For several weeks this past autumn, a fashionably dressed woman could be seen in the window of a London art gallery stooping to pick up a half-dozen designer shopping bags. A digital print on a mirror made by the artist Sylvie Fleury, the woman was permanently frozen in the act, her bare midriff impervious to the rain outside. A collection of real bags on the floor before her doubled the optical illusion for passers-by, who might have been carrying their own bags from the nearby Versace or Dolce & Gabbana stores. But the gallery, Sprüth Magers, is not the kind of place where most people can casually drop in and buy something; the artworks sold there fetch prices in the tens to the hundreds of thousands. If Fleury’s work poked fun at the view that art is just a commodity, it was also a nostalgic reflection on the moment the empty shopping bags were first shown by the gallery, in 1991 — a time when neither she nor her dealers could have afforded a permanent storefront in Mayfair.
On Sept. 21, the night Fleury’s exhibition opened, a crowd swelled in the narrow street outside the gallery as four dozen guests pushed their way into the townhouse next door. Maison Estelle is the kind of elite private London club that demands you place a sticker over the camera on your phone — a gilded salon that would have been out of character, if not wholly unimaginable, in the gallery’s scrappy early days. Over Dover sole, Sprüth Magers’s co-founder Philomene Magers proudly told her guests that Fleury’s bags were part of her very first exhibition, when she took over the Bonn, Germany, art gallery belonging to her mother on her death. “We’ve been friends for thirty years,” she said, beaming. If the setting spoke to how far the gallery and Fleury had come since then, the longevity of their relationship seems par for the course for Sprüth Magers, which has worked closely with numerous groundbreaking artists for decades, putting many of them on the map. By showing artists like Fleury, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger and Rosemarie Trockel in Europe for the first time, Sprüth Magers helped create international demand for their work, thus contributing to the growth of the global art market, which in 2022 swelled to $67.8 billion.
Growth has come with its share of challenges. Mega-galleries like Gagosian, Pace and Hauser & Wirth have opened international outposts with the frequency of luxury retail brands, poaching artists from smaller galleries along the way. New art fairs mean expanded exhibition schedules as well as increased travel and shipping budgets. Small and medium-size galleries face a choice of growing or going out of business. Sprüth Magers, which over the past 40 years has branched out to include four locations and now participates in six fairs annually, is no exception. And yet, the gallery has managed to do this while holding fast to its roots: Since opening, the gallery has never lost representation of a single artist it works with — an exceptionally rare feat in the hypercompetitive art market.
“This is nothing to be proud of,” says Monika Sprüth, the gallery’s other co-founder. She’s not so much modest as wary of complacency, given the challenges of running such a sprawling business that relies heavily on personal relationships. “The last 40 years were tough,” she adds. In contrast to her 58-year-old partner, who is of a more optimistic disposition, Magers is known for her frank demeanor, forged in the early 1980s, when she was one of the few female gallerists in Cologne. Showing new work by living artists, in particular a core group of politically outspoken, feminist U.S.-based artists — Jenny Holzer, Kruger and Sherman among them — Sprüth made waves in what was then a male-dominated, and often quite sexist, German scene. (Cologne’s most famous artist, Georg Baselitz, has repeatedly made headlines through the years for claiming that there are no important female artists, and that work by women sells for less money than work by men because it is not as good.)
Sprüth and Magers gave contemporary American art inroads into Europe long before most stateside galleries were entertaining the possibility of international expansion. And they did so with a quiet restraint, never behaving like a corporate power, which many New York galleries must do to survive. Tellingly, though the pair maintain a private, appointment-only office in New York, they do not have a storefront space in the art market’s global capital.
Their reserve might be one reason artists seem so willing to trust them. There’s an unusual consistency to their roster, notes Nora Turato, who recently signed with the gallery and had a show of her text-based works at its Berlin headquarters this September. It feels like a “line or thread through the program that tells a story,” she says, referring to Sprüth Magers’s history of showing cutting-edge conceptual work by women artists. “I think that’s what a big, good gallery should do — tell a story. Because there are so many stories, especially now, with this emerging market. It’s such a mess, and nobody knows who to listen to.”
MONIKA SPRÜTH GREW UP in small-town Bavaria in the aftermath of the Second World War. She never intended to become an art dealer: She studied architecture and in the late 1970s settled in Cologne, where she began teaching urban planning at the University of Applied Sciences. The medieval port town had been largely flattened by Allied shells, but after nearby Bonn became the federal capital of West Germany, Cologne was redeveloped as its media hub. A newly wealthy class of advertising and entertainment moguls were on the hunt for high-value assets, and by the end of the decade, Cologne had become the epicenter of the European art market. The scene was emphatically male, however: Most international attention focused on a group of big, splashy male painters known as Mülheimer Freiheit (named for the Cologne street where many of them had studios) and the dealers (also men) who represented them. There were outsize egos and rivalries to match. Disputes over art caused at least a few barroom brawls.
At the time, Sprüth was sharing a studio with a young polymath named Rosemarie Trockel and making art that Trockel recalls as “socially critical work in a very graphic manner.” Sprüth dismisses those early efforts as “not very good,” but she was enamored of Trockel’s own abstract, hand-knit fabric works, which entangled notions of so-called “women’s labor” such as weaving with sculpture and painting — artistic practices that women historically had often been forbidden to study. If a gallery wasn’t willing to exhibit work like Trockel’s, Sprüth decided, she would have to open one herself: “We thought, ‘What these boys can do, we can do as well.’”
Before Sprüth found a space to call her own, she took a trip that would change her life. In 1980, on a visit to New York, she encountered the work of Cindy Sherman at Metro Pictures, an edgy new downtown gallery run by Janelle Reiring and Helene Winer. Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills” (1970-1980), self-portraits in which the artist poses as scared or seductive starlets from imaginary movies, drew attention to the roles that society scripts for women. Sherman belongs to what became known as the Pictures Generation (from whom Metro Pictures took its name), a group of artists, also including Kruger and Louise Lawler, whose appropriations of images from mass media stood in stark contrast to the unmediated bravado of the Mülheimer Freiheit set. “The goal was always to find artists who could potentially add something innovative to the art discourse, and I felt that with the artists of the Pictures Generation,” Sprüth recalls. She knew that if she could show these American women in conservative Cologne — a factory for the kind of media they were critiquing — their work would land like a bomb.
At the time, the international market for contemporary art was minuscule at best. The two major art fairs, Art Basel and Art Cologne, mainly attracted a regional clientele. Still, a climate of financial deregulation had begun to warm up sales on both sides of the Atlantic, particularly for new-money types who had no cultural affinity for overpriced old masters. Nowhere was this truer than in New York, where galleries like Metro Pictures were nurturing young talent to meet rising demand. These businesses formed part of what’s known as the primary market, selling works fresh from artists’ studios, rather than from the hands of prior owners. “It’s almost like a marriage,” says Magers of the commitment to work with a living artist. “You have to try to facilitate the artist’s career as best as you can and give all the support the artist needs. And ideally, you know, you want to have a relationship that keeps going for a long time.”
In the U.S., unlike in Germany, quite a few women — such as Barbara Gladstone, Marian Goodman and Pat Hearn — were leading this business. Before them in the 1950s there was Betty Parsons, and in the ’70s, minimalist artists were championed by the renowned dealer Ileana Sonnabend. “New York had a long history of women dealers, and I never felt discriminated against,” says Reiring. In Germany, on the other hand, she continues, “you’d be at dinner with a whole lot of people, and if you were a woman, no one would ever ask you about anything you did. They just expected you were someone’s girlfriend.”
Such were the challenges when Galerie Monika Sprüth opened in Cologne in 1983 with an exhibition by a then-unknown painter named Andreas Schulze. “She didn’t open the gallery and show Baselitz or [Josef] Beuys,” says Schulze. Reactions from some male colleagues were condescending. Because she was a young woman, “the older galleries were always looking a little bit down on her,” Schulze recalls. Sprüth adds, “It was super misogynistic.”
In response, Sprüth in 1985 launched Eau de Cologne, a series of all-female exhibitions and accompanying magazines with articles on and by women, its name turning up its metaphorical nose at the stinking machismo of the Rhineland scene. It was “intended as a provocation,” she admits. Sprüth interviewed Sonnabend for the magazine’s first issue; its cover featured a self-portrait by Sherman. There were additional contributions by Holzer and Kruger, American artists whose powerful typographical works used the conventions of print media to criticize patriarchal violence. Upon arriving in Cologne, Kruger says she felt that “all the old stereotypes of gender differences and macho heavy-drinking were still more prevalent in Germany than they were here in the States.”
In April 1989, as anti-abortion laws in Missouri came before the U.S. Supreme Court, more than half a million people gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., many of them carrying a placard designed by Kruger, featuring a black-and-white image of a woman’s face with bold red text over it that read, “Your body is a battleground.” The image appeared in the third issue of Eau de Cologne, which was the only thing for sale at Sprüth’s otherwise empty booth at the Art Cologne fair that November. It was not a lucrative proposition, but its message was impossible to ignore.
AT THE BACK of Eau de Cologne’s third issue were classified pages for female gallerists in New York and the Rhineland. (In 1989, there weren’t enough women dealers in Cologne alone for Sprüth to fill a single spread.) Close to the centerfold, there’s a photograph of a young woman identified as Philomene Magers — Sprüth’s friend from Bonn, then just 24 years old. Magers’s mother, who shared her name, had started her own gallery in the West German capital in 1971, showing work by young women like Trockel and the conceptual artist Astrid Klein. The scene in Bonn was less developed than Cologne’s, with the result that Magers’s feminist exhibitions were met with less fanfare. She was better known for representing male artists like Beuys and the American sculptor Donald Judd.
In 1989, the elder Magers died, and her daughter took over the gallery’s program and day-to-day operations. Months later, the Berlin Wall came down. Bonn’s prospects as a leading cultural destination seemed to collapse along with it, as the newly reunified nation prepared to move its capital back to Berlin. Artists and galleries flocked there, too, lured by recently vacated industrial spaces and cheap rent. The city’s scene would come to eclipse those of Cologne and Düsseldorf. Magers sought Sprüth’s friendly advice often in those first years on her own, and when the two galleries decided to merge their operations in 1998, their relocation seemed all but inevitable. In 2008 they opened a sprawling flagship in Berlin’s Mitte district, the historic center formerly under East German control. “We listened to our artists, who were keen to show in Berlin,” says Sprüth. “Besides, many of them live and work here.”
Touting Berlin’s attractiveness to artists, Klaus Wowereit, the city’s mayor at the time, described it as “poor but sexy.” Sprüth Magers’s palatial home on Oranienburger Strasse went a long way in establishing the contemporary art scene in Berlin as desirable and competitive with other major art markets; the Mayfair space opened in 2007. New York would have been the obvious next step to keep up with the competition, but in 2016, at the urging of Kruger, who has lived in Los Angeles for 32 years, the gallerists instead opened a branch across the street from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “I said, ‘Look, there are so many artists here,’ and I think a lot of their artists did not have L.A. galleries,” says Kruger. At an estimated $75,000 a month in starting rent, the move did not come cheap, but the new California outpost predicted a wave of international galleries — most recently Lisson Gallery and David Zwirner — opening up shop in L.A.
That summer, for an exhibition looking back at Eau de Cologne, Kruger’s words were emblazoned on the side of the gallery in L.A., where they were visible to passing traffic on Wilshire Boulevard: “WHO DO YOU HURT? WHO DO YOU HONOR? WHO DO YOU FEAR?” By the fall, Donald Trump was president, and America seemed to have regressed back to April 1989. At the Women’s March to protest the inauguration of Trump — who has been credibly accused of sexual assault by dozens of women and has appointed three anti-abortion Supreme Court justices — many once again held up signs with Kruger’s words “Your body is a battleground.”
Trump’s rise seemed to pull back the curtain of misogyny in a variety of professional fields — the kind Sprüth and Magers had long had to tolerate and fight against. In 2017, in response to accusations of sexual harassment by Artforum publisher Knight Landesman, an open letter, signed by female dealers, curators, museum directors and artists, eventually numbering over 5,000, circulated online and in the press. The signatories declared themselves “not surprised” by men who abuse their power — borrowing a phrase from a famous work by Holzer. Even as Sprüth Magers became one of the world’s most powerful galleries by championing feminist artists, according to the 2022 Burns Halperin Report, a sweeping analysis of equity in the art world, only 11 percent of all museum acquisitions in the prior year were of work by women artists, who accounted for less than 4 percent of all worldwide auction sales.
Sprüth Magers’s success may be the exception that proves the rule. In 2021, after 40 years in business, Metro Pictures announced that it was closing. The decision to shutter the business, Winer told The New York Times, was prompted by the gallery’s inability to compete with deep-pocketed mega-galleries, who can offer artists enticements like funding for museum shows. When Sherman, who had shown with Metro Pictures since the 1980s,announced she was leaving for Hauser & Wirth, it appeared to deal a fatal blow. “A gallery is only as good as their artists,” Reiring notes. And, in an increasingly globalized art market, it’s no longer enough to just be in New York. “We thought we were the center of the world,” Reiring says. “But obviously we weren’t.”
According to the artist Anne Imhof, who signed with Sprüth Magers in 2021, the gallery’s success has depended on its ability to meet its artists where they are, not just geographically but in terms of their core values. “Monika and Philomene are very intriguing as figures,” she says, because they are “driven by the belief that a strong political position and intellectual contextualization of their artists’ work is the right motivation to have a gallery nowadays.” Imhof, whose brooding performances draw links between political apathy and resurgent fascism, could be seen as leading the next generation of radical women artists working with the gallery. Like Holzer’s or Lawler’s work in the 1980s, her art isn’t highly collectible — but then, art isn’t like any other commodity, as Fleury’s shopping bags wryly imply. For Sprüth, this is business as usual. “We want to be as precise as possible,” she says. “We don’t want to be the biggest supermarket of art.”