“I really believe in this vision of a united Europe. It is very sad to see England leave. It will make our business more complicated because we are going back to a situation where you have borders.”
“We want to avoid becoming corporate. This is a big risk in bigger galleries, because artists are very sensitive—and they are the first ones to react to it.”
“We cannot reduce ourselves to going from art fair to art fair, just trying to sell as much art as possible.”
“They would give you the building and say: ‘Do an exhibition of one of your artists.’ Sometimes they wouldn’t even tell you which artist, they would just say: ‘Do it.’ Basically, they gave you the key to the museum.”
Charlotte Burns: Hello and welcome to In Other Words. I’m your host Charlotte Burns, and joining me today is the Austrian art dealer Thaddaeus Ropac.
Thaddaeus Ropac: Hi Charlotte. Happy to be here.
Charlotte Burns: Thaddaeus founded his gallery in 1983 in Salzburg and now has five venues spanning three cities: Salzburg, Paris and London. Your gallery spaces are some of the most breathtaking in the business. How important is it to you to have those spaces for attracting or keeping artists, or for selling art?
Thaddaeus Ropac: They are more and more important. I think the art business has moved a lot into the activity of art fairs, and even though we participate in many of them, I think the gallery space is where our business should be concentrated and where we should really try to do most of our important sales.
I really would like to get collectors back into the galleries because we try everything in terms of a perfect space: light and floor and architecture. In art fairs, we have to go with a tent, bad lighting, bad air and a very limited space. So, I still staunchly believe in the gallery space. Every time we [were thinking of opening a new gallery, the space, the architecture, the light and the conditions were the most important. So, I think it is crucial.
Charlotte Burns: Do you find that people are still coming to galleries?
Thaddaeus Ropac: I think yes. Especially Paris was an incredible experience for us over many years. When I opened the second gallery, which was not in the center where it is easy to attract an audience, but to go to Pantin, which is in the northeast of Paris, in a total new development. There was the Paris Philharmonie opening, which was spectacular, but still a big risk for them to go in the outskirts of Paris. I believe very much in this area because I think if you have an amazing space, which is spectacular on its own, and you do a good program with important artists, an audience would come.
This was exactly the experience. We have a much bigger audience there than we expected in the beginning. So, we were surprised by the success in terms of pure audience. It has nothing to do with sales, because with sales we know how to do it and how to get our collectors to a place. But I am really interested in audience, per se—to make sure that an exhibition we are doing deserves the audience in numbers and in quality. That is something we continuously discuss.
Charlotte Burns: You opened in Mayfair last April. A lot of dealers in the area say that foot traffic is down. What has your experience been?
Thaddaeus Ropac: Well, we are the new kid on the block. The space is beautiful, and it’s an amazing building on its own, so people are curious. So, of course the numbers we have in the first year, [they don’t] maybe tell much about the long-term success of an audience, but we felt really embraced by the London art world. I hope that we can move this success of the first round of exhibitions into a long-term success in terms of traffic. What I have realized is that traffic is not self-understood like it is in Paris.
Charlotte Burns: What do you mean?
Thaddaeus Ropac: In Paris, we have these waves of audience. Whatever you do, they just basically come because if you are on the track of the important galleries and institutions, people just trust your program without knowing what you do, they would come.
Charlotte Burns: They will just show up.
Thaddaeus Ropac: They would show up. Saturdays are when people come and say: “Oh, you have an opening today.” No. This is a Saturday in Paris. The gallery is full, and it means hundreds of people. We don’t have this in London. This is true. I was surprised. It was something I was not aware of. London is more event-driven, I would say. It is different, I have to say. People are very focused. You feel the people who come know exactly what they’re going to see. And in New York and Paris, they just come because they trust the gallery program and make the weekend turns.
Charlotte Burns: Julia Peyton-Jones of course is the former co-director of the Serpentine Gallery who joined your gallery last year. Tell me a little bit more about Julia’s role in the gallery and how that all came about.
Thaddaeus Ropac: When I heard that Julia was leaving the Serpentine after really putting it on the map for so many years and getting Hans Ulrich Obrist involved on this level, I just went to her and [asked] if she could imagine working in the context of a commercial gallery, but still be very involved in content—in working with artists and overlooking exhibitions in a curatorial sense. I was very happy when she accepted the offer. She is somebody with an experience very different than ours in the commercial world. She has a global role, so she basically is involved in exhibition planning. She brings in new ideas for exhibitions but also in executing exhibitions by bringing in different curator’s view. She is very eager to introduce the gallery to a new kind of curator and is aiming to make exhibitions just more interesting by bringing in a different critical partner.
We have done many of the projects with our artists really in-house. Through her, I think, we really understand it even when we think we know the artist’s work very well, it is interesting to get another view into it. She already brought in a lot of great ideas. You will see this in the coming months, not only in London, but also in Paris.
Charlotte Burns: I’m sure that the artists love that, too.
Thaddaeus Ropac: The artists are really going with it. Sometimes they are surprised. They say: “Well, I’ve done this body of work for the gallery. I know the rooms. I’ve done it before. What does the curator do?” But after an experience of working with the curator—and not only curators we know by the title and what they’ve done, but very unusual choices—I cannot say too much because we believe in the surprise, but a few things will be the most unusual pairings in looking into an artist’s work and presenting it in a gallery space. Especially also Ely House. It’s a historic building. It’s beautiful and very inviting. People love to spend time in the building. But it is also challenging because it has its twists also and—
Charlotte Burns: Quirks. Yes.
Thaddaeus Ropac: This is a lot of almost [overwhelming] architecture, which you have to also—
Charlotte Burns: Compete with in a way.
Thaddaeus Ropac: Compete with and to bring under your own control. I think artists really appreciate help in there to make an unusual presentation.
Charlotte Burns: You opened in April, which many people took as a sign or confidence in England after Brexit, though of course your decision to open in London was made before the referendum. Were you surprised by the referendum? Do you feel that it will impact the art business here?
Thaddaeus Ropac: Yes. I was surprised by it. I didn’t expect this, and I was actually shocked by it. I’m staunchly European. I really believe in this vision of a united Europe. I always felt that England should be part of it. It is very sad to see England leave. It will make our business more complicated because we are going back to a situation where you have borders. Borders means customs, and customs means paper and time and energy.
But, I think that in the long run, the art business itself will not suffer from this because first of all, I think that artists and the art world per se does not have any geo-politically borders left. I think they don’t exist. No artist thinks in a political order or geo-political—and no curator thinks like this. The opposite. I think the world opened up. I think there is no corner unturned for the art world to be active and not only discover it. I think there is no way to look into it as a restriction. I also think that London was always such a big center in the art business itself, when you think the auction houses.
On the other hand, which is more interesting for us, is that it still has the museum of Contemporary art, which is the most successful in the world—the Tate Gallery—which has the biggest number of visitors of any museum of Contemporary art, which is the best sign that Contemporary art has arrived in London, big, and is not ready to leave.
But, it will change the way we work. It will make it much more complicated. When I think today, we need a work of art from Paris or from Austria, from any place in Europe, it can be shipped within 24 hours if you want for viewing or so. All of this will be much more complicated because customs will just block things and VAT issues will be… You will not be able to just bring in a piece of art without going through a lot of difficulties.
Financially, it will be complicated by purely the whole traffic of VAT. Maybe there will be a solution. There are many fantasies about how England could provide a very easy way of dealing with it. There is definitely potential for creating a rather easy way of movement, but we don’t know yet. But I hope it will limit itself to this problem and not anything deeper.
Charlotte Burns: Do you think there might be a problem in terms of the buyers coming to London? It’s always seemed to me that London has never necessarily been home to masses of major collectors. There are, of course, serious art collectors in London. London’s role more, though, has been as a hub for collectors to come to. As you say, it’s been a center of the art world and of art production and of art exhibiting. Do you feel that if it becomes more complicated to travel to London, or if people feel a swell of nationalism emanating from England, that the people who currently come to London may just go to Paris?
Thaddaeus Ropac: I definitely think that Paris will profit from it. You can already feel it now. I think there are many reasons. I think the whole Macron effect is actually really—you can feel it very strongly in Paris so—
Charlotte Burns: In which ways?
Thaddaeus Ropac: Paris is just becoming a place of activity, which we haven’t seen a couple of years ago. A couple of years ago, everybody was looking into London and seeing how active London became and how quiet Paris was. This is reversing now. People feel Paris is the place of the moment, and people are moving to Paris. Art is always on the first lines. You can really see the amount of artists now who are looking into Paris. It offers a climate which is very open, very inviting, very inclusive, and all of this results in this situation where a city basically comes to extra life.
Paris was always very cosmopolitan and very sophisticated, but important cities, they have an up and a down. Paris and London have some of the biggest museums in the world, some of the great galleries and some of the great collectors. I think this will not radically change, but I think some activity will definitely move to Paris.
Of course, artists are very open, and they are surprised and shocked also by this movement in England politically, which is leaning to the right and leaning to a certain way of—I wouldn’t say racism, that is the extreme example of it—but it’s not inclusive. It’s not open. It’s not the symbol of what art stands for, what artists stand for and what artists want to achieve with also their work. So, I think some of them might feel more comfortable in Paris or in Berlin or any place which stands for this European vision.
But as I said, England has a critical mass. I think we have to see how complicated it would become.
Charlotte Burns: Yes.
Thaddaeus Ropac: If it were to become very complicated to do exhibitions and to get works and to invite artists and to get their visas for a short-term project, this might [cause] a reaction that we don’t know yet. But I don’t expect it. I think it would be something very unwise for the English to go that far and to make it really complicated for the creative world to move and to work.
Charlotte Burns: How committed are you to the London space? Do you have a time limit in mind?
Thaddaeus Ropac: Oh no, this is done. We are here to stay. There is no—not even the idea of—oh no, this was long in the making. I was really looking into many buildings in London before I decided. This had a real master plan. When I went to Paris—this is a long time ago—it was very hard in Paris for me the first few years, but I was always clear we had to stay. And there is no question that this is a long-term commitment to London, and a very happy one. The success of the first few months already gave me—totally right. This was the right decision to do, and even so that Brexit caught us by surprise? It’s a challenge which we have to deal with.
Charlotte Burns: Just factor it in.
Thaddaeus Ropac: Yes.
Charlotte Burns: And your galleries are all based in Europe, obviously, but you’re very active internationally. Do you have plans to open further afield? I remember you once saying to me: “I’m opening a gallery in a very unexpected location.” I don’t think that happened because that was a few years ago now, but I do know you are always thinking about different possibilities. So, what’s on the slate?
Thaddaeus Ropac: We do have some ideas. We haven’t really made any of them very clear. We’ll see where. It’s definitely not the end of… The art world just went into this direction, and we are part of it. We want to be part of this very active challenge in presenting art at its best level. It also then makes it possible for you to work with the great artists of our time. This is our goal. This is our ambition, and growth is part of it.
But I always say, on the other hand, it is not a necessity to grow. It is a possibility. So, if you only have one gallery location and you do an incredible program, I think this is what you’re measured on. So, growth is not necessary. It’s only possible. If you want to do it, you can do it. But it is not necessary for relevance. It’s a challenge you want to take on. It’s an extra challenge, but it’s not the basic challenge.
The basic challenge is to work with the great artists and to give them all the possibilities they need for their vision. Give them the infrastructure. Give them not only space but also the team. And this is where we have to get always better. We’re a team of more than 100 people, and this is necessary not only because of these multiple spaces, but really because each department needs this. Each artist needs this kind of excellence in providing the ideal circumstances for an exhibition, for a publication, for placing the art. I think all of this we try to take really seriously and that is, at the end, the success of a gallery.
Charlotte Burns: Having a staff of more than 100 and five active exhibition spaces—that’s not even including all of the work that you do beside that—you work with museums all around the world, you work with collectors on building their collections. That’s a serious business to run and oversee, and a huge expense in terms of managing all of those outgoings and keeping everything afloat. Do you feel that pressure?
Thaddaeus Ropac: Yes and no, because it was a very natural growth. It was really over years. It was not very abrupt. We took time to make sure that we [could] integrate it into our activity. On the other hand, yes, also it is a challenge because the bigger you get, and the more complicated it gets if you go into different tax systems, different countries.
But again, I’m very happy with the team I’m working with. We have a structure which puts a lot of this pressure in different people who I can trust.
Charlotte Burns: You delegate.
Thaddaeus Ropac: Otherwise it would not be possible to grow. I think you cannot grow if you keep this kind of micromanagement to yourself. I think you have to trust people and let them make decisions. Most of the time I’m happy, sometimes I’m not, but that’s part of the game. Organization is important. On the other side, we want to avoid [becoming] corporate. This is a big risk in bigger galleries because artists are very sensitive, and they are the first ones to react to it. So, I always try to keep this part as the most precious part of a gallery: the artists. We’re here because of the artists and their productions.
People sometimes from the outside, they think: “Yes, it’s just a Rolodex of collectors which makes a great gallery work.” No, no, no. It’s the relationship to the artist. And if the artist trusts you and gives you their best work, then you’re able to get your group of collectors following, but this is the first part. And this is the one I think we concentrate the most: to make our artists happy and provide them what they need for their work.
And of course the bigger you grow, the bigger there’s a risk to lose this very personal momentum with artists where they feel: “This is the best place for my work. I trust the gallery to take these works from the studio.” You have to think—an artist works in the studio for months and months on their own, you know? Very much in their own world. They have to make decisions every day, how the work is going, which direction—they take all the risk at the end because their careers are depending on each work they’re putting out.
So, they need a partner where they can lean on, they can trust that the gallery is doing their part of the work to present it the best possible way and also bring in the right people for the work. Selling it to the right people, which means institutions and collectors—serious collectors, and not investors. So, I think this is this precious good we have: to have the trust of the artist. And you can only be successful as long as you have it.
Charlotte Burns: And your passion for art was ignited on a school trip. How old were you then?
Thaddaeus Ropac: I was 18. It was the Museum of Modern Art in Vienna.
Charlotte Burns: Had you been very interested in art before that?
Thaddaeus Ropac: No, it was a bit of a Eureka moment. Or it was a total surprise, actually, because the way I was growing up in the south of Austria, Modern art was Schiele, Klimt, Kokoschka. So, the real sense of Contemporary art, I don’t think I was growing up with. So, it was a big surprise to realize that museums actually show artists of our time, done now, dealing with the problems of our time—of us, actually. So, I think it was a great moment when I realized this.
Charlotte Burns: What did you see?
Thaddaeus Ropac: There was a big installation by Joseph Beuys. It was called [Basisraum] Nasse Wäsche (1979), which is called “wet clothes”. Even our professor basically was very dismissive of this room, and he said: “You can just ignore this. It’s a room of rubbish.” In a way, it was very irritating. This comment was irritating, but also the work itself was irritating because I really didn’t understand it. On the other hand, I said: “My God, this is really an important museum. It’s in Vienna, and they spent a lot of money for this installation. I cannot believe that intelligent people really would do this if this were rubbish.” So, it kind of irritated me, made me angry that I didn’t understand it, but also on the other hand I didn’t want to dismiss it.
I started to look into Contemporary art, and Beuys was this towering figure. It was the late ‘70s. I was totally attracted by the idea. In 1980 he gave a lecture in Vienna and I definitely wanted hear this and I went specifically there. It was the first time I heard him and I saw him, and I experienced this charisma he had and the way he spoke about art, but not only as what I understood art is—that it gives you a certain pleasure besides your real life—he just made you understand that art is real life, and art is political and art has to do something with our time and with us, each of us personally. It was an amazing moment to realize this, and how powerful art can be. I knew at that time that Contemporary art has to play a role in my life.
In the beginning I even thought that I would become an artist, it was my first intention.
Charlotte Burns: What kind of art were you making?
Thaddaeus Ropac: Terrible abstract paintings.
I was looking for a role in this world, and I went to Germany. Beuys was in Düsseldorf, so I went to Düsseldorf. I met him, and I was just insisting that I would be of any kind of use in his studio. They were not looking for an assistant. They were not looking for anyone to work there. I just offered my hands to do a kind of unpaid intern program, and I was very lucky that this was accepted. It was the year where Beuys was very crucial in Documenta. Basically, I just schlepped the beer or I was doing the kind of minor work. Sometimes I’m amused when it’s written that I was the assistant. I think it was not the case, but it was an amazing time for me. It was 1982. It was an incredible year in the art world.
I think “Zeitgeist” (1982) was a towering exhibition, which brought in really a new spirit of painting. Actually, we are preparing a Beuys exhibition, a really—hopefully—major Beuys exhibition, at the London Space in April.
In the beginning, it was a huge learning period, and in Berlin I met other artists. I met Georg Baselitz who back then was of course very important in Germany but not so much outside. It was this great moment where art also broke into a new layer of an international context. It was first a more European/American. It later then changed into all different other parts of the world. For me, it was the beginning of thinking about art and how I could play a role in this. Then I started my small gallery in Salzburg.
I spent a lot of time in New York. It was right after this experience in Berlin, New York felt the city to go to and to learn about art and to meet artists. I was very lucky to meet Andy Warhol back then and Basquiat actually, Keith Haring, Mapplethorpe and other artists. To be able to work with them right away. I think the art world was so small, so transparent—so easygoing, also.
I had this very tiny gallery in Austria, in Salzburg of all places, which is definitely not an art center. When I would approach artists of my generation or even others, they would be very open and curious to do something, especially American artists because they were somehow obsessed with Europe. Any great European proposal was easily accepted. This was my luck. I was able to kind of start a relationship with great artists. Some of them exactly my generation—they were in their early 20s and they hadn’t really exhibited much in Europe, and even not much outside of New York.
The German speaking word was always an interesting artist’s playground. Germany was more difficult than Austria or Switzerland because it had so many different cities. Berlin didn’t exist back then. There was still the wall. It was more the Rhineland around Cologne and Düsseldorf, which was the main place of activity. Then there was Munich and Hamburg and Vienna and Zurich. So, I think Germany was very difficult for an American artist to understand: where is the place where things are really the most active?
The German market was an important one. German collectors were some of the first ones to go to America and to look into American art. I could name quite a few between Cologne, Munich and Vienna who were very early on in America and looking at different generation of artists. To have a gallery, even though it was outside the main center—Salzburg is a small town, but Salzburg was and is a town which is associated with culture because it is this incredible place for classical music on one of the most incredible levels: the festival, the opera houses.
It was the right backdrop. It was the right atmosphere where artists felt 20th-century music was presented on such high level that when you brought in an artist… I was able to introduce some of these artists to the opera stage by doing stage design or doing exhibitions which go with the theme, and artists loved to meet other artists from the music world. All of this helped, but still, it was a very small place.
Charlotte Burns: How did you cultivate the collectors?
Thaddaeus Ropac: In the very beginning, it was hard. I have to say, I remember I opened this space and I was very young and didn’t know any collectors. I knew some artists, which as I said, was the most important. At the beginning, of course, I couldn’t sell anything. I remember the first show of Beuys—we had a drawing show. We couldn’t sell one drawing, and then we had a Basquiat show, and I couldn’t sell one drawing. Artists back then, they were not disappointed by this, they were almost expecting this. They were happy about anything that came out of an exhibition. So, there was not so much pressure, also, that the show had to be commercially a success.
Charlotte Burns: That’s interesting.
Thaddaeus Ropac: Which changed definitely, you know, because unfortunately today—
Charlotte Burns: Did that change in the ‘80s?
Thaddaeus Ropac: No, no. It changed—at the end of the ‘80s, yes, that’s true. The end of the ‘80s was the beginning of change, and then it became bigger and bigger. In today’s world, success is—critical success and commercial success, so this is really going hand in hand.
Charlotte Burns: You need both.
Thaddaeus Ropac: You need both as an artist today. Or at least as the pressure—if it’s not happening, then artists for the wrong reason ask, they say: “Why is it not happening?” Back then, this pressure was very limited because any sale was surprise. I remember Leo Castelli would say this to me. I met him. He became a friend. He would come to Salzburg every summer because he had a keen interest in music, and he would tell me that the commercial success is one thing but the critical success is really what drives a program and what makes an artist great. He always told me to be patient, because when I started to meet him in the ‘80s and we worked on a few exhibitions, and of course the commercial result was so modest that I was embarrassed about it, but Leo would be very understanding.
I always say that I’ve seen in the 30 years since I have been in this business, the whole art world moved from the ivory tower to the center of life. Back then it was very exclusive, in a very intellectual sense. And it became so inclusive. Everybody can participate in Contemporary art today. When you grow up as a teenager, art is part of your life. It was not back then. Not in Austria, not in England and not in France.
So, I think we have achieved a lot. Besides everything you can criticize about Contemporary art and the way it is kind of money-driven today or commercially-driven, it is part of our upbringing. It’s part of our lives, and it is not something in an ivory tower anymore. It is something very inclusive, very inviting. It’s wonderful to see how everybody can be a part of it.
Then, of course, you have a lot of reactions in terms of the commercial part of it where you can criticize and say: “We have to be careful that this doesn’t go out of control.” To be careful and sensitive about it.
Charlotte Burns: How do you do that?
Thaddaeus Ropac: You know what? This is an important question, I think. We are asking ourselves in the gallery. If you ask yourself these questions in this business, and you are really trying to be honest with yourself, you’ll understand that selling it to the first person that comes through the door is not what you want to achieve, and it’s not the answer to this question.
That’s the reason I feel that the gallery space is so important. It has to do with this question. When I hear that some galleries say: “We don’t even need a gallery space anymore because we’re doing all the art fairs and this is basically where we find our collectors,” that’s why I always say we have to go back to the exhibitions. We have to go back to produce the best possible publications and to invite a critical group of people who can really start the dialogue, start the context and to first get people into a space, which shows respect to the work.
If you have a space and an exhibition that you really planned with an artist, at its best, you know. This is the best space for a dialogue, and the dialogue then starts with collectors and with the artwork. We cannot reduce ourselves to going from art fair to art fair and just trying to sell as much art as possible, even though we are doing this because this is necessary to kind of make all of this possible.
Charlotte Burns: I was talking to a dealer in Miami recently at the fair there. It was an American dealer who was talking to me about the problems he is facing in keeping the gallery going. He had said to some of his artists that he was going to stop doing art fairs, and he’d realized that for the same price he could produce a beautiful publication with essays by some of the greatest thinkers of our time and had said to the artists: “Which would you prefer?” Some of the artists had sort of not really known which one they would prefer. He was horrified and a bit dismayed by that.
Thaddaeus Ropac: Yes, I think this is true. Artists don’t want to miss the beat of the moment. If their main gallery would decide not to do art fairs, maybe artists would fear that they would lose out on a big audience.
I don’t think it’s much the problem of having galleries in these metropolitan cities because you already expect a very sophisticated audience. I think at the end, you need both. I would not put the artists I work with into this choice of not doing art fairs anymore. We know that we need them. We know that we want them. We just want to use them more carefully and not reduce our main business there.
Try to create an audience for exhibitions, because this is what artists deserve and want. They want an exhibition to be full with people who appreciate the work—who criticize the work also, but who really have a dialogue with the work. If you’re not able anymore to create a dialogue, this is something you can create. We have all the tools for it. We just have to do it. It’s maybe hard work, but everything needs a lot of creativity and ideas.
I think this is a good start because I think we are able to kind of keep the artist happy on his level, and the level is create a dialogue. Which is more than a few seconds of concentration, when you walk through a busy art fair, which also has its own energy, which also I really embrace and I love it sometimes. You hear the beat, I mean you feel the beat, you feel the energy of it, but we cannot reduce ourselves to it. For a couple of years when this was all so new, I think we were very much taken by it. Now I think this is on for a long time. I think we have a few years of getting used to it, and I think it’s about time to say: “Okay, wait a minute. This is great if we want it—”
Charlotte Burns: The honeymoon phase is over and you are in long-distance…
Thaddaeus Ropac: “Let’s just see what we can concentrate on, and it’s totally fine if I’m missing personally to go.” I’m not going to all the art fairs anymore because I can’t, it’s not possible with our program. To concentrate more of what you can do in the gallery to make an artists really happy. It’s not too difficult to understand what they want. The big challenge is to do it, but I think it’s possible.
Charlotte Burns: How do you focus your energies in terms of your clients?
Thaddaeus Ropac: Collectors are really all over the world. I think there’s almost no corner where you don’t have collectors today, and it’s fascinating also to develop collectors in every corner of the planet because Contemporary art became a very international language, and it’s a language people understand. It’s fascinating to realize this because sometimes you meet with people who don’t share one language so you cannot speak to them, but by just looking at the piece of art you understand—
Charlotte Burns: Something about them.
Thaddaeus Ropac: Each other. I think this is something which the last 10 to 15 years have brought to us. As I’ve said, before it felt a very European-American game. American artists wanted to show in Europe, and European artists in America. This has all changed. Today we are working with artists who live in Lahore, Pakistan or in Romania or in Seoul, Korea. There’s no limit where you find your artist.
There are very different challenges. We have an artist who lives in Tehran in Iran, so to get the works out is a different challenge. To get in touch with others is a different challenge. The pure hours of flight to go to a studio is a different challenge. But it became a very international, very cosmopolitan way of meeting with artists. It became its own universe, which I think is a great thing. This curiosity, which we developed for looking into artists’ work from each corner of this planet is something very important. This was not there in the ‘80s.
Charlotte Burns: I know you were doing a fair amount of business in the Middle East at one point. Do you still do a lot of business with the Middle East?
Thaddaeus Ropac: Yes, we do. I just went to the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, which was a really great moment because many years in the coming, many challenges—sometimes it felt that it would not happen. I was very happy when this was finally realized. The idea of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is back on track, and we were very involved from the beginning. We sold some important works to Abu Dhabi and to the Middle East. Sometimes discussing it in length with the artists. Some artists felt reluctant to give some of their key works to a fictional museum idea, and now it’s starting to be real and to be such a success, so I’m particularly happy about how the Louvre opened and how the world embraced it, also, as a place to be taken seriously.
Charlotte Burns: What about Qatar?
Thaddaeus Ropac: A bit different, but of course we are active in Qatar, and we have placed some great works there. It is still a more private situation where people around the ruling family are collecting on an incredible level. It has to be seen how this will open up to a certain public. I learned, I think, in the last few days that now the new museum is back on track and it’s also Jean Nouvel who is doing the museum. We’ll see. It’s a different situation, and we have to see how it is now, how active it will stay and what they’re going to do and how almost private activity will turn into a public presentation.
Charlotte Burns: I know you do work in China, too. Can you talk a little bit about the exhibitions that you’ve been working on or is it too early?
Thaddaeus Ropac: I’m very happy. We have a small office in Hong Kong. We have our Asian director who is very active, who is basically traveling around Asia for our artists, and we’re having some exciting projects. The next project, which is happening in the next several months, will be a major show with Alex Katz at the new museum in Seoul, Korea. It’s called the Lotte Museum. We had a Dan Flavin exhibition they’re doing with the Dia Art Foundation. So, you can see the level these new-age museums are putting on. We are very much looking forward to this project, which is now all in the going.
The curators of this new museum are traveling to New York with us to meet the artists, a list of works has been agreed on, the publication is in the coming and everything is on European/American levels. Today you work with these new institutions on a great understanding of how an artist would expect to be treated, and how an exhibition is organized and done. It was a bit of a Wild West period for a while. We didn’t know how this would go in the direction where we feel really comfortable, in terms of the way an artist is treated. The curatorial questions are answered.
Charlotte Burns: I remember you telling me once that you had been asked if you would like to organize an exhibition of one of your artists in a big public museum, and you explained that wouldn’t quite be right for you, as the commercial dealer, to put on the show of all the works because you would have your own interests. You’d kind of had to explain that there may need to be or it may be advisable to have a degree of separation.
Thaddaeus Ropac: Basically in the beginning they would just open… They would give you the building and say: “Do an exhibition of one of your artists.” Sometimes they wouldn’t even tell you which artist, they would just say do it. Basically they gave you the key to the museum, and that’s not the way we can work. What really changed in the last couple of years is that these museums—the national museum but also private museums—are astute that they need to get a curatorial team first. They have to get their own vision of how they want to create a program. I think they have come a long way. We’re involved in a Beuys exhibition in Shanghai, one of the museums which is opening in 2018. It is incredible, how—
Charlotte Burns: Are you doing a show of German artists in China?
Thaddaeus Ropac: I don’t want to say we’re doing a show. We are involved in exhibitions which the institutions are doing, and we are helpful. Yes, we are. I can’t really say much about German artists, which are in discussion now, but yes it will happen.
Charlotte Burns: Fantastic.
You said at the end of last year in the Financial Times where you said: “It’s demanding and challenging, but we’ve had a tremendous record here.” How do you plan to best that in 2018?
Thaddaeus Ropac: Well, it was easy for us to have a record year, adding London. It’s such an important place with a great team that was very eager to work and to make a success. So, I think it’s a natural record year, of course. I think 2018 will be a successful year. I think all the tools are here. If we are using it right, it only can be a great year. Something maybe totally unexpected politically has to happen that this is not the case. Otherwise, at the moment we have a huge potential of great artists who are working very strong, and we have a huge potential of collectors who are eager to get new works. I almost felt there was no break for the holidays. I was amazed how active this year started. This is not only our experience. When I spoke to some of my colleagues, they also felt the same.
Charlotte Burns: How do you survive through the dryer periods? Obviously the gallery has been around for more than 30 years, so here have been recessions and downturns—how do you survive?
Thaddaeus Ropac: Yes, I always say the first recession is the most difficult because it’s the most unexpected. I have had a few in the 30 years, and some were very deep and very long. If we survive those ones, I think we are much more ready to go through one. Trees cannot grow into heaven, so I think we know that there are limits and there will be backlashes and there will be periods that—
Charlotte Burns: Do you expect a recession?
Thaddaeus Ropac: Of course, recessions come when you don’t expect them. I do not expect one now because 2018 started more active than any year before I feel. I think we are prepared if one happens.
It’s a huge responsibility to have a huge group of people working with you, because you’re responsible also for this. Also, artists—we are working with 60 artists, with estates—they all have expectations. It’s easy to meet them when it’s a good strong period, but it’s more challenging and difficult when it’s a low period. So, I think we always have a certain master plan, what happens when things are going—
Charlotte Burns: When times get tougher.
Thaddaeus Ropac: More tough and more slow, and I think we are well prepared to go through this without laying off people or without reducing activity, but by kind of streamlining what you do. Of course, in the period of growth and the period of prosperity like we have now, it is easy to do the extra funding in projects, which there is a way to kind of reduce this. And if you don’t need to, you don’t do it. If you need to, you know how to do it, or you have to know how to do it.
Charlotte Burns: Do you have your own collection?
Thaddaeus Ropac: Yes, oh my God. That’s a very important part of my activity. It’s an incredible privilege to work with some of the great artists of our time and to be close to them, to be able to get some of their great work. I think it would be missing out on an opportunity if you don’t start your collection. I started my collection many years ago, the minute I was able to. In the very beginning, I was not because I didn’t have any financial possibilities to do so. Sometimes it was heartbreaking to send works back to the studios when we couldn’t sell them. As soon as this changed, I started to collect artists—mainly the artists I work with, but those ones in depth. Going back into historical works, buying at auction, buying from colleagues and of course mostly buying at studios, but to really make sure that you have a collection which means something. Hopefully at one point it will be in a kind of public context.
Charlotte Burns: Do you have plans for the future?
Thaddaeus Ropac: Of course, I’m thinking about it. They’re not concrete yet. I still hope to have a few more years to decide this. It definitely is meant for a public space, yes.
Charlotte Burns: Are there any other pieces of advice you would give to dealers today, starting out today?
Thaddaeus Ropac: It’s almost as I said before: I think the most important is to grow a relationship of trust with the artist. This is the rock which I think success is built on. Not only concentrate on collectors and think that this is the key to success. I think collectors are so sophisticated today, to find you if you offer the right choices. I think the most important decision is to build a program which is interesting enough, unique enough within the context you provide, and is surprising and is honest in its offering. If you stay with these almost fundamental rules, I think it’s a good chance to be successful.
Charlotte Burns: Well, thank you so much for being my guest. It’s been such a pleasure, as always, to talk to you.
Thaddaeus Ropac: Thank you so much. I enjoyed it.