Despite the sweltering hot summer in Salzburg, Thaddaeus Ropac is faultlessly elegant in his white shirt and dark suit, and it seems the only conscious touch of inattention is the open top button on his shirt. Even though the prominent Austrian art gallery owner, who has successfully juggled in the art market for more than 30 years, would be better nicknamed a “shark”, ArtReview once aptly called him “the gallerist Prince of Paris”. When he opened his 5000-m2 mega-gallery called Ropac Pantin in a former factory in Paris almost two years ago, it became Paris' largest commercial art space; 40 artists and 25 museum directors took part in the gallery opening, including Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer, the prominent Hermès and Rothschild families, and the acclaimed British artist duo Gilbert & George.
Ropac currently owns two galleries in Paris and two in Salzburg; together they represent 60 artists. He has a team of 70 people, and Ropac believes that number might grow to 100 after he opens his fifth gallery, the location of which has still not been publicly announced.
Ropac received France's Legion of Honour award in 2013. He has served on the boards of several prominent Austrian museums (Museum of Contemporary Art in Vienna, Museum of Applied Arts) as well as the Salzburg Festival. He is a passionate philanthropist and collector of art. In 2008 Ropac gave 17 works of art from his personal collection to Vienna's Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, and in 2009 he donated 25 works of art to Salzburg's Museum der Moderne. As he later admits in our conversation, “In recent years I've been consumed by the idea of creating a collection that is meaningful. A collection that might serve as a supplement to existing museums.”
On the day we meet for our interview, a broad-ranging exhibition of portraits by the American artist Alex Katz titled 45 Years of Portraits 1969-2014 can be seen at Ropac's Villa Kast gallery in Salzburg. A separate space on the second floor has been dedicated to Anselm Kiefer. The courtyard is full of various luxury automobiles parked next to each other while their owners gaze upon works by Katz, Kiefer, Baselitz and Beuys with equal parts piety, humbleness, passion, yearning and desire.
On the outskirts of the city, in the middle of a meadow at the foot of the mountains and Salzburg Castle, we find three sculptures by British artist Tony Cragg. Each measuring about seven metres high and with an average weight of three tonnes, they are a part of a cooperation project between Ropac's gallery and the Salzburg Foundation. The sculptures are on exhibition until September 29, but Cragg's bronze sculpture Caldera in the central market square, across from the Salzburg State Theatre, has already become a permanent fixture of the city... along with the Kiefer installation, Marina Abramović's dedication to Mozart and other noteworthy works of contemporary art that have found permanent locations in the city thanks to Salzburg's Walk of Modern Art. The initiative began ten years ago under the auspices of the Salzburg Foundation, whose Board of Trustees president since 2009 has been Ropac. He names the viewer as one of his priorities in his everyday job as a gallery owner as well.
You are an art gallery owner, an art dealer and an art collector. How do you combine these three callings?
I'd say it's nothing out of the ordinary. In a way, it's even a tradition. I am definitely not the only art dealer and gallery owner that is at the same time an art collector. For example, Beyeler, who also has a wonderful museum. I believe that if art is your true passion, you cannot only sell it; you also wish to collect it, because you have this feeling that it's important that something remains after you are gone. In recent years I've been consumed with the idea of creating a collection that has meaning. A collection that could, possibly, serve as a supplement to existing museums.
I've always collected art. But it's only in the past ten years that I've done so really professionally – with an idea and a concept. That's not a very long time.
What does it mean to collect art professionally? Especially considering that you've come across a great variety of collectors in your everyday work as a gallery owner.
As a gallery owner, I've worked with artists like Anselm Kiefer, Georg Baselitz and Gilbert & George for over 30 years, and I've had the chance to get some amazing works of art. And sometimes I've found a so-called “missing link” – one piece of art that has been very significant in how it relates to the rest of that artist's work. At one point I realised that I have a chance to do something larger, something more complete than just getting one or two pieces by Baselitz. To create a real complete picture, to show an artist across his entire career, from the 1960s, 70s, 80s, 90s.
Currently at our gallery we're showing a retrospective of Alex Katz. I have some very important pieces of art by him in my collection, pieces from the 1960s to more recent times. That's the opportunity we have as a gallery. We're very close to the artist, we see very many works returning to the market, because people offer us artworks and thereby we can create a very serious collection.
You began 30 years ago. How has the art scene changed over that time?
I think the scene has changed tremendously. There is no other word for it. As I've always said, art has climbed down from its “ivory tower”, where it lived for a very long time, and has become truly central in our lives. It has become so much more relevant for the new generation. Thirty years ago, it was a very elitist, intellectual group that followed art. Today, when I speak with young people, they are growing up with art; art is a part of their upbringing, a part of their life.
Do you think a 23-year-old today, a young person with no prior connection with the art world, has the same opportunities as you did in the 1980s to begin from scratch and become one of the main players in the art market?
Yes, I think each era has its opportunities. And young people, with their enthusiasm and passion, will always be able to take advantage of them. You also need to be a little naïve, although not too much. I was very naïve when I began. But I was also very passionate and I had a lot of energy. I see the same thing today, especially when I meet very young gallery owners. My conversations with them remind me of my own beginnings.
Do you really think that a characteristic such as naivety is possible in our turbulent times and under the present market conditions?
Yes, I buy a lot of works by young artists and I go to art fairs, and when I speak to young artists, it reminds me of my own experience. Of course, everything is much faster today; information travels faster, prices go up faster, too. But actually the situation is really the same. There are still young artists who are not successful at the beginning of their careers and who don't have enough money to survive. And there are also young gallery owners who must prove themselves. They also do not have enough money, and so the two grow together. Until one day someone notices their art, takes a closer look, and everything starts to change....
For yourself, a sort of turning point in your life was encountering the works of Joseph Beuys in the early 1980s. You opened your newest art space in Paris, Pantin, with a Beuys exhibition, a dedication to his legendary 1968 performance Iphigenie. Two photographs from it can also be seen now here, in Salzburg. And your Paris office is said to be full of his works as well. What is it that fascinates you about Beuys' art?
When I was 17 or 18 years old and I first saw Joseph Beuys, it was a huge surprise for me. A totally unbelievable way of looking at art. Not just enjoying its beauty, but also being intellectually challenged. I was irritated, I was angry, I didn't understand it; I had many reactions to it. It was what art should be – not only a pleasant way to be entertained, but also to be challenged. I felt this challenge and it made me a bit curious. If my meeting with art had been only beautiful and entertaining, I maybe wouldn't have continued. It kind of “caught” me and didn't let me go anymore.
Beuys once said that anyone can be an artist. Do you still believe that?
Yes, anyone can be an artist, but not everyone can be a genius and successful and brilliant as an artist. Only some people can do that. But each of us can be creative – I agree with that. And that's exactly what Beuys was trying to say – try to be a part of our movement. He was convinced that as long as people are artists, they cannot do evil. And that's the reason why I contemplated being an artist, too. Beuys really spoke to me. Of course, that's just one side of it. The question is: how is it materialised? Can you really change the art world with what you say and do? I didn't see this potential in myself.
What do you see as your responsibility as a gallery owner today?
There are many responsibilities. I think we are here to serve the artists. They need us. I hope. We need to invest our energy, experience and also our financial resources so that they can work and realise their visions. At the same time, it's our responsibility to protect them. Protect them from wrong decisions, from the possibility that their work might end up in the wrong hands, from mistakes in their relationship with the media. We are literally located between the artist's studio and the public. That's a very responsible job. I'm most satisfied when I see how great the result can be when a job has been done well. Unfortunately, it's very sad when a job has not been done well.
Does that mean it's very important to you to whom you sell artwork?
Absolutely. I'm always saying that we are not selling art, we are placing the artworks. We feel very responsible about where the art goes. Of course, it's not possible to follow every piece of art, but with major artworks we are always very careful about where the art will go. When an artist has trusted us with a very important work, we are very careful where it will end up. It's not true that anyone can walk into the gallery and say, “I can pay as much as you want,” and buy it. It doesn't work like that, and we are happy that we have this responsibility.
What do you think is an art collector's responsibility? Especially today, when there is so much new money in the market and there are so many different reasons why people buy art.
I realise that. That's the way it is. I don't want to tell art collectors what they should do, because it's their money they're spending. But the thing we are trying to do with our work is to tell people how essential it is to carefully consider what the meaning of their collection could be in their own personal life. Collecting is more than just an investment or an accessory of social status. I really want to tell people about how wonderful and great art can be. Today, we see very many different collectors, and they have just as many different motivations for collecting art. But I nevertheless feel that their main driving force, even of the very youngest art collectors, is a passion for art. That does not vanish and does not change.
I recently spoke with an art collector who said that the very process of obtaining a piece of artwork is similar to a chemical reaction. A sort of intoxication. Do you agree?
Really? I agree. When I see an outstanding piece of art in a big museum, the way in which it affects and influences me is just unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable.
Do you think art really has the ability to change something in people?
Yes, art has a power. But, unfortunately, it doesn't have the power to change the world, otherwise we'd be living in a better world. And only to a certain degree can art be political in its impact. But art can really change an individual's life. I have noticed it many times over these thirty years. I've seen people coming to art for the wrong motivation and still art changed them; it gave them its intellectual potential.
Could you say art has changed your life?
Of course. Good Lord, it's changed me completely. To the very foundations. My life would have been completely different without art. Much poorer. I cannot even imagine it. I'm actually afraid to even think about it.
Your galleries are located in Salzburg and Paris. Why there? Paris is not usually considered a contemporary art business centre. Most gallery owners' favourite city is London.
First of all, I think Paris is one of the great cities of the art world. It has some of the most important art museums, also of contemporary art, without a doubt. Also, Paris has always been very close to artists and is still frequented by collectors. For me, I couldn't think of a better place. I could not choose London. For me, it's also the fact that I'm a staunch European, I really believe in the European idea. And the European idea is always rooted on the continent. England looks to America. Constantly. But I think that in Europe we look to Europe. From France we look to Italy, to Germany. I like this interaction and I feel I'm very active as a European, and I couldn't imagine moving my Paris gallery to London.
A little over a year and a half have passed since you opened your mega-space, the 5000-m2 Pantin gallery, in a former factory in Paris. Has it justified itself?
It's running great and we're very happy. We've had the gallery now for more than a year and a half, and there are many visitors. You know, success in selling artwork is one thing. That's easier to calculate because we know what we can sell to collectors. That's not a problem. We know our work. But we also wanted to create a space that was accepted by the public. When we opened Pantin, I told my team that I didn't have the slightest idea how many people would come, because everybody who comes would have specially made the trip. It's not possible to just come into Pantin right off the street because this is not a neighbourhood where people usually take walks. I told myself that we could consider ourselves successful if we had 500 visitors a month. 14,000 people came to see the gallery during our four opening months. That's more than we ever expected, and I was completely surprised.
Maybe the publicity was good? Especially considering that Larry Gagosian opened his gallery at the Le Bourget airport in Paris on exactly the same day, and also with an Anselm Kiefer exhibition. Your disagreements regarding Kiefer were discussed in all of the media.
Possibly. There were significantly fewer visitors – 7000 in two months – to our next exhibition, which was a group show. But we returned to 9000 visitors for the Georg Baselitz exhibition. I still don't know the exact numbers for the Alex Katz exhibition that just ended, but I'm guessing they'll be over 8000. Actually, our minimum is about 2000-3000 visitors per month. That's unbelievable. Between 25,000 and 28,000 per year.
You've probably outdone Gagosian in that sense....
In developing the Pantin concept, I told myself I'd never go outside the metro system. It was very important for me to stay within its borders and to be not too far out. Because the people who come to see us come from Paris and mostly by public transportation. I opened a café, a library and did everything possible to make this place successful also in the sense of the everyday public.
Returning to the Kiefer incident. Are such struggles between leading galleries over artists a common occurrence nowadays?
Sure. It's normal. You know, as long as the artist is not victimised by big gallery owners fighting over the market share. The art world profited from our two big ambitions, and Paris profited from it, too. And, in the end, Anselm Kiefer hopefully profited from it. Everyone profited. Because Larry and I both felt that we want to do this, we want to make a bigger space, we want make a more beautiful space, a better exhibition. And, in the end, this ambition also pushed us to do better work.
Yesterday, after visiting the Anselm Kiefer installation across from the Salzburg Opera I had a discussion with my 10-year-old daughter, who asked why people are willing to pay 6.5 million dollars at auction for a piece of artwork by Kiefer. What would you answer?
The market has its rules. We are working with a very small group of artists who have much more power in their message than the average artist. And we live in a world in which the best at something is rewarded with money and fame. Of course, these prices are totally irrelevant and I don't want to say that we're happy about them. Anselm Kiefer is a top artist and is no longer young. But we also represent a young Iranian artist who climbed up the ladder of fame very quickly, and I'm not at all happy about it. Because I don't want artwork by an artist who's not yet 30 years old to be selling for half a million at auction. We don't pay such prices, and we don't ask them of others, but at the same time we need to be even more careful about who we sell to. Because sometimes people buy at a gallery and then immediately sell the art at auction for three times the price. We must be very careful and make sure the right person buys the piece of art. Of course, it's very hard to explain the high prices, but the art market has always been irrational. Like any other market. Markets and money are absolutely irrational. Whenever we start talking about anything other than the price of milk and bread.You know, when the number of certain things is limited and very many people want them, it's the price that determines everything. But that has nothing to do with the power of art. Only insofar as we're talking about the top artists of today.
And that also has nothing to do with the true value and quality of a work of art?
It's connected to genius and how rare of a thing that is. We have lots of mediocrity and very many medium-quality works of art. And if we have some artists who are much stronger in their expression and also more famous, then the big museums want to exhibit them, too. For example, this autumn Anselm Kiefer will have a show at the Royal Academy in London, and next year he has a big show at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. He's one of those artists whose works everybody wants to see. Georg Baselitz, too. And every work of art we receive from these artists means a huge international audience that is ardently thirsting to see what's come out of the artist's studio.
The New Yorker in its article about art gallery owner David Zwirner says that "at Zwirner, the staff will discuss pricing at the gallery’s weekly sales meeting. Often, everyone puts a number on a piece of paper. And then they use these numbers to get to a price." How do you set prices at the Ropac gallery?
Each case is different.You know, to set a price is something very sensitive. There are many issues involved. In one case, you start with the artist at the very beginning of his career, and then you have an artist who already has a very strong market. With major artists, as soon as they have done exhibitions and they are in collections they already have a history to build on. Each of these cases is very different.
Normally you attain some price level and then you slowly move the price up. I think that is where the artist always has the biggest say, he can really decide. He is involved in this discussion at every step. Because, in the end, he is the one who decides. But we make suggestions. We discuss with the artist. It's also not the decision of just one gallery; usually the artist is represented by two or three galleries and then there needs to be an understanding between the galleries and the artist. I think it's something that is very sensitive and you discuss it with the artist first and with your colleagues. You know, there is an auction world that has its own rules for pricing, and they always want to get the top possible money for everything they sell. We don't think like this. Because we have to serve museums, big foundations, important collectors. We never try to get the best possible price, because we want to build this for the long term and we want to have artworks still available and possibly available for museums and institutions. Because, in the long run, it's much more serious. To build a price over a longer period, not to just get the best possible price for one singular work, which is the aim of auction houses.
Along with the globalisation of the art market, lots of new players have entered it – from the Arab countries, from Asia, from Russia. On the one hand, of course, that's good for business. On the other hand, it lessens the value of art. In recent years, while reading exhibition reviews and accounts of art fairs, it seems that for many people today it's easier to talk about money than it is to talk about art. Art's status as a luxury item has become the priority. Someone made the apt joke: art is more esoteric than diamonds and easier to store than oil....
(Laughs). That's true.
The hysterical rate at which new art fairs are popping up – like mushrooms after a rain – kind of resembles the case with fashion shows. Are they all really necessary? Doesn't that lessen the value of art, too?
Yes, I agree with you. I'm not a big fan of art fairs. I think they are necessary, but we should nevertheless be judged by the exhibitions we organise at our galleries. Because, in planning an exhibition, we try to create the perfect space, the perfect lighting and also the perfect amount of exhibited artworks. But nowadays galleries are mostly judged by their participation in art fairs, where there are poor-quality floors, poor lighting and too little space. And, there are definitely too many art fairs. I'm not against them, because they've changed the art world. They've made art accessible to certain parts of the world. But I prefer the gallery situation.
In December of last year, in The New Yorker interview, David Zwirner called this the golden age of the art industry.
Yes, I read that. But I think we've just gone to a new level at which art is being appreciated like never before. I don't think it's happened only over the past few years; I think it's been an ongoing process. The population of the world is now much bigger than it ever has been, and also the middle class is much bigger. The middle class wants to be educated, and education is associated with a longing for culture. If you're at the poorest end of society, the most important thing for you is survival – food and a roof over your head. You're too busy with the basic things of existence. But as soon as your standard of living increases, culture slowly comes into your life. Right now we have very many people who are moderately rich, and culture is playing an ever-larger role in their lives. And I think that's one of the healthiest things a society can do – invest in its culture. I've always believed that culture changes people, it makes them better. True, it asks more. But it also gives more. Today, culture does what religion used to do. Actually, culture has taken religion's place, because in contemporary society religion plays a much smaller role than it did a hundred years ago. At the same time, we also need to value culture very highly. I live in a city where music means everything to the inhabitants. The people pay huge amounts of money for a musical education. Music at its highest expression. Salzburg is obsessed with classical music. It's a wonderful place and a wonderful feeling. By the way, have you had a chance to see something of the Salzburg Festival over these few days?
Yes, I'll be going to the Il trovatore dress rehearsal.
Wow! That's the central production of the festival.
I can tell from all the hullabaloo....
It's unbelievable. You cannot even imagine. There was enormous pressure on Anna Netrebko and Placido Domingo for their performances and also on the production of Latvian director Alvis Hermanis. I do remember some years back when he was an unknown director and I was on the jury when he won the main Young Directors Project award in Salzburg for Revisor. We were totally shattered, almost blown up by his vision, and I'm very happy I had the opportunity to vote for him. Alvis is fantastic.
But there are also plenty of not-so-pleasant things going on in the world right now. Do you think the events in Ukraine and the threat of a second Cold War in relation to Russia will somehow affect the global art market as well?
No, not at all. It will affect the general economic situation because Europe will no doubt suffer a bit. But it won't affect the art market, because the market in Russia is very small and limited. Also, the biggest players no longer live in Russia. They live in London, France, America. So, it won't change anything at all in the art world.
Is there any difference between art collectors from Europe, America, China, Russia?
Yes, there are differences. Europeans and Americans are still more educated, more sophisticated in the way they collect. Chinese collectors still have much to learn. In the past five years we've regularly participated in the Hong Kong Art Fair. And, by the way, every year we've also brought them works by Georg Baselitz. At first, they looked at Baselitz's works and, having noticed that we're a Parisian gallery, they assumed he was a French artist. We had to start from zero. Now, five years later, I feel that artists like Georg Baselitz already have a place in the Chinese art market. Because these people learn very quickly. Of course, you speak differently to a Chinese or Korean art collector than you would to a European. It's a different level of sophistication. But there's no reason to be arrogant just because you've learned earlier or more. Rather, it's a question of how open you are to new information and how quickly you learn. We've had a very positive experience with many art collectors from the new countries. But it's still a process, and it takes time. It's not possible to learn in one year what another person has learned over an entire lifetime. I know we must be patient and, of course, there are differences. Also in Russia. Actually, I'm surprised about Russia – it develop it's art market much more slowly than China.
Really? Despite Russia's rich cultural traditions?
Yes. I'm surprised. Russia is developing very slowly. They are in general not so interested in American or European art, and in recent years they're just increasingly interested in Russia. Of course, there are collectors like Roman Abramovich, whom I know well, and a few others. But you can count them on the fingers of one hand, and their numbers aren't growing. Actually, it's the same players as ten years ago. In China, there are new art collectors showing up every year. In addition, everybody's a little afraid of Russia. That's also the main reason why none of the big gallery owners are entering that market; it's too difficult. And Russia will fall even further behind because of this political situation, while China will grow faster. No matter the result of the Ukraine conflict, Russia will be very occupied with itself. I'm afraid I don't see anything positive in that.
Currently, there's sort of a trend among the large galleries to open art spaces in out-of-the-way places. A noticeable example is the Hauser & Wirth affiliate that opened this summer in the English small town of Somerset. There are rumours that you are also going to come out with a similar project in the near future. Is that true?
Yes, that's true. But we still haven't announced it officially. But it will definitely be our next big step. True, our gallery will not be located in an out-of-the-way place, but rather in an unusual place. And it will be in a metropolis.
Is a person interested in contemporary art willing to go to the middle of nowhere for art?
I think that if you have a beautiful house in the countryside, you start to fantasise. But that's in no way related to what's happening on the international art market. That's just a whim. You own this place, you love it, you feel good there, and artists feel good there, too. But that doesn't change anything in the art world. But, if you choose a unusual metropolitan place, like Guggenheim did in Bilbao, I think that has influence, too, and that's how new centres are formed.
Speaking of Guggenheim, there's currently a big discussion about its potential project in Helsinki. Many people are against it, especially people from the local art community. What's your opinion?
I have very close ties to the Guggenheim Museum because its former director, Thomas Krens, is a good friend of mine. I've followed the Guggenheim's development for a long time, and I also know its current director, Richard Armstrong, well. We've had many projects together. To be honest, I don't know very much about the situation in Helsinki. I haven't immersed myself in it. But I know about the protests. If I understand correctly, they're worried that all the money will go towards exhibitions of international artists, and nothing will remain for local artists. I think that the Guggenheim museum project is a good opportunity for Helsinki, but at the same time I understand the worries of the local artists. If one shuts out the other, that's not good. Normally, such a situation should create enough of a positive effect so that both can exist.
I've heard musicians say that people today have become deaf, that they can no longer hear music without an amplifier. Do you think that, in a way, people have also become blind? That they want art to surprise and shock them ever more – ever larger canvases, gigantic constructions, more impressive exhibition architecture?
I don't agree that everything is bigger and more monumental today. If you go, say, to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna or the Louvre in Paris, you can see more than one gigantic Goya there. At that time, large-format paintings were made for the aristocracy, for the Hapsburgs in Austria and the kings of France. Art has always been monumental. Just look at the big wonders of the world. Gigantic sculptures in Argentina. The installation is a new media created in the 20th century and is intellectually more challenging. Also, installations are much harder to collect because they need more space. And the audience for them is much smaller. Did you manage to visit the museum here, in Salzburg?
If you mean the Museum der Moderne, yes, I was there.
The museum's new director, Sabine Breitwieser, came from New York's Museum of Modern Art, where she was the chief curator of installations and video art. She has installed a very ambitious programme for Salzburg reflecting exactly her taste and the artists she believes in. These are mainly conceptual art installations and video, which might be hard to follow by the Salzburg audience who is used to exhibitions of Giacometti and other significant masters of 20th-century art. It is sad to see how difficult it is to change the audience and to excite them about challenging art, especially in a place like Salzburg, which is rather conservative.
Maybe, due to the general density of information, people just don't want to delve deeper anymore. Because that requires time and also concentration.
Yes, I agree.
At the same time, Salzburg can be proud of its great urban environment project – twelve sculptures in the urban environment by artists such as Marina Abramović, Kiefer, Boltanski, Jaume Plensa.... That's an enviable group of artists.
We began this initiative with the Salzburg Foundation in 2002, and I think the project has been successful. But it wasn't at the beginning. The people were very much against it; they said we already have so many churches and castles and, to top it off, we don't want contemporary art in the middle of it all, too. It was quite a struggle. But I think we've won and people now like these sculptures very much. And we add one or two new ones every year.
Thaddaeus Ropac. Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac Paris · Salzburg. Photo: Peter Rigaud
Is it important for you to be constantly surrounded by art?
I have four homes and all of them are full of artwork from my collection. Sometimes that's even been a reason for me to buy a new home, to pull artwork out of storage. When I bought a house in Greece, my architect and many of the people around me said that I cannot fill it with art; that would be dangerous. I said that of course there would be art in the house, and that I'd take this risk because I don't want to live in a house with just prints on the walls or without any art at all. That's extremely important to me.
There's an opinion that many works of contemporary art that are currently extremely desired by collectors will in the future turn out to be historically insignificant and will end up in the rubbish heap. What's your opinion?
I don't have a problem with it. The great works will hopefully survive because they've deserved to survive. There's always been a lot of art produced that in the end doesn't stand the test of the time. But I'm not sentimental in that sense. Even if I've made mistakes and some of the art I've bought turns out not to have stood the test of time, I think that's a part of the game.
Thank you for the conversation. All that remains is to wish you success!