Top art dealer explains how to win at Art Basel

Dominique Levy
Dominique Levy

It seems more and more these days that selling art has become a competitive sport — one which requires boundless energy, careful planning and beaucoup bucks. And probably the biggest event — at least according to many art leaders — is coming up this week in Europe.

Art mavens and investors will be flocking to Art Basel in Switzerland, where more than 800 galleries competed for just 300 booths. Those lucky chosen dealers are falling over themselves trying to plan out the perfect show in the hopes of attracting the most serious buyers.


The New York Times recently interviewed noted gallery owner Dominique Levy who dished on all the prep and grueling hard work that goes into exhibiting at the show. Levy, who is Swiss herself, doesn’t just think Art Basel is the end-all, be-all for art fairs because it takes place in her native country.

She explains, “You’re put to really high standards. Every collector would say to you Art Basel is the most important art fair.” She notes it is not just an exhibit — it is all about commerce. Fairs account for about 40 percent of gallery sales by value, according to the Tefaf Art Market Report.

Dominique Levy's gallery at 909 Madison Avenue
Dominique Levy’s gallery at 909 Madison Avenue

She continues, “It’s really your one moment where you can show who you are,” she said. “It’s acutely important for existing relationships, new relationships, the way the art world perceives you.”

So how does a gallery set itself aside from the rest? Levy explains, the devil is indeed in the details.

Have a crew: She brings a staff of 11 for a week to ensure everything goes according to plan. Her “art squad” includes: an architect, painter and lighting designer to make sure the booth design and arrangement goes off without a hitch. She produces a glossy brochure and even bought Le Corbusier furniture for the booth. The final touch is over-the-big top entertainment for clients — this year a circus-themed fete featuring a tightrope acrobat!

Be cash-laden: If all this sounds pricey, it is. Her budget this year is $300,000, but the old adage goes, “It takes money to make money.”

“There’s not a year where we haven’t met a minimum of three to five meaningful people,” she said, describing important buyers.

Location, location, location: In addition to how the booth looks, its placement is also key. Levy explains she had to work her way up to a prominent locale. “I had to graduate from behind the toilet,” she said.

Have endurance: Once the event is open, Levy barely eats or rests — “Basel is the fair where I’ve lost the most sleep.” She remains in her high heels for the duration. “I can’t sell art in flat shoes,” and as a result brings an ice bucket to soak her feet after the first four hours.

“Then I can do another four hours,” she said.