Jean-David Malat: a conversation with London’s most powerful art dealer

We asked one of the best-connected men in the Capital how to build a network and influence people...

“There are plenty of them” Jean-David Malat answers diplomatically and evasively, when faced with potentially the most awkward question of the day.

Although he confesses to taking pride in the title bestowed upon him by The Times as the ‘best connected man in London’, you get the sense that it might have tested his patience a little to be asked for the most interesting name in his contact book. But, come on, we were all wondering.  

After all, this is the art curator and gallerist who has been tasked with collecting pieces for a list of clients which, on reading might be mistaken for the Hollywood Walk Of Fame — with everyone from Madonna to Dolce & Gabbana to Bono calling on his expertise.  

LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 05: Jean-David Malat attends the Grand Opening of JD Malat Gallery in Mayfair on June 5, 2018 in London, England.Pic Credit: Dave Benett

And yet, if there’s one thing that ought to be made clear from the offset, it is that Jean-David (who has recently opened his eponymous gallery on Davies Street in Mayfair), believes that art ought never to be an exclusive privilege for the wealthy few.

“This is a commercial gallery, but it is also a public space. It is a bit like working in a palace — you want to receive people in a way which makes them want to return.”

Giving away £15,000 worth of prints to the first 30 people to walk through his gallery on opening day might, we suspect, have gone some way to achieving this.

The second thing he’s keen to instil, is that networking of any kind can only ever be successful when relationships are both authentic and nurtured. “My job as an art dealer is mostly about relationship”, he says.

"People can feel when you don’t love or believe in something..."

“To the artist, I am almost like a father — since I have to make them feel good about themselves all the time” he says, laughing.

“You have to take care of them, and if you have a bad relationship with an artist then it is simply impossible to work with them, because people can feel when you don’t love or believe in something.”

When it comes to cultivating relationships, Malat is better placed than most to offer advice, and when it does come, it comes simply: “be sincere, look at people in the eyes and give ardour when you shake someone’s hand. Make a connection straight away. Make sure that the person knows you are listening to them and that you are present.”

And there is no doubt that he practises what he preaches, with unbroken eye contact and full, considered deliberation given in response to every question throughout our conversation.

Standing at an impressive 6ft 3ins, and with the same piercing, sometimes discerning gaze which earned him an earlier successful career as a Parisian model — Malat cuts an impressive, suited figure, looking well for his 43 years. He is also evidently the all-seeing eye inside the gallery, and no detail within its walls escapes even his peripheral vision.

"You cannot build an effective address book using social media, because it is so superficial..."

Underlying all of Malat’s impassioned discussion, whether speaking of art or human interaction, is an emphasis placed upon the importance of physical and tangible experience. Where then, does he stand on social media?

He searches for the right answer, “you cannot build an effective address book using social media, because it is so superficial — but it can be a brilliant way of showing your work to the world. I had a client visiting only yesterday from Dallas to see a piece she had found on Instagram.”

Does he think that these platforms are affecting our attention spans when we are presented with visual beauty? “They operate on one-second attention — you look at something, you might like it, you move on. Nothing can replace galleries and museums because they bring forth so much emotion.”

“My last exhibition brought thousands of people into the gallery, and some of them stayed for hours, and revisited time and again simply to enjoy the work. Social media cannot do that, and I don’t think anything will change that.”

Next month, Malat will be exhibiting the work of Turkish artist Zümrütoglu, and his excitement about bringing the pieces to a wider audience is palpable. “I fell in love with his work and technique — the colour, composition and scale of his work.”

On the subject of promoting emerging artistic talent, he says “it really is what I love to do. My aim here is to keep a small book of artists and to promote them correctly. It is never easy to bring a new artist to the scene, but it is a great feeling when you can give them that push.”

"I think that if you can’t take risks, then you should consider taking a different job...”

A quick Google search of Jean-David will inform you that he has not always worked solely with new talent, and that this is a man not averse to taking cut-throat risks in his business (during the Recession of 2008, he successfully acquired and sold on two late-period Picasso paintings).

“I am always taking risks and spotting opportunities, and any show with any artist always presents financial risk. ButI think that if you can’t take risks, then you should perhaps consider taking a different job.”

Easy to say, perhaps, when you have successfully become an art dealer to the great and good of London’s wealthiest collectors. But, as Malat reasonably points out, his gallery only exhibits contemporary and emerging talent: “of course, you make less money than you would selling a Picasso, but my priority is always to bring something new. A true artist doesn’t care about the money, he does what he loves.”

An hour spent in the JD Malat Gallery and in the company of its curator, is an hour bathing in an other-worldly sense of calm — with Malat himself almost a caricature of your quintessential French art dealer. Every syllable is elongated with an exquisite accented burr, so that when he begins to describe the “pleasure” that art can bring, it borders on sounding pornographic.

In fact, the only omission from the stereotype is the aloofness. Malat walks about the gallery, greeting everyone who enters as though they belong inside – and seemingly believing that to be the case.

So, take the time to stop by — and you’ll find out for yourself just why Jean-David Malat earned his title.

JD Malat Gallery, 30 Davies Street, Mayfair, London W1K 4NB,

Further Reading