The Codes of the Art Industry
Isn’t the model of a gallery since long obsolete? Is the alleged Viennese gallery boom just proclaimed by the media or a reality? Why has the art industry been functioning along the same patterns since over a hundred years? Mind-numbingly boring or simply a tried-and-tested concept? We met the young Viennese gallerist Nathalie Halgand to get to know this woman, who has thrown herself into the adventure of earning some money these days with young, emerging art. A portrait.
"The freedom of art is its highest claim and its biggest cliché." (Nicole Zepter)
This year her gallery on Stiegengasse in Vienna’s 6th district has its second anniversary. Upon first glance, everything in the space – on the mezzanine with a view onto the good old Naschmarkt – comes across like herself as a person and the gallery’s sign: aloof and in line with the iconography of the art industry, a lot of white, a lot of wall, a big table with something knobby in the vase, the artworks hung very reduced, works from the two German artists Talisa Lallai (*1989) and Markus Saile (*1981). International gallery standard, but reliable. Art is the main actor. “I like it clear and simple,” says Halgand. And there it is, behind all the reservation, her personality, which is interesting: A woman who is following a straight path? Who is this person who still dares to found a gallery these days, to make money off of young, unknown art?
"Who is this person who still dares to found a gallery these days?"
Time and again, Austrian media celebrate a “Viennese gallery boom” – or do they just proclaim it? There are newcomers like Lisa Kandlhofer, Zeller van Almsick , or Barbara Pretterhofer (unttld contemporary). Is this a false impression? “No,” finds Halgand, “it is about time! The last big wave of new galleries already took place around 2000!”
"In no case do I want to be perceived as an offspace."
Collectors are scarce in Austria, and the competition is big and global. Despite domestic funding programs it is hard to build up an enterprise around art. You need a string will and a financial bolster. Halgand has the former, that’s clear after ten minutes, but the latter?
She hesitates: “I realize that I – like all young entrepreneurs – need perseverance and simply have to work hard in the beginning. My family was extremely supportive so far, but it’s a mix of everything: sales, project revenues, funding.”
And the old-established houses, often called the “Viennese gallery mafia” by critics, do they help or mess about? Halgand raises an eyebrow skeptically – obviously these stories occurred long before her time. “They are all very kind to me, visit my gallery. This year I could participate in curated by. During this year’s vienna contemporary I was even able to make a sale upon recommendation of an established gallery.” It seems as if the scene has mellowed with age.
"It just comes from myself!"
In every free minute, she tells, she passionately reads books about contemporary art and biographies, provided she isn’t studying business literature. She does not make a distinction between job and private life. “It’s hard for me to turn off.” On her many city trips museums and galleries attract her like magnets. Even when she travels to the sea, like recently to Sicily, it can happen that she would go on a five-hour drive with her partner and little daughter just to see an installation.
Her father was an amateur painter, there were art catalogs at home, also art on the walls and exhibition visits, but “actually it just comes from myself!” In her high school time at the Lycée Français de Vienne natural sciences, economy, and literature were central. “As a student I didn’t even know that it was possible to study art history until I participated in a course during a stay in Spain and discovered my path. I was truly happy!”
"I even compile lists of things I want to achieve."
The deal worked out. She learned – while completing her MBA – her craft as a gallerist: exhibitions, first interviews, funding, sales, collector contacts, traveling. At some point the hype had worn off, Nicholas went back to the USA, but the space remained. “I had no time to brood, I said to myself: Move on!” And that was how her own gallery was founded.
Many people miss good opportunities because they come in their overalls and look like work. Nathalie Halgand, instead, put on the blue work overalls, ventured and became her own businesswoman. Doubters, the saying goes, don’t win, winners don’t doubt.
But first you have to know the goal. Nathalie Halgand pauses shortly, then gets up and opens her laptop on the long table. “I even compile lists of things I want to achieve,” she smiles and reads out the ones for 30 plus – and for a moment it seems as if she is laughing about herself a little bit. She also has one for her 40s, 50s, and 60s. A spleen many of us probably share. She closes the computer and adds: “And always eat good!”
And the flipside? “The freedom of art,” Nicole Zepter writes in her book Kunst hassen. Eine enttäuschte Liebe [Hating Art. A Disappointed Love Affair], “is its highest claim and its biggest cliché.” At the end of the day every gallerist and every artist, if they want to live from their art, must play along the hierarchy of the art market: curators, exhibitions, catalogs, critics, fairs, collectors. Always the same game for almost a hundred years. Strangely enough, it still works.
"Always the same game for almost a hundred years. Strangely enough, it still works."
For Halgand the gallery Hauser & Wirth is a shining example, not because it is an internationally active enterprise with millions in sales but because of the program: Besides exhibitions the Swiss art dealers organize seminars, lectures, and workshops and cooperate with schools and universities. In Los Angeles they run a shop, a publishing house, and even a restaurant, amongst other things. “All department stores will become museums and all museums will become department stores,” as Andy Warhol predicted.
In 2014 Hauser & Wirth opened a dependance in Somerset in southwestern England, on a farm with a hotel, an adjacent sculpture garden, bar and restaurant. Painting courses and music evenings are offered. “A rural elegant all-round carefree refuge,” writes Die Welt. The urban art social scene is bored of their warehouse lofts and white cubes and seeks escape from the traffic jams, rocketing rents, and noise of the big metropolises. Hauser & Wirth will also open an Arts & Crafts Hotel in the Scottish Braemer, a kind of global concept store for art.
However, one should not forget that the Swiss gallery with its branches in Zurich, New York, L.A., London, and a collection in Henau in the canton of St. Gallen was helped by the tremendous assets of the Hauser family. But who knows, maybe one day a potent collector like Friedrich Christian Flick will walk in the door of the Viennese Stiegengasse – It can’t hurt to dream! Mustn’t there always be a vision before any success? “I want my gallery to become a beautiful, lively place, where lots of things are happening, where people like to spend their time and talk about art.”
"Vienna can be happy, Mrs. Halgand, that you came here!"
And the selection of the artists, does that also happen really fast? At the moment, Halgand represents five. Does she feel swamped by a market of geniuses that the academies churn out year after year? No, you have to search long for good people who fulfill the criteria, such as an constant development of their work, she says. Of course, there has to be this aha moment in the beginning. “But I don’t care about the medium or the origin at all,” she nods her head. “The art has to touch me. Formally or with its content, or both. I’m interested in who says what and how, if the work triggers a discourse, is political – things I can then introduce to my audience in the gallery. I’m attracted by works with which I, as a gallerist, can contribute my part to society.”
"I don’t like it at all when there’s too much talking around!"
The doorbell rings at the gallery. Nathalie Halgand gets up and politely greets an older gentleman with a hat. “Good day, dear Mrs. Halgand. Nice to see you again. I might be a sprite eighty years old, but I can still visit all the galleries in Vienna myself.” After he has walked through the exhibition and prepares to leave, he says good-bye: “Thank you! Vienna can be happy, Mrs. Halgand, that you came here!”
"One last question: What don’t you like at all? Unreliability!"