Art Market

Lucas Casso Is Betting Big on Berlin’s Gallery Scene

Nate Freeman
Sep 21, 2018 10:12PM

Lucas Casso. Courtesy of Sweetwater, Berlin.

After five years as a investment banker at Goldman Sachs in New York, the 27-year-old Lucas Casso decided to shake things up—not by leaving for another Wall Street shop, but by opening a contemporary art gallery in Berlin.

Starting a gallery anywhere is no easy feat, but Casso faces distinctive challenges from his choice of city. After considering a few options, Casso decided to move to Berlin. The city remains one of the great post-war art hubs, but in the last few years it has seen a spate of departures and closures of some of its smaller spaces. Dealers who decide to relocate from Berlin elsewhere, such as Croy Nielsen, Galerie Crone, and EXILE, who all recently moved to Vienna, decry the city’s sharply rising rents, brewing right-wing ethno-fascism, a general lack of collectors, and high taxes on all art transactions. Similar factors have led Silberkuppe, Micky Schubert and Arratia Beer to close their doors in recent years.

But Casso thinks that he can succeed where others have failed, by giving young American artists their first shows in the city. He is hoping the freshness of the work—and the fact that his gallery is the only place in town showing such artists—will prove to be a sustainable model.

“I determined very early on that it would be important to be able provide artists with some sort of differentiated opportunity, and Berlin is a city that enables me to do so.”

On September 22, he opens the space he’s dubbed Sweetwater, Berlin with an installation by New York-based conceptual artist and photographer Kayode Ojo, who currently has a solo show up at Balice Hertling in Paris.

It is rare for someone to go from Wall Street to the gallery world. One notable example is Robert Mnuchin, who spent over three decades at Goldman before retiring and opening a gallery with the Los Angeles art dealer James Corcoran, and who now operates Mnuchin Gallery on New York’s Upper East Side.

“I wouldn’t go as far as to say it makes sense for a banker to open a gallery,” Casso said. But Casso had more preparation than most for this career move. He graduated from Williams College with a double major in art history and mathematics, and immersed himself, as a collector and patron, in the galleries of the Lower East Side upon his move to New York to work for Goldman.  Casso claims that unlike his banker peers, he never saw the art he collected as an investment. He found himself yearning to play a bigger role in nurturing artists’ careers—and to stage his own exhibitions. Eventually it occurred to him that all the things he wanted to do were the basic functions of a gallery.

Installation view of Kayode Ojo: “Closer,” at Sweetwater, Berlin, 2018. Courtesy of Sweetwater, Berlin.


“There were times when I considered applying to MA programs in art history or curatorial studies, but I realized that what I really wanted was more engagement with artists themselves,” Casso said. “I always enjoyed and appreciated the chance to talk about work during studio visits, and I thought about running a space and working on exhibitions together as one possible way to deepen that dialogue.”

He quit banking earlier this year after committing to becoming a gallerist—he said his colleagues were “happy I made the decision to actually open it”—and decided against opening a space in New York or his hometown of Los Angeles. He realized that in a city like Berlin, he could have a sort of out-of-towner advantage: He could bring the artists he bonded with in New York to Berlin for the first time, and introduce a new group of people to their work.

“I determined very early on that it would be important to be able provide artists with some sort of differentiated opportunity, and Berlin is a city that enables me to do so,” he said.

After Ojo, Sweetwater’s second show is a solo show of the New York-born Christopher Aque, who has shown with the Chicago outfit Regards, but has yet to exhibit in Europe.

Sweetwater’s 200-square-foot exhibition space is in Kreuzberg, a lively neighborhood that boasts stellar Lebanese take out joints and a bar that has been open continuously, 24 hours a day, since 1979. Up two flights of stairs is the two-room exhibition space in what normally would have been rented as an apartment. Because of that it felt already lived in, lovably so, like one of the Upper East Side galleries that are housed in a former townhouse, with the exhibition areas framed by bay windows that look out onto the street.

Such a space, which also has a small kitchen and office, would be exponentially more expensive in New York or London, Casso said, although he would not disclose his rent. And yet rents in Berlin are not as cheap as they used to be. EXILE owner and former Berliner Christian Siekmeier, who gave a scabrous exit interview in July after he moved the gallery to Vienna, called it “impossible” for a small or mid-sized gallery to exist in Berlin. Siekmeier claimed that “interesting spaces have become increasingly rare while a kind of political blindness and antagonism amongst the gallery scene have created a defeatist distance and eroded much of the city’s original energy.”

Casso says that characterization is at odds with his experience. In the few months since he’s lived in Berlin, he’s felt accepted by the arts community, which is “interested in and excited by fresh ideas and perspectives.” Plus, he noted, the departure of some galleries creates space for new faces like him.

Installation view of Kayode Ojo: “Closer,” at Sweetwater, Berlin, 2018. Courtesy of Sweetwater, Berlin.

“It is undeniably a difficult environment for small and mid-size galleries that has led to gallery closures both in Berlin and elsewhere, but this also means that new projects and new spaces can generate a lot of good energy,” he said. “I have no doubt that being successful will be challenging and I recognize that there are a lot of less-than-ideal macro trends, but I can only focus on the things that are under my control: having a strong program and working with artists to make great exhibitions.”

His solution is to ignore the gloomy forecast and focus on staging shows that can bottle some of the energy in New York and bring it to Berlin. Kayode Ojo, the artist in the first show, is coming off a year where he had a two-person show with Zoe Leonard at Paula Cooper Gallery, the Chelsea mainstay—there, he showed photos of writhing bodies at gallery after-parties. Last year, in a group show at Martos called “Invisible Man,” Ojo’s work acted as the centerpiece: a dark brown couch turned on its side upright, seven feet tall, with a glittery sequin maxi dress draped at the top. It was seductive, with a touch of menace, hinting at a festive night gone wrong.

Ojo has called the inaugural, site-specific show at Sweetwater “Closer,” referring to, as an image on the website suggests, the Clive Owen and Natalie Portman drama of the same name. Gender and the body are referenced subtly, and then explicitly, through the site-specific sculpture and photographs installed in the Sweetwater space. One room has a long, elegant string of glass beads hanging from a chandelier, as if it were a necklace ripped off some giant’s neck, and dips down to nearly touch the ground. Beside it, there is a sculpture in which two pairs of black, faux-leather coated jeans dangle on metal music stands set atop mirrors on the floor, draped with rhinestone body jewelry. Another room is filled with photographs similar to the ones shown at Paula Cooper, parts of bodies at after-parties: salt going on the small of a hand predicting a tequila shot, a cross around a sweaty neck, fingers touching a face.

“..I can only focus on the things that are under my control: having a strong program and working with artists to make great exhibitions.”

“Many of the artists I am working with are interested in the ways we relate to the external world or the perception of identity: how we think about sexuality and our own personal histories, how we navigate physical space, how we use language,” Casso explained.

And then there was the name—the portmanteau “sweetwater” reminded me more of a microbrewery than a gallery, perhaps because, well, it is. Casso told me that it connects back to his undergraduate thesis research at Williams, where he came across the intriguing story of an Ed Ruscha painting that no longer exists. In 1959, Ruscha created one of his first text works, a large canvas with abstract expressionist brushwork on top and the word “SWEETWATER” below, followed by a prominent comma. But now the work can only be seen in a black and white photo—it was accidentally painted over by a UCLA art student, erasing a crucial link between his early abstractions and the seminal text works, such as OOF (1962), that would emerge a few years later.

To Casso, the phantom Ruscha painting reminds him of how people look at work now, and how they will continue to look at art when it’s showing at the gallery he now runs.

“How the painting exists today is, to me, an interesting way to think about present-day consumption of images and content more generally: I obviously never had the chance to see the original painting and never will, but I know a grayscale JPEG of it well through looking at it on my iPhone,” he said. “Does this count? Can I really say I’ve ‘seen’ it?”

Nate Freeman