He is one of the most successful gallerists specializing in international contemporary art worldwide. His galleries in Salzburg and Paris achieve record results in visitor and sales figures. Very soon Thaddaeus Ropac will announce the location of his new gallery in Asia.
LM: In the last 30 years, you have become one of the most important global players on the contemporary art market. Where does your passion and your drive come from?
TR: I see what I do as a huge privilege. Working so closely with some of the most important artists of our time is a great gift and should be treated as such - with care and due respect, but also with heartfelt passion. This combination results in continuous joy which stirs the inner urge to give your best. This privilege, to be working with such incredible artists, to have earned their trust, inspires me daily.
LM: When did you first come in contact with contemporary art?
TR: I grew up in Carinthia (Austria). In school the point of contact with contemporary art was hardly given. When I was 17, I went to Vienna and visited the Museum of the 20th century. The Museum had just purchased a new collection that caused quite a stir in Austria, because an artist like Beuys, pop art in itself and the French realists had many confused. I remember looking at the "Regenrinne" Beuys piece "Nasse Wäsche/Wet Laundry" (Mumok collection) and feeling irritated and annoyed (Editor: he talks about his feelings, looking at this famous piece of art called "Regenrinne") At the same time a desire to understand was triggered and out of this first understanding grew the desire to become an artist myself. Soon after, Beuys told me in a very brutal way that I lacked the talent. But for me it was clear, I wanted to stay in the art scene. I did not understand my role at all, at that time. I thought, maybe I’ll become the assistant of a great artist, or get a job in a museum. It was the naive perspective of a very young man. It took years before I understood my role in the art world completely.
LM: You worked as an assistant in the atelier of the Joseph Beuys and met Andy Warhol in his factory. What was it like, to meet them?
TR: No I was not an assistant of Beuys, I was only an intern. In 1982 Beuys realized his "Zeitgeist" exhibition in Berlin and people were hired. The interns had to drag the materials and bring the snacks. The assistants however, were directly involved in the creative process. But as an intern, I had the chance to observe Beuys very closely over several months.
LM: In 1983 you opened your first gallery, you were only 23 at that time. Did you already have a clear vision of your goals back then?
TR: No, not at all. The art world back then cannot be compared to what we are experiencing now. The art market was not very professional and it was not all about the money. My approach was a very naive, but passionate one. I had no contacts, no money, so therefore I had nothing to offer really. But there was this passion that convinced some artists to work with me. I was lucky to meet artists like Jean Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Robert Mapplethorpe before they had their big breakthrough. Basquiat was exactly my age, we were both 22, when we met in New York. Soon after, I organized an exhibition with Basquiat, in my tiny gallery, in Salzburg, that was before he had his big success in Europe. The artists were happy with very little, for them it was already exciting to show their art in Europe. American artists were always interested in Europe, even though some of them did not even know where Salzburg was. I remember, one of the artists sending me his artwork to Strasbourg, instead of Salzburg. The trust and the excitement to exhibit in Europe, convinced those artists to work with this young gallerist, who had no big profile at all. I grew with the artists and that has not changed today. Though the pace has changed and the prices too, even for young artists, but the basic experience of gallery owners, which is to grow with their artists, is still the same.
LM: Seven years later, you also opened a gallery in Paris Marais. Why Paris?
TR: Many advised me back then, to go to Berlin. The Berlin Wall had just fallen and there was this spirit of optimism in Germany, but I already had very good contacts in Germany. London was not an option, because I am a truly convinced European. I am actually more European, than Austrian. Paris was next to Germany and gave a grand signal for the idea of a new Europe. Paris was really the only city that came into question. The Paris of the 20th century, the city of arts, was characterized by an atmosphere of intellectuality and openness, which you could not find in any other European city.
LM: In 2012 you extended your art empire, by opening a 5000 m² location at Paris Pantin, a former factory. What was the main motivation for this huge step?
TR: Over the last 30 years we have grown into an international gallery. We represent a group of artists who are among the most important names in contemporary art of our time. Some of these artists also work in monumental formats. I have always said that we can`t limit the visions of our artists by offering them spaces that cannot carry the weight of their sculptures or where the walls do not offer enough space. Although with Marais (800 m2) we already had one of the largest galleries, it was clear to me: I wanted to have a gallery which is so big that it allows the artists to realize their vision almost limitlessly. After searching for a long time, I was offered this complex with a total of 8 buildings. They were in a completely dilapidated condition. Still, I stood there and knew: this would be it. Looking back at those last 2 years, our success proves us right. Although many thought we would regret moving to the outskirts of Paris, the results exceeded our expectations by far. We are very fortunate that we are neighbours with the "Modern Dance Institute" and that the "New Philharmonic Hall" being built by Jean Nouvel will open its doors in a few months. We are thrilled that our numbers of visitors in Pantin correspond to those of a small museum.
LM: Could you please describe to us this incredible space and how you go about deciding how to display a certain exhibition?
TR: Imagine 4 buildings combined into one exhibition area and an extra building with a very individual character, which we opened in 2012 with Beuys. The size of Pantin is of course challenging for many artists. Half of our artists do not want to exhibit there, because the preparations for an exhibition of this dimension would take them years. We have, for example, a wall which is 36 meters long with the height of 12 meters. You have to be able to cope with dimensions like that, but we are fortunate to work with artists who can handle this immense space and the strong architecture. We are delighted that over the last two years the exhibitions in Pantin were very successful and emphasized the enormous quality of artists like Anselm Kiefer, Georg Baselitz, Gilbert & George and Alex Katz. We vary between 9,000 and 14,000 visitors per exhibition. These numbers are five times higher than we ever estimated. This is an incredible result especially in this area of town. With Salzburg and Marais we produce 7 exhibitions that constantly run parallel and must be reopened every two months. This is of course a constant challenge for the artists and our team consisting of 75 people.
LM: Your gallery is present at all major contemporary art fairs, including the Art Basel Hong Kong. What is your view on the development of the Asian market?
TR: Asia is certainly the most significant future market that we strive for. The risks are still high, because you can easily still lose money there. The European insurance agencies are reluctant to insure because of the standards there. I would say, it is a bit like the "Wild East". They build those huge museums, open them empty and do not really know how to run them. But I am sure that the Asian market is the future. We work regularly in China, every two months someone on my team or I will go there to ensure that our artists get exhibited in the major museums of Shanghai or Beijing. In a few years, China will have a cultural dominance that we cannot even imagine. It is still very time consuming to work there, but I believe in it. Europe, America, China, South America and the Middle East, those are the five pillars on which we focus and build on.
LM: Are you planning on expanding into the Asian market, by opening a gallery there?
TR: We are very present in the Asian market and we will initiate special projects there such as the performance « Call to sound » by Oliver Beer in September 2015. After the Centre Pompidou and the MOMA's PS1 Oliver Beer has created a specific composition for Turkish singers and Ottoman architecture which took place in an ancient hamam during the open week of the Istanbul Biennial.
LM: You are a passionate collector yourself. Do you see your collection as your legacy?
TR: Yes, this term describes it well. I have the privilege to work with these artists for over 30 years now. Through this closeness, I got a deep understanding of their art and the ability to summarize artists of different periods, to one cohesive collection.
LM: What are some of the names to watch out for, over the next decade?
TR: We enter a very interesting phase at the moment. We had always certain trends that consisted of large groups of artists. There was the school of Leipzig consisting of 20-25 people for example. It was not easy to see anything besides the Leipzig school. I believe at the moment, this trend of following big schools is over. It is now not so much about the location, but all about the individuality of the artist. We have taken in 3 young artists into our program, who come from totally different parts of the world. There is Oliver Beer, a young artist from England, who works with sound. We believe that we will hear much of him in the future. Although we have only worked with him for one and a half years, he has already had his first big success at the Centre Pompidou and in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. We also work with a young Iranian artist, Ali Banisadr, whom we have given his first exhibition, although nobody knew him at the time. Now the Metropolitan Museum in New York already bought one of his paintings. We work with an artist from Lahore, Pakistan, his name is Imran Qureshi. We also work with an artist from Korea, her name is Lee Bul. We really look at places now that we had not been paying particular attention to. It is very important and so rewarding to give these artists a voice and a platform and for us to discover incredible new worlds.
LM: For more than 30 years, you have been surrounded by sublime art and great artists. What do you feel today, when you look at a new exciting piece of art?
TR: The more you learn about a particular artist, the better you understand, what his art is about. The more you conceive of the art world and the more you learn about art history, the better you can set art in the proper context, which is very important for the understanding of art. Yes, we want to be surprised by art, we want to be overwhelmed, we want to have the feeling, that we have never seen anything like it before, but to be able to do that, it is important to be a close observer of the art scene and the contemporary historical developments over periods of time.
Still the personal, passionate and overwhelming reaction, what we call the "gut feeling", tips the scale. If you try to understand it only with your head, you will lose the deeper sense of what art is really about. But if you combine a deep profound understanding with the ability to connect emotionally with art, the passion with which you look at a painting for the first time is immensely increased.
By Karin Loitsch