Roundtable on the changing Gallery landscape in Berlin Nadja Abt in conversation with Supportico Lopez, Sandy Brown, and Gillmeier Rech

In the last year, several so-called mid-level galleries, featuring ambitious programs and a roster of young but accomplished artists, shut their doors. In the aftermath, some are reimagining their gallery activities, operating now without the usual brick-and-mortar spaces, while others are simply closed for good. Berlin was not spared from the unfortunate trend, and Texte zur Kunst editor, Nadja Abt, sat down with the owners of three galleries that have either recently closed, or have otherwise been severely hit by the recent spate of closings. What follows is an account of the phenomenon, straight from the horse’s mouth.

Nadja Abt: What was the intention to start a program and a gallery here in Berlin, how has it changed and why did you decide to either change the way you want to exhibit (Supportico Lopez) or close the gallery (Gillmeier Rech)? For Fiona, the question would be, if you had to change your program because of economic developments and pressure (Sandy Brown)?

Fiona Bate (Sandy Brown): I opened the gallery in 2010 and it was always meant to be a gallery space, but most people think that it started as a project space. And I think that will continue somehow in a way which I find interesting because it reflects quite a lot on what peoples expectation of a gallery are, how they should run it and what kind of art commercial galleries should show. The gallery started doing fairs in 2013 and started focusing on just doing exhibitions and working with various artists not necessarily with a view to have an ongoing relationship over the presentation of them. Last year has been the most we have done, which was 6 fairs, but I don’t think that sort of commercial or business side has necessarily changed my view of what I would be interested in showing or the kind of art that I’m interested in. The few occasions that I have attempted to work along those lines, it always had a backfire where you think “yeah things are going pretty well” and it never turns out like that. So one thing that I’ve realized is that it’s just as important to stick to your beliefs in the program and work that you’re interested in because from my side I’ve found it really difficult to anticipate what people would be interested in buying. And that’s where the tricky side of it comes in, because from that position, it does involve a lot of investment, time, and uncertainty as well.

Gigiotto del Vecchio (Supportico Lopez): Supportico Lopez as a gallery happened because there was a fair that asked us to participate when we were still considering ourselves a project space. When we moved from Naples to Berlin, thinking of course that we want to continue to be an off-space, we realized that this idea that we had was a little bit naïve.

Stefania Palumbo (Supportico Lopez): And then there was also November 2008, the moment of the crisis.

GV: When we moved to Berlin it was exactly the year when everyone was thinking of closing. It was a really desperate moment and a strange situation. Back then we were still an off-space and then we were invited to be part of Frame, this new section that was happening at Frieze Art Fair. We started to like the idea to represent some artists and worked in this direction. That was still a completely different time. We still could really mix up our position between commercial and off-space which has become more difficult these days.

SP: That’s why we are not really thinking that we’re closing the gallery. The gallery chapter of Supportico Lopez is just over.

Claudia Rech: We opened Gillmeier Rech in November 2013. We met just shortly before opening the gallery together, but we had a common ground for ideas, like creating a gallery business to promote young and upcoming artists. I had curated as a freelancer before and had worked in galleries. Verena is an artist and had a project space in Sweden called Martini Projects. The opening of the gallery was spontaneous – we started commercial from the beginning on, with an artist list which maybe now, in retrospect, was a bad idea.

NA: On your homepage, Claudia and Verena, you officially state that you’re closed permanently. Please tell us the reason why you closed. Gigiotto and Stefania, your homepage, on the other hand, says that you’re on summer break. Basically, you continue running your homepage as it was, you’re still representing your artists on the homepage, you publish news.

SP: It’s not completely abandoned but for sure we also took some time in the beginning when we made the decision to close the space in Kurfürstenstraße. We wanted to have some time to think exactly about what we wanted to do now.

GV: The gallery is an experience that we had but it’s not our life. We were not born as a gallery, likely we didn’t die as a gallery at the moment the gallery closed or better, in the moment that the gallery decided to not call itself a gallery anymore. We stopped this idea of being related with the market as a primary thing. When we talk about the representation of artists, I think we represented artists but generally are more interested in discussion. We don’t really feel the necessity to send out these newsletters saying that we are closing. We are still very active.

CR: Well, we closed for a very simple reason; it was financially impossible to continue. We participated in this year`s Art Cologne and Gallery Weekend and it felt like a bet to try out different things. If one is working, then we can maybe continue to do another fair in the fall and spend more money. The moment Gallery Weekend ended and we closed the door of the gallery, we were like: “Ok, we think this is kind of it.”

Verena Gillmeier: I think Claudia and I ran the gallery quite intuitively from day one, and I still believe that agility could be the key to run a venture like an art gallery. But after having run the gallery for five years, we wanted to see a visible improvement, financially, and one that we were in charge of. Running an international small business in a global market is incredibly tough and we consciously aimed to meet local (German) collectors at Art Cologne and Gallery Weekend in order to strengthen our local base. We knew it was financially risky for us, but we didn’t want to be a small size gallery anymore. We thought that if one of the fairs goes well, it will mean growth, and if it doesn’t, it’s probably best to try another format and move on.

CR: It’s impossible, I mean, one could go to the bank and get more money, sure why not? But then, who am I throwing the money at? These are really tough times for the art market, things change and are in evolution. For us it didn't seem a good idea to invest more in a business model like a gallery, it felt too unstable; We were still running an old gallery model, quite idealistically, with Cologne in the 90s or Berlin in the early 00s in mind. Those models don't work anymore for young galleries. Right now the concept of what a gallery is and can do, is somehow fading away more and more, and I think, we were both just too tired to fight against windmills. Idealism doesn't pay rent.

NA: Was the closing also surprising for the artists?

VG: We were very sorry – for some of the artists we were their only representation. So of course we had doubts about the reaction, but they were all very supportive and understood the circumstances. But still, you can’t deny that it also changed their path, for better or worse. Something I keep hearing lately is some artists’ frustration over not selling. Personally, I started the gallery, because I wanted to enable artists to continue their contemporary practice. But it’s just not possible for everyone that graduates from an art school. Thomas Demand, who also teaches at HFBK Hamburg, once said in an interview, that his contemporaries never studied to make money from their art practice, but because they needed to work with art. Today, it is expected to have a career right after leaving art school. But “success” takes time and also money. Something that very few people talk about.

”A Matter of Printing”, Supportico Lopez, Berlin, 2018, installation view ”A Matter of Printing”, Supportico Lopez, Berlin, 2018, installation view

GV: The point is: It is really like a bug that the artists over the last years have put into our mind. The bug is that if you’re not present in a very defined way, you don’t exist. And this is absolutely not true. Part of our task now is to raise our voices to create the conditions on how to continue. We are here at this roundtable because we’re talking about that. You know the gallery closed but we’re not talking about a major reality that closed and the huge business of these artists. It’s more like closing something that was rather living together with problems. And problems are obviously never good for the artists either. In our experience we’re re-strengthening relations with a lot of artists that, for the pressure of the market, we were not treating as “essential.” We’re happy for having the experience of running a commercial gallery, but there was something that was taking our breath.

SP: I think that also in a way, the artists in general should take responsibility in this crisis. When you have a market that goes so wild, the artist is not just a victim of that situation. So when an artist decides to go to a bigger gallery just because he can sell more of his work, then of course this is also a responsibility of the artist. The artists come from art schools and they want to be famous, they want to have money and this and that. And this kind of relationship can be very problematic at some point. I’m the person that can help your art to be more visible inside the system. But it’s not that I’m going to pay your bills or that I’m the one who’s going to make you rich. And if you’re looking for that, you’re really wrong.

GV: If you think about galleries from, let’s say my generation, that started in the ‘90s, you can totally see that the artists were not using the galleries, but were rather partners of the galleries.

NA: Also think that this relation changed a lot. I would say eight to ten years ago, there were still artists coming from art school who were pushed softly. And I think that this changed a lot in the sense that artists are established way faster - or, at least, they become the “shooting stars.” The way how they enter the market is very different. What strikes me the most in the last years is that the artwork is changing as well. It’s not only about the artists and the galleries but also how the artwork has changed concerning materiality and genre, or, in other words, how you have to behave to be in the game. That’s also a question for you Fiona. What is your relationship to the artists? Because I think you have worked with lots of artists before they became the “shooting stars”.

FB: I guess for me it was always like a combination of things, like intellectual and aesthetic interests of mine rather than trying to connect to any broader observations about the market or what could be successful. I think that when you’re really starting from younger and smaller positions, the nice thing is that you do what you want. And I think you should. That’s what I felt and always enjoyed. And I think it’s a completely different way of working. Working with younger artists can also be challenging as well, since their expectations can be a bit unrealistic from time to time.

GV: But can I ask you something. How did you feel in the moment someone that you had started to work with and put at the center of discussion decided to leave the gallery for another one?

FB: I have a very personal relationship with all of the artists that I’m working with and I think it’s kind of a mix of choosing to represent an artist for several different reasons. Sometimes I would just represent an artist before doing a show with them or taking their work to a fair, and sometimes not. I think it’s a very intuitive thing. And in those cases where I haven’t continued working with the artist, it was usually the case of doing something together and then parting ways. And I think perhaps if those things happen sooner rather than later, it’s probably better as well, rather than sort of really investing your time and energy into an artist.

SP: Now it’s not just about the art but everything: fame, money. And also, think about the impact of social media, especially Instagram!

VG: Everyone we worked with is part of our social sphere and there is nothing wrong with that. But after a few shows we realized that a few guidelines would be very helpful for both us, the gallery, and our artists. We made an attempt in the very beginning that we wanted to design a contract, mini contracts with our artists, but our artists were put off somehow, couldn`t sign, and suggested we could solve everything with love. But of course, it is crazy to base economic relations only on friendship and social trust.

GV: Actually, this is a good point. We’re talking about the relationship with gallerists and the artists and how the reality is changing around us but for sure there is something that didn’t change and that is very solid and conservative. When we’re talking about business – what even is the business model that a gallery follows today? When a friend of ours closed down his gallery because of finances, he made statistics about the numbers and he concluded that you earn less than 5 percent out of the 50 percent you get from sales.

What business says that you have to pay everything? What business says that you, from your 50 percent, have to pay dinner, production, fairs and this and that? I think – and this is my position – at a certain point, to work with art and to open a gallery, you begin with a kind of social facility. And a lot of rich and wealthy people started to do this job without really thinking about what was the business model in the first place. And just to be in the game, they created a sort of new model that is not a real business model and that is only about paying, paying, paying. When you have the money, fine…Today there is an aspect about the relation of costs that is unbalanced, it’s not possible to continue this way.

NA: Germany just changed the VAT from 7% to 19% for artworks, which makes it harder for German galleries in the international market. Austria, for example has a funding for art fairs. Do you think that would change anything in the long term about the current situation?

CR: I think if the government would fund more galleries that try to establish and not just another start-up, things would be easier in the cultural scene in Berlin In our case, it would have helped us for sure just to be more established internationally earlier on, by facilitating us to do more art fairs; This is actually what the Austrian government does. I don’t know why Germany isn’t doing that. Berlin`s Senat rather helps other spaces, like project spaces, which is nice, but I was thinking a lot about this. It’s great that these spaces exist but if you think about how much work a gallery does to manage artists, help their career day in and day out – they call you at midnight because they are not sure about something, when they need your help, you’re there. And you’re basically helping talented people to make art and to put Berlin on the culture map. And therefore, you facilitate art.

GV: The gallery is a private business but still, a fair cannot ask you the same amount of money per square meter that David Zwirner pays!

SP: I think it is a business that is speculating a lot on “unclearness.” The Problem is that today it is really about huge amounts of money. When the auction houses started to make the rules regarding the market of many artists, everything got out of control.

GV: It’s a lot about what the auction houses throw out into the market. There are a lot of details that have to be analyzed.

NA: What you said about the economic relation that is only built on trust and friendship, maybe this is also specific to Berlin. I think the whole economic system of the city is working a bit similarly, in this kind of schizophrenic way. I always had the feeling that in other cities like London or New York, this relationship is clearer. (General Agreement)

SP: If you are making a contract with an artist, it doesn’t mean that you do it because, at some point, you could use it against him. It`s actually normal. Maybe in the US there is much more of this kind of professional relationship...

NA: But is a gallery really a business like any other business? I think we still talk about art. It was not always the case of “I run a business,” but “I run an art gallery and I believe in the artist, I believe in the art work, and I believe also in the collectors that are interested in the art.” And I think this attitude has changed, or? That we talk about this business as a business. For example, collectors are more interested in investment than in seeing shows.

SP: They only want the paintings. Something on the wall is much easier to sell, to resell, to make it appear as money. Since then, this vibe of a gallery as something that is not a business disappeared. Now, the gallery is a business, dependent on the sale of paintings. The collectors have changed.

„Grace Anderson: Poseing", Sandy Brown, Berlin, 2017, installation view „Grace Anderson: Poseing", Sandy Brown, Berlin, 2017, installation view

GV: The art changes, because of this stress, this incredible stress. The entire production of art became less interesting because there was this pressure in the air. And this pressure created an incredible growth of the prices.

FB: I think there are still really great collectors out there, who are willing to buy quite strange pieces. I mean, we just showed these three beds with vitrines and I wasn’t expecting much from that and we had sales from these works. Collectors can take their time to choose works or make a decision, which I think is a bit different from a few years ago. And that’s a problem when cash flow is such a big issue, when you still have your bills coming in, you’ve got your expenses, you’re signing contracts for the fairs and everything else and you’re committing to paying the bills, but people just decide to buy works when they have time to look at a PDF or when they feel like it’s time to move because this artist is getting hot.

CR: There’s a funny saying that lately, at the fairs, it’s always Sunday. It has such a bittersweet sound; everybody is speculating on the last day.

GV: In my generation, Sunday was the day that nothing happened.

CR: Now, Sunday is the day they come back after having looked at the PDF for a week.

NA: But these beds, Fiona, why did you bring them if you thought you wouldn’t sell them?

FB: It was more about promoting these works, actually. Which I think was quite important as we were taking part in Art Basel Statements. To promote the work at an art fair is totally legitimate, but is a very expensive advertisement at the end. We had really fantastic press, and were elected as a highlight throughout the fair, not just in the Statements section.

NA: What kind of alternative would be imaginable to a gallery system instead of dividing the way art is exhibited? I think there is a stronger division into institutional exhibitions and their curators and gallerists and artists doing gallery shows. Maybe it is time to rethink the whole system of how to present art and how to do business with art.

VG: I think it will rethink itself. We just have to continue with what we do best. I don’t think we have to reinvent the world –I don’t see it as a drama, I rather see it as an actual evolution of things.

SP: I think that for sure at one point the system will react a little. One word that I think about a lot recently is sustainability. If it’s not sustainable then you shouldn’t go that way because it doesn’t make any sense. If you have a gallery, you also need to have some artists. As a gallerist, the artists you have in your program are eventually chosen because you like them. That was our approach. And sometimes you’re in that position where there are artists you can’t bring to the fair because they don’t sell and then you have to say, “Sorry, we’ll see each other another year, maybe” So it could be interesting to also imagine a beautiful world in which there are gallerists as a kind of group of supporters, a little bit like trustees in a museum or institution where they participate in your business with a certain amount of money like a premiere and you (the artist) deliver because they believe in your project.

GV: I think none of us has the feeling that we fell out of the system completely, but maybe it’s the outside that is really changing and is maybe closing. And I think we have to be smart enough to understand in what way we have to react to this. Our reaction is to continue to work in a different way and then we will see. We can promote positions and possible discussions and analysis.

FB: I think that’s a good point that there are many ways of operating, many possibilities and I think that is sort of a bit of a message at the moment that people maybe need to re-determine or re-evaluate what those can be. In many ways things are not functioning and it’s very interesting how you guys are approaching it – as a transformation, continually heading into different directions. I still believe in exhibition spaces and exhibition making. This talk about not having a physical space or gallery space anymore – that’s something that I’m not personally interested in. I think still within having a physical exhibition space, there are many ways of functioning. And it’s important for people to be able to recognize what they can do, as well as their limitations. I have the feeling that when people go beyond their means is when they get into trouble, businesswise. And it’s a long road, I often think of Maureen Paley who opened her gallery in the ‘80s, operated and presented a fantastic program for over a decade before closing in the early '90s during the midst of the recession. Maureen moved back to the East End to reestablish herself soon after and has since continued to be an incredibly pioneering and inspiring force. So, I think this is also valid in the situation we’re in now. That closing is not necessarily the end.

NA: This could be our optimistic last sentence for today`s roundtable. Thank you all for the interesting talk.

Title Image: Installation view from Lisa Holzer’s solo show „I come in you“. Courtesy the artist and Gillmeier Rech, Berlin.