Just now, when in Latvia the end of the recession has been officially announced and the overall economic figures are looking more positive than had been hoped, discussion about how to stimulate the Latvian market and develop exports is more topical than ever. Whether contemporary art can also make a successful bid to join the range of export goods and compete with products from other countries – this was the subject of a conversation with Anna Sausverde-Ellger, owner and director of the ArtPromotion02 Gallery, who since 2002 has been working outside Latvia, namely in Germany and also works with the art of Ritums Ivanovs
Zane Oborenko: How long have you been a gallerist, and how did you begin?
Anna Sausverde-Ellger: I’ve always been interested in literature and art. From early on, I’ve always visited exhibi- tions and have spent many hours delightedly roaming the rooms of the Hermitage in St Petersburg. When the Impres- sionist works were brought from Paris to the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, in 1970 I think, I queued to see them in the -25 degree cold. Like many other things, my becoming a gallerist was a coincidence. When, after graduating from university, I started to work, I had the opportunity to attend several serious art history courses in St Petersburg and Moscow, which, of course, benefited my theoretical knowledge. The first what you might call partly-private art gallery opened in Riga in 1986 in Hotel Latvia, and when I agreed to take up a post there, I knew that this was something I could do. I understood that I was able to fulfil the function of inter- mediary between artist and potential customer, that I can embolden the customer to begin a direct dialogue with the artist... When times changed, I registered as a one-person enterprise and became engaged in two different things in parallel: business logistics and art. Even before this, I’d had the opportunity to take our artists’ work to China and the USA. Actually I was the first to take the works out of Latvia on the basis of established market rules. That’s how it began – quite non-traditionally, like everything back then.
Z.O.: How did you begin your activities in Germany?
Z.O.: How easy has it been to break into this foreign milieu?
A.S.-E.: It’s not easy, and the process has only just begun. You don’t develop friendly relationships. You have very polite relationships, but there’s no openness or anything like “Oh! You’re from the Baltic? Come along, we’ll support you and show you everything.” I’m a member of a gallery associa- tion, but no gallerist from this association has ever visited me or asked a single question. On the other hand, some- times there’s also collaboration on exhibitions, for example, I worked together with a German curator on the exhibition of Lithuanian contemporary art at the European Central Bank in Frankfurt (24.06.–17.09.2010), which was of immense benefit for me in terms of meeting people and also increasing the level of knowledge. For this I’m grateful, first and foremost, to Heike Suetter, curator of the bank’s art collection. I really enjoyed working with her: it was a chance to compare opin- ions, discuss the creative work of this or that artist, the trends in contemporary art and pricing policy, and to follow through the formal side of organising exhibitions. Now I’m much better versed in Lithuanian art of the last decade and can see its position within the European market.
Z.O.: Do you sense a growing interest in art from the baltic States?
A.S.-E.: In my experience, if an artist has something to say, then the interest will always be there. But the next ques- tion is: will it sell? How much commercial interest worldwide is there? There’s no such interest with regard to our art. It’s all a matter of names. When potential buyers walk into the pavilions of the Art Basel, Frieze or FIAC art fairs, it’s the names that guarantee that they will get a top-quality product, so to say. Every artist taking part there is an approved brand name. Essentially, it doesn’t make any difference what coun- try they come from. But the brand has to be created, the artist has to be invested in, and the starting point is that the artist has to be talented. Participation in such fairs costs tens of thousands, but money is a separate subject for discussion. Of course, when you tell them that the Würth Collection, which is one of the world’s 100 largest private collections, has works by Kaspars Zariņš and Ritums Ivanovs (the first work by artists from the Baltic), then you do get a noticeable reaction. This can open doors. But in other contexts our names still mean little. For example, the name of Žilvinas Kempinas will mean nothing to the average collector, even though he took part in the central Basle art fair, Art Basel 2010, under the aegis of the Yvon Lambert Gallery from Paris, and all three of his works were bought there. He lives in New York, and you can’t get near him anymore. He’s up there – right at the top – and still his name is not known the way that others are. It’s the same with our Miks Mitrēvics, already an inter- nationally recognised artist. During Art Brussels in April I saw his exhibition at the Belgian gallery Jozsa, and was pleasantly surprised. I learned that many critics know about him, but not the buyers, who are after names.
Z.O.: How would you explain the more widespread recognition of Lithuanian art, in comparison with Latvian art, at least among art connoisseurs?
A.S.-E.: I wouldn’t say that Lithuanian art is better known. It would perhaps be more precise to say that during the past decade Lithuania has got further ahead in art pro- cesses. I would explain that this is because of the Lithuanians’ successful collaboration with curators and art life in Poland, and the serious, by now long-term activities of the Contem- porary Art Centre in Vilnius. It’s also got to do with the active stance and daring of the younger generation. The art market lives and ‘feeds’ off critically acclaimed classics, to which we can certainly add Classical Modernism, and from hype, where London and Basle set the tone.
Z.O.: And what about Estonian art: have you worked or collaborated with their gallerists or artists?
A.S.-E.: I am a little familiar with the Estonian graphic art market. I know that, for example, Andris Vītoliņš is happy to collaborate with a Tallinn gallery, without any typical Lat- vian heartache about it. But I haven’t yet made any serious proposals to Estonian artists, I’m trying to get a better under- standing of present-day Estonian art.
Z.O.: Could baltic art become a united brand, or will it remain simply the name of a geographic area?
A.S.-E.: That’s hard to predict. We know that no such united brand came about in a time as vibrant with artistic impulses as the turn of the 20th century; it was always a matter of individuals and influences. At the present day, the economies of the Baltic States do not necessarily have to be connected with socio-cultural phenomena. Before joining the EU, the Baltic States had to meet a string of different preconditions, which were fulfilled quickly and without any resistance. Voluntary collaboration on a day-to-day basis is a different matter, this is always regulated by the market it- self, ever more conspicuously. Why should artistic expression suddenly become unified? Last year the Riga Gallery was for- tunate enough to be able to offer, and successfully sell, works by Līga Purmale and Ritums Ivanovs at Sotheby’s in London as part of the Russian contemporary art section, the label ‘LV’ being appended very modestly as a supplementary price tag. I don’t see any historical factors that might stimulate the emergence of a Baltic brand, unless such a brand were to come about because of pragmatic market considerations. I think it could happen, if there were to be increased interest and investment in the Eastern European market. It’s of no little importance that trends in art are currently moving in the direction of authenticity: ‘cool’ is no longer in vogue. This I see as a very big opportunity for our art. You can see it most clearly in a different art form: in the theatre of Alvis Hermanis, who, because of his story-telling ability, is one of the most highly sought-after directors in Europe.
Z.O.: What is it, in your view, that determines a col- lector’s choice in favour of a particular work of art?
A.S.-E.: Their level of knowledge, their age, which gal- lerist they end up with and how much money they are pre- pared to spend on art. In a word, it’s marketing. Once a brand has been created, and someone famous has bought a work, then everybody else starts buying too. That’s the defining moment. For instance, that’s how Francois Pinault created the Jeff Koons ‘brand’, and he is still very much in demand.
Z.O.: gallerists are often in an advantageous position in their relationship with collectors, and can it not be that a gallerist will sell anything whatsoever to a customer?
A.S.-E.: Of course. Then we have to consider what the criteria are according to which we judge what is good art. To say whether new art, which is currently fashionable, is ac- tually good... that’s impossible today, since you need some time distance. It’s probably easier to identify poor art, but this doesn’t mean that nobody will buy it. In my view, two thirds of what is on the market cannot even be regarded as art. But since an artist and that which he or she creates has acquired a ‘brand’ through the prestigious galleries that are trusted, then collectors rely on it. Just like Saatchi came up with the Chinese... Now nobody has doubts any longer. An investment was made in the Chinese, and so there is an interest in maintaining the price of the ‘product’. That’s how Neo Rauch (Rauch) was created. Nobody disputes that what he’s doing is excellent. Everyone refers to the Leipzig School. But can anyone actually formulate clearly what this school is? I think that in the end these are different things: art as art, and the way an artist’s name is created so that it enters the market as an unquestionable luxury item.
Z.O.: What are your criteria for identifying good art?
A.S.-E.: You have to start with two things: art does, after all, come from craftsmanlike skill, and there has to be this individual craftsman’s style, which must be professional; on the other hand, there has to be magic, a miracle, a click be- tween the artist and the viewer. An artist senses that which is intangible, invisible. That is what I understand to be the meaning of the word ‘magic’. Often we see in the work of young artists the borrowing of elements from Pop Art and Op Art, a kind of déjà vu. I suppose there’s no escaping this, but it’s important that they themselves should have something to say, so that it doesn’t remain at the level of a pose. Just now I was at the Cēsis Art Festival, and there I discovered for myself the works of Anda Lāce. I’m working together with painter Arturs Bērziņš. He has something to say, and I’m pleased about that. Basically, a good artist is a genius with his or her own message.
Z.O.: is it easy to sell ‘magic’?
A.S.-E.: It varies a great deal. A variety of people come, and if I see that they themselves are interested and some kind of contact has been established, then I’ll try to figure out whether it’s alright for me to intervene. If it is, then I’ll try to open up that world for them and reveal the joy. This means that I have to compete with all the commercial things that you can find everywhere, and I have to explain that this is the real thing and that you’ll come to understand it. There are people who come accompanied by their interior designers and choose works to go with the green sofa, with a touch of red and a golden edge. Then I can’t really interfere. That’s a completely different system of values at work, where abstract art is seen simply as a decorative element.
Z.O.: in recent years, art consultancy has developed. How do you view this as a gallerist?
A.S.-E.: Art consultants have different aims, and they work with slightly different target groups. On the one hand, they’re engaged in building up collections to order, and on the other hand they’re often invited by wealthy companies to put on a variety of events. The business community has de- veloped an understanding of the positive economic influence of art. In Germany, there’s been a tradition and a movement in art since the mid-19th century that is called Kunst am Bau (art in companies, factory premises or public buildings). This tradition is based on the idea that some part of the budget of the new structure (originally it was 1%) should be allocated to art. Nowadays, a wish to support art is considered to be good manners. Companies are aware of this, and so they display art in their interiors, as well as supplementing economic and financial events with art in its various expressions. There are companies that provide continuing support for an initiative in art or culture, thus promoting spiritual values in a market based purely on calculation. The services of art consultants are very useful when organising major events, but when it comes to a niche like the leasing of paintings to banks, there again they are in competition with gallerists.
Z.O.: A year has passed since your previous conversa- tion with Studija. back then you said that an art market in the higher meaning of the term does not exist in Latvia. in your view, has there been any development of such a market?
A.S.-E.: It’s hard for me to say whether anything’s changed. I consider that there is one art market, within which we have a place. Our niche remains very provincial. There are reasons for this, but at the moment it seems that an opening up is taking place. For example, kim? is engaged in some unique activities, but in the traditional sector the atmosphere remains quite provincial. Greater activity was seen during the years of high economic income, when Old Masters were actively bought and sold, and when banks and companies created their own collections. It was a matter of prestige for each to have their own Purvītis or Rozentāls. How authentic they all are, that’s another matter, but in any case it’s all very local. For example, in a gallery in Latvia, a small work by the Baltic German painter Johann Walter-Kurau costs around twenty thousand lats. That’s not the market price. It’s only the local market price, since his name means something here simply because the nouveau riche sometimes want to replace what they have on their walls. In Germany his works have never cost that much. This indicates that the circulation is very local, in a closed market. Our own is brought to the fore, a kind of narcissism takes place. And there’s too little exchange. Also, the fact that the gallerists tend to sit in their own caves like spiders and watch each other with envy doesn’t help matters. The gallerist’s task is not only to sell, but, as I said before, to develop the artist’s brand at the same time. The artist must be educated, defended and protected. This market is based on infrastructure, like any other market, and in Latvia that’s still virtually absent. Instead of meeting and exchanging views and experience, which would be good for everyone, individual gallerists try to obtain from artists, based on a system of commissions, as many works as possible for an extended period, in the hope of selling them. This kind of simplest-level commerce does very little to stimulate the flow and growth of the market.
Z.O.: is it acceptable that in many cases the artist is the one who pays the gallerist for an exhibition to be held?
A.S-E.: I was very surprised to learn of this.
Z.O.: A situation is evolving where the gallerist has no need to think about the development of their gallery, and where there is the possibility of stagnation.
A.S.-E.: Yes, but no steps have been taken. Because there is a lack of critical attention. In Latvia it is you – Studija, as well as [the newspaper] Kultūras forums and [the magazine] Māksla Plus that provide some kind of description, and that’s all there is. The opinion of Western critics is absent, and there are no provocative discussions. Nobody carries the informa- tion further. Artists lack opportunities to compare and con- trast themselves in the framework of a European-scale exhib- ition. On the subject of the development of the art market in Latvia, there is now a discernible trend that, after an ac- tive process of purchasing, Latvian collectors wish to exhibit their art and show it off. They want it to obtain self-evident value. But it’s valuable only in a very local sense. What they’re gradually coming to understand is that they have to do some- thing with the art that they own in order to raise its prestige and with it, the market value so that museums or exhibition organisers will want to lease them. If nothing is done, then the value of these works will not rise. It is necessary to invest in this process. And in this regard, it seems to me, Lithuania is already half a step in front. If I remember correctly, in the issue before the last, you, Studija, wrote about an initiative in Vilnius aimed at educating collectors.
Z.O.: How would you define a good gallery?
A.S.-E.: A good gallery, firstly, is a gallery fortunate enough to have a brilliant gallerist endowed with intuition and a future vision. This has to be a person capable of no- ticing, comprehending and taking a gamble. The second thing is contacts. The third is to have an infrastructure, so that the artist feels good working with only the one gallery, and the gallerist can support the artist financially. That would be the ideal situation. Artists have to think about their art, not about management. If an artist were clever enough to be able to analyse everything a gallerist does wrong, then they would have no need to take the work to a gallery. That’s why there is this middle stratum that can act as an intermedi- ary, organise everything to a high standard and convince the market that the product is unique.
Z.O.: How significant is the role of the curator in this process?
A.S.-E.: I don’t think Latvia has any shortage of art his- torians or cultural theoreticians capable of organising good exhibitions, but the challenge to do it is simply not there.
The 2010 interview was first published in Latvian art magazine Studija