The Belgian dealer Albert Baronian opened his gallery in 1973. This autumn the gallery celebrates its 40 years of existence with a group exhibition focusing on the Arte Povera movement, opens on 6 September 2013.
It was a cold August Saturday. Albert Baronian took a day off from his summer holiday break to meet me. We started at 11am and decided at 4pm that the interview will never be over. Baronian is a living dictionary. He has an extremely clear memory and he recalls all the details. My last question to him, “Aren’t you interested in writing a gallery history book for Brussels?”
Baronian debuted his career in contemporary art as a journalist. After writing a university dissertation on the “Social Communication of Plastic Art”, he published his first article in 1971 in L’Art Vivant magazine edited by Jean Claire on Gilbert & George whom would much later become his collaborators. With a utopian approach to contemporary art, Baronian started making edition works before finally started his gallery in 1973, at the age of 27.
Life wasn’t easy for a young dealer especially when there was the petrol crisis. Ever thought of giving up? “There was a moment that lasted for a few weeks, I thought of becoming a fashion designer!” Judging that 38 years old was too late to change career, Baronian gave up the idea of dressing the others but his own wardrobe. Sometimes he can be easily spotted in the crowd with his outfits brimming with colours and styles! People close to Albert Baronian knew his “favorite lists” other than art – music (play list: Mozart), bicycle (le Tour de France), wine, and perhaps cooking occupies the top position.
Brussels, October 2013
Opening a gallery for me is a political engagement.— Albert Baronian
Perhaps naïve but I wanted to work with artists
who could transform our vision of the world…
Celebrating 40th Anniversary – Arte Povera’s way
Selina Ting [ST] : On 6 September 2013, Albert Baronian Gallery will celebrate its 40th anniversary with a group show Arte Povera. Should we take it as a small-scale retrospective of the artistic movement itself or a revisit of one of the gallery’s key moments? Why Arte Povera?
Albert Baronian [AB] : It’s neither a retrospective of Arte Povera or of the gallery but a simple curatorial concept to pay homage to the movement. Like many others of my generation, I have been profoundly influenced by the May 1968. Opening a gallery for me is a political engagement. Perhaps naïve but I wanted to work with artists who could transform our vision of the world and the Arte Povera artists were the precursors who pointed their fingers on the malfunctions of the society. They have fulfilled the role of an artist; they have changed the way we see the world and the relationship between an individual and the society. Personally, I think Arte Povera is the most important artistic movement in Europe in the second half of the 20th Century. It’s a very strong counterbalance to Conceptualism and Minimalism in America.
Also, Arte Povera has an important role in the gallery’s development. Thanks to the exhibits that we organized in the gallery with the Arte Povera artists that the gallery gained international recognition in the 1970s. Some of the artists are long-term collaborators of the gallery, such as Gilberto Zorio (*1944) who has exhibited six times in the gallery between 1978 and 2009; Giulio Paolini (*1940) has also shown several times with me since 1978; Mario Merz (1925– 2003) showed once in the gallery in 1980 and it was his first and the only solo show in Belgium so far.
ST : Is the market’s growing interest in Arte Povera another considering factor?
AB : It’s true that the market is looking back at Arte Povera with fresh interest. The origin of Arte Povera is in a way highly elusive for the market. At that time, apart from a few Zorio drawings, Kounellis paintings and Boetti tapestries, Arte Povera works were difficult for private collectors. It’s catastrophic to put an igloo of Merz in your salon, and Zorio’s installations with quirky sounds would drive you crazy! Only big museums could collect and show such works. Of course, nowadays, the art market is so strong that it can absorb anything. A gallery is a commercial structure. To survive, you need to sell. So, I don’t deny the power of the market but it’s not a major consideration for this exhibition. Besides, it’s not just the market, if you look at the works of some young artists, you see the shadow of Arte Povera. The influence of Art Povera runs deep. We see that these artists had opened different possibilities for later movements, and the ripple effect continues today.
ST : How did you manage to gather the pieces for a gallery exhibit on a historical movement?
AB : I can frankly tell you that the works in the show are gathered from different sources. Jannis Kounellis (*1936), Zorio and Paolini have chosen works from their personal collections for the exhibit. There is a signature javelin star piece from Zorio, a 1988 work from Kounellis which was featured on the cover of the magazine Art Studio of 1989 , and Paolini has also chosen an early work from his own collection. The other artists – a private collection in Antwerp lends me a Merz’s piece which I sold to the collector thirty years ago. So the piece is not for sale. Some dealer friends also lend me pieces – a Michelangelo Pistoletto (*1933) work from Sperone gallery, a Giuseppe Penone (*1947) work from Galleria Tucci Russo, and a Marisa Merz (*1931) piece from Jean Bernier Gallery which was sold to a Belgian collector and has since never been shown. There are two pieces of Alighiero Boetti (1940 – 1994) that are from the gallery collection. So, some pieces are available for sale, others not.
ST : Is this the first time you show the work of Kounellis?
AB : Yes.
ST : Why Kounellis was absent from the gallery shows in the 1970s and 80s when you were most actively promoting the movement?
AB : It’s an interesting question! Jean Bernier opened his gallery in Athens with a Kounellis show in 1977. He introduced me to Kounellis but the artist didn’t see the interests of showing in Belgium. Besides, there was a serious “power struggle” between Kounellis and Merz, both men have very strong personalities. If you showed Merz, you couldn’t show Kounellis, and vice versa. It was very difficult to work with Kounellis and I didn’t have the courage to try. Besides, at that time, I already had Merz, Paolini and Zorio in the gallery and I couldn’t make it an Italian-only gallery.
ST : Did you regret at a certain point?
AB : I regret for another case. It was some years later when I wanted to show Penone, but Laurent Busine told me that Durant-Dessert Gallery in Paris which represented Penone at that time didn’t really want the artist to show in Brussels because they had many Belgian clients. So I waited more than ten years to show Penone.
ST : Other than the Arte Povera show, you are planning a second exhibit to celebrate the 40th anniversary. Can you tell us about the second exhibit?
AB : Yes but the details are not fixed. The idea of the second exhibit is to focus on installation and video works of the Belgium-based artists of the gallery. At the very beginning, we wanted to do the two shows at the same time but in two venues. Finally, we didn’t obtain the permit of the other venue. So we will have to do it next year for the 41st Anniversary!! [Laughs]
Engaging Contemporary Art – From Delta to Albert Baronian
ST : The gallery opened in September 1973 with the name “Delta”…
AB : Yes. I started my career in the art in 1972 after I married Françoise. As idealist as any post-1968 generation, my idea was to make art universally accessible, therefore, editions! So, I started doing editions with artists and the company was called “Delta” –simple and universally understandable. The name was suggested to me by Jean-Marie Labeeu who has a gallery in Sablon called “Le Disque rouge”, specialized in Constructivism. At that time, I worked closely with Jo Delahaut (1911 – 1992), François Morellet (*1916), Amédée Cortier (1921 – 1976), etc. Obviously, I didn’t sell much with the editions. [Laughs]
One day, one of my artists, Antonio Dias (*1944), came to my office with his original carbon drawings while I was expecting a draft of an etching. We put up an exhibition in my office and waited for people to come. I remember I had around 10,000 Belgian francs (250EUR) in my bank account, and on the preview night, I found myself broke with four drawings in my collection. [Laughs] That was how I gradually started organizing exhibitions on the ground floor of Boulevard Saint Michel where Françoise and I lived, and Delta became Delta Gallery.
Françoise had never complained but at that time, our apartment was invaded by art works, from the kitchen to the bedroom! It was Didier Vermeiren (*1951) who convinced me to expand and of the importance of having a beautiful space to show art. I rented an old machine factory at 13 rue des Francs and opened with an exhibition of Jan Schoonhoven (1914 – 1994). So during three years, I was inhaling the odor of industry oil! [Laughs] But then, I had an atypical space and I started to show Richard Nonas (*1936), Zorio, Bernd Lohaus (1940 – 2010), Claudio Parmiggiani (*1943), Vermeiren, etc.
I gave up the name “Delta” in 1975 because opening a gallery is a personal engagement. You can’t stay anonymous in the gallery business. A gallery needs an identity; the individual behind it is the soul and therefore its identity. In the 1970s, almost all the galleries in Belgium had an anonymous name, such as Le Disque rouge, Wide White Space by Anny de Decker, MTL by Fernand Spillemaeckers, Gallery d by Guy de Bruyn, La Balance by Stéphane Janssen, Gallery Vega by Manette Reprieels (in Liege), Post-Scriptum the bookshop of Bernard Marcelis, etc. But I wasn’t the first dealer in Belgium to give his name to the gallery. There was Richard Foncke Gallery in Ghent.
ST : Other than Arte Povera, you have also supported the Supports/Surfaces group from the beginning of your career. The two movements are equally market-unfriendly. Was it again a post-1968 syndrome?
AB : [Laughs] I represented Supports/Surfaces because personally, I always loved painting, and there was the Analytical Paintings movement that started in the South of France and Italy. The artists of the group questioned painting itself; they interrogated the means of production or the tools of paintings, i.e. supports and surfaces. There were artists/theoreticians such as Guy Ledune and Didier Vermeiren who wrote about them from a political, often Marxist, point of view. I studied the writings and the paintings and I went to see the artists and started showing their work in the gallery.
Another reason was that I needed to find my place! There were MTL and Wide White Space which represented Conceptual and Minimalist artists in Belgium, so I couldn’t work with this group of artists. And there was also Richard Foncke in Ghent who represented mainly Belgian and Dutch artists.
ST : Did this connection to painting bring you to the Nouveaux Fauves (Neue Wilde) in Berlin in the 1980s ?
AB : Yes, I went to Berlin in 1982 and I saw the explosive paintings full of colours and energy. I started showing Helmut Middendorf (*1953), Bernd Zimmer (*1948) and their professor Karl Horst Hödicke (*1937). And I showed Robert Combas (*1957), Jean-Charles Blais (*1956), Michael Buthe (1944 – 1994), etc., in Ghent. I think I was a bit tired of the austerity of the analytical paintings! [Laughs] Before the German painters, I showed work by some American artists such as Denise Green, Lucio Pozzi, Lynda Benglis, etc. These shows took place in Avenue Emile de Beco after I quitted Rue de Francs in 1978.
ST : Given the fact that you moved your gallery in several locations, it seems that it was pretty free to locate a gallery regardless of the so-called “gallery district”. Was there already an “art market” in Belgium in the 1970s?
AB : At that time, contemporary art was very marginal. The galleries were called avant-garde galleries. In Brussels, there wasn’t a “district” of gallery like what we know today. In the 1970s, there were some avant-garde galleries in the shopping mall Galerie du Bailli on Avenue Louise. There was Wide White Space, MTL, Paul Maenz (from Cologne), Jenny Van Driessche and Gallery d. There were some bourgeois galleries at the Sablon.
There were two galleries in Ghent: Richard Foncke Gallery, and the Plus Kern Gallery, opened by the artist Yves de Smet (1946 – 2004) and his then wife, Jenny Van Driessche, who later moved the gallery to Brussels. Antwerp came to the scene in the 1980s. There were Ronny Van de Velde (since late 1970s), Zeno X Gallery (since 1981) by Frank and Eliane Demaegd. Micheline Szwajcer was a collector before she opened her gallery in 1980.
ST : Was the base of collectors big enough to keep the galleries going?
AB : There were five collectors – Dr. Herman Daled, Anton Herbert, Dr. Roger Mattys, André Goeminne and Dr. Pannier. Jan Hoet bought some pieces for SMAK (Dezeuze, Zorio, Lohaus, Paolini, etc.). You saw them around from time to time. It was a big success already if Herman Daled bought a drawing from you! Most of the time, you didn’t sell anything! [Laughs] Those were the days when I couldn’t pay the rent or bills… The beginning is always difficult! [Laughs] To tell you a funny story, I didn’t know anyone when I started my gallery. So I went to openings and I read their livre d’or. Every time I tried to memorize five contacts from each gallery to build my contact list! [Laughs]
ST : Bravo! [Laughs] You started participating at art fairs as early as 1974, just one year after opening your gallery. How was that possible?
AB : Things were different then! Art fairs were not what they are today. It was more like a friends’ club! The first art fair I participated at was FiAC in Paris in 1974. Later some then young Parisian galleries such Yvon Lambert and Durand-Dessert launched “Focus” and I was invited to join in 1978. I also participated at the Cologne fair in 1975, taking part at the “Today Together” section with other avant-garde galleries. It was organized by Konrad Fischer (1939 – 1990) and Paul Maenz and I showed work by Didier Vermeiren and Daniel Dezeuze (*1942). Then I did the first Bologna Fair where I found myself at the middle of all the famous galleries: Castelli, Sonnabend, Durand-Dessert, Yvon Lambert, Massino Minini, etc. Back then, there were only a few art fairs and people were more relaxed. We didn’t think about “strategies”. Such notion didn’t exist. For me, art fairs marked the beginning of international recognition. You get to know people, you open up to the world and discover the artists of the other galleries. Also, those were the occasions that you started to form a family with other dealers. After work, we went for a meal or a drink and went out afterwards. That was how we started to bond together and to create a family of young avant-garde galleries. Sometimes, you manage to make some sales, sometimes not. That was how fairs were!Survival of the most tenacious…
ST : In your case, when did the gallery finally become financially stable?
AB : In the early 1990s. The financial pressure is always there. But after 20 years in the business, the gallery’s finance started to look good.
ST : How did you get over this long period? What was it that supported you and kept you going?
AB : Very tough!! Because I love art and this is what I wanted to do! I am lucky to have Françoise. She earned a good salary and she helped me a lot to get over the hard times. But I made a lot of money as well. [Laughs] There were moments when business boomed, such as in the early 1980s when I showed the Berlin “Nouveau Fauves” painters. I bought some pieces of Georg Baselitz, Gerhard Richter, Donald Judd, etc. But I had to resell them from time to time to continue the gallery! There were ups and downs all the time. What I wanted to say is that you always find money to support the gallery business… When I did Art Basel as a young gallery, I could only pay before I went to my booth. I didn’t have the money 15 days before. Then there were days when you had miracles!
ST : Was there any moment that the idea of giving up came across your mind?
AB : No, because I don’t know what else to do in my life. There is one very important quality in this business – Tenacity! Of course there is always doubt, but if you decided to do it, then you have to stick to it! I couldn’t ask help from my parents since being an art dealer wasn’t something they expected. But I had never asked myself if I had to close the gallery. Now, I started asking… I am 67 years old! A gallery is a 24-hour job. That was also why we decided not to have children – this might sound shocking to some people but that’s the reality and you have to make your choice.
ST : Looking back today, do you think it was very courageous for a 27-year old young man to launch a gallery business at that time?
AB : It was unconscious, one step led to another. But yes, it was very courageous to open a gallery especially that there was the first Oil Crisis in 1973. You don’t open a gallery at moments like that. But I didn’t realize that it was crisis time because anyway, I didn’t sell anything. Also, at that time, there wasn’t such an art “industry”. You did everything yourself, there was no art shipping company, no art insurance, no installer, no art printer. I went to see Zorio, he put all the works on the roof of my car himself and I brought them to Brussels! He just didn’t bother and didn’t want me to pay extra for shipping. We would simply go to the printer next door to have the invitation cards done! All the notions and criteria of perfection didn’t exist! Contemporary art business was very marginal!
ST : Today, everything is regulated, systematized. It becomes a structured profession!
AB : Today, if you don’t have 250,000 euros, you don’t open a gallery! The first year you are not going to sell anything but the shipping, insurance, rent, production, reception, etc., everything costs money, and a lot of money! As a young gallery, you invest in promoting young artists who don’t sell a lot, and once one of them stands out, a big gallery comes and takes him away! You invested for nothing! There is something wrong in this industry! Brussels Art Days, for example, a young gallery pays the same amount of money as a big gallery… 1 500 euros for a young gallery is a huge burden while for a big gallery it is like 10 euros! Is that normal? A small gallery can’t invite more than 20 guests to an opening dinner, while a big one can afford a 150-guests dinner party at a posh restaurant! All these things didn’t exist before. Today, if you don’t give cocktails, dinners, parties, if you don’t participate at art fairs, you will soon be forgotten!The Art World Today…
ST : In your memory, at which point did things start to change in the business?
AB : In the early 1990s, then it slowed down a little bit. The most drastic change started around the year 2000. There are more galleries, more collectors, more intermediates… The auction houses contributed a lot to the changes. Before, at the auctions, there were only mediocre pieces from famous artists or simply bad quality works, and they were more expensive than in the primary market. What has changed also is the way contemporary art is perceived in our society. Art becomes fashionable! “Arty” is a 21st century word! The bourgeois changed their taste – they don’t buy antique but trendy design furniture and contemporary art. They want to be fashionable!
ST : What about the profile of the collectors? Are they very different?
AB : Before, many collectors were professionals, like doctors, architects,… Today, contemporary art becomes too expensive for salary men. You see many businessmen, bankers, industrialists around.
ST : The expansion of the art market and of the amount of collectors, does it make the business easier or tougher for an established gallery like yours?
AB : Both! Since there are more collectors, you manage to sell something all the time. On the contrary, the most difficult is to act fast. When you see a good artist, you have to get him or her immediately. Otherwise, it will be too late! A medium-size gallery like ours can be eaten by those giant multinational galleries!
ST : Running a gallery like a multinational enterprise… How do you see this new operation model in the gallery business?
AB : There were galleries that expanded to other cities before. In Blegium, for example, you have Wide White Space who opened a second gallery in Brussels during a short moment, MTL also opened a space in Antwerp with the Amsterdam-based Art & Project gallery during a year, under the name “MTL-Art in Project”. I also opened a space with Yvon Lambert in Ghent in 1981 – 1983, then a bit later in Knokke. One of the most influential dealers, Konrad Fischer who opened his first gallery in Dusseldorf in 1967, also had a second gallery in Zurich and another in Rome (with Gian Enzo Sperone) in the 1970s. Between 1975 and 1982, he was a partner in Sperone Westwater Fischer, a large Manhattan gallery that continues today as Sperone Westwater. Today, Gagosian is everywhere in the world. They are much more powerful than us, so what can you do? When you go to the Venice Biennale, for example, you see their names on most of the exhibition labels!
ST : Can you tell us the story of your associated gallery with Yvon Lambert in Ghent? What motivated the project and how was it operated?
AB : We opened a gallery together in Ghent from 1981 to 1983. Ghent was then the only Belgian city with a contemporary art museum, the SMAK directed by Jan Hoet. There was also the art centre Gewad and Richard Foncke gallery. The city’s dynamism and reputation started to draw art lovers but there was only one gallery, that of Richard Foncke. I talked to Yvon Lambert in Basel when I found a space in Ghent. That was how we launched the project together. The young Chris Dercon became our gallery director. That was his first job in the arts! He had just graduated from the University of Leyden in Holland. I remember him at his first job interview because that was the first time and the last time that I saw him with suit and tie!
ST : Perfect for a gallery director!
AB : [Laughs] He did everything in the gallery. He recalled that period at an interview saying that he was the director, the caretaker, the cleaner, the installer, the clerk, etc. That was how things worked at the time! Chris introduced me to some gallery artists such as Walter Daems from Limburg, Piet Dieleman and Volker Tannert. Then he had to leave for his military service in 1983, and since the gallery wasn’t working well financially, we decided to close the space in Ghent. But it was a very nice adventure. There was a bigger audience in Ghent and many people came to see our exhibitions. Yvon is a charismatic person and one of the closest colleagues I had at that time.
ST : The second time that you associated with a business partner was in 2002 with Edmond Francey?
AB : With Yvon, it was more of a casual collaboration. We didn’t go to a lawyer to sign papers, for example. With Edmond, it was a formal collaboration. We changed the name of the gallery to Baronian-Francey, we set up a company, etc. etc. It happened rather naturally, his wife Clelia Colombani worked for me before they moved to London. It was jokingly that we had the idea to collaborate and it turned to be a serious venture. At that time he was the director of Nahmad Gallery in London. It was a moment that I was starting to feel old and it was nice to work with someone. Besides, Edmond has a more Anglo-Saxon way of doing things and he also has strong connections with Latin America. He is also more experienced with the secondary market. So, he complemented me very well. Besides, he was young and brought new energy and introduced the younger scene to the gallery.
ST : Was it at the moment of the new collaboration that you moved from the Canal 20 to the present space?
AB : Yes. The loft-style gallery was a bit over in the early 2000s. We wanted something a bit more bourgeois, a beautiful space so to speak. The Canal project was slowing down and the owner of the space wasn’t very supportive to our gallery project. It lasted only six years but it was very unique in Belgium in the sense that you had so many high-quality galleries and exhibitions in contemporary art grouped together in two adjacent buildings. Even though we left the district, the centre has become an important axis with all the galleries which opened in the 1990s – Jan Mot, Erna Hecey, Aliceday, etc.
ST : Which galleries were already in the Louise area when you moved to the current building?
AB : Rodolphe Janssen, Aeroplastics. Later on Charles Riva became my neighbor. In the last two to three years, you have Gladstone which is not far away, D+T Projects, CLEARING, and last year Sebastien Ricou also moved here.
ST : Today you are seen as the Godfather of the Brussels galleries. You are very supportive to the young galleries. How do you see the situation today with new galleries opening and closing down within 2 or 3 years?
AB : As I said before, it’s very difficult now to set up a gallery. You need 250,000 euros startup to do something interesting. You need an enormous network as well. If you are not the child of someone, it’s very difficult.
ST : How would you describe your relationship with other dealers / colleagues in the art scene, both local and international?
AB : I think the kind of rivalry one has for example in Paris doesn’t exist in Brussels. We are friends and we share information between galleries. For example Rodolphe [Janssen] is a very good friend of mine and we invite each other to gallery dinners. We don’t look at each other as competitors. The Parisian galleries that settled here in Brussels, during the Canal project [in ‘90s] or today, they have adapted very well to our business “culture”. Daniel Templon, for example, is an old friend. He knows Belgium very well and he’s going to open a space here in a few days.
ST : How do you keep renewing yourself in the last 40 years to keep up with the fast changing scenes of the contemporary art world?
AB : Talk to the young people! Art is something evolving, if you work in art, you should never be frozen in your own time and space. For a dealer, it’s also a question of survival, it’s important to renew constantly and to breathe in fresh air. I have lived some extraordinary moments in art in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I have met Andy Warhol, I have made exhibitions with some of the greatest artists… I could have said “I am done”, but that’s stupid. What does that serve? It’s about survival, of the gallery, and in any case, of me. Circumstances change all the time; you have to find the positive elements in a negative circumstance. For example, when Edmond left, it was not easy for me. I have wished that he would continue my gallery as I am getting old. Then I met Laurence [Dujardyn], she became the director of the gallery and I believe that she will help me to renew the gallery. It’s my personality to count on the young people, I like to work with them and trust them!
ST : Thank you very much and Happy 40th Birthday!!
06 Sept – 9 Nov 2013
Albert Baronian Gallery
2 Rue Isidore Verheyden
About the Albert Baronian Gallery
Abert Baronian opened his first gallery in 1973 and immediately enjoyed international success thanks to the presentation of Arte Povera artists Alighiero e Boetti, Mario Merz, Giulio Paolini, Gilberto Zorio. Later, as president of the Gallery’s Association, the Brussels Art fair took a more international turn whilst under his direction.
He sees the responsibility of the gallery as three folds: to work for the long term development of each artists career, acting as a liaison to international galleries and museums as well as placing works in collections; to create an historical archive for each artist; and to act as an accessible public space in which the exhibitions become an exemplary gesture of the power of subjectivity to the audience at large.
The program is dedicated to contemporary art as well as important artistic movements and artists that have defined the last forty years.