Nathalie Obadia first opened her gallery in Paris in 1993 after gaining five years of working experience with Daniel Templon. Two years later, she moved her gallery to the previous location of Yvon Lambert Gallery in Rue du Grenier Saint-Lazare in the Marais. While celebrating the 10th Anniversary of the gallery in 2003, Nathalie Obadia moved again the gallery to the current space in Rue du Cloitre Saint-Merri, a few block away from Centre Pompidou.

At the occasion of the 20th Anniversary, we talked to Nathalie about her latest project – the opening of a second space in Paris in Rue de Bourg-Tiboug in the Marais, a pristine rectangular space of 200 meter square with a glass roof. The previous studio of French artist Jean Dewasne (1921 – 1999) is transformed into a white cube, right now hosting its inaugural exhibition by one of the YBA members Fiona Rae.

In this long interview, Nathalie generously shares with us her 20 years of experiences and observations in the art industry, her reflections as a galerist and her projection into the future.

Selina Ting
28 Feb 2013

Expansion – The Paris Scenario

Selina Ting [ST] : 2013 is the 20th Anniversary of the gallery, and you decided to open a new space in Paris as a way of celebration…

Nathalie Obadia [NO]: Yes, because I think that it’s more interesting to give a prospective view than to organize retrospective events, such as an exhibition of the gallery artists or a publication, etc. I prefer to project into the future. It’s also a way of showing that the art business goes well in Paris and that we wish to multiple the possibilities, to allow our artists to show their work differently.

ST : Last year, Gagosian Gallery and Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac both opened a second space in the Paris suburb. Galerie Chantal Crousel also opened an experimental extension in the Paris 10th arrondissement in 2010. Now, it’s your turn to expand the gallery. Is it becoming a trend in Paris?

NO :I know that Almine Rech is moving her gallery to a new space at 64 Rue de Turenne in early March.Strictly speaking, for the moment, I am the only one to open a second space in Paris in 2013. For the moment, I am the only one to open a new space in Paris in 2013. Obviously, I prefer to have a space with manageable size but at the centre of Paris, because I believe that both French and foreign collectors still prefer to stay at the city centre and visit different spaces at the same time. Also, I am a bit suspicious of gigantic space. I think that my role as a gallery owner is to show the work of my artists in proper environment and context, after that, the effort should be concentrated on collaborating with prestigious public institutions. I am thinking of our projects such as Joana Vasconcelos (*1971, Lisbon) in Versailles, Rina Banerjee (India) in Musée Guimet, or Lorna Simpson (*1960, New York) who will have a retrospective in Galerie Nationale Jeu de Paume Paris in May this year. It should not be our ambition as a gallery to compete with public institutions in staging the biggest shows of the artists.

ST : With all the expansions in the galleries, does it mean that the Paris art market is doing very well? Are galleries becoming enterprises?

NO : I have my gallery in Paris for 20 years, and I am in the industry for 25 years, I can say that Paris is obviously becoming the major city in Western Europe where artists want to show their work, perhaps with Zurich as well. It’s true that the industry has changed a lot in the last decades. We are now truly the enterprise which means we have an economic role, but also an intellectual role to play. We work on the production with the artists. We have teams of considerable size that are consisted of art professionals with sophisticated profile. We publish catalogues, participate in art fairs and we assist artists in their big projects and big productions in every possible ways. If you like, the way we operate is like any enterprise and this for me is very interesting.

ST : How many people do you have in your team?

NO : We have 10 in Paris and 3 in Brussels, perhaps we would have 2 or 3 more in the new space in Bourg-Tibourg.

ST : You participate in 7 art fairs (Amory Show, Art Paris, Art Dubaï, Art HK, FiAC and Art Bruxelles). In view of the phenomenon of the art fairs and the sales figures these fairs can generate, is it more interesting to invest in art fairs or in a fixed space with fixed overhead expense?  

NO : I think they are both important. For cities like Berlin or other countries where there are less foreign visitors, maybe it’s more interesting to invest in art fairs than in a fixed space. But in Paris, London or New York, we are obliged to do both. Art fairs are absolutely indispensable today because we always need to look outside of our own country and to get to know international collectors. We are very curious to see what’s going on in the international art scene, but it’s also important to show the art of one’s own region on an international platform. So, participating in art fairs is an important long-term investment. At the same time, it’s important to propose proper exhibition space in our own country, to put up good exhibitions for the public but also to show our commitment and our confidence in the industry. It’s also a positive way to reciprocate the support and confidence our collectors have been giving to us over the years.

ST : You inaugurate the new space with a show of the British artist Fiona Rae (*1963), an artist that you have been collaborating since the beginning of her career and your career. How do you approach her work?

NO : I discovered the work of Fiona Rae very early in her career. It has been 20 years that we work together. For me, she is a kind of neo-pop abstract painter, which means she is an exceptional painter descends from the generations of Sam Francis, Joan Mitchell, Peter Halley, etc. But at the same time, one can feel the spirit of our time by the colour, the details and symbols that she uses. She’s now in her fifties but we can see that she came from a background of pop-culture, of comics and video games, etc., but the fact that these cultural elements are transcended by an extraordinary technique which makes her work never be outdated. Just like what we see in the work of Joan Mitchell, there is always an intellectual reading of art, of its world. There is a very rich cultural context that Fiona Rae has created in her work.

ST : Would there be any changes in the gallery program with the opening of a new space ? Are you going to be more experimental?

NO : Yes, of course! For example, in Sept 2013, there would be an exhibition of Huma Bhabha (*1962, Pakistan) in the new space, an important American artist born in Pakistan. She is having a solo show in PS1 in New York right now. On the contrary, the space in Rue du Cloître Saint-Merri will be given to a young French artist lives in London who will propose a totally experimental show.

Brussels – A Young Cultural Hub

ST : If we compare your project of opening a second gallery in Brussels in 2008 and opening the new space in the Marais in 2013, how far do they differ from each other in terms of motivation, considerations and program?

NO : The consideration I had in 2008 when choosing Brussels as the base of my second gallery was that, at that time, I wasn’t ready financially to open a new space in Paris in the Marais. Brussels seemed to me to be an interesting possibility. Then the idea of setting up a space in Belgium became very exciting particularly in view of the Belgian collectors who are extremely forward-looking and opened-mind, they are always curious to know what is going on globally. I am lucky to find a beautiful house which offers us an architectural space that’s totally different from our gallery in Paris. Besides, the Brussels gallery allows me to expand our selection of young artists whose work I would love to but impossible to show in Paris because I am committed to show the work of the artists with whom I have built up our career together during the last 15 years. At the same time, I cannot show the work of young artists in Paris because their work is not expensive but the gallery has a high operational cost to cover. Intellectually, this is very frustrating! The space in Brussels is like an experimental territory for me, it allows me to restart a young program with young artists. We had the American artist Michael DeLucia (*1978) to inaugurate the space in 2008. We launched his career in Europe thanks to the Belgian art market and later on we showed his work in Paris in 2012. His work becomes more expensive now but there is a real demand. It’s the same case as Brenna Youngblood (*1979, L.A.), a Californian artist with a correct price. Since I have a more flexibility in Brussels than in Paris, I decided very quickly to show her work in Brussels and I know that there will be a particular interest in her work among Belgian and foreign collectors.

ST : After 4.5 years of operation in Brussels, did the Belgian art scene keep up its promise ?

NO : I have more satisfaction than I expected. I am very happy with the way the gallery program is received by the Belgian public and collectors. I have gained the trust of collectors and now the gallery is totally integrated into the Belgian art scene. It’s a very encouraging project and I enjoy it a lot.

ST : What do you think of the saying that Brussels has a huge potential to overtake Berlin as the young art centre?

NO : There is certainly a much bigger number of collectors in Belgian. At the same time, Germany is an old country compared to Belgium. Brussels is very young and dynamic with collectors coming from all over the country. There are also a huge number of expatriates who settled down in Brussels. There are many positive changes going on in the city. I know that many artists moved to Belgium because the rent is cheaper than most European cities and the country is known as the Crossroads of Western Europe. I believe that Brussels has a great potential.

Galerist – A Business of Art

ST : Your parents are art collectors. I imagine that they have in one way or another influenced your career path. Can you tell us how you became a galerist?

NO : My parents have a career that is totally different from mine. However, I chose the profession 25 years ago because I have witnessed how my parents opened up their horizon, intellectually, due to the fact that they collect art. When I was a child, we lived in the province, and we came to Paris regularly to visit the galleries and museums. Sometimes, my parents took us to London, Amsterdam, etc., just to see art. They befriended artists and gallery owners. I saw how their life is enriched through the contact with art. I said to myself, in my profession, we are not just art dealers who sell paintings, but we are at the core of many things – we are at the epicenter of new creation and artistic experiments, we are also at the core of what’s happening in the economics, geopolitics, etc. If today, I chose to represent artists from China, America, the Middle-East, etc., it was because I am, like many other colleagues in the industry, at the core of an opening in the geopolitics today, and our work is to reflect this particular moment of change.

I studied Political Science with a focus on International Relations and I did my Master’s Degree in Law. When I was a student, I took up internship in galleries during school holidays and I knew that a gallery sums up a lot of things that interested me. I like people and I like to share my passion with people. It was very thrilling to sell a piece of work, not just for the money to maintain the gallery but to pass on the passion. These people are from different professions – industrialists, lawyers, doctors, etc., and you are able to share something with them. There is a real dialogue, a real commerce in the etymological sense of the word. Every time when I sold a piece of artwork, I felt like it was a miracle. The person could have spent the money in many other ways – buy a car or jewelries or pay for a vacation, etc. But s/he chose to spend the money on art which for me was a sign that we successfully passed on the message and the passion. It was a huge intellectual satisfaction.

ST : What are the collectors looking for today ?

NO : The collectors with whom we work look for the same thing as we do, i.e. to understand the world, to live with the art that helps them to better understand the spirit of their time. There is a dimension of transcendence in art. That’s what collectors are looking for today – to get beyond their daily routines of work and family life and experience the transcendence.

ST : Did your studies and interests in Geopolitics define your choice of artists? Does it reflect your engagement with a certain region or artistic movement?

NO : My choice of artists is not an engagement with certain geographic region but an attempt to show that art is not just occidental, there are things happening everywhere in the world. I work with Indian artists such as Rina Banergee and Mithu Sen (*1971), but there are still other famous Indian artists. I know very well the situation in India, and there are many Indian artists that I can’t work with simply because they are making art with an Indian favour for the Western taste. The same saying can be applied to Chinese artists or artists from the Middle-East. And this bothers me. What I found interesting is an artist’s ability to put his or her own precise cultural root in dialogue with something more universal. The notion of exotic doesn’t interest me; exotic things will go out of fashion very soon.

ST : Can we take the work of Joana Vasconcelos to further elaborate such approach?

NO: Joana Vasconcelos is Portuguese. She attempts to refine the traditional technique of her own culture and apply it in the context of contemporary art. But beyond the visible traditional craftsmanship is a conceptual discourse that she is proposing, such as the universal debate on the position of women in our society today, or the questioning of what constitutes a piece of artwork in the contemporary genre – does it belong to the realm of contemporary art when it bears visible artisanal techniques? These for me are very interesting and universal issues.

ST : Do you think that a male galerist runs the business differently from his female counterpart?

NO : In art, we have many brilliant female galerists – Marian Goodman, Barbara Gladstone, Paula Cooper, etc., in France we have Chantal Crousel, Denise René, etc. Before, we have the famous Ileana Sonnabend who was a real business woman! We say that they are “tough”, but we would not say that Larry Gagosian or Emmanuel Perrotin is “tough”… There is perhaps something macho in the male colleagues who always want their gallery to be bigger than their neighbour’s. I think that women are less into this kind of chauvinism; perhaps we are more ready to listen and to understand the desires of the artists than to put forward our own ambitions. But at the end, the work is the same for all the galerists. The most respected galerist in New York is a woman, Marian Goodman! She doesn’t have the biggest space or the most numerous branches, but her artists are the most present at the international mega-exhibitions, biennales, museums, etc. So, this is another way of promoting and taking care of the artists’ career. Perhaps a bit more maternal but we are not offering cakes to everyone neither!! Well, it’s true that there are more female artists in a gallery run by a female galerist, perhaps they feel more comfortable working together. But don’t forget that there are galleries run by couples as well.

ST : What is the most unbearable thing in the life of a galerist ?

NO : [Laughs] I have never asked myself about this! I love my job and I wake up early every morning… [Laughs] telling myself that I have to find new ideas, I have to reinvent myself…. I love travelling, talking to people, installing shows, working with my colleagues, making new contacts at diners, etc.… But, even though there is nothing unbearable in the life of a galerist, one has to be very well disciplined, i.e., I keep some moments in my life just for myself, so I won’t be imprisoned by my work. At moments that I want to read or relax, I will switch off my phone and concentrate on my books. In return, all these moments of reading or relaxing can be very enriching to my professional life… you see, the time is never wasted.

ST : Today, with a third space, is it a sign of success?

NO : It’s certainly a positive statement. After 20 years, the artists, the collectors, the museum curators, colleagues from the industry give me their trust and support. This is surely a way to recognize my effort in the last 20 years. Besides, there is nothing to be ashamed with one’s success or the success of one’s artists. In France, we said that people don’t like to talk about their success, their wealth, etc. We have to get rid of this because it is not true. Human nature is stronger than this. There is the desire to go further, to prove oneself, to take on challenges. We should not be afraid of all these!

ST : Is there a formula to succeed?

NO : I can tell you, it’s not a question of intelligence, it’s not a question of how much money you have to start with. What count is the hard-work. Intelligence? At a certain age, all normal people have more or less the same level of intelligence. Money? If you have confidence in yourself, you will find it. The difference is the work! And to work in a good mood!

ST : Thank you very much!

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