That’s right, I grew up in a gallery. So for me, it felt quite natural to be in the art world. I always used to help my parents because it was way more entertaining to spend time with artists than to do homework (laughs). My parents accepted that both my brother and I had a strong passion for art. My brother actually also owns a contemporary art gallery in London. We’re all collectors ourselves too. My brother has a wonderful collection. I just got a new apartment and I hate the fact that I have too few walls to hang my paintings.
My business interests initially revolved more around design. When I was 18, I started to deal in vintage design. In fact, I put together my first show at the time, which consisted of 420 vintage space toys. I sold 419 of them. My parents gave me 800 francs to set up the show. They invested in me and helped make it a success by giving me the gallery space and, I suspect, by telling people to support me. We even went on to create a vintage design label. By the age of 21, however, I realised that my real love was art and not design.
At the time I tried working with my parents, but if you grow up in the art world and only have your parents as teachers, then you’ll surely have a problem when you start working for them. How will you earn respect in the family business? That’s when I decided to enrol in Christie’s education program for contemporary art in New York; and then I worked for Sotheby’s in Zurich and for Galerie Nordenhake in Berlin. I met other people who had a huge influence on how I saw the art world, and that gave me other, much needed perspectives.
As a kid, Art Basel felt like a gigantic playground. I remember the install process most growing up. We would just park our car in front of the fair and I would help my parents carry the art works to the booth. It was as simple as that, we’d pack up the white Volvo, all squeeze into the car and drive off to the fair. Believe me I would love to do the shipment this way today—it would be so much simpler. There were some amazing characters who played key roles in the fair back then. I can remember Carl Laszlo with his cigar and a 15m2 booth in which he filled every centimetre with art and Ernst Beyeler who was always very nice—he would always say “hello” to me, even when I was a 5 year kid jumping excitedly around our booth.
Art Basel has continuously managed to improve their offer, and they take full advantage of the character of the city. Basel is small but has an incredible art scene. The fair has brought a lot of amazing new “tools” to the idea of a classical art fair. Certainly the directors have had a considerable influence on this but I’ve noticed that the entire team has been anxious to improve the fair on every level. Some aspects of fairs that we take for granted today—such as the VIP program, the events, the Art Unlimited and all of the other formats connected to the fair like Parcour—started in Basel. These initiatives have helped connect the fair to the city and maintain the reputation and success of the fair over the years.
If you invite Superflex to exhibit at your gallery, you have to be somewhat relaxed about their decision on what kind of work they want to present or which aspect of local “news” they will get into. We wanted to have this show running during Art Basel as they are a part of our new contemporary art program. I don’t however see the connection from the investment banker to Art Basel. Certainly there are a number of people that just see art as an investment, but I’ve noticed that typically those types of investors buy more from the auction houses. The contents of the show are more connected to Switzerland in general than to Art Basel.
Frankly I think it is great to be able to criticize the “system” with such a show. Art has the possibility to do such a thing in a non-offensive and more open way. The show is of course very much pointing out the problems that we face today in the commercial art and business world. I think people are rethinking the way we see and buy art today. Superflex are doing a very important job by creating a show like Euphoria Now and we are excited because we have had a number of very interesting discussions with our visitors and collectors about the show, the works and the current situation in the banking and art world, which I like. As a gallery, we have a number of ways we encourage people to look at art more. A show like Superflex has the right balance of criticising and reflecting at the same time. Another example is our fair policy, we have one main rule at the fair: we speak only of the art. We’ll only tell people about the price when they ask for it. Most people lead with the price and then discuss the artist and work, but we deliberately do things the other way around.
I just recently found my first written proposal to my parents regarding the setup of the new gallery and had a good laugh; lots has happened that I couldn’t have predicted, and there are things that I predicted that didn’t happen the way I planned them.
One thing that hasn’t changed is my desire for the gallery to become a professional set up for contemporary art. My parents thought I was crazy initially, but then they got excited about the idea. We found the converted garage space in Basel around that time and decided to buy it. That was 7 years ago.
I’ve learnt how important it is for those working within the art world to keep innovating. We have seen such a dramatic transformation in the way the art world functions over the past 10 to 15 years, and we know of a number of family owned galleries where their success has been curbed, or worse the gallery has folded because the second or third generations did not innovate or the older generation(s) refused to change. You’ve got to keep up.
There is a no formula for galleries. You have to have an exhibition space and you must go to fairs. But ultimately, the money is made in art dealership. One thing I would say is that today, people are buying more based on what they hear rather than what they see. Reputation is everything.
Naturally I’m excited about what we have on offer. This year we have a work that’s never been really on the market before. Jésus Rafael Soto’s Double Andalou is an exceptional work. It was sold the year it was made—1968—to an Italian collector, and then in 2004 we sold it directly to a Swiss collector. We even have the work’s original box. We’ll also have new works from Florian Slotawa, Terry Haggerty and Christian Andersson. We are also presenting Schuhhaus (1994) a colourful, spontaneous sculpture by Bernhard Luginbühl and Dieter Roth.
Somehow there seems to be this trend that everyone is talking about Basel as a museum city. Of course our museums are outstanding and I doubt that there is another city in the world that is so small and can offer the kinds of outstanding collections Basel does. Nevertheless, the galleries are not to be forgotten as we have some really great international galleries, incredible collectors and a very strong links to France and Germany. Basel is not only an art city during Art Basel. Certainly you cannot compare the city to any other event taking place during the year but when Fondation Beyeler, Kunstmuseum, Tinguely, Gegenwartsmuseum or Schaulager hold an event, the city is full with people from across the international art world and most importantly—everyone knows Basel!—[O]