New Kid, Old Block

GB #1_0047“Why aren’t you in Chelsea or Brooklyn? I hear that a lot,” says contemporary art dealer Georges Bergès. “People are somewhat incredulous that I’ve opened a gallery in SoHo. Can you believe that?” He laughs and shakes his head. At only 39 years old, the baby-faced Bergès looks far younger than that. With his mop of Caravaggio-dark curls and big circular-framed glasses, he looks more like a refugee from graduate school than one of the fastest rising and busiest dealers in contemporary art. Georges Bergès Gallery, at 462 West Broadway, has only been open since June and already its proprietor is creating quite a buzz.

“Sure, Chelsea—and especially Brooklyn—are the hot places now, but I didn’t want to get lost in the shuffle. Historically, SoHo was the area for contemporary art, but in the last decade or so, they were crowded out by boutiques and retail stores. I wanted to help bring it back. There’s a lot of history in the area I want to feel a part of.”

The neighborhood’s most legendary denizen is the late Leo Castelli, the dealer who introduced Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol to the world, and whose SoHo galleries (opened in 1971) were instrumental in helping to revitalize the area. Castelli died in 1999, and while Bergès never met him, Castelli is both his idol and business model. “Leo was deeply involved with his artists,” says Bergès. “He visited them all the time. They were part of his extended family. He took time to encourage their development. Once a week, he opened his gallery just for artists to come show their works to him. Artists would be lined up down the block! He’d look at what they had and decided what he liked, what artists needed to do more work, what he did not respond to.” 

Bergès admits he’s not quite there yet. He is pretty much a one-man operation, and before he decided to put down fresh gallery roots, he dealt via a suitcase and passport. “I’d do pop-ups in places like Shanghai,” he says “I’d rent a floor space for a month, fill it with my artists, hopefully sell a few things, then  wrap up and move on by the end of the month. I didn’t like the idea of being a shopkeeper.”

What Bergès specifically did not want was to be a contemporary art dealer, model 1995.

“In the ’90s, the world economy and, by extension, the contemporary art world, was elevated by the dot-com bubble.  Art was considered little more than a commodity—the artist was secondary. He was considered a supplier of inventory. He rarely saw clients. He’d get a check every few months or so, then a new contract to sign or a notice of termination. It was a very cold way for doing business. And for a lot of collectors, I think purchasing art was more of a lifestyle thing than a commitment. Today, that system is broken.”

Bergès wanted to be different. “I wanted to do very much what Leo did: find the artists whose work I most responded to and work with them closely. I want them to feel that I’m committed to them and that they are valued. I come from a family of artists, and from when I was a kid, there was nothing I loved more than to hang out with artists. Visiting studios is still my favorite way to spend an afternoon.”

Because of this hands-on approach, Bergès’s stable of artists is small. “I only have nine artists I deal in,” he says “I just took on Emma McGuire, who’s under the patronage of the Duke of Devonshire. She makes lithographs of cage fighters that look like Greek gods. We are doing a show of her works this coming May.”

His solid client base is likewise select. “I’ve sold to a couple hundred people, but I have a solid group of about 25 collectors, most of them overseas. I find a lot of people don’t have the patience to discover emerging artists. Anyone with a checkbook can buy a Picasso, but with someone like McGuire you have to have a little bit more commitment.”

Bergès’ desire for intimacy is reflected in his gallery layout. “My gallery is divided into two spaces. The first floor is open to the public, while the downstairs is more of a salon. You could even call it a living room with comfy chairs and a bar that’s a mingling place for clients and artists to get better acquainted and see new works in a relaxed atmosphere. It’s also a bit of a testing ground to see if a work of art holds up after I live with it for awhile. Artists are always welcome there. I want everyone to be relaxed and comfortable.”

Paradoxically, the energetic Bergès eventually hopes to open permanent galleries (no more pop-ups!) overseas in places like Beijing and Mexico City. “I haven’t given up my wanderlust,” he says cheerfully. “I’m not exactly a homebody. I go to China three or four times a year, for instance. I recently spent time in an artist’s commune in Mongolia. I’m always looking for new works to excite me. If you are running a gallery and not having any fun, you’re doing something wrong.”