Everybody in the art world, at least those in the part that has lots of money, seems to know Lisa Dennison, an elegantly rational-seeming woman who, until last month, was director of the sometimes irrational-seeming Guggenheim. But nobody seems to know just what it is that she’s been doing since she abruptly quit—switched sides!—to join the auction house Sotheby’s.
Actually, she doesn’t really seem quite to know yet, either: It’s a position invented for her to fill, and therefore it’s still being invented. No department works for her. When I visited her at the crisply Teutonic York Avenue Sotheby’s offices three weeks into the new gig, she was working out of a temporary cubicle and couldn’t yet exactly describe her new duties, though they seem to involve a lot of what she calls “business development.” Which means persuading people to sell their art through Sotheby’s and finding other people to pay a lot of money for it to “build their collections.”
She says her new job is “liberating,” for a number of reasons, including the fact that she’s “not in charge, which I love.” And being in charge of the Guggenheim, with its thirst for money and its wayward plans to become a global “art brand” through satellite museums, wasn’t easy. Her promotion had come after the board president and primary check-writer for the museum, Peter Lewis, quit in protest over visionary director Thomas Krens’s too-visionary budgeting, and Krens was kicked upstairs to head the Guggenheim foundation. But his shadow loomed large, as did her reputation for being his pragmatic fixer. “She wasn’t pushed out,” says Nancy Spector, the Guggenheim’s chief curator. “If anyone can get along with Krens, it’s her.” And while friends of Dennison say that she did her best to be the anti-Krens, focusing on the collection at the Fifth Avenue building and bringing in widely praised shows like the current one on Richard Prince, she couldn’t really turn back the clock. Plans for Frank Gehry’s Abu Dhabi museum continue to go forward.
There were other problems with being a museum person, too, she says: “being on the fringe, in the art world but on the other side, this not-for-profit side, and realizing that the boundaries between institutions were changing, slipping.” She began to wonder if being a museum director, with all of its cosseting of donors and collectors, wasn’t that different from dealing with the same sorts for an auction house. “It was the kind of thing that maybe in a different marketplace, in a different time in history, would not have been as exciting,” she says. “But at this moment, this is where the action is. This really is.”
Sotheby’s, for its part, is thrilled at its acquisition. “Every single collector has come up and said, ‘Tobias, that was genius,’” says Tobias Meyer, the worldwide head of contemporary art at Sotheby’s, who is probably better known as its theatrically haughty chief auctioneer. Dennison lends her cachet to the place, which is dependent on persuading collectors to choose it instead of Christie’s. Meyer calls the move a “proactive gold mine.” “It’s very impressive to say, ‘Yes, Lisa and I are coming to see you,’ ” he says. “I would be impressed.”
He had courted Dennison, as had a number of institutions, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. But she’d stayed; she had been working her way up at the Guggenheim through the curatorial side since 1978 (she had an internship there even earlier, in 1973), and she finally became the director in October 2005.
Meyer decided to up the bid for her in May, after he dropped the gavel on David Rockefeller’s Mark Rothko painting, White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose), for $72.8 million to an undisclosed buyer. The previous record for a Rothko was $22.4 million. “I was sitting in the car after the Rockefeller sale and thought, We are in a new world in this global market,” he says. The emerging centers of ridiculous wealth in Asia and Russia and elsewhere around the globe “are ready to buy icons of the twentieth century,” a preponderance of which, like the Rothko, are owned by Americans. Dennison knows many of these current collectors, and the ones who don’t know her will, the idea is, be interested in knowing her. In this new era, “Americans will also be sellers of this material,” Meyer says. He likens the current situation to the robber barons’ fascination with European paintings. “As the Americans were buying Gainsboroughs in 1910, the New Economy is buying Bacons and Rothkos in 2010,” he says. Actually, this new era had been making Dennison’s job increasingly difficult. “Museums cannot compete in this marketplace,” she told an Australian newspaper in May, seeming somewhat disgusted by what she’s now going to help facilitate.
At the eighth-floor reception at Sotheby’s, where I met her, a polite sign on the desk reads ART FINANCING AVAILABLE. There are artworks everywhere here, but this certainly isn’t a museum. It’s a high-tech souk for a menagerie of things very wealthy people find meaning in owning, be it the Magna Carta or antique golf clubs or the shiny new Jeff Koons shaped like a big dangling heart that Dennison took me up to see.