The Interview: John and Gretchen Berggruen

by Janet Reilly

When John met Gretchen …

When John met Gretchen …

Witnessing John and Gretchen Berggruen interact is like watching a romantic comedy from another era. The married gallery owners—who just so happen to be among the most prominent art dealers in San Francisco—banter like Harry and Sally. Married more than 30 years, the Berggruens have set up shop near the newly renovated SFMOMA after closing their longtime Grant Avenue digs. They invited me to their showroom, then empty and under construction, on a chilly afternoon in late December, two weeks before opening day. Cue the witty repartee.

First of all, congratulations on your soon-to-be-opened gallery. John, I’ll begin with you: In a recent Wall Street Journal article, you were asked why you’re moving South of Market. You said, “I walked into Grant Avenue after 45 years and said, ‘I’m tired of this. I want to be energized.’” So, are you energized?

John Berggruen: I wasn’t that tired. I was a little tired of the experience of being on Grant Avenue. Also just the idea of being in a new environment. We have a young, bright and very committed staff and an interesting program planned for the future. And you cannot underestimate the importance of SFMOMA, which is across the street. That’s a wonderful incentive to want to move to this neighborhood.

Your father, the renowned art dealer
Heinz Berggruen, cautioned you against opening a gallery in San Francisco. Why
was he so pessimistic?

John: First of all, he had lived in San Francisco from the late ’30s, early -’40s and married my mother. That was not a success. That was a rather unfortunate situation. He was here from Germany as a German refugee and, eventually, became an American citizen and was drafted into the United States Army. He worked at SFMOMA as one of their first curators, if not the first curator. He also worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, which is a local newspaper that still exists. … He really had a lot of contempt for San Francisco in terms of going forward with his career as an art dealer and his experience with collectors and all that.

Gretchen Berggruen: Well, I don’t think that’s quite true. … Not that it was a happy time for him, but there was a cultural life here. People forget that there were so many people coming out of Europe. Writers, photographers, musicians. All the universities in the Bay Area were hiring those people, and it was a very rich time.

John: He felt that San Francisco as an art community was somewhat of a backwater in regard to what he was doing in his business as an art dealer in Paris.

Gretchen: Well, compared to what he was doing in Paris…

John: He felt I had very little experience. My academic training, or my education, was not about art history but political science so it didn’t mean as much. In any case, he felt maybe I was a little young. Maybe naïve.

Gretchen: You were young.

John: My father, he was always very hands-off. He didn’t say, “I know you’ll do well. I’m going to work with you.” Right before we opened the gallery on Grant, I asked him if he would lend me some money—and he ended up lending me $5,000, which was payable within the year. I paid him, I think, 11 months later. It was a good learning curve for me. Thank God Gretchen came along.

Well, you  two have been very successful
in a very difficult business. What do you
attribute your success to, both personally and professionally?

Gretchen: Professionally, the experience of not being afraid of hard work. We were always open six days a week when all the other galleries were only open five. Instead of opening at 10:30 or 11, we opened at 9:30. It sounds silly but it’s true—that really might have made a difference. I have a list of clients who stopped by the gallery early Monday morning on their way out of town or on the way to the airport. They would look in the gallery guide and we were the only gallery open. … John told the story about someone tapping on the window and coming in one Monday morning, and buying a wonderful Henry Moore sculpture.

Another thing is John and I are a good balance—one against the other—in that John is a little more impulsive. When he sees a work of art, for instance, he’ll be the one very often to say, “I don’t care. I really like it. I’m going to buy it.” I’ll say, “No, wait a minute.” I’ll be trying to think, well, who would we offer this to or how much is that? I actually tend to overthink things a little bit. Between my cautionary voice and John’s impulsiveness, it has worked out in a way that most people probably wouldn’t have predicted—including his father.

Last May, Christie’s had its first billion-
dollar week. A Mark Rothko sold for $82 million. A Lucien Freud and an Andy Warhol both went for $56 million. What’s your reaction to these prices?

John: Not sure it’s always a good thing, because you limit your market. A lot of those paintings, those prices, are certainly inaccessible.

Gretchen: Yes, but it could be a good thing too. It’s always a double-edged sword. Those who have been collecting with us in a very methodical way, in a long-term way, look at us with tremendous gratitude. Rarely is it the case that someone comes back to us and they’ve been embarrassed and say, “Boy, I really shouldn’t have bought this.”

A critic here used to always take a dig at the expense of art. I would think, Well, yeah, but look how many artists are married, who are supporting children. Supporting children in college, supporting buying a home, having a real life. People forget that that wasn’t a given for everybody. That’s the other role the dealer plays. We support those people.

Janet: You’re obviously both collectors as well. Do you share similar taste?

John: No. My taste is much more evolved.

Gretchen: Of course.

John: We don’t share every artist in terms of agreement or enthusiasm—but mostly yes. We have works by [Wayne] Thiebaud and [Richard] Diebenkorn in our house.

Gretchen: I’ve been trying to keep myself fresh by pushing myself these last few years, particularly, to be looking at more emerging artists. Not just out of college—not that kind of emerging—but with some track record. … There are artists that I will buy something of and John will go, “Why did you do that?”

John: Where are you going to put it, Gretchen?

Gretchen: Well, that’s the issue.

Janet: Space.

Gretchen: I don’t want another building or apartment or house to take care of. I just want more walls.

Janet: What makes your marriage work? Gretchen: I’m a saint.

John: That’s true. More people say, “John, you’re so lucky.” And then they say, “Gretchen, you poor thing.”

Gretchen: Why does it work? I don’t know. I think we had a good working relationship for many years before we were married. We had unnamed roles that I would work with the difficult people and he would work with the easy-peasy people.

John: Also, we have a lot of fun together.

Gretchen: We do have a lot of fun.

John: We like to travel together. We like to eat dinner together.

Gretchen: Every night.

John: We have three great kids—children who are not children anymore. We have offices on separate floors.

Gretchen: Mandatory. We always have. I think it works, though, because we have a good sense of humor.

John: That’s important.

Gretchen. We get grumpy with each other. We call ourselves The Bickersons.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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