After Opening His 16th Gallery, Robert Bartoux Reflects on Global Expansion
On the heels of the opening of Galeries Bartoux’s first space in London—its 16th location around the globe—Artsy spoke with founder Robert Bartoux about how a small storefront in Honfleur, France, grew into an international network of galleries representing over 70 artists.
Artsy: What was your first memorable encounter with art?
Robert Bartoux: It happened when I was seven years old—my father was a quite well-known art editor, and he presented the world premiere of the book Les Cavaliers de L’Apocalypse at the Negresco Hotel in Nice—it was illustrated by Salvador Dali. There I met Dali himself, who put his hand on my head and told me in French, with his Spanish accent, “Hello little Bartoux.” That was my first memory of art and, in retrospect, I can say it certainly influenced my life.
Artsy: What inspired you to open a commercial gallery in 1993? And why in Honfleur?
RB: For many years, my family—in particular, my wife Isabelle and my brother Jean-Guy—and I were itinerant art dealers. We participated in many fairs and mounted different exhibitions in improbable places like airports, train stations, and subways. One Sunday in September 1992, I arrived by chance in Honfleur, in Normandy, and experienced an emotional shock that I still have every time I return to the city. I fell in love with its rich art and history. It is the cradle of Impressionism, the cradle of poetry, the cradle of culture. Charles Baudelaire wrote: “Honfleur was the dearest of my dreams.”
Artsy: What was the state of the art market at that time?
RB: The art market was coming out of a huge crisis that was the result of the Gulf War in 1990. Many galleries and artists saw their market plummeting as a result of the conflict—the war meant the end of the Japanese golden age, a force that was driving the 1980s art market. This was a big problem but ended up having positive effects: new galleries and new artists rebuilt the market, creating a new generation of market actors. Personally, I had just turned 30.
Artsy: How have you responded to the changes in the art market since then?
I can’t really say that the market changed, but I will certainly say that we saw the art market begin to democratize, and we responded by working with particular artists who reflected that—artists whose work appealed to a wide range of tastes. Twenty-five years ago, important French galleries were quite exclusively Parisian, the atmosphere was glacial, and the presentation was miserable. Because of that, only a certain category of collectors were able to access those institutionalized galleries. Our reaction was to create galleries—and work with artists—that posed alternatives to those closed-door environments.
Artsy: You now have 16 gallery spaces—what inspired this expansion?
RB: As we became more established, more and more artists came to us, and it became very difficult and unpleasant to exhibit them in the same space. The market during the first 20 years we were open was perennial and, while the globalization in which we are living has some negative effects, it also has advantages: the distances are shorter, and the ability to project ourselves in different places is easier. Moreover, art has become an international language—a cultural passport—and it seemed obvious to us that we had to engage with this conversation.
Artsy: Why did you decide to grow your operation outside of France, to London, New York, and Singapore?
RB: The French market was and still is very important for us, and nowadays it is our most successful market. Nevertheless, for the reasons I listed before, it would have been damaging for us to remain only in France and not internationalize. So, we decided to make a space for our French artists to exhibit outside of our frontiers. We met an important number of foreign artists through this expansion as well, and this further enhanced our international approach.
Artsy: Do you find that it is important to have a presence in Asia right now?
RB: Yes, Singapore is an undeniable crossroads of the Asian world. It is an independent republic—a real democracy—and the official language is English, which is conducive to international business. It is also a country where artistic education is part of everyday life and available to everyone. The city is amazing, the architecture is flamboyant, and artworks are installed everywhere you look—whether in parks or in front of luxurious hotels. Singapore is the entrance to South Asia—and even to China, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Our space in Singapore has become very successful for us.
Artsy: In the future, will we see more Galeries Bartoux locations opening around the world?
RB: It might be possible. We just opened a gallery in London, which was the product of five years of hard work. An opening in the Middle East seems logical. Nevertheless, there is no race to open in every corner of the world.