Nathalie Obadia opens her first gallery in 1993 in Paris. Today, she exhibits thirty contemporary artists, such as Joana Vasconcelos and Martin Barré, whose works are sold to private clients as well as to the most prestigious cultural institutions. Nathalie Obadia participates in all major contemporary art fairs around the world (ArtBasel, Fiac, Armory Show, etc.) and has also opened an office in Brussels in 2008.
The gallerist offers a clear and didactic analysis on the workings of the contemporary art market in his book published by the Cavalier Bleu Géopolitique editions of contemporary art – A questioning of American hegemony? The author starts from a question: Does the United States, and more widely the West, still dominate contemporary art? Interview with a pragmatic passionate.
By Fanny Revault
Where does this passion for art come from?
I was lucky to have curious parents of contemporary art. In the 1960s, it was a way of emancipating oneself intellectually and culturally. Visiting galleries, museums of contemporary art in Europe such as the Stedelijk museum, the Ludwig collection in Aachen and going to the United States quite early in the 1970s, allowed them to understand that contemporary art allowed us to open up to the world, to better understand the important cultural and societal issues of the late 1960s.
Growing up in the 70s, I understood that art was a way of being at the heart of certain topics. Visiting galleries, museums, talking with artists, it allowed me to meet people absolutely exciting that I would not necessarily meet in other professional spheres perhaps more compartmentalized.
How did you become a gallerist?
I wanted to do this job and get to know him better. From the age of 14-15, I did internships during my summer holidays at Daniel Varenne in Geneva, at Adrien Maeght, at the time rue du bac, etc. So I immersed myself very early in this environment and around the age of 16-17, I was sure I wanted to be a gallery owner. I continued on my way, and I studied classical and obtained a Master of International Law then I studied at Sciences Po in Paris.
At the end of these studies, I sent a CV to one or two galleries that I knew, including Daniel Templon, and I started working at his place in 1988. My first days were spent at the FIAC. So, immediately, it was at the heart of the issues. My ambition was to open my gallery for my 30 years. While working at Daniel Templon, I watched the young artists attentively and opened my gallery in 1993.
Since 1993, you have stated with conviction your choices and artistic intuitions on the art market. And you have made a new generation of artists known to critics …
When I opened the gallery in 1993, the situation in France was rather static with a new generation of art critics, galleries, artists who were on a post-conceptual model. Art critics like Nicolas Bourriaud and artists such as Pierre Huyghe and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster have, in a way, somewhat closed the other fields of investigation that existed but which were hard to be visible. There was an intellectual grip, the art market was weaker for the avant-garde. It was above all the state that was at the head of the regional funds of contemporary art. Art centers that, through its institutional leaders, put forward a certain aesthetic.
When I opened my gallery, I was looked down on by some of my colleagues and critics. But it allowed me to highlight artists that I thought at the time Valerie Fabre, Carole Benzaken, Fiona Rae, Jessica Stockholder, to better publicize them to an informed public, collectors who had not the opportunity to see them as they deserved, but also to raise awareness of their work with art critics and museums.
Photography is a big part of your gallery … Why this choice?
I realize that the medium of photography has entered my gallery in a natural way. Photographers or visual artists who use this medium are all artists very close to painting. Be it Valérie Belin, Luc Delahaye in his great scenes of history, or André Sérano who is in a permanent dialogue with myths and classical painting, or the portraits of Youssef Nabil who are repainted by hand, there is always a resonance and continuity with painting. So I realize that I was sensitized to this medium because there was this dialogue with painting …
What is rewarding in your job as a gallery owner?
I am lucky to be at the head of my company, my gallery for 27 years now. What is gratifying is also the fact of succeeding in convincing the influential people, the influencers who are today called “Taste Makers” who are collectors, art critics, directors of museums. Today, to choose to accompany artists in their career and see them as, currently, Laure Prouvost at the Biennale of Venice at the French Pavilion, Rina Banerjee who toured several American museums or Sarkis at the Venice Biennale in the Pavilion of Turkey, it is extremely rewarding to say that we managed to convince.
Does the art market and globalization not encourage gallerists to sell more than to develop the career of artists?
Like all other trades, there are many ways to practice it … Artists know very well what they do. Some choose to join more experimental, more serious galleries that work with institutions, collectors and do a lot of work. Others prefer to go to shops that are closer to a traditional consumer business and perhaps less able to do institutional work. Then there are galleries that are very good for doing both. This alliance is needed between institutional work and more commercial work. I would say that the galleries that are recognized and remain are those that combine the two, that is to say, to persuade and sell.
Does the commodification of art not come close to the luxury industry?
I would say that there is rather a fascination of the world of luxury that wants to get closer to the world of art. The globalization of the world means that luxury consumption is growing but becoming commonplace. (…) At the same time, it has to stand out and stay in perfect luxury. This is artificatization as the sociologist J.-M. Schaeffer rightly explains it, that a given moment, to stay in the luxury, it was necessary to ally with the art since the art is the supreme degree of creation. There is something more noble. It is rather in this sense there. After, artists who were solicited as Takashi Murakami, Jeff Koons, etc., were tempted to look for another market, another opening by allying themselves with luxury companies. But others will never do it because it does not interest them.
You opened an office in Brussels in 2008. Paris and Brussels, two European cities. What is the difference between these two artistic scenes?
I wanted to open an office in Brussels because it was a city where I went regularly, I participated in the fair and I already knew a number of collectors. And I realized that Belgian collectors had a rather Anglo-Saxon tropism (in the broad sense that is to say Berlin, London, New York) and that they finally visited us very little in France for various reasons. I finally said, Let’s go to them. And we managed, on the one hand, to penetrate artists who were not so present on the Belgian scene. And on the other hand, it allowed me to meet other very interesting artists like Joris Van de Moortel, Sophie Kuijken and accompany them in their careers both in their country and abroad.
What are your relationships with collectors?
The gallery is the place where collectors like to meet. When I was going to open my gallery in 1993, I was told that I was completely unaware of opening a gallery because it would no longer exist and auctions would take their place. Fifteen years later, we were told that the galleries would disappear because the internet platforms will replace them. Today, I realize that galleries are more and more present in the world. Some have become extremely powerful around the world. We realize that the public is always there. Collectors, amateurs and the curious need this personal relationship between gallery owner and art. They listen to their choice, let themselves be convinced and sometimes jostle in their aesthetic and social convictions. The gallery is therefore a very essential meeting place. Even if some buy in the auction houses, the gallery remains a place you want to discover.
So there is a trust that is created with collectors, sometimes friendships are born. Dialogue and the way to convince, this trade in the etymological sense of the word, the fact of passing on one’s passions and convictions, is also the heart of this profession and that is why I chose it.
What do you think of the situation of French and Parisian art galleries?
Things have changed a lot. There were many more galleries in the Paris region about fifteen or so years ago. The galleries have now refocused. The situation of galleries in France is very interesting because on the one hand, there are experimental young galleries that have trouble staying and expanding simply because the center of Paris has become very expensive. This is why the initiatives of some gallery centers opening in Romainville are rather welcome. As was the case in the 13th arrondissement when it was much cheaper.
On the other hand, one realizes that a certain number of galleries at the same time French and foreign came to settle in Paris. As a result, Paris in continental Europe is today the most prosperous and active city in terms of galleries. It offers the most complex and complete mesh between the most powerful galleries and the most experimental galleries. Paris has also become a very important center today because museums are rich in events, foundations such as the Louis Vuitton Foundation and the Cartier Foundation and the forthcoming opening of the Pinault collection create a strong attraction. Foreign artists are eager to come to Paris to exhibit and this also enriches the programming of Parisian galleries and thus arouses the curiosity and the coming of international actors.
For you, what is a masterpiece?
It’s a work that shakes the first time we see it. Merchants have an eye. We say we have an ear but I think gallery owners have an eye. We realize when something has never been done where we have a vision of something we had never seen in the same way. And the fact that it’s repeated every time we see it, it becomes a masterpiece. I believe that a masterpiece is something beyond the norm …
Why do you think art is important in our lives?
In our world that has access to consumption, we have everything very easily and very quickly. That’s why I think galleries have a great future because it’s here that you’ll find what you can not have in such an easy way. We currently have an exhibition of Guillaume Bresson who is one of the most watched painters and works very slowly. At the gallery, we want to please the person who seeks to know and we know that it is quite sensitive to his approach, his work. We are beyond speculation. So that’s why art is important. It’s beyond the economic stakes. Today, we realize that those who buy very dear are people who want to distinguish themselves. Once you have ten houses, yachts, planes, what makes “the most” that makes you stand out at the richest wealth is precisely art. It has always worked this way there and even more today. Art is something priceless beyond anything.
You have just published a book called Geopolitics of Contemporary Art. A questioning of American hegemony? at the Éditions du Cavalier Bleu. Why did you want to write this book? What issues do you tackle?
I wanted to write this book because I teach a course on the contemporary art market at Political Science in Paris for four years. The focus of my course is on geopolitics and this notion of Soft Power. How great powers like the United States have become influential in contemporary art? What were the tools? What is the role of actors, collectors, museums and politics? How did Europe succeed in reconquering or less reconquering this ground since it was Europe that still dominated the artistic scene until the First World War.
What is China’s place on the international art scene?
We could have wondered if China, the world’s second largest power, would have replaced the United States in terms of Soft Power. Has China become an artistically influential country? We realize that this is not the case at all. Today, American artistic and cultural values are still buoyant worldwide. We are more interested in resembling American lifestyle and art than in China.
What is the role of French museums in the geopolitics of contemporary art?
In France, I try to explain how we may have lost a round about the place of artists on the international scene and in the art market. But on the other side, we also have very well-known artists at the institutional level and we have our museum know-how; we have managed to export art through museums such as The Louvre in Abu Dhabi, thanks to the Georges Pompidou Center, which is currently opening several branches. But these museums are afraid of being marginalized in a rather modern image of art. For example, the Guggenheim, which will open next to the Louvre Abu Dhabi in four or five years, risks carrying its very contemporary culture. While we, we may be stuck in an old model of a less contemporary art.
Does American soft power always dominate?
The United States remained present leaving the framework of the white man artist and going to put forward the minorities either sexual or ethnic, so that their soft power evolves and that is why they also are always on the foreground.
On the one hand, the United States has Trump but on the other side, they highlight the diversity of this country that we see well in exhibitions around the world. And that’s why they still remain a model that still applies today in Europe since we also in France and Germany, we also put forward these minorities.