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Everything you ever wanted to know about the art market but didn't know who to ask

Transcript #76 The Magical Maureen Paley

Guest Maureen Paley. Photo: David Mirzoeff. Courtesy Maureen Paley, London

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Charlotte Burns: Hello and welcome to In Other Words, where we cover everything you ever wanted to know about the art world but didn’t know who to ask.

I’m your host, Charlotte Burns, and today I’m joined by Maureen Paley, who opened her first gallery in 1984 in her home.

Maureen Paley: As far as private galleries or salons are concerned, women have had an opportunity—maybe because it was something that could be more self-appointed; maybe there was less gatekeeping—and one could just set up and say, “I’m going to be doing this.”

A native New Yorker, Maureen was recently named one of Evening Standard’s most influential Londoners.

Before we begin, here is a quick reminder to subscribe to our In Other Words newsletter at artagencypartners.com. Now, onto today’s show.

Maureen, thank you very much for joining me today. It’s a pleasure.

Maureen Paley: It’s a pleasure.

Charlotte Burns: I want to start with something I was reading in my research for the show. You were saying that you’ve always thought of art as part-magic, and I wondered if you could talk to me a little bit about that?

Maureen Paley: I had gone to Sarah Lawrence and then to Brown University and, when I was at Sarah Lawrence, I was taught by a really extraordinary art historian, Carol Duncan. One of the things that I was always conscious of, even from childhood, is that art—unlike other things that one could do in the world—had an element that was connected to it that was in some ways not really quantifiable. And it, in other ways, meant that you were aware of things in the actual world, but you also were conscious of things that were in the unconscious, that were kind of connected to the “dream world”.

To me, that meant that though people like to think of art now related to commerce and related to business, I always saw that it was related to a type of magic. It was an ability to assess the world and then in some way transform it or change it.

So, I was very intrigued by that from a very young age, before I even had gotten to the point of studying with Carol Duncan. But she was emphasizing things about the way that art evolved from 1850 to the present when it moved out of let’s say, the concerns of the Renaissance. But even then, we were looking at the world through art and there was something about the way that we translated the world through iconography that art presented us with. And all of that links for me to something that’s bigger about the cosmos and therefore close to magic.

Charlotte Burns: I love that.

You were saying that the way you’ve seen art is this way, and that’s shifting.

Maureen Paley: Well—

Charlotte Burns: Not for you, but for other people. Do you—

Maureen Paley: Well, art and artifice have been part of our world from the ancients, so we can say that art has always been present and it’s something that the world has actually used as a language and understood. But, as art was challenged in the salon as something that might be ornamental or in some way related to a kind of merchant class, it’s really interesting that as it democratized and went into a broader spectrum in terms of the whole of the world appreciating it, there has been a way that it’s been linked to commerce. And I shy away from that in terms of the way that I wished to view it and the way that I wished to relate to it.

Charlotte Burns: And yet you run a gallery, so you sell art. So, how do you square that? Obviously, it started in a very different place. You were running a gallery from your own home in 1984 when you set up in a Victorian terraced house as Interim Art

Maureen Paley: In the East End of London.

Charlotte Burns: In the East End of London.

Maureen Paley: Well, the origins of the gallery are quite essential, because we began much more as a project space, and it was really in a time where I was more curatorial—though I still am in terms of my thinking. We were presenting things to a public and really not viewing ourselves as a commercial gallery in the very early stages.

Though we’ve evolved towards being a gallery that obviously is working in that way in the private sector, one of the things that I’m very conscious of is that commercial galleries do still provide, in many cities in the world, is a free presentation of art that is there for the public.

Charlotte Burns: I read that the gallery ran a loss for almost a decade, supported by grants from organizations like the Arts Council. Is that true?

Maureen Paley: Well, I really wouldn’t describe it that way. In the early days, I did a lot alongside of grants to subsidize the gallery. I taught and I also curated and did a number of different things that made it possible for the gallery to exist, or myself to exist. And I was running at what could be described as probably break-even.

We were very, very lucky to be able to have grant support early on and I felt very, very much that this enabled me to get started. One of the things I’m really delighted about in existing for the last 35 years now is that through the gallery’s success and ability to endure, I have been able to repay a great deal of that by supporting other public spaces. We feel that giving back is as important as anything.

And so, it’s been very much in the way that the gallery functions, that we’ve tried to support as much as possible the broader art world around us. It’s an interesting thing that that initial grant subsidy allowed me to create a platform by which to do that later on.

Charlotte Burns: There’s so many fewer grants now that it’s kind of interesting to think about how that would be replicated.

Maureen Paley: Yeah. It was a very unusual time and we started as we started, or I began as I began. I don’t know. People have different ways of doing things now.

I came to the UK having graduated from university as I said, and I actually thought I was going to be in the UK for one year and it’s turned into a lifetime. I’m still an American citizen, but I’ve also become a British citizen and really feel that I put my roots down here.

When I first got started, I think I thought that the gallery was going to exist for a year, possibly two. So, the fact that it’s endured for the amount of time that it has and that we’ve worked with many artists over a very, very long period, we feel very dedicated to them and to their work and the gallery from its very inception was quite international. Though we were located in the East End of London, my viewpoint really extended well beyond the locality that the gallery found itself in.

Charlotte Burns: You had ambitions coming into this. You approached well-known artists from the get-go, and I always find that really interesting and admirable. You were a New Yorker in East London approaching established artists to come on show with you. Where did you get that moxie, or whatever you want to call it, to go and approach those artists and convince them to come and show with you?

Maureen Paley: Well, I think some of it was that I was genuinely interested in their work. One of the things that helped me to establish the gallery was that when I first came to London—this was 1977—from 1978 to 1980, I went to the Royal College of Art. So, though I mentioned my original university experience in the States, I also had this experience in the UK, and I got my MA from the Royal College.

Charlotte Burns: In photography.

Maureen Paley: It was in photography, but that actually as it happens—given that his influence has been extraordinarily felt and acknowledged—people like John Baldessari, people who are conceptual artists using the camera, were a huge influence to me. I think when I applied to the Royal College, they didn’t know quite where to place me because I was relying on the camera to record events and things, and was very interested in conceptual art. I found myself in the photography department, but my interests were much, much broader than that, though I also have a great love of photography.

While I was there, that was all during the punk period. That phenomenon in London was also extremely influential to me. It was very, very, very much what I felt kind of close to. I was going to concerts, looking at things and hanging out in that scene.

Not only was I doing that in London, but I was also traveling over to New York and seeing clubs and groups and people performing and acting there. So, there was a lot of crossover. By 1983, much later, I was visiting the galleries of the Lower East Side of New York. So, I had gone to see people like Pat Hearn and Colin de Land. I had also gone and seen Jay Gorney, when he was in his first inception; Lisa Spellman at 303 [Gallery].  I had also seen Nature Morte. So, there were a number of galleries that were in the Lower East Side of New York and I looked at them thinking: if they can do that there, maybe I should think about doing something in London.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Maureen Paley: So, I brought back some of this energy from New York. And all the way along, all the time that I had been in the UK, I was always reading a lot of journals being produced about art internationally: Artforum, Flash Art, Studio International at the time. I was looking at The Village Voice. I was aware of a great deal of art.

My feeling was that if I could take some of the energy of the Lower East Side of New York and bring it to the East End of London, it would be an opportunity to cross-pollinate, as it were. And the interesting thing was that aside from Anthony d’Offay, Lisson Gallery—a number of people, Waddington at the time, the Mayor Gallery—there were people who were importing in London. And earlier than that, there had been Robert Fraser.

But I was aware of my art history. I was looking at what those galleries were doing. And I knew that a different age group—the Mike Kelleys, the Charlie Rays, various people that I was able to approach—would consider perhaps doing experimental shows with me. And I wasn’t approaching them at the time about representation. It was a very different timing. So, I was really asking people like Christian Marclay if they would do a one-off project, and luckily many of them did and wanted to.

Charlotte Burns: Thinking about that now, there would be so many more gatekeepers and you were able to bypass that, in a way. You talked a little bit about how the situation was so different then. It was a kind of project space and the expectations were different, and that there weren’t really many expectations. You were just seeing what you could do.

You came to London in 1977. You met the artist Helen Chadwick in 1978, and she invited you to take part in her first London show, a feminist performance called In The Kitchen (1977). You’ve spoken in the past about the art world being a place where there was freedom for a woman to work. Do you feel that that was the case then? Is that still the case now?

Maureen Paley: Well, one of the things that I’ve written about and I’m very, very conscious of is that it’s somewhat different for women artists and their history is a different discussion. But as regards women’s contribution running galleries, salons and spaces, there’s an illustrious and fascinating history of so many women who’ve made a contribution in this realm. So, if one goes all the way back, you’re really looking at the shaping of the contemporary art world, or the Modern Art world, by a great many women who were more than influential; they’re some of the greatest names that one would associate with.

Charlotte Burns: Peggy Guggenheim.

Maureen Paley: Exactly. Iris Clert.

Charlotte Burns: Gertrude Stein.

Maureen Paley: Gertrude Stein.

Charlotte Burns: Virginia Dwan.

Maureen Paley: Exactly. So, they’re all people who influenced me. They’re all people who inspired me. They’re people who gave me a kind of insight into how one could evolve. And if one is looking now at the art world, so many of the principal players are women.

So, I think that when people try to write about it, there’s a little bit of confusion that goes on where they try to act like the gatekeepers are male. But that’s just not true in terms of how the art world, particularly, like I say, the contemporary and modern have evolved. So, if you look at Barbara Gladstone, Marian Goodman, Paula Cooper; the list goes on, women who’ve made a huge contribution. There’s generations that are above me and there’s people like Monika Sprüth, Chantal Crousel. One could just go on and on. This doesn’t mean that in all cases they show only women.

Charlotte Burns: Of course.

Maureen Paley: And there’s another discussion to be had about how many women dealers show. But that’s not necessarily what we’re talking about today, and I’ve felt in the gallery that I’ve been very open to showing, hopefully, a great many women who’ve made a contribution that I’m extremely proud of.

I do see it that there are women who have distinguished themselves. And certainly, working closely with somebody like Gillian Wearing or working with Rebecca Warren, they are people who, nurturing from the very beginning, have emerged in terms of the art world—Kaye Donachie—to make a contribution. So, the feeling I have is that women have been incredibly enabling and creative in the art world that we discuss as the art world now. It’s very, very important to emphasize that. It’s really important to see that they have shaped it so strongly.

Charlotte Burns: Why do you think that’s not discussed in that way?

Maureen Paley: Well, I think that women who are discussing it, who are younger, maybe don’t really fully understand the history. I think it’s really important that they read it and think about it. When I was getting started, I was so aware of it.

I think it’s a glib assumption that gets made and I think it’s wrong because I think women must understand their own history and really make sure that they are aware of it. This is one area where it’s very clear. It’s not something that we are exaggerating to overemphasize or make a big case that’s really very—

Charlotte Burns: Tenuous.

Maureen Paley: Yeah, tenuous or of flimsy ground. This is essential. Maybe because of other areas that women are working in that are male dominated, it just gets assumed that this may be the case, but it isn’t necessarily the case.

Charlotte Burns: No, I agree. Although having said that, when it comes to museums, especially in America, the corner offices are still predominantly male.

Maureen Paley: Well, there again is truth in that. Museum directorships and the museum curatorial emphasis—there are a great many museum curators who are women; not as many museum directors. So, I think one has to separate it all out.

The important thing to do is to look at the history for women artists, which is very particular and requires quite a lot of examination as to what has happened for women and why they have not always been acknowledged as much as they should be, which is then also different in terms of what the museum culture is like.

But as far as private galleries or salons are concerned, women have had an opportunity—maybe because it was something that could be more self-appointed; maybe there was less gatekeeping and one could just set up and say, “I’m going to be doing this.”

Charlotte Burns: Right. Did you find that empowering when you were setting out, to have those sort of role models?

Maureen Paley: Very much so. I was coming out of the feminist 1970s and having been at Sarah Lawrence, I think it was very good to begin my education at an all-girls school that had just begun to admit men because I think that when you didn’t, through your education early on, defer to men as being the only people who could be spokespeople or the people who were expected to act, and you had to act for yourself.

I didn’t only read about women who were running galleries to get inspiration. I was really fascinated by the lives of unconventional women. So, I looked at Diana Vreeland and was fascinated by her; Margaret Mead, Blackberry Winter, her autobiography. I was looking at different writers who talked about women in peril, like Jean Rhys. At the time that I was graduating from college I was also fascinated by Sylvia Plath.

There were a lot of things I was reading and because I had been tutored by a number of women who were quite feminist in their thinking, that was probably early on creating a certain sense of possibility.

We go through periods historically of amnesia and then people have to rediscover, and then we have to go back to looking at certain things. I was even reading about the lives of people like Elsa Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel. They were all people who were unconventional, did things their own way, created their own realities. They were really, really quite inspiring.

Charlotte Burns: And they had profound effect. They shaped the culture that was around them and came after them too.

Maureen Paley: Yes. And collaborated often with artists. In the case of Schiaparelli, she was really fascinated by the Surrealists. She played a role in terms of her engagement with people. All those things were somehow very fluid at the time that they were acting.

Charlotte Burns: Do you think that’s still the case for women coming into the art world now?

Maureen Paley: If you look in London, really, you’re looking at a lot of young women who are running very, very significant spaces. I mean, Sadie Coles is a force in London and a very respected dealer. You look at Kate MacGarry; Vanessa Carlos who set up the CONDO project and who really has a lot of influence worldwide as well as locally; Hollybush Gardens, run by two women.

You’re looking at a number of curators in London who are running public spaces: Polly Staple having left Chisenhale to go to the Tate as a curator; Iwona Blazwick at the Whitechapel for many years; Margot Heller at the South London Gallery. This is just to name a few. I’m not naming everyone I could name. Julia Peyton-Jones was running the Serpentine for many, many years, now working at Thaddaeus Ropac.

So, I think that that impact, that kind of belief that one could do things, is still very present. I see that huge contributions that are being made in London are being made of course by male dealers, but it’s very much that women as curators and as gallerists are very strongly represented.

Charlotte Burns: Do you care for questions about being a woman dealer? Do you like answering questions like that? Does it bother you? Do you find it—

Maureen Paley: Well, I normally don’t have to answer those kinds of questions.

[Laughter]

But having said that, I think they are significant questions if they can reveal these things to people who might be listening and who might not be as aware. Because again, I think it’s really important to constantly remind about these significant things. I see it that rather than being frustrated by needing to answer these questions, as it were, it’s significant to inform a wider public that this is part of a very, very significant history, a very important history and a history that shouldn’t be forgotten. And a history that is actually functioning to this day.

Charlotte Burns: You talked about Diana Vreeland and Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli there, andt reminded me of something I read about the decor of your home in Hove, which you have described as “witch couture”.

Maureen Paley: Well, actually it’s funny, I was coining that phrase or that term from Stuart Comer who is at the MoMA and he had said that he thought that that was how I had decorated the home. Going back to your magic question, I think that there’s something about the quality of life in Brighton and in Hove where you’re looking from my flat out to—

Charlotte Burns: —the water.

Maureen Paley: —the Channel, out to the water and the sea. There is a way that it casts a spell over one. In that way, talismans and things that are sea-related have found their way into the Hove home. And I now actually have a gallery there, which we’ve been running for a couple of years and we’re very excited about, which is called Morena di Luna.

And Morena di Luna began again more like a project space, but it’s a kind of annex to the London gallery. It’s gaining its own momentum. It was a name that Wolfgang Tillmans gave to me and I asked his permission if I could use it for the gallery, and he was happy for us to do so. It sort of means “dark-haired one of the moon”.

It’s been very exciting to develop a program there. We’ve shown people from abroad, like Paulo Nimer Pjota and Michaela Eichwald. We’ve shown people from London like Rebecca Warren and Kaye Donachie there. We’ve shown Michael Krebber.

It’s interesting that our new program is beginning. We’re looking forward to showing a variety of artists there, starting this spring. We’re going to be showing Paul P. and then we’re going to be showing Gillian Wearing in the summer there, too. Then there’s an artist from LA called Max Hooper Schneider, and we’ll be doing his debut show there and also in London. So, it’s given us an opportunity to embroider upon the London space—again, cast witch-like spells in terms of the possibilities of what artists are able to do there.

Charlotte Burns: How do you discover artists? How do you work with artists?

How do you maintain those relationships? You’ve been working with artists like Gillian, like Wolfgang, for decades. How do you keep that relationship going, and do you ever worry about the threat of larger dealers poaching them?

Maureen Paley: I have been very dedicated to a number of people and very engaged in their thinking and their work. And I think that artists do understand the level of commitment that I bring to the gallery. It’s really important to, again, emphasize that many of the people that I admire in the art world have managed to keep things intact for long periods of time with artists that they work closely with.

I still find so many of the people that I early on selected to be essentially of interest to me. I feel not just a sense of duty to them, but a real sense of commitment to what it is they make.

Charlotte Burns: And curiosity.

Maureen Paley: And a curiosity. Exactly. I think establishing that and then keeping that in place… To me, this is going back to what you were saying about the magic part. Yes, it’s about promoting and representing and making sure that the artists are in the world and being collected by the right people and in the right places. But at the same time, we’re also very aware that what they are saying and what they are doing needs to be seen; needs to be kind of understood—

Charlotte Burns: Mmhmm. Transmitted.

Maureen Paley: —and transmitted, exactly. That’s just the word that I think is appropriate.

We recently took on Lawrence Abu Hamdan and he was nominated for the Turner Prize and then, collectively, he and all of the other artists accepted this prize and won it as a collective. The work that he’s been doing is so significant. It’s very interesting to me that new things that are being added to the gallery program are as significant to me as things that I nurtured early on.

So instead of it being that it’s a static or kind of fixed relationship, it’s more organic than that. So, it still remains alive and very vital. I think that’s the thing. We want to keep that vitality.

Charlotte Burns: I was thinking about Gillian Wearing and she has obviously showed with you this year—in 2021 she has some big institutional exhibitions. How work seems really relevant. She defined a moment about contemporary art and that London then. It seems so interesting that that sort of late 1980s, early 1990s London speaks in some way to this London now and this Europe and the state of the world today. Her work seems really timely.

Maureen Paley: We’re very much looking forward in 2021 to the show that she’ll do with the Guggenheim. It’s in the planning stages, though pretty much being finalized now.

A significant show that she did here—which was planned and done at the National Portrait Gallery—has really brought her into the discussion that is existing around identity, the idea of the mask, of gender and different things to do with the fluidity regarding one’s consciousness of oneself. And Gillian explored these things very early on and as you say, it becomes even more relevant now.

Charlotte Burns: We’re at a moment now in 2020, about to exit the European Union. It’s been a really divisive time politically in the country. How do you feel going ahead into this next phase of culture in the UK?

Maureen Paley: Well, it’s hard to say. It all remains to be seen. We still really don’t know where we’re going. It’s hard to make any predictions. It’s hard to really say.

The gallery itself has been hugely international in its outlook so a lot of our collector base is everywhere. I think we have to believe that many of us in the UK feel very strong ties to continental Europe. I certainly work very, very closely with colleagues all throughout, and artists as well have worked with me over the years coming from the continent. So, we just have to hope that the channels of communication and the ways to make things possible are kept quite open and fluid, because London is a great cultural capital and it’s a place that many artists wish to show.

Many artists worldwide are interested in the sensibility that comes from here. There are so many people that are so talented in terms of so many different areas of creativity in London. If you’re looking across the board at art, music, academia, fashion, the craft world, there’s so many ways that people make a huge contribution here that is actually used and felt worldwide. So continental Europe and beyond are forever drawing on the talents of Pinewood Studios or so many different things where people create possibilities here and make things happen.

The most important thing is to not cut off the lifeline of that, and not make it impossible for those things to. So, one is hoping that governments and people who are making other decisions are going to be conscious of what a valuable sector the arts are, and what they bring to the country, much less the city of London. But the whole of the country, is not to be underestimated because it’s really huge.

If one were to do the maths and look at what it brings into the country and then what flows out, we really have to see this as a crucial juncture. So many people are preaching caution and I think we really have to be quite cautious in terms of how we proceed. We still don’t know what’s going to happen, and I actually think that as an advocate for this sector, it’s very important for us all to be very vigilant and make incredibly clear to the government what a huge contribution this sector makes.

Charlotte Burns: Did you ever want to open up another gallery elsewhere? Obviously, you have Hove, but did you ever feel a pressure to be in America as an American-born?

Maureen Paley: One of the things I think that I found is that we very much liked bringing people over from the States to show in the UK. The fact that we work with a number of people who are located there like Oscar Tuazon, Tom Burr, Morgan Fisher, all of those things have been interesting to us. Having an actual gallery there hasn’t been something I’ve really explored.

I guess that situation could present itself at another stage. It’s not something that I’ve really looked at and I’ve always said that if I didn’t run my gallery, I probably would be a museum curator and that would appeal to me more than thinking about having branches everywhere.

Charlotte Burns: What do you feel the challenges and opportunities are right now, being a gallerist?

Maureen Paley: Well, if you’ve defined your program and you have a defined position, you just have to have strength in that and embroider upon that. I don’t want to look at things in terms of what else is out there and what other things are possible. It’s more really trying to be evolved and strong in yourself and believe in what it is you have created.

Because I got started so early on, in the last 20 years when I’ve been in Herald Street, we really are acknowledged as having created an art sector there. And to have different artists or different galleries surround us and do things nearby, that’s been very meaningful to me because I really see it that you’re offering something in your own way, on your own terms.

I’m not saying that I don’t acknowledge there’s lots of other pressures upon one, but I think if you get distracted by that, it doesn’t really allow you to do the work that you are meant to do. I’m much more aware of a more spiritual way of looking it, which is to do with dharma. And if you’re doing your dharma, that’s what you’re put on earth to do.

Charlotte Burns: You’re very focused on talking about things that you are able to talk about positively and not talking about things that might be difficult or negative. Is that a conscious choice to be positively focused?

Maureen Paley: It is. I even have been known to take negative words out of emails because I look at emails as they leave the gallery and vet them. I just think it’s very important to develop your worldview and stick to it.

Charlotte Burns: What kind of negative words do you mean; can you give me an example? No, I suppose that would be saying something negative.

[Laughter]

And you find that that’s a kind of shield for you?

Maureen Paley: It works.

Charlotte Burns: Have you always been like that?

Maureen Paley: I was taught by my mother. She was very much like that. She’s lived ‘til 90. Her 90th birthday was last November, and it stood her in good stead, and she had a very positive worldview. This is not to say that she didn’t acknowledge difficulties in life and didn’t see great difficulties and live through world wars. But I think there’s different ways. People talk about the glass half empty and the glass half full, and there’s different ways of looking at life. People also say that it helps if you think of the glass half full of, or half empty of, gin.

[Laughter]

But having said that—and this is not advocacy of alcohol—I really see it that you can shape your worldview and you have to see what it is you’re offering. My path has been organic, and I have had to overcome difficulties and there’s been things I’ve had to do in certain specific ways in order to achieve. But to dwell on the negative or to talk about things in a threatened or paranoid way, doesn’t really help anyone.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Maureen Paley: I really see it that when people are listening to podcasts or when people are involved in understanding something of one’s history, it’s not to only emphasize the positive but it’s to say that one has overcome things, that difficulties that may have occurred because of timing and because of circumstances that were existent in the art world before there was a market, or before you could actually sell work in the way that you can now, or before there was a level of fluidity, or before you had established yourself. All those things are part of how we grow. All those things are part of how we learn.

My mother almost died of diphtheria when she was ten, and she came out of that illness having all of her clothes burnt and everything that she owned destroyed. Ten is the age that Bruno Bettelheim says you establish trust in the world. And the fact that she came out of that and decided, at that age, when she lived, that she was going to go towards the light, I really think that she brought us up with that understanding. And that understanding has then shaped how I’ve had to, or how I’ve chosen to, evolve in the world even in the face of great darkness.

Charlotte Burns: Have you had to practice that? Has that come easily and naturally to you?

Maureen Paley: Well, because it’s something that was discussed and part of my childhood experience—

Charlotte Burns: Ingrained in you.

Maureen Paley: —doesn’t know how naturally it comes, but it’s something that I’ve found—

Charlotte Burns: It’s an architecture that you’ve had.

[Laughter]

Maureen Paley: Or a structure that I’ve relied on.

Charlotte Burns: Well, I think that’s a great note to end it on.

Okay. Well, Maureen thank you very much—

Maureen Paley: It was a pleasure.

Charlotte Burns: —for being my guest today. I appreciate it.

Maureen Paley: Absolutely.

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