Interview with Staffan Ahrenberg, collector and buyer of the Cahiers d’art magazine, gallery and publisher

   |  5 December 2012  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

Paris, 5 December 2012, Art Media Agency (AMA).

In October, AMA found out that the legendary Cahiers d’art magazine had been taken over by Swedish collector Staffan Ahrenberg. The Cahiers d’art publisher, gallery and magazine have therefore started trading again after an interruption of over 50 years. AMA met with Staffan Ahrenberg on occasion of the magazine’s revival.

AMA: Tell us how you came up with the idea of taking over the Cahiers d’art.
SA: I didn’t actually come up with the idea of taking over the Cahiers d’art. This project occurred in a totally « organic » fashion – in a suprising way, actually. I happened to walk past the Cahiers d’art bookstore and publisher without knowing they still existed. They suddenly appeared before my eyes, in a street I’ve walked through hundreds of times in my life without ever noticing them. I was astonished to discover the Cahiers d’art were still well alive. I entered the place and asked who it belonged to. A man told me it belonged to his brother. After that, I asked him – I have no idea where this idea came from – if the owner would be willing to sell. He answered: “I really don’t know. You should contact him directly.” I left my calling card with the man and insisted that the owner called me. And he did indeed on the next day. He called me and said: “I think we should meet”. I stood such a poor chance of him calling! People don’t usually call that easily. Less than two days later, I was back, I went to see “the upstairs brother” – we call him like that because there are two floors at the Cahiers d’art. He greeted me saying “Your arrival is most convenient, I was thinking of selling the business”. I said: “Fine! I’ll buy it.”

AMA: This is quite an incredible story, isn’t it…
SA: Yes, I agree. So much of it has to do with luck and chance.

AMA: Although you mentioned a very spontaneous move, isn’t there something that particularly interested you and motivated you to ask whether the owner was willing to sell?
SA: The Cahiers d’art are an icon, a myth, one of the most beautiful things to be found in last century’s history of art! It’s all the more strange since nothing was published for so many years… I bore a totally instinctive attitude, like I told you, I had no idea but I thought “it might be for sale, who knows?”.

AMA: And it was! Can you tell us what will be different in this revival of the Cahiers d’art? What are you planning to do exactly?
SA: About the same thing as it always was. If you are acquainted with the history of the Cahiers d’art, you might know it was a gallery, a magazine, and a published specialised in books and catalogues raisonnés. This is exactly what we are currently in the process of doing. There has simply been a 52-year long interruption.

AMA: Precisely, do you think that the Cahiers d’art can have the same resonance today as they used to? Will they benefit from the same myth or will things change?
SA: According to the reactions I got after publishing the first 2012 issue, I believe the Cahiers d’art will be a myth to an even higher level, since the world is larger and more and more people are interested in art nowadays, comparatively speaking to the population rate – many more than in the 1940s, 50s and 60s.

AMA: By that you mean art is much more accessible as well as it is covered by the media…
SA: Obviously, yes.

AMA: This new series will strive to represent contemporary art; is it also to broaden its horizon?
SA: There are no limits in the art we present. Our first publication shall be devoted to an artist of the time, not a contemporary one like the one we presented in the first issue of the magazine… Have you read the first issue?

AMA: I have not. I haven’t had the chance, I would of course have preferred to meet with you at the gallery…
SA: It is essential that you come and see it for yourself. I know you offer online services. But the Cahiers d’art are about paper. We have a very nice website, but most of all you should visit the place, the exhibition dedicated to Kelly, see the old issues of the magazine and discover the new version…

AMA: I shall certainly come. As for the publisher, it is also bound to start trading again. What are its guidelines?
SA: Art! We publish things above all. We have published the magazine for the first time since 1960. Secondly, we release books, some of which in limited editions, as well as catalogues raisonnés. We have a Picasso catalogue raisonné, we will soon have a Kelly catalogue raisonné…

AMA: Everything seems to be as it has always been, as if there had been a time ellipsis, a void between the old and the new magazine.
SA: I believe looking at it that way is essential. There is enough work to go for the next 100 years.

AMA: About the gallery (that I intend on visiting) – but you might refuse to tell me anything about it until I come and see it for myself…
SA: That’s right…. The gallery is the original one. We also have a new gallery across the street, devoted to our publishing activities. In the original gallery, we are currently displaying an exhibition devoted to Ellsworth Kelly in the 1950s, which has never been on show in Paris before, as well as in the new space devoted to Kelly’s lithographies. The publishing gallery is temporarily closed due to slight renovation works, but the original gallery is open. I am there occasionally, and there is always somebody there to greet the public.

AMA: In a broader sense, apart from your connection with the Cahiers d’art, can you tell me about your career path and your activity as a collector? How did you end up in Paris?
SA: I don’t live in Paris. I live in Switzerland and in the United States. I am of Swedish origin. I speak French and spend a lot of time in Paris. I’ve been collecting contemporary art for a long time, it’s a true passion of mine. My father himself was a great collector. We used to have the Cahiers d’art at home, I was acquainted with them and I was familiar with their typography. I’m passionate about art, I also do other things, but when I happened to see the gallery, I deeply understood how great an opportunity it was for me. I’m immensely happy about it now.

AMA: What other things do you do?
SA: I produce films in the United States.

AMA: Finally, a question which calls for me than just a short answer, but let’s have a go at it even though it seems a little artificial. What do you make of the state of the art market in France for the last few years? Do people buy less? You might be familiar with these matters…
SA: I’m not well acquainted with the art market in France. I believe there is definitely something going on since important galleries such as Gagosian open up in Paris; there must be quite a feverish activity taking place. Galleries like Ropac couldn’t possibly create such exhibition spaces otherwise… There are many collectors in France, as well as other non-French art aficionados.

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