They’re Auckland’s most successful art dealers, celebrating more than a quarter of a century in the business. Linda Herrick talks to John Gow and Gary Langsford about artist fallouts, broken marriages and selling art to John Key.
What is an art dealer's idea of a productive day? John Gow, one half of the high-end Gow Langsford Gallery in Auckland, has a story to tell.
"Yesterday Gary [Langsford] and I were leaning on the counter, pricing, with a notice on the door saying, 'Business visitors only. Installation day.' I looked out and I saw a gaggle of Asian ladies looking through the window so I invited them in.
"Well, it turned out one of those ladies was worth in excess of a billion dollars and she'd been at the Auckland Art Gallery across the road taking photos of the art she liked. And did we have any? Gordon Walters, Gretchen Albrecht, Milan Mrkusich, Colin McCahon ..."
Both Gow and Langsford are laughing. Did they have any? They sure did. If not, they could get their hands on whatever was required. But that was just one day in the life of their gallery. "We had an Italian man who'd been to the Auckland Art Gallery, then walked past our Lorne St gallery and came into the Frieze show [in December 2010]," says Langsford.
"It was very funny because it was the day after our Christmas party and Anna, our manager, was talking to him and she was pretty hungover - we all were - and she thought this guy was taking the piss," adds Gow.
"She was being reasonably dismissive towards him, she just wanted him to f*** off and leave her alone. He ended up buying 10 paintings."
That's a superb result, commercially, far beyond what most of us would experience in a lifetime, and there are plenty more stories like that. But it's a business with great lows along with the highs. Art dealing is in another stratosphere, a precarious path Gow and Langsford have negotiated together for 25 years, remarkable in a city where so many galleries have fallen.
Gow Langsford could have failed as well, because when Gow and Langsford decided to set up shop in August 1987, they'd met each other only twice, an extremely risky foundation for a partnership. Langsford was in his early 30s, Gow a few years younger.
Gow, who grew up on a farm in the Waikato and had "a lot of art in the family", went straight into his father's post-farm business in the John Leech Galleries in Remuera, learning the craft of framing before taking off to London for three years to buy gold and silver for his cousin. "That's where I learned to trade."
Langsford, on the other hand, had a less cautious background. With a fine arts degree in sculpture from Elam and sporadically playing guitar in bands like DD Smash, he had a sharp reputation in Auckland in the 80s as an art deco dealer, frequently travelling to antique fairs in Miami and Japan.
"I was doing a lot of travelling and was quite transient really," he recalls. "I had a property at the top of Franklin Rd [in Ponsonby] but I was spending a lot of time overseas and I got a bit tired of living out of a suitcase. It was a kind of hand-to-mouth existence, so I came back and thought, 'I'll set up a gallery'."
Langsford had briefly met Gow at the John Leech Galleries, when he'd bought a painting, and the two got talking about the gallery dream at an art fair where they both had stalls. Gow thought it was just a fantasy.
"There was a lot of time to kill and we went out for a beer afterwards and as the night wore on it sounded like a good idea," he laughs. "Yeah, after the 10th beer or so, a brilliant idea," adds Langsford.
After the art fair ended, says Gow, "We went back to work as usual. About six weeks later Gary rang up and said, 'I've found the perfect building.' I thought, 'Oh f***, you're serious'."
That was a mighty leap of faith to transform boozy bullshit into action.
"It was, it was," nods Langsford. "What we do is make the reality happen very quickly and worry about the consequences later but it was set up through naivety. The timing was appalling. We paid a lot, but of course the market was booming. It was the 80s and everything was flying along."
When Gow Langsford opened with a group show - and a sideshow of art deco bits and bobs, accompanied by vodka and oysters - they recall that "there were very few galleries at the time with good accounting systems. They were run by enthusiastic amateurs."
These two were determined to be enthusiastic professionals, supported by meticulous accounting (today, they have two accountants on staff). With Gow still involved in the John Leech business, they brought its mailing lists across to Gow Langsford and introduced Remuera patrons to the outrageous idea of driving all the way across town to West Lynn.
"They liked the novelty, so initially it worked very well, then it did get hard to bring them across town," recalls Gow. "I remember ringing one client because I knew he loved Andrew Drummond sculptures so I told him I'd get a taxi to pick him up and take him back again, but he came over anyway."
The 87 sharemarket crash meant that the gallery lost some clients, like property developer David Henderson, and the premise's value halved, but business continued as usual because the "traditional collectors" were still making money. Gow and Langsford's strengths as traders also grew. "There was one deal where we swapped three paintings for an apartment in The Pines [in Epsom]," says Gow. "We have traded all sorts of things over the years."
After three years at Richmond Rd, they decided they needed to be more central, so sold the building and moved to a huge space in the Saatchi premises on The Strand, in Parnell. It was too big and the location wasn't right. "The space was fabulous but we just weren't seeing enough people," says Langsford. "Plus the developers went broke. There were all sorts of things that happened around the same time and we ended up right where we are now in Kitchener St, which is a fraction of the size but the best location you could imagine. It transformed our business really."
Gow, who had also taken over the John Leech business in 1996 when his parents retired, "got sick and tired" of running between Remuera and Kitchener St and eventually moved into the premises next door so he could operate "side by side". Now his sole focus is on the Gow Langsford partnership.
Their stable retains artists they started out with 25 years ago, people like Karl Maughan, Michael Hight and Dick Frizzell. "And I've still got artists from the past that we don't represent any more who ring me and ask me to go around and have a look at their work and I'm always happy to do it," says Langsford. "But falling out with artists, that has happened to us as well. Unfortunately, it seems the more you look after them, the worse they treat you. No, I shouldn't say that," he laughs, "but it can be really hurtful, particularly when you build careers."
"It's like having 30 more family members," cracks Gow.
"No wonder the bloody marriages don't survive," says Langsford. They both laugh. How many marriages? "Oh, a couple each..." he says vaguely, adding that he and Gow could never split up because "we owe so much money the bank wouldn't let us".
"We've advanced money to artists," says Gow. "We've financed Allen Maddox going to the Philippines to get married, we've financed Karl Maughan's deposit on his house, we've paid Maddox's mortgage by automatic payment."
"We always get a run of funds during tax time. We're a small bank, really," adds Langsford.
"So when one of them turns around and says 'get stuffed', it's terrible," echoes Gow.
What makes Gow Langsford different from most galleries in New Zealand is that they have long made the push to take New Zealand art to fairs and galleries overseas, and bring work by international talents like Picasso, Damien Hirst and Antonio Murado into the Auckland gallery, exposing audiences to new experiences.
"We went to the second Melbourne Art Fair," says Langsford. "We missed the first one because we didn't know it was on, and we have been there every year bar one. Being us, of course, we went in very high - we took four McCahons so we got, 'God, who do these guys think they are?' But that paid off over the years. Australia's been a big buyer of McCahons. We recently sold two to an Australian institution and now we have a major European institution looking at one. It has taken 25 years."
Gow Langsford also recently sold a McCahon to Te Papa for $3.1 million, while they sold two Picassos "in one hit" for US$2 million.
Langsford describes their strategy as conservative. "If we were big risk-takers we'd be betting on horses but we are betting on art. If you look at what we do in the isolation of New Zealand we are top-end. We hold a lot of price records that we don't jump up and down about but I look at us in a global context and in terms of pricing we are in the minnow department. All my friends say you're in the right business but in the wrong country."
Let's assume they must have always had a business plan? "Yes. To sell as much art as possible, every day," says Gow.
"We never used to," observes Langsford. "It was pretty haphazard but as the years have gone by, we have got more professional." But times are changing, in a big way. "Younger people really do have a slightly different attitude to collecting and I don't think they're as focused as our original collector base," he says.
"We've had people who collect in-depth with storerooms in the house. We get the NBR Rich List every year and we go through it and tick off who we are selling to and unfortunately every year we are getting fewer and fewer. Those at the top end certainly aren't buying any art.
"We need to sell Mr Key a painting. I think that's one of my challenges."
Langsford smiles as he says this but you get the feeling he's going to do it. Even if it takes him 25 years to achieve. He likes playing the long game.
ON GOW AND LANGSFORD
"I joined them in 1987. They were young and brash. Gary looked kind of slick and John looked like a stock and station agent. It was slightly off-putting. I had this peculiar feeling I was looking at the future. I'll never forget the two of them walking into my studio - they had their white shirts on and their ties, it was like the Kray Twins turning up. I couldn't say no.
I quit very briefly in 1992. Gary said he'd give me three months and I was back in six weeks. I was kind of reflecting my own crisis of confidence on them really. I thought if I was in a more bohemian environment I might blossom or something. I was really transferring my anxieties on to them. It became their fault. I had to leave to figure that out.
John and Gary just wanted it to be a very professional upscale operation. They were never afraid of money, those two, that's why when things get tight it really hits them a bit. They are not afraid to go right out on the edge. It was a foreign world to everyone in the art business.
They are highly regarded, without a doubt. It's something to aspire to, the way they have run their business. They are a model, yeah, they are brilliant.
We are all family now, it's been such a long relationship. In the old days, when I got short they'd advance me money against the next sale. There's this good cop-bad cop thing going on; the tough one and the soft one. Gary is the aesthetic toughie, he has such a thing about minimalism, the hard-arse stuff, sometimes I wonder how he tolerates my approach to the business. I don't know how they put up with me."
"When they opened the gallery, we all went along to the oepning and me and another friend drank way too many vodkas. I had about 10 vodkas and me and my friend got into a fight with Gary's brother, not literally, but standing each other down. It turned into this nasty thing and John and Gary threw us out.
On Monday morning I was thinking, I really want to show with those guys and I'd ruined my opportunity. Dick Frizzell said, 'I'm sure if they like your work they won't care about what you did at the opening' so I went to see them and they came to the studio and they were into it straight away.
They booked me for a show in 1988. Not long after that, I needed this loan to survive and the bank said they needed some sort of collateral so Gary came to the bank with me and signed over his collection of Crown Lynn pottery for my loan. It was an impressive thing to do. I finally managed to pay it off about 10 years ago."
"I've been with them since the year dot. I had a show at Artspace in 1987, they came to the opening and bought a couple of works, and expressed an interest. I'd just got back from London and I didn't have a dealer so I signed up. I'd never met them before.
They're not afraid to take risks with what you want to do, and that is the overall characteristic of the gallery and their attitude, whether it be spending money and going to overseas art fairs or setting up contacts with dealers around the world and bringing works by international artists back here.
Periodically they come out to see me but compared to other galleries they are quite hands-off in some ways, they have faith that you are going to produce something that is not going to disgrace the gallery."
Gow Langsford first opened its doors with a group show on August 9, 1987, in a vacant gas station on Richmond Rd, the air still reeking with the smell of petrol. They paid $300,000 for the property but the value halved after the sharemarket crash of October 1987. Langsford recalls the mortgage rate: 20 per cent, with a secondary mortgage of 29 per cent.
Three years later they moved to 123-125 The Strand, Parnell, as lead tenants in a development also occupied by Saatchi & Saatchi and architects Noel Lane and Richard Priest. "That was a little optimistic, at 6500 sq ft on the first floor," says Langsford.
Three years later they moved to their current location on the corner of Wellesley and Kitchener Sts, directly opposite Auckland Art Gallery, acquiring apartments 1A-1C over a period of 10 years and combining them into office and gallery spaces. When the Auckland Art Gallery renovations began, Gow and Langsford realised their premises would be opposite a building site, so they leased the space to Hawkins Construction for the duration of the build and acquired a 50 per cent share in a former backpackers' hostel at 26 Lorne St. Today, they operate two galleries: at Lorne St and the Kitchener St gallery.
Gow Langsford 25th Anniversary Spring Catalogue show, August 28-September 29.