‘It’s the best time to be a woman in the art world, but it’s still hard’
The success of the Luxembourg & Dayan gallery in London and New York is built upon the trust and mutual affection of its three directors, as well as their art-world expertise
Three women, three generations, all in black. They might be sitting for a portrait by Manet, except their conversation is too animated. They also laugh too much, transforming an everyday conversation into a journey of understanding and pleasure.
Together, mother and daughter Daniella and Alma Luxembourg, and their friend Amalia Dayan, run one of the most distinguished art galleries in London and New York. Specialising in modern and contemporary art, it is characterised by taste, eclecticism and a belief in quality.
On the day we meet, in the London gallery on Savile Row, an exhibition of works on paper by Cézanne is opening. Some are for sale and some are on loan; what is astonishing is the scholarship behind the show. Here, on these walls, two watercolour panels painted on the same sheet of paper are reunited for the first time since the Post-Impressionist master cut the paper in two.
‘This is the essence of the type of exhibition we are doing,’ says Daniella, with some pride. ‘It is based on exceptionally good examples of the artist’s work. All the theories in the world will not withstand the fact that you have a lousy painting to sell. Whatever you say about any artist dies if you have very bad examples.’
Amalia interjects seamlessly, as she often does, sitting between Daniella and Alma, turning her head as she listens. ‘We also have a very serious approach. So whether it is a show by Piotr Uklański, which is currently running in New York, or Derrick Adams, or Giacometti, everything is curated in a very researched, serious way.’
The women smile at each other. Ever since they began working together (Amalia joined Daniella when she was running the Phillips auction house with Simon de Pury), they have trusted and respected each other, setting up their joint venture in 2009.
‘It’s like the chemistry when you fall in love,’ Amalia says. ‘It’s easy and natural and wonderful. There is enough trust to give the others freedom to do their thing without questioning.’ Daniella nods. ‘There is a pact of friendship. Which is typically Israeli, I think. If one of us has a passion for something, the others will come through for that. That is the basis of our success, which translates also to a commitment and respect for our clients.’
The trio tend to work instinctively. ‘Whoever is the most passionate gets their way,’ says Alma. ‘Amalia and Daniella operate a bit like pirates. We don’t work as a collective — there doesn’t have to be approval consensus. But it’s also OK for me to say, “I am not doing that show; I think it’s a disaster.” And if I really think that, then we won’t do it.’
‘Although maybe,’ Amalia chips in, ‘none of us would come up with an idea that was absurd to the others.’
Does that mean they would never exhibit something that one of them did not like? Amalia smiles broadly. ‘Go on, tell your story,’ she says, gesturing to Daniella. So Daniella tells her story about the Jeff Koons Made in Heaven show, the works he created with his then wife, the porn star Cicciolina, which they staged — at Amalia’s suggestion — in their first year at their New York gallery, after opening with an exhibition of Marcel Duchamp.
‘Intellectually, I liked the show, and I believe it was part of the most important core work of Jeff Koons,’ Daniella says. ‘But after a while, being around those paintings, there was something so cruel about it that I couldn’t stand it physically. It doesn’t mean that it wasn’t good. But it was hard to bear.’
‘Our conversations about art are brief, because we trust each other and each one of us is strong and intelligent, with a point of view’
It was Amalia’s idea to bring Alma into the business. ‘It felt like a natural progression,’ she says. ‘I didn’t think about it very much, but I had a feeling it would work well and also that it would make Daniella very happy, the two of them together in the same venue.’
‘We wanted it to happen, but it was hard at first,’ adds Daniella. Then she goes on, seriously: ‘Alma and Amalia are much closer in age [they are 39 and 47, while Daniella is 69], and I think the reason older dealers find it difficult to work with the second generation is that we were somehow educated to be less generous. When you do things by yourself, you think you know best. With Amalia, because she is a loner and I am a loner, it worked.
‘But Alma is my daughter, so it’s a different thing and it taught me to be more generous. It is my first intimate partnership, so it was a humbling experience and it didn’t come easily to me.’ Alma watches her mother as she speaks, with clear affection. ‘We always saw a lot of each other, and we spoke every day, so in that way it’s the same,’ she adds.
Daniella tends to lead the conversations, but the women are clearly equally matched, like a three-legged stool that would collapse if you took one leg away. Each brings a different experience to the enterprise.
Daniella grew up in an immigration settlement in Haifa, where her parents made a home after surviving the work camps of the Holocaust. She was a dreamer and a reader — ‘everything I know is from literature’ — and first became interested in the history of art when she found Roman coins on the beaches of Haifa.
She studied art history at the Hebrew University and trained at the Israel Museum, working with Alix de Rothschild and Claude Lévi-Strauss gathering Jewish ethnographic items. ‘Then I got a very big offer from Teddy Kollek, the mayor of Jerusalem, to run a small museum in the old city,’ she says. ‘And I said yes. I always say yes to any offer.’
‘She does,’ interjects Alma. ‘She never says no.’
A job at Tel Aviv’s Museum of the Diaspora (now the Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot) followed, after which she set up Sotheby’s in Israel, then became the deputy chair of Sotheby’s in Switzerland and moved to Geneva with Alma and her then husband Isaac Luxembourg, an architect. It was there that she met Simon de Pury.
They formed a private dealership in 1997, were bought and then merged with Phillips, but Daniella left the business in 2004 and returned to private dealing. Her passions are Cézanne, Manet and Arte Povera, and her knowledge of modern art is extensive.
Amalia Dayan, on the other hand, was born to a family that is virtually Israeli royalty, since her grandfather was Moshe Dayan, Israel’s defence and foreign minister, and her father the famous actor and director Assi Dayan. She fell in love with art history unexpectedly and studied at Tel Aviv University. ‘My parents were very uninvolved, but they saw my enthusiasm and commitment and were supportive of my choice to live outside Israel, which was for me a very positive, freeing thing.’
She did a master’s in arts management at New York University, then worked with the dealer Jeffrey Deitch at Deitch Projects. It was a vibrant gallery at an exciting time, and she became a specialist in contemporary art. She joined Phillips de Pury & Company for a time, before moving to the Gagosian, then striking out on her own.
She began to work with Daniella on private sales, operating out of Daniella’s New York townhouse until they bought their current premises on East 77th Street in 2008.
‘Then the market collapsed,’ says Daniella. ‘I said never mind, put a shower in on the top floor and we’ll turn it into a yoga centre.’ In fact, the business thrived, and in 2011 they opened a London branch, which Alma joined to run. Born in Tel Aviv, she had studied politics at LSE before switching to art history at the Courtauld Institute — much to her mother’s surprise.
She went on to work for the dealer Marc Blondeau, before becoming a contemporary art specialist at Christie’s for four years. ‘It was a really fun time, because the turnover of the contemporary department doubled, so the volumes were huge. I loved it, and I had great mentors and teachers.’ By the time she decided to join Luxembourg & Dayan, she had been at Sotheby’s for three years, running the department for private sales of contemporary art in Europe.
The women recognise that their different qualities power the success of their collaborative effort. What does each bring? ‘Alma is good at the exhibition side, she is really talented at publishing catalogues,’ says Daniella. ‘And Amalia has the eye of a cat. She is very quick in assessing situations and seeing where the danger is.’
There is much laughter. And Daniella? ‘She has an exceptional sense of quality in art, in people,’ says Amalia. ‘The level she aspires to is very high.’
‘It’s the best time to be a woman in the art world, but it’s still hard,’ says Amalia. ‘Especially in England,’ says Daniella. ‘In America, maybe less. If you look at women who succeed, they have their own businesses.’
‘Also, as women, we have more on our plate,’ adds Amalia. ‘More juggling,’ says Alma, who has one daughter; Amalia has two with her husband, the gallerist Adam Lindemann, as well as three step-daughters.
Conversation with these women is like being at a party with three close friends, and being welcomed into their gang. When they are alone, they tend to speak Hebrew. ‘I’ll tell you a story,’ says Daniella.
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‘One of the men who worked here could speak Hebrew and he said to me one day, “I want to ask you something personal. The girls here think that you’re talking about work because you do such interesting projects. But when I hear you, you’re only asking what the other person ate for lunch!”
‘Our conversations about art are brief, because we trust each other and each one of us is strong and intelligent, with a point of view. I trust you. You can tell me in two sentences what you think, you don’t need to give me three pages.
‘So we don’t speak much about art, and I love that. I think art matters, it really matters. We are about the essence of it.’