Brett Gorvy became a household name in the art world for his uncanny success in building up the Contemporary Art department at Christie’s Auction House. When Gorvy joined on in the early 90s, Contemporary Art was the sixth-highest earning division of art. Over time, Brett would lead the way for the department to become the highest-earning at Christie’s, far surpassing other departments and setting countless auction records along the way. Gorvy’s most recent career move to run Lévy Gorvy alongside of Dominque Levy has invited a new chapter of executing landmark exhibitions and continuing to build legacies around the artwork he loves. Despite his intimidating resume, Gorvy is a welcoming presence, not to mention a wealth of knowledge. We sat down with Gorvy to discuss his career trajectory, his Instagram presence, and of course, what his own collection bolsters.
Brett Gorvy, 2017. Photo Zenith Richards
You’ve worn a lot of different hats in your career. Is there a common thread that connects everything you’ve done?
One of the things that defines me, as well as anyone who has found success or pleasure in what they do, is following your passion. This is something that I have been very fortunate in. Early in my childhood, my father turned to my siblings and me and said that he hoped we would one day take over the family business, but in order to do so, had come in equipped and with passion because frankly to work for something which is not going to drive you, you might as well find something else. It was a good positioning because it made us think about what is ultimately important to us.
By that stage, art and literature were completely my life. I was focused to the point, where I studied art history at University, then started doing my MA, and then my PHD. When I was doing all of this, I started realizing that my true love is exploring and communicating.
All of the opportunities I’ve been awarded have come literally by chance – a lot of my history is all these doors opening and closing. I generally jump through just before the door closes. In most cases, an avenue or opportunity occurred, and I took the chance of doing it and that flowered into something else. I began writing for the Independent Newspaper, submitting pieces on everything from culture to mountain bikes. I then started submitting to magazines and was taken on as a feature’s editor.
One day I interviewed a guy at Sotheby’s on Contemporary sculpture and the next day he offered me a job to be his number two in the department. I had no experience at all. Somehow, we clicked in some capacity. At that stage in my life, the idea of working at an auction house was probably scary and at the same time I loved being a journalist. A year later, he called me up again. He had left Sotheby’s and was now working at Christie’s. His presence at Christie’s was such that it made a lot of disruption – he was like the enemy coming in to work with this new team. He called me up out of the blue and said I’m looking for a new head of the department and it took me about 3 months to decide. My father was the one who largely influenced the decision. He said to me, “Look, what do you got to lose. At the end of the day, if you don’t enjoy it after a year, you can just write the book about your experience.” 23 years later, I was still at Christie’s. That’s basically how these things have happened. It wasn’t that I had training or a great desire to be in the commercial world, it was just meeting the right person at the right time.
When I joined Christie’s in the early 90s, the Contemporary department was the number six department, now it’s by far the number one. At that stage departments like, silver, furniture, and Old Masters, were all higher earning than contemporary art and it was also the downturn of the market at that moment. So, it was actually a really good time to start because it meant you couldn’t do much wrong. Ultimately you were building things instead of trying to hold up a whole marketplace. In 2000, I moved to New York and basically took over the department internationally.
I’ve known Dominique for 20 years, we met at Christie’s at the end of the 90s and she was running the private sale department at Christie’s at that stage. What brought us together was a shared passion for art, a shared passion to create beautiful exhibitions and to share that kind of passion on a broader scale, and actually, a great love of poetry. We realized that strangely, we loved the same poets.
Was it a long time coming for you to shift out of the auction world and into the gallery world?
It was a long time coming for Dominique in the sense that she asked me five years earlier and almost every year after to join on. We would have a yearly cup of tea and revisit the conversation and at the time, I felt like I had more room to grow in the auction world. It came to the point basically of realizing that if I was going to make a career move – I had just turned 53 – this was my last chance in a way. I intend to never retire, and I hope I can ultimately work until dotage, but that kind of energy and sense of wanting to create something, it comes from being surrounded by a certain group of people. Having the ability to do business at the drop of the hat and be ready 24/7, you have to be in a kind of mindset that I think is age-driven.
With my career, I wanted to continue to explore in a way. One of the great things that Dominique offered was this readymade platform. She had been building this wonderful business and to acquire the entire building has led to a wonderful response from artists and artists’ estates. They love the space and see it is very pure. It is a space where you can create a dialogue floor by floor. Also, Dominique had a core team in place and a group of artists she represented. We have shared loves, such as Abstract Expressionism. We had already done a lot of business together over the years because she was bringing buyers to the auction or we were doing private sales.
What do you hope to accomplish at Lévy Gorvy?
I think one of the things that I’ve found as I gained more and more experience was realizing that what I was doing was so unique. The experience that I had at Christie’s, although it was within a team, was at the top table with the very senior people, many financial people, the CEOs and CFOs, etc. You are making these very important decisions, dealing with hundreds of millions of dollars at any time. That kind of experience, to bring it into the commercial world, is actually quite unique.
It also comes down to which are the artists you really love. I think one of the things that both Dominque and I share is that we look to the gallerists that we really respect – someone like Marian Goodman, or looking back to earlier periods of time, someone like Leo Castelli or Ileana Sonnebend, or Pierre Matisse – who are these amazing personalities as much as anything else and who, because of their input, really moved art history. So, when we do a show, ultimately, it shouldn’t just be because we have a passion of showing artists that we are representing or that we love, but we really feel that by doing the show, we are contributing to art history. That might sound pompous, but why else would you do these things?
When did you begin sharing daily on Instagram?
What I love about Instagram is the beautiful objects and wonderful opportunities it allows you to share. Instagram is very finite, it forces you to be concise. You get to see exhibitions through other’s eyes and you get to see how other people are responding. You really feel the pulse. You see why everyone is posting one thing. It’s not necessarily an accurate way of reading things, but it gives you an accurate understanding of what you are responding to. To me, Instagram is an extension of why I love doing exhibitions or going to galleries myself. It’s nice to show the paintings you are seeing and what you are getting a thrill of.
Instagram made me relook at literature. I realized early on that you could add elements to the images that creates a dialogue. Then, somehow poetry came into it. Now, pretty much every time I post something, I can hear a voice – everyone thinks I know all these poems and I don’t, but I do know poets – and often a painting or a work of art will inspire me to think “Oh, that sounds like Sylvia Plath” and then I will look at the thousands of poems I have screenshotted on my phone and find one that I bookmarked a year ago and set aside because I couldn’t think of an image.
Generally, I wake up in the morning and do these things. I don’t plan them. I generally have a 20-minute rule, if I don’t finish in 20 minutes, I’ll scrap it, because otherwise you get bored of it yourself. What’s amazing is how easy it is to make these things, making these little videos that people think are incredibly well-produced. You go into an exhibition and take a little video and find some music, put it up, the whole thing doesn’t take long but the effect works. Occasionally, I go back and re-read something and think “My god, that actually made sense.” At the time when you make these things you often send them off without much thought.
In my career as a journalist, more so than just being a journalist, it was about being creative with words, being creative with ideas or just loving what I was looking at and wanting to express it. Sometimes, the only way you can do that is by writing about it.
Since Art of Choice is female run, we are interested to know if you share your relationship with art with your daughter?
She’s the kind of personality – she has quite a strong and stubborn steak in her – that she finds her own way. What I’ve learned from myself and going back to my own parents is that you follow your own passion. There’s nothing worse than being dragged through every museum and every art experience. Most recently, we went to Japan and the whole idea was for all of us to have different experiences. A lot of the experiences we had were driven by things we felt she should be showing us through her eyes. Sometimes that’s the best way of doing things.
We have father-daughter weekends when my wife is out of town where we will go downtown, and she will take me to the latest, coolest place on social media and I will take her to an art gallery with young people that she can connect to. That’s something that educates me just as much – I’m not teaching her, but we are experiencing things together. I look to my wife in the same way – she was the first Deputy Chairman at Christie’s. If I look at our own collection, we have a very strong female focus in terms of what we collect. 99% of those artists were introduced to me by my wife. I give her a lot of credit and thanks. And again, what I love about the program we have here at the gallery is its strong female focus and obviously Dominque as a partner.
What kind of art do you collect? Do you have a favorite piece in your collection?
I’m an incredibly obsessive person. Often, if I am interested in one artist, I want to collect everything. Bruce Conner is one of the artists we have and who I have been collecting since the late 90s. I introduced his work to my wife, and she was also incredibly inspired, so it became a joint project between us. We basically have created the most comprehensive collection of his work in the world. As an artist, he was obsessive in his mark making. He was an amazing filmmaker, an amazing photographer, an amazing draftsman, and collage maker and he was able to combine all these things. It’s that obsessive focus that drove me, but also the fact that he was able to work in all these different realms. He is an artist that opened a lot of doors in terms of the way we collect.
Whereas I’m much more methodical in the way I approach things, my wife is completely instinctive. She walks in and knows exactly what she wants, and she will make a b-line for it. It makes for a great partnership. Because of her interests and opening certain worlds for me, we have a very strong female voice in the collection. We primarily collect works on paper because it’s more affordable and it’s also the most instinctive element of an artist – it’s the most direct expression of their thought process, their mindset, or their abilities. It’s very rare in a drawing that an artist can fidget – it is unforgiving, every mark is understood.
That’s mostly what we collect, small scale things. Initially it was because we couldn’t really afford bigger paintings, or our apartment was not that big. If you come to our home, the walls and floors are completely covered, literally, there is not one space. We have an obsession with collecting and there is not a hierarchy between a famous artist and my favorite things, which often don’t have much commercial value – they are just inspiring and wonderful. There will be a Cy Twombly next to an artist most people won’t know about but who we both love.