Art dealer Eleanor Acquavella on collecting from her “gut and heart” for better or worse

Julie Baumgardner

Acquavella isn’t a name that needs all too much explaining. The Picasso people, to some, though the catalog of master paintings that this dynasty handles doesn't start with Modernism. And now, it doesn't stop at Freud, whom the gallery famously brought in as their first primary market artist. Indeed, the gallery is expanding into the contemporary field, a charge led by none other than Eleanor Acquavella.

Eleanor AcquavellaThe sole sister of the Acquavella dynasty, Eleanor eschews any distinction from her family with whom she collectively runs the business alongside her father, Bill Acquavella, and her brothers Nick and Alex. "We are a small gallery,” she says, "Everybody's hands-on and does a little bit of everything—we're pretty interchangeable that way."

Yet, while Eleanor would never ask to be singled out, in fact, the gallery has undertaken a new (ish) venture: a Palm Beach outpost, a home for this foray into nextgen painters (mostly) that is Eleanor's dominion. And while she emphasizes that the gallery as a whole is not changing focus, or splintering into different branches—nor is Bill retiring any time soon (you succession speculators)—yes, indeed, the gallery is thinking about the future, especially of painting. “We tend to gravitate towards painting,” she says, “We have been dealing in sort of Modern masters, Modern/Impressionist, and that, to me, sort of drove home this love of painting and drawing.”

The gallery is still brokering secondary market deals, and complicated estates, such as with Don Marron’s that they are sharing the sale of with Pace and Gagosian. Eleanor is candid about auction houses cornering the secondary market—though make no mistake, Acquavella still has access to inventory the auction houses couldn’t get their hands on.

So The Baer Faxt sat down with Eleanor herself to discuss this expanded vision of the gallery, and in the process, learned a slew of previously unpublished details of the Acquavella world.

The Baer Faxt: So, you really don’t often give interviews, Eleanor! We really appreciate your time, and what gives?

Eleanor Acquavella Dejoux: You know, we're doing some different things that seem, I think, unusual for people and hopefully exciting. Giving press, I feel it should always be about the art, the artists and the shows we do. But I'm realizing that this is all part of it.

We have a small gallery in Florida, in Palm Beach, and it's a place where we can experiment a little more. We're running it as a space for younger artists, or less established, but no less talented.

When we do a show in New York, it's a real statement—it’s our main space, a townhouse. A beautiful architectural building. And I see Palm Beach as an incubator of sorts to test this idea out. My hope is that we'll really start to have an interesting program down there.

With that, I'm not going to abandon our bread and butter. So we'll have mixed Impressionism/Modern shows, and likely a Warhol show. I'm trying to balance the new with what we do. We should be able to expand—in what we handle, what we show and what we do well—and not shift from what we've always done.

TBF: Why did you choose Palm Beach, and what about there gave you this freedom and flexibility to expand?

EAD: We heard from a lot of people that Palm Beach was where they were going during the pandemic. And so, I had been talking to Marc Glimcher about all of us opening a gallery in Palm Beach because it makes more sense to do it in numbers and make a little destination within a place. We decided that it was the next, smart thing to do; so it became us, Pace and Sotheby’s Private Sales. We opened in November 2020, and Acquavella signed a lease for nine months [that I’m now extending for several years]. It was time for real change—and some sunshine.

Installation views of Unnatural Nature, Acquavella Palm Beach Gallery

TBF: Why did you think this expansion is such a risk?

EAD: My father is such a legend, and so well known for what he is so good at. Then he pivoted and added Freud into the roster. And that was a totally earth-shattering thing for the gallery!

We've never had a gallery anywhere but New York. Plus, we don't have enough work in what we have always focused on, even our contemporary artists don't produce a lot.

But Palm Beach has ended up being really great. There are a lot of people there. There's a lot of younger people, young families, all different types of people and different age groups. We realized that if we changed our show, once a month, those repeat visitors would be excited to come back and interested in buying over and over again.

The other thing that's great about the space is that it's ~1,100 square feet. So in order to put on a show, you don't need 30 paintings like I do in New York. I can have a show with six to 10 paintings. The space in and of itself is less intimidating than our space in New York. And it's a more approachable, manageable size. If we can have shows that cover that kind of ‘more approachable’-price point, we're going to really be cultivating the next generation of clients, which is what we're trying to do.

TBF: How does Palm Beach fit into the larger program of the gallery as a whole, and what does the future look like for Acquavella?

EAD: It’s about expanding what we handle, and what we're known for, so that more people want to come here, spend time getting to know us and hopefully buy from us. I think we're pretty approachable and easygoing, but in New York, we've got this big staircase, and this iron fence and, you know, big iron doors, and it definitely takes some courage to walk up, walk in and take a look. We have a reputation for doing well what we've done for so long, which is sell very high-quality masterworks. We just realized we have to add to what we do.

Installation views of Unnatural Nature, Acquavella New York Gallery

TBF: Is there trouble in the masterwork space?

EAD: It's a dying breed. We still are able to, knock on wood, because we've been doing it for so long. Hello, because my father's been doing it for so long. I have been here 25 years, my brothers for 20+. We have sold a lot of this work or seen it be sold by our father to his clients. So we are lucky that we know where a lot of it is, and with people and clients that aren't necessarily known to other people.

We can get A-plus material and sell it, and people still come to us, if that's the type of collection that they want to put together. Because we can make that happen. I really want to emphasize the fact that we are not shifting away from that at all. We feel because now there's four of us—we can do it all.

TBF: Who do you see as your competition or are you in your own lane?

EAD: There's definitely competition. I mean, the auction houses are big competitors of ours. Because they get a lot of the work, they have a lot of access to collectors and particularly estates as often lawyers think that's the best way to sell something.

We have always been quite close to other dealers, and very collegial, because we never had galleries in other cities. By working with other galleries, it was always our way of getting exposure to our artists or to other collectors. That was sort of the biggest change, I would say, from my father's point of view, was when these galleries started having multiple spaces around the world. It's nice if other galleries show the same artists because it broadens the market.

With our first Palm Beach show, we collabed with Canada, who were open to the idea. They sent us five of their artists, and that's when I started to think: ‘Okay, this—we have to do more of this.’ Frankly, I want to work with galleries that do a great job of cultivating the next wave, and that have done the legwork and sourced a great roster, so that we are now in the mix for their next leap.

TBF: How has this foray into emerging impacted your own collecting practices? How do you go about it? And do you ever mix the gallery with your own collecting?

EAD: I have a lot of women artists, which to be honest, I didn't set out to do that. I was just very drawn to them. I had the good fortune to sort of buy them. Artists like Vija Celmins, Hannah Wilke and Mária Bartuszová, Teresita Fernández, Beatrice Milhazes, Sarah Cain. But I also have Tom Sachs, Miguel Barceló, Wayne Thiebaud, Lucian Freud, Mark Grotjahn, Jim Hodges, Elizabeth Peyton, Irma Blank, Tom Friedman, Chris Ofili, Roxy Paine. Oh, Lee Quiñones and Anthony Pearson.

A lot of the artists I have more than one by them. When I like an artist, I usually collect a little more in depth, if I have the opportunity. I mean, Freud, I only have one but you know…

TBF: Do you collect from passion?

EAD: It's totally from my gut and my heart. For better or for worse? It’s just very me. I buy things I like, and I don't overthink it. Some things are expensive. Some things are inexpensive and relatively unknown. And I'm fine with all of it.

TBF: Is that how you landed at Skowhegan, of which you're now the Board chair. What does that mean for the organization?

EAD: Here's why I love Skowhegan. It is a completely non-commercial engagement with art. And so for me, as someone who, you know, is in the commercial side of the art world, it feels very authentic. I don't have to think about what to buy, what to sell. You know, it's just a way to engage with a level of art and artists that I don't have access to, and that I enjoy learning about and seeing and hearing about. It's very rewarding to work for a cause that makes such a difference. And the people are interesting, and I love art. It's that simple.

Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture

Photo by Christopher Carroll, Courtesy Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture

We just did a big campaign for the 75th anniversary to sort out the campus in ways that really needed to be done over the last 10 years, and there just wasn't the funding available. It was very satisfying to be able to reach our goal, because it sort of was the solidification of the importance of the place. People are putting their money where their mouths are. And now, everyone can fit in the cafeteria to have dinner.

Press Release: Yuka Kashihara's solo show at Acquavella Palm Beach Gallery.

Yuka Kashihara's list of works.

Unnatural Nature
Walking Tour
Acquavella New York

Unnatural Nature
Walking Tour
Acquavella Palm Beach