Thaddaeus Ropac On Why Global Galleries Aren’t in Artists’ Best Interest
Thaddaeus Ropac would likely wince at the designation “megadealer,” but he’s undoubtedly one of the world’s greats—a European powerhouse overseeing four spaces on the continent (two each in Salzburg, Austria, and Paris, France) and a new 16,000-square-foot London outpost designed by Annabelle Selldorf and opening this week in Ely House, an 18th-century mansion in Mayfair. Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac represents 57 artists, ranging from art-historical luminaries such as Joseph Beuys, James Rosenquist, and Robert Rauschenberg, to highly sought-after living artists including Georg Baselitz, Sylvie Fleury, Adrian Ghenie, and Alex Katz.
Ahead of the London gallery’s opening, Ropac spoke to Artsy about the value of a London outpost, why he’s okay with the side effects of today’s fast-paced art market, and the role and future of mid-sized galleries.
Anna Louie Sussman: I had read in earlier interviews that you didn’t see yourself in London. Why London?
Thaddaeus Ropac: London was on my radar for several reasons. First of all, I feel—and this sounds a little bit ironic in the situation we are in now—I feel staunchly European. London is so close to Paris, but still it was rather far away in terms of attracting a different audience. The two most important cities in Europe—and I still consider England part of Europe—are London and Paris. When I was talking to people in China, or India, in the Arab world, in Latin America, or of course in the U.S., I would ask them where do they go when they come to Europe? They all said either London or Paris. They would eventually go to Vienna, or to Berlin, or to Italy or so on. With London and Paris you really cover an incredible reach, and you still don’t lose your identity—and I think my identity is very European.
We never really wanted to have worldwide representation for an artist, because I don’t really believe it’s in the interest of an artist to be with one gallery worldwide. You always have an expertise for one area where you want to be the best or one of the best, and for us that is Europe. I really feel we can do the best for our artists in Europe. Our biggest projects are in Europe, and working with museums—from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg to the museum in Naples—we have that real expertise. Opening in London cements this and makes this even stronger. We want to be one of the great, great European galleries. And if an artist wants to do a project in Europe, they should feel we are the best partner for them.
ALS: That’s very interesting. The European market, by some measures, has been shrinking.
TR: Really? I’m surprised. I don’t think so, I don’t feel so. Maybe the numbers say something else; please tell me if you know.
ALS: As Asia grows its share of the market we’ve seen the European share of the market fall [11% since 2006, according to The Art Market | 2017]. But what does the European scene feel like to you? How are your collectors, how are the institutions doing?
TR: I feel we’re entering one of the most active periods we’ve experienced in a long time. I feel like every great European country or city has been adding to their cultural power; every week I could go to an opening of a museum. So I don’t feel we only leave this to Asia to open new museums; across Germany, across Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, I think even more the smaller countries. Just the projects we are involved in, it’s really across Europe, and I feel a real dynamic happening. And also the numbers in terms of sales are…I think it was one of the most successful first three months of the year we ever experienced.
ALS: And that’s largely based on a European collector base?
TR: Yes—for us, yes. And it’s really across Europe. We were very surprised when we analyzed the first three months and compared it to last year and the year before. Last year was maybe a little bit…it went a bit down, so 2015 was really strong and ’16 was kind of reduced, and ’17 now is very, very strong.
ALS: This idea of a presence across Europe, a lot of the countries you just mentioned are Northern European countries, and Europe does feel like it’s at a little bit of a crossroads now. Can you talk a little bit about where you think that’s going and how that affects your business? Either with Brexit or the Southern countries which aren’t doing as well economically as the Northern ones.
TR: It doesn’t affect our business. First of all, I think the art world doesn’t think in a geopolitical order. So when people ask me about Brexit, well, I’m very, very disappointed, personally. I’m staunchly European: I believe in the European vision, I absolutely believe that we will succeed with it, and I’m very upset with London and with England leaving it. But it has nothing to do with my business or with galleries because I really think, as I said, the gallery world, and the art world, doesn’t think in a geopolitical order. So it will not affect it.
Maybe I will think differently if the opposite happens, but at this point I don’t expect it will make really anything in terms of business. It will make our life more complicated because administration will become a burden. Now if a collector in Paris wants to see something which is at the moment in our gallery in Salzburg, or in London, we can organize it within one day. Maybe this will become more complicated and we can’t do it in one day. And of course it will upset us because we are all used to a speed, which has to slow down. But I’m talking about technicalities, and our logistic department, which is the biggest department in my team. We are 100 people in the gallery, and a good third are doing logistics, only the moving of art; this team will become even bigger. So this is upsetting and annoying but as I said, more a technicality. And I’m happy that I’m personally not working in this department.
ALS: That’s funny. The collector Egidio Marzona, whose collection you’re showing at your London opening, you’ve talked about him having audacious taste and being very dedicated to collecting different art. Has that changed? I hear a lot from dealers that collectors are playing it safe.
TR: Yeah, I know. What we are trying to do more and more is to work with a group of collectors and help them really build their collections. This could be with younger artists, this could be in mid-career, or this could be finding the absolute most important work, which they’re missing in their collection. All three levels are interesting. We found the most incredible Duchamp sculpture for a collector recently, and on the other hand we are very happy to introduce this English artist, Oliver Beer, now, to an English audience. We’ve worked with him in Paris already; he’s collected by the Pompidou and by other museums in Europe. We love the way the collectors react and try to understand his universe. When I think of Marzona, the collector you mentioned before, in the late ’60s and ’70s, how he started his relationship with the artists, trusted them—they were not famous, they were not confirmed—and built this incredible collection. It’s from people like him that we can all really learn. And those are of course our dream partners in a gallery.
ALS: Your collectors who are interested in young artists, how much of that has to do with the fact that they can trust you, even if they’re not sure about the art?
TR: I’m sometimes not so happy when collectors come with wish lists that somebody gave them and they just collect what’s on the list, and when they have their one painting they’ll move on. I have to say, in America you’ll find this type of wish list. I prefer go in depth into collections, to understand an artist and to follow an artist, and to turn it into your own taste, you know? I can help a collector only up to a certain point but I cannot replace his taste. Collections which are entirely done by advisors, you feel it. It’s so much more enjoyable to help people to develop their own taste.
ALS: But do you see people taking risks in the way that they used to, say, 40 years ago?
TR: Yes, there are still people. Who we don’t want to cater to are investors. We’re trying to avoid it because I think we’re not here to make people just make a profit.
ALS: Do you think flipping is still a big presence in the art market?
TR: When we sit down in my gallery and we go through an exhibition, we make sure that we are not selling to people when we know they are flipping it in a year. We know the people and we’re discussing it. For every exhibition we have a meeting, which brings the sales team together, and one person says, “I could place this here,” and I say, “No, not here because we are not sure what he’s doing with it.” And sometimes when we co-represent an artist with another gallery I will even say to my colleague, “Please try to avoid to sell to this person because he will just flip it.” I don’t say, “Don’t do it,” but I say, “I give you this advice. If you will do it or not it’s your thing, but it’s not in the interest of the artist,” but it’s not a list which I have in my pocket.
ALS: I recently attended a lunch honoring Jeffrey Deitch, and he observed that New York in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s, and Paris at the turn-of-the-century and early 20th-century, were vibrant, concentrated hubs of creativity. Now things are very decentralized. Where do you see the creativity coming from? And how does that relate to the market?
TR: I understand what he means, but I have always said the art world changed entirely in the last 20 years. I have seen this. I have seen how the art world moved from the ivory tower to the center of life, I’ve always said this. It’s a positive move, it’s a great move. I don’t want to be back in the ivory tower. But it also had some negative side effects. I think we can live with the side effects, but we don’t want to miss this overall dynamic the art world got into, where everything is open in every direction. Before, we were only cities in Europe and in America; now the world has absolutely no borders anymore. We’re working with an artist from Pakistan, we’re working with Eastern European artists, we are preparing a show with an artist in Seoul, Korea. You know? And this is what I believe in, in this kind of multiple interests of where artists live. And all of this we haven’t seen 25 years ago; we were very much concentrated on a smaller horizon.
ALS: What are the most pernicious side effects?
TR: Things are becoming too fast, too driven, movements come and go. Before, there was more time, artists had more time to develop and they were not put on the spot within a very short period of time. There were not these strong movements which were becoming fashions, and then the fashions were out. When you think of the abstract artist which became so strong five years ago, today they have a hard time. This is all part of the speed we got into.
ALS: You mentioned you were looking at your results from this quarter. How you have incorporated new business practices into running your galleries?
TR: I think the success of the last years has allowed galleries to really grow; I never thought that we would be a team of 100 people. I think everything became really more professional, and on every level. The way we use social media, it’s very carefully crafted, every way we kind of develop the brand is part of what we think about today—and this was not in our thoughts a couple of years ago. So I think the growth in the business, and to be able to afford also this kind of reaching excellence in different ways, was not something we took for granted, and we still don’t take it for granted.
But I think it is possible today to invest into many more things than in the core business. And this way you also offer the artists a much better service, a much better infrastructure, and you offer the partners and the museums a way that they can rely on us—when we want to be part of a project, obviously we can. I think a gallery can become very complicated and it takes a lot of details. You know, sometimes I ask myself…there’s a whole team working in digital. I don’t even know what they’re doing.
TR: No, because I say, “My god, what do they do?” And then I go into their office and then I think, “My god, five people? What are they are doing? Digital.” And the Executive Director says, “Yeah, it’s very important what they do. Look…” I still didn’t get it.
But I know we need them and I know without them we would not have the infrastructure we need. So this is kind of part of it.
ALS: Can you talk about the gallery ecosystem and the role of mid-sized galleries, which we always hear are struggling?
I am really spending time to encourage these mid-sized galleries because they’re so important to the art world. The art world cannot exist without them and we have to be really aware of this. But I’m surprised that we always hear that there are big galleries with multiple spaces, but the mid-sized is struggling so much. I feel that the market is so strong and so big that everybody can participate, but apparently this is not the case.
But I also think it’s a bit overrated when two mid-sized galleries close. If you count all the mid-sized galleries that open, I don’t really hear that so many galleries are closing compared to the ones that are open. When one gallery closes, there’s a huge article saying the mid-sized gallery is dying, but look at the numbers: not just how many are opening but also how many galleries moving into being mid-sized, being not only one to two people, but three to five. In Paris, there are 400 galleries for contemporary art, and five years ago it was 350, and 10 years ago it was 300. I don’t really think you can say the mid-sized gallery is dying.
ALS: Was there a catalyst when you went from small-sized to mid-sized?
It was so natural. It was 30 years ago, it was so different then. I don’t think you can take anything from 30 years ago and put it as a model today, the art world has changed too much. I always say growth is not a necessity, it is an opportunity. You can do it when you think you can do it.
—Anna Louie Sussman
[This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.]