difficult situations over the years too. I believe that you know someone in business when you get into a really complicated or difficult situation. The way they behave in that moment really shows who that person is, and Brett and I have had to do that over the years. I think that is why we felt very comfortable in doing this partnership.”


I ask Dominique what it was it that first got her involved in art and I mention that I read that her mother took her to the first Art Basel in 1970.

Dominique Lévy: “That became a funny story – a true story but I said it only once! But may I tell you, I was three years old, and I was in a stroller. So, I don’t believe my first involvement in art came from that! My mother was from Belgium and when she moved to Switzerland, she felt it was utterly boring and the Basel art fair was a breath of eccentricity and fresh air. And she took me [along] from the get-go! When I [first] applied to the art fair in Basel, they were quite difficult with me and I said that’s unfair, I think I’m the only dealer who has been there since Art Basel One!”

So, what did prompt her to become involved in art?

Dominique Lévy: “I wanted to be a clown and an artist, and I failed in all that, so I guess becoming an art dealer was the logic after that! I started getting interested in art after studying theatre and political sciences. I met an extraordinary woman in Paris called Raymond Moulin (b. 1924) and she is one of the first art sociologists and developed the idea of art sociology. I followed her class and it completely enchanted me that you could look at history or society or political behavior all through the lens of art and art was always ahead of everything that was happening or much quicker in understanding what was happening or much quicker in illustrating and making you understand what was happening. That was my entry into art and artists actually.”

I asked Dominique, what was the next crucial step for her after leaving the Sorbonne?

Dominique Lévy: “The crucial step was realizing I couldn’t go into the theatre, I couldn’t go into the circus, but I loved art and I started meeting and becoming friends with artists in Switzerland. I organized my first exhibition following in the footsteps of sociology. A lady in Switzerland let me use her 18th Century house and, this sounds really corny, but you’ll have it because you’ve asked, I did a show there called something like ‘Artists of Today in Yesterday’s House’ and I was 18 or 19 and invited a bunch of artists to do site-specific works in that very old house…It was an extraordinary experience! – very transformative for me in all aspects; first in finding artists, inviting artists, convincing artists, and then realizing where their imagination was taking them, finding the financing, and then becoming a dealer and selling these things and negotiating these [sales] and convincing people that these works were special. And all of that together was the first experience for me [as an art dealer] and it was while I was still a student at university.”

CM: “Do you still work with any of those artists?”

Dominique Lévy: “No, but I’m still friends with one or two but none of them became international superstars. They were mostly Swiss, good artists.”

CM: “Interestingly it’s a quite similar story to Han Ulrich Obrist and how he began.”

Dominique Lévy: “Yes! We sometimes talk about that.”

Dominique learnt her trade working with some of the most important gallerists of the time, including Daniel Malingue in Paris (father of gallerists Edouard and Olivier, respectively now in Hong Kong and London) and then Anthony d’Offay (b.1940).

Dominique Lévy: “All my mentors [were] actually all men, were great gallerists, but my [intellectual] sources, my mentors emotionally and mentally, are indeed Pierre Matisse (1900-1989) or Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979) or Xavier Fourcade (1926-1987) but I never met them. Leo [Castelli] (1907-99) and [Rudolf] Zwirner (b.1933) [father of David] I met in New York and had fantastic conversations with them, but I never worked for them either. The other dealer who was not only a big source of inspiration but also a great vote of confidence, was Ernst Beyeler (1921-2010), because when I moved to New York to run private sales for Christie’s, he was the first person who trusted me and bought and sold art with and to me. I knew him for many, many years and he was someone who would trust young people and give them a chance.

After finishing my studies, I was an intern for Martha Baer at Christie’s, I think that was 1987, at the time of the first Tremain sale[one of the greatest private collections of 20th Century Art]. And I had internship after internship, and finally I got a job with Sotheby’s when Simon de Pury (b.1951) was running Sotheby’s Geneva. I worked with him on a really extraordinary project at the time, from the Malbin Sale at the Villa Favorita to the other Tremain Sale to the sale of [van Gogh’s] ‘Moulin de la Galette’ (1886) and ‘Dr Gachet’ (1890), these two paintings that changed art history. I travelled with them to Japan. I was so lucky to be at the right place at the right time with the right people! I was given tremendous responsibility really early on and it was Daniel Malingue who poached me from Sotheby’s, and then onwards to running private sales at Christie’s.”

Danqing Li Senior Director, Lévy Gorvy Asia Photo: Yuan Yuan Courtesy Lévy Gorvy

Danqing Li, Senior Director, Lévy Gorvy Asia
Photo: Yuan Yuan, Courtesy Lévy Gorvy

CM: “How did that come about. Because it was a crucial moment in the history of art auctions and private markets, whereby auction houses decided they were going to run private client sales and not in a small way but as a really serious part of their business, and that shifted the entire art market from how it was previously run.”

Dominique Lévy: “Correct! I think that what happened, was that very quickly auction houses realized, and at least Francois Pinault (b.1936), when he bought Christies, that auction houses were absolutely not taking advantage of the momentum after an auction. Imagine! – after an auction, not only do you have the buyers, but you have all the immediate underbidders. So, if you are well organized and well prepared, you can satisfy underbidders with private sales pretty quickly. I think he realized that and hired me to start that department; at that time. It was very much swimming against the current, because auction houses were not at all trained for that. The dealers were the enemy, and doing private sales was like you were stealing away from the auction houses. The first two years were absolutely dreadful! But once the team and the experts understood it was not taking away from but adding to them, then the machine became a huge machine. And Brett was one of the absolute first to understand how interesting this was and to accept and agree to collaborate with me while we were together at Christie’s.

CM: So even within Christie’s there was not wide acceptance for what you were trying to do?

Dominique Lévy: There was zero acceptance at the beginning, because it was not the mentality. The auction house was mostly run by a group of English boys. There were very few women, sent there from Europe, from the new ownership, and [we were regarded as] the enemy. So, there was no acceptance and no interest in it. It took the first two years for the whole Christie’s team to realize that it was making money, Number 1, and Number 2, it was getting them closer to their clients. It became a transformative culture. Now I think if you look at Sotheby’s private sales results, they did a billion dollars-worth of private sales last year. This really blew me away. I thought, oh my gosh! We started a nightmare there because now they have much more power and much more information than dealers or gallerists! We grew a monster!”

CM: “Well is it a monster? Famously, Art Basel takes a very negative view of auction houses. Any sort of galleries that have some sort of ongoing relationship with auction houses tend to never make it into Basel.”

Dominique Lévy: “I believe this is old rivalry. This is like telling you, ‘I don’t like working with a computer.’ Auction houses have an extraordinary presence. You have to separate a lot of the gallerists’ tasks, which is much more working with artists and estates and legacies and museums and publications. But if you wear any sort of commercial hat, you cannot then start criticizing or being scared of the auction-houses. You have to find the right way of working with them. This idea that they are the monsters is literally archaic. They are what they are, and you work with them in an interesting and intelligent way.

“Where I would agree that they are not suitable and shouldn’t come, is when, for example, it was announced that Christy MacLear had joined Sotheby’s and that they wanted to start having an artists-estates department and wanting to advise and run and work with artists. That I think is inappropriate for an auction house. But for everything else we should team with them and work with them in an intelligent way.”

CM: “So you’ve been at Christie’s for a number of years setting up Private Client Sales and it has gone very well. What’s the point where you decide, ‘I’ve got to go back into the gallery scene.’”

Dominique Lévy: “Five years into working with Christie’s, I felt I had done what I had to do there. I think also I’m a very bad employee; I’m too much of an entrepreneur to be an employee! I felt I had given the best I had to give, learned everything I had to learn, and I decided it was time for me to go back on my own, as I had done regularly over the years. I decided to set up a small art advisory service. It was soon after I had my first baby, I was in New York, it was soon after September 11, getting a visa, setting up – everything was a nightmare! It grew very quickly, and within the first year I realized that I was missing the connection with art when you have when you’re a gallerist and that’s when Bob Mnuchin came along. The Sufi says that when the student is ready, the Master comes. I guess I was ready.

Robert E. Mnuchin (b.1933) became an art dealer in 1992 after a long career as a banker with Goldman Sachs. He is the father of Steven Mnuchin, the current US Treasury Secretary (and executive producer of the 2017 Wonder Woman film).

“Bob Mnuchin, at that time, had just lost someone he was working with at his gallery and he asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said, no, I’m never working for anyone anymore but if you want to merge businesses and work with me, why not? I said this in a kind of joke way. It was Sunday and he said, ‘Come and see me Monday.’ By Friday, we had made a deal. I could not believe that this man, who had been a giant in everything he had done, was prepared to suddenly make a business that was L&M Arts and not something else. I trusted him a lot and I admire him a lot and we had 7 great years.”

L&M Arts operated from 2005 until 2013.

Dominique Lévy: “Towards the end of that time, we started not seeing so much eye-to-eye. Maybe it was a difference of generation or maybe the difference of culture. I wanted to be much more involved in the contemporary world. I wanted to do more art fairs. I wanted to build a more international business. I wanted to bring European art much more to America. And he was more a very plastic, post-war, American-focused dealer. So, it was time for me to start again!”

The main business of the gallery is secondary-market business, but it also represents living artists. I ask Dominique she balances this.

DL: “At the end of the day, representing an artist or representing an estate, while an artist is alive and full of energy and constantly renewing, and an estate is more about their legacy, but there is a fine line [between the two] … And parallel and complementary to this is the secondary market, which is really two halves also: the half where we are dealers, we take a position and we buy and sell art, and we have another half which is the advisory service we have developed and has been incredibly active for the gallery over the past two years. To me, they all feed into one another, are complimentary to one another.”

CM: Would you say there are one or two artists who have been particularly important to your development as an art dealer in terms of your philosophy and outlook?

Dominique Lévy: “It all started when I was working with Anthony d’Offay [the English art dealer]. That was the big leap. He put me in charge of his American artists. I was working with the de Kooning Estate, I was working with Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2015) and with Jasper Johns (b.1930). This made me absolutely committed to two things. One, I had to find a way to move to America. And two, I had to work with artists. That was a transformative moment. Then, once I moved to America, and after the Christie’s experience, I was missing Europe, I was missing European artists, and I felt that America was so close-minded to European artists at the time. My commitment or leap-of-faith was to decide to bring European artists to an American audience.

“The next transformative moment was representing the Yves Klein Estate, because Yves Klein (1928-62) had been an artist that the American public and American museums had absolutely loved and then forgotten when they decided to collect the great Abstract Expressionism and post-AbEx American artists. So, being able to bring Yves Klein back to America, to get his market to go from ‘zero to 10’, to get museums to look and acquire, to display, to show – the ten years of collaboration with the Yves Klein Estate was another big pillar of my career.

“I’m the product of that classic Paris-New York/New York-Paris story. You can’t look at American art without looking at European art; you cannot look at European art without being aware of American art. It’s just one. We’re so provincial if we don’t do it. And now – thank god! – we have opened that door to Latin American and Asian art. The idea that art has a nationality and that we would only collect, or only look at, or only analyze, or only criticize, or only write about one school was so provincial. …That is one of the huge transformations in the art market…

Lévy Gorvy maintains galleries in London, New York and now also Hong Kong, as well as offices in Shanghai, and Zurich. Lévy comments, “[The galleries] are spaces that are very much artist-centric. That’s where we do our exhibitions and our publications. [Our presence in] Shanghai, Zurich, and Taipei is more client-centric.”

I ask Dominique when she first came to China, and it turns out she has been visiting China and East Asia, including Japan, Korea and Singapore, frequently for 30 years: “I came with my parents as a young adult. [Later] I participated in a small art fair in Singapore, when I had my business in Switzerland. Then I was part of a conference in Shanghai which was a reflection on art in public space and how art can change people’s spirit. Then I lived in Japan for three months when I worked with Simon de Pury at Sotheby’s, developing a project on freeports. In the last seven years I have gone less – only three times a year. Brett goes much more. We try to divide our work and Brett really runs the Asian side of our activity and I run the European side of our activity.”

We have been talking solidly for almost an hour and it has become clear that while Dominique Lévy is very competitive and driven even, she is not at all arrogant but, on the contrary, feels a strong desire to prove herself – not to others, but for herself. She is direct but concerned to present Lévy Gorvy very precisely. In addition to all the hoopla that inevitably comes with the opening of a major private gallery in Hong Kong, Dominique Lévy still has a strong sense of wonderment concerning Asia. Sometimes it comes out in a certain circumspect etiquette she deploys, but every so often a sense of her passion escapes, lauding this or criticizing that. Well, we cannot print it all.

Dominique Lévy: “[When] I look at this part of the world, I find it very intimidating, because the more I go there, the more I learn about the customs, the culture, the traditional art; the more I see an enormous sense of responsibility regarding how we bring Western Art to Asia and what we sell to Asian people and Asian collectors. And part of it is education and part of it is humility. All of us – American and European dealers – we go to Asia with a lack of knowledge and a lack of a profound understanding of the culture, and definitely with a lack of humility. And very often, the shows I have seen in Asia, are definitely not as good as the shows in New York and London. It made me really uncomfortable and it has pushed Brett and I to really think: what are we going to do and how are we going to do it in a way that we [will] feel proud of what we have achieved in the next 20 to 30 years. Asia is very intimidating. It is bigger than anything we have realized, in terms not just of geography, that is obvious, but much deeper, in terms of history and artistic tradition, [where] their love for art is so profound, so deep, so ancient. Unless we make the effort to really understand it much better, we may be financially successful over the short term but I don’t think we will make something that is meaningful.”

Lévy Gorvy’s inaugural exhibition is ‘Return to Nature (Zao Xue Han Zhang)’, March 26 –May 18, with works by Wu Dayu, Willem de Kooning, Song Dong, Wassily Kandinsky, Hao Liang, Agnes Martin, Joan Mitchell, Claude Monet, Pierre Soulages, Pat Steir, Yan Wenliang, Wu Yinxian, and Zao Wou-Ki, among others.

Lévy Gorvy
St Georges Building, corner of Connaught Road Central and Ice House Street opens on March 26.