More than an address, 55Bellechasse is a unique place: Parisian but not excessively so, a place where talents from afar cross paths. A contemporary-art gallery whose founder, Bertrand Scholler, seeks to “rehumanise the art market”.
In the 7th arronidssement in Paris, a district favoured by embassies, not far from the former Dames de Bellechasse convent, a gallery with a very contemporary slant is tucked away. Here, the master of the premises, Bertrand Scholler, has devoted himself, since February 2013, to “combining certain traditions from the art-dealing profession with an international and entrepreneurial vision of the issues shaking up this profession in the last decade or so”. The aim is ambitious, and demands a few explanations. An encounter with a man of art, a defender of new talents, and an artisan who weaves together exclusive stories.
55Bellechasse is a pretty address, but what else makes this gallery special?
We must be the only gallery crazy enough to present artists who are unknown to the fair world. Generally, gallerists present works that come from the secondary market, confirmed names or else very commercial objects. This isn’t our case, and I think that this is where our singularity lies. This is a strategy which is also associated with long-term commitment, in favour of emerging artists whose signatures are still relatively unknown. I get these artists together twice a year, I re-explain to them the aim which is to work as a team. Niloufar Banisadr, Pascal Vochelet, Christiann Conradie, Vladimir Sulyagin… They’re all very different and in my mind, very complementary. The common denominator is that they’ve decided to dedicate their lives to art, wholly committing themselves, to such a point that they no doubt would be unable to do anything else.
So is commitment the basis of the “Bellechasse” spirit?
It’s true that there’s a “Bellechasse spirit”, just as there’s a “Bellechasse contract”, quite different from what is commonly practised. Here, we say to the artists: “We practise two professions with you. First, we’re gallerists so you bring us your paintings and we’ll split the takings 50-50. But whenever we spend money on a third person, for example a fair organiser, a printer, a framer, a photo developer, we also split the expenses half-half.” I advance the full sum, and I recuperate what the artist owes me after. So we’re bound together this way. As a result, success can only be shared.
It’s a contract whereby debt is created…
Yes, and it demands great commitment. For a solo show at a fair such as Art Paris Art Fair, half of the participation cost thus comes out of the artist’s half of the earnings. You see, I’m not a sponsor. The gallery incidentally doesn’t own what it sells, the works belong to the artists. We don’t multiply the stakes by three, four or five here.
Can you tell us about your background?
I trained as a mining engineer, I went to the French School for Oil and Engines, then Sciences Po, majoring in “economy and finance”. But my dream was always to become an art dealer. It might seem like an urban legend to you, but one day, while strolling around Paris, I found myself looking at dozens of paintings from an evacuated artists’ squat, artworks which passers-by were trampling over. Every day, I skipped class to go back to this street and to recuperate paintings before the garbage collectors passed. I had caught the virus… These are paintings that I’ve always kept, except for one that I sold at the time, but I managed to buy it back years later in a gallery! And then I worked in strategy consulting in various sectors, I was international development director at the Stade de France, so very involved in the FIFA, namely during the Football World Cup in South Africa in 2010, and also the European championship in Switzerland in 2008.
So you also filled sports stadiums?
There’s quite a strong link between stadiums and galleries, whose success derives from the frequency and diversity of programming. The stadium’s first client is the content, the football team. The stadium owner rents out the venue and draws the public. A gallery is the same thing except that the client is the artist. The only difference is that at 55Bellechasse, we don’t practise the “sold-out” strategy to cultivate rarity and create waiting lists!
The gallery was set up in 2013…
Yes, but before that, I started a strategy firm specialising in stadiums, once again. One of my clients was the Turkish football federation and in a plane between Istanbul and Paris, on my way back from a mission, I met Niloufar Banisadr. And at that point, I said to myself “that’s really good”, so I set off on the adventure. It was for this artist that I initially set up the gallery in 2013. The first exhibition was a huge success: 200 people at the door. This is an adventure that I share with my American partner, Hans Mautner, a former banker and chairman of a very large group, who was already buying Basquiat and Gerhard Richter around forty years ago. Just one rule: nothing above $30,000 or $40,000. This incredible guy who was long in charge of investment policy for the drawing department of the MoMA, is today at the head of a fabulous contemporary-art collection.
You defend artists whose work, as you say, is “out of the ordinary”…
Let’s say that the paths explored by each is taken very little by others. It may for example be a mix of abstraction and hyperrealism by Christiann Conradie, a South African artist who currently lives in Mexico. “Out of the ordinary” also means that we sell, but without a commercial spirit. You won’t find paintings intended to match the couch here.
In the last three years, you’ve contributed to the emergence of how many artists?
Around twenty contracted artists – painters, photographers and sculptors – from about ten countries. I’d say that three or four of them live on their art today, even if all of them live for art. The life of a gallery is set over a long-term period. You sow seeds and then you wait, sometimes years, before they produce shoots.
You’re seen often at fairs…
At the gallery, I set up an average of three exhibitions per month, with denser periods from April to June when we might hang new pictures every four days. Which represents over fifty exhibitions per year, in France and overseas. As for fairs, I think that we do about twenty a year, around two per month. We’re at the off event in Basel, at Scope, this fair that in the last twenty years has developed a loyal set of galleries unable to take part in the main Art Basel event, and we sell to museums as well as collectors. We were at Art Paris Art Fair in the past year; we’ll be returning to Art Copenhagen; at the end of October we’re going to Art.Fair in Cologne, and just after, Young International Artists in Paris, another very fine event. And then Contemporary Istanbul in November, Arte Fiera in Bologne at the end of January… As we just opened a space in Miami last summer, we’re going to start to spread out from there, namely via Zona Maco, the contemporary-art fair in Mexico.
You say that you’d like to “rethink and rehumanise the art market without overlooking the role of money”…
You know, it took me a long time to go inside Perrotin or Gagosian. I always found these places cold, almost arrogant. I was struck by Assouline’s book on Kahnweiler, L’Homme de l’art, talking about this intimacy, this special relationship between the artist and the gallerist, these afternoons that weren’t spent with a banker, but spent simply feeling the pulse. Today, we invest, we create popularity, taking advantage of the artist until he is demonetised. Take, for example, the record prices for Christopher Wool. Sure the works are great, even if they’re just letters on a white background. In any case, this illustrates something inhuman about this market where there’s no rationality. And this is very unfair for those artists who are working, who are seeking. To get somewhere, they need a helping hand. For me, the only worthwhile thing is to find artists who are in tune with the era, rather than with the market. But it’s true, I don’t forget that it remains a business.
On this note, what is the price range of the works that you defend?
From €500 to €3,000, you find shots by young photographers. For more established artists, prices come to around €20,000. For paintings, prices range from €5,000 to €15,000, with peaks of €25,000 for three of our artists: Niloufar Banisadr, whose renown has spread to the whole world today from a little gallery, Pascal Vochelet and David Ramirez-Gomez, a Colombian who lives in Denmark. These are our three very committed locomotives, a little like high-level athletes.
You collaborate with other galleries in France and overseas. Is it essential to work in networks today?
This is the heart of the strategy. When we have good content, there are two solutions: sending work to fairs where the expense is enormous, an average of €40,000 for renting a stand. Fairs represent roughly 60,000 visitors, but only 10,000 who take a look, 2,000 who come in, and finally merely 200 who really exchange with the artist. But if you make an exhibition travel among a network of galleries, with a new opening drawing 150 persons every time, the opportunity cost is fantastic. And this is what we’re starting in Bilbao in mid-October, the idea being to become less dependent on fairs. By gathering ten or so venues in mainland Europe in the form of an economic-interest grouping, the ten places will benefit from a travelling fair over the year for the price of a single stand. And at the best period because it will come to Paris during the beautiful season in May and June, whereas at Christmas, it’s better to be in Vienna.
What exactly is the Club 55Bellechasse?
It’s a place that is wasted whenever it’s unused. So we use it for gatherings and brunches based on wonderful healthy meals… with wine! It’s a place where we talk and listen to other people on themes to do with exhibitions: “daring to unveil”, “too much”… A place with lots of guests who, without necessarily buying art, are ready to support the adventure.
What are three keys for building a collection?
Trust in your gallerist who fights to support artists who will mark the history of art rather than promoting a financial product. Buy little but buy well. And then, a last piece of advice, borrowing the title of the book by Susanna Tamaro, “follow your heart”. To which I’d add: “and your purse will follow you”!
Galerie 55Bellechasse. 55 Rue de Bellechasse, Paris 75007. 01 75 57 39 39. And 7111 North Miami Avenue, 33150 Miami, Florida. www.galerie55.com