Opera Gallery Founder Gilles Dyan on Running 11 Galleries Worldwide
Gilles Dyan, founder and chairman of Opera Gallery, began his career in the art world as a door-to-door salesman, selling prints. With a strong interest in art and natural instincts for its market, he opened his first gallery in Singapore in 1994, and later that same year he opened a space in Paris. Today, he oversees a global art enterprise that spans Dubai, Hong Kong, and New York, among many other cities.
With a focus on both modern and contemporary art, the gallery is an established presence in the art world, participating in art fairs, producing catalogs, and curating numerous exhibitions each year. Rather than exclusively promoting a small roster of artists within a particular era or genre, the gallery offers collectors and visitors an inclusive artistic vision that mixes styles, ages, and cultures to create a comprehensive approach to art.
All of Opera Gallery’s branches are engaged in the primary and secondary markets, featuring work by major 20th-century artists including Pablo Picasso, Pierre Soulages, and Marc Chagall, along with contemporary artists including SEEN, Lita Cabellut, and Joe Black. The galleries are also invested in engaging the local art scenes where they have a presence, particularly in growing art capitals such as Beirut, Baku, and Seoul.
In 2016, the gallery will expand its footing in the United States, with new spaces in Manhattan and Miami, as well as the launch of its first branch in Aspen, Colorado. Also on the horizon, Dyan told us, are Los Angeles and Doha, as well as an in-depth exhibition dedicated to French artist Bernard Buffet in the London gallery. In the midst of this moment of growth, we caught up Dyan to learn about the origins of Opera, his approach to art dealing, and the artists who have inspired him along the way.
Blaire Dessent: Opera Gallery is a large global enterprise with 11 galleries around the world and three more on the way. Can you tell us a bit about the new galleries opening this year and how you go about choosing cities and neighborhoods for your gallery spaces?
Gilles Dyan: Opera Gallery’s most recent development focuses on increasing our presence in the United States. We are relocating in New York and Miami, and opening a new branch in Aspen. In New York, we used to be in SoHo, but this month we will re-open a bigger and more luxurious gallery on Madison Avenue. And in Miami, we have moved from Bal Harbour to the new Miami Design District. Our approach relies on a considered strategy to be situated in the world’s biggest cities’ trendy high-end luxury areas. The business idea is to source a wide base of clients with high available income and advise them to help them become confident art collectors.
BD: How did you get started in the art world? When did you know that you wanted to run a gallery?
GD: I started in the art world at age 25, selling prints door to door! I had a taste for art and the art market already but no idea it would end up being my whole life. In doing so, I identified a gap in the commercial art galleries’ market: there were no easily accessible galleries selling high-value masterpieces as well as more affordable “entry level” contemporary art. Walking into an art gallery can be a daunting experience for the new or aspiring collector, and I wanted to create a model of gallery that was open, welcoming and stress-free for such buyers.
I created Opera Gallery in Singapore in 1994. I didn’t know the city well but I was invited to have a stand at an art fair there and it worked out really well for me. So, three months later I opened my first gallery there. It took off and was followed by a Parisian branch the same year. Now, almost 22 years later, Opera Gallery has 11 branches and employs close to 150 people worldwide.
BD: Upon starting Opera Gallery, how did you decide which artists to work with? Who was the first artist you represented? Has showing modern and contemporary artists always been part of your vision?
GD: The first artist I ever signed and represented was Spanish painter Lita Cabellut. She is an amazing person and a fascinating artist. Her large-scale portraits convey all the strength and willpower that lie within humankind. I am proud to still be working with her now; and to showcase her works in several solo exhibitions every year throughout our network. Nowadays, we select new artists in accordance with the taste of our directors, and my taste too of course, but also bearing in mind that they must be able to be appreciated and distributed. We take the risk of buying our works, and not just stocking them like some galleries do, so it must be a business decision as well as an emotional one.
Opera Gallery’s concept is to remain quite nonspecific in terms of what we offer, covering the whole of the 20th century up until the beginning of the 21st century. On the secondary market, our offer ranges from the Impressionists to American Pop artists, with works by Renoir, Monet, Picasso, and Chagall, as well as postwar and Art Brut movements. We also sell contemporary art, both by up-and-coming and already established artists whom we have under contract.
Our gallery displays combine these contemporary artists with modern masterpieces, so everyone has a chance to see something they will like. Price-wise too, we want to be an art gallery where people can find works from around €10,000 up to €8 million, in a space that is easily accessible and visible.
BD: What is the origin of the name, Opera Gallery?
GD: Opera is the Latin word for “artwork,” so Opera Gallery literally means “gallery of works of art.” I also chose Opera as a word that is easy to understand and pronounce in most languages and easy to remember—an imperative for a brand with strong presence across the globe.
BD: The Paris gallery recently held an exhibition with work by contemporary South Korean artists, which was somewhat of a new discovery for many Parisians. Is it part of the gallery’s mission to develop exhibitions with a cross-cultural focus and introduce new artists and movements in different cities?
GD: One of the challenges faced by an art dealer is the necessity to source good art and be the first one to find tomorrow’s sellable artists—notably if you want to deal on the primary market. With its wide and international network of galleries, Opera Gallery gets access to contemporary art everywhere in the world, giving artists a chance to showcase and sell their works first locally and later on a wider scale. This means we are able to exhibit South Korean contemporary art in Paris, British contemporary art in Hong Kong or French street art in Dubai—thus giving our worldwide collectors access to a great diversity of genres and styles.
The exhibition “REGENERATION” that we held in Paris in 2015 shed light on a new generation of South Korean contemporary artists and explored the ways in which they were influenced by their forefathers, while asserting their independence from more traditional Korean art codes. It was logically organized in collaboration with our Seoul gallery, whose rich knowledge of the Korean scene was necessary to ensure we presented the best quality works to our Parisian collectors and the most accurate rendering of the reality of the current art scene in South Korea.
BD: Is it important to Opera Gallery to connect with local art scenes? Does the gallery try to encourage collectors to buy work from local artists as well as work from international artists?
GD: Absolutely, it is at the center of our activity. Opera Gallery aspires to be as much an actor within the local art scene as an influencer on the international art scene. For this reason, every gallery of the group is encouraged to source artists locally and share their work with the other branches.
Additionally, in growing markets especially, it is rare for art buyers to collect modern masterpieces first. Often, they will buy a piece of contemporary art by a local artist—either because they can relate to the style or because they know the name, or even because it has been recommended to them by a friend… and of course because it is more affordable and therefore a lesser risk in terms of investment. Later, as we build a relationship with the buyers and present new types of art to them, they can broaden their views and start collecting international art, both contemporary and modern. It is a fantastic journey for a dealer to advise a novice art lover and witness them becoming a knowledgeable art collector!
BD: Is there an artist you’ve encountered for the first time recently whose work took you by surprise and has had a lasting impact on you?
GD: Not that I have encountered him for the first time recently, but an artist whose work has really spoken to me lately is Umberto Mariani. Working alongside the Zero movement, he has used abstraction because following the World War II, he felt that representation no longer seemed to provide the answers to the world’s savagery.
Using materials such as lead and sand, he puts into perspective the way shadow and light play out on canvas. His works absorb and partially refract light in a way that I find deeply moving.
BD: What are some of the books currently on your nightstand? Or what are some books that have recently inspired you?
GD: I have just finished reading Bernard Buffet: The Invention of the Modern Mega-Artist by British author Nicholas Foulkes. It is a great and very detailed book about the life, art, death, and legacy of the French modern painter. Bernard Buffet is an artist we have exhibited and sold for a long time at Opera Gallery, so I am very familiar with his life and work, but I have enjoyed reading about many unsuspected anecdotes Foulkes uncovered while doing his research.
We are launching an exhibition of works by Buffet in London in February. We have agreed with Foulkes to host a book signing event at the gallery on this occasion, as we believe many of our collectors will benefit from reading the book and understanding better the thinking behind Buffet’s vast body of work.
BD: What is next for Opera Gallery?
GD: We are going to pursue our American expansion with projects to open a gallery in Los Angeles in 2017; and we are also going east and opening a branch in Doha, Qatar the same year. And of course, we are going to continue sourcing the highest quality masterpieces and the most exciting contemporary art for our art collectors worldwide!
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