Gallery owners are some of the key gatekeepers for art, and some have the ability (and good luck) to be tastemakers. This is a fact that drives artists crazy, and causes them to conceive elaborate strategies to avoid being gallery artists. Personally, I'm for whatever works to get art to people who want to see it. That necessarily includes galleries.
And the fact is that it's hard to successfully run a gallery (I would be surprised if they had a success rate significantly higher than restaurants). And few gallery owners succeed in bringing truly great artists before the public eye. But some do, and because some do, anyone interested in the history of art needs to know something about galleries and their owners and directors. (Just as, likewise, anyone interested in the history of culture has to be aware of the great editors and great A&R men and great movie producers and great impresarios.)
For that reason alone, Leo and His Circle: The Life of Leo Castelli by Annie Cohen-Solieil would be worth a look. That it is a really well-written, compelling biography is an unexpected bonus. Castelli was born Leo Krausz in 1907. His family was forced to adopt his mother's family name when Mussolini decreed that all Italians must have Italian names--a decree that was apparently aimed mainly at Trieste's Slovene population. But Castelli's father, a Hungarian Jew, was affected by this decree as well. The book deals with Castelli's complex family roots--as complex as the city of Trieste itself. Partly Italian and partly Austro-Hungarian, Italy got Trieste as settlement after the first World War. One result of Castelli's multinational upbringing is that he was himself multi-lingual. Combine that with an extremely suave personality, superb social skills, and a fantastic feel for art, and you have the perfect recipe for a successful New York art dealer.
The book discusses how Castelli got there. It wasn't instantaneous, to say the least. He and his wife collected art and then just before World War II, Castelli opened a gallery in Paris with a dealer named Rene Drouin. Talk about bad timing! This was the exception, though. Castelli was really a guy who mostly lived off his wife's family's money until he was 50. They helped him get jobs, set him up in business, while he spent his time as a socialite and art lover.
But as an art lover, he got deeply involved in art, especially in the art being done in New York after the war. He got involved in what was going on, helped people, acted as a host for parties, etc. Nothing that made him any money, but stuff that made him an important figure on the scene. He laid the groundwork for a gallery. And finally, in February 1957, he opened it up in his apartment. He was 50 years old! A true model for all late-bloomers.
He quickly signed on such artists as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, etc. He put his artists on a salary of sorts, so they could live between shows. This was risky behavior for a gallery owner, and some of the minimalist and post-minimalist artists Castelli scarcely paid off this on-going investment. He also franchised his gallery nationally and internationally with galleries he owned as well as with strategic partnerships. (I wish the mechanics of the latter had been better explicated in the book. If, for example, if there was a Roy Lichtenstein show at Janie C. Lee in Dallas, how did Castelli get paid?)
Castelli was famous for having a waiting list to be able to buy art from particular artists. How this waiting list worked was fairly arbitrary--Castelli wanted to make sure you were the right customer to be buying the art. He well understood that there was a brand value to certain collectors. What the book doesn't say is whether Castelli originated this practice, which has been used since (my friend Robert Weiss was on waiting lists for Robert Williams paintings--it was a strictly numerical list, and when a new Williams show opened, there was a lot of trading of spots among collectors. Weiss eventually acquired two Williams paintings before his tragic death in a car accident. He was the first serious art collector I ever knew).
In the 80s and 90s, young gallery owners who learned Castelli's techniques started to eclipse him. Some of his top artists jumped ship. Still, he had an extremely successful career, and it is reasonable to ask if the recent history of art would have been the same without him. (Cohen-Solal implies it would not have been.) Would Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg have been the giants they were if Castelli hadn't been there pushing their work? It's not a totally comfortable question to ask, but it's true that cultural gate-keepers like Castelli may have an effect on the art form with which they are are associated. The magnitude of that effect is impossible to quantify (because it is impossible to test the alternative outcome). But the effect is there.