The art of doing business: Interview with Ben Brown

   |  19 December 2013  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

Paris, 19 December 2013, Art Media Agency (AMA).

Ben Brown began his career at Sotheby’s, where he worked for 10 years in the Contemporary Art department, before spending two years as co-managing director at Waddington Galleries. He opened his first gallery, Ben Brown Fine Arts, on Cork Street, Mayfair in 2004. The gallery has a prominent position on the contemporary art scene, partly thanks to it being the only UK representative of artists including Ron Arad, Vik Muniz, François-Xavier and Claude Lalanne. In September 2008, Brown opened a new exhibition space in Brook’s Mews, also in Mayfair, before stepping onto the international scene in 2009, with the opening of an exhibition space in Hong Kong. AMA met with Brown to find out more about his decision to make the move from director to gallerist.

Could you tell me about your background? What prompted you to found your own art gallery?
After leaving Oxford, I spent ten years at Sotheby’s, then worked with Leslie Waddington – one of London’s premier art dealers- for about two years, before opening my own gallery. I wanted to start my own gallery because I wanted to be my own boss, not work for anyone else.

Did it seem risky to open your own gallery after having spent ten years as a director of Sotheby’s?
Not really, not after ten years building up experience. Of course, there’s an element of risk that there isn’t at Sotheby’s, but it felt completely natural.

And was your work at Sotheby’s something which informed your work as a gallerist?
Absolutely.

During your time at Sotheby’s you were credited with establishing the Italian sale. Is this still a genre which particularly interests you, or which you seek to promote?
Absolutely, yes. We did  a group Italian show in October last year, we’ve done two Boetti shows, one of which I organised in Qatar earlier this year. I did a show with the estate of Mimmo Rotella, I’ve done three shows with Lucio Fontana – I deal a lot in Italian art from the 60s, 70s and 80s.

Is there a particular ethos behind your work as a gallerist?
My aim was to especially promote foreign artists who needed a toe hold in England to be shown to the British public, though I also work and promote several British artists. In a sense, my vision is to promote and push artists I believe in in the English market – and in the world-wide market as a result. I want to push a certain number of artists who I believe in, who I like, who I collect myself, and I also want to trade in. In this way I can build myself a financial cushion – something which will allow me to put on financially un-profitable shows.

How do you go about finding and selecting the artists you exhibit? Is there a particular medium or period which interests you?
You see something you like, you go and see who it is, and then you go after them.

You spoke about having a financial cushion which allows you to present financially un-profitable shows- perhaps featuring younger, emerging artists. How do you come across these artists?
You talk to people, you find out what your collectors are buying. You look at people who obviously aren’t already represented in England, because if they’re already represented in England you’re too late. Sometimes it’s pure chance and sometime’s it’s pure design and it takes five years.

What prompted you to open the Hong Kong gallery?
I am, ultimately, a business man. One can pretend to be an arty farty, but you’re basically a business man. As a business man, you should always be looking to expand, and my contacts were either in New York or Hong Kong. There were two main issues there, one being that the New York market was much bigger, and the second being that, in Hong Kong, I had the innate advantage of having family there. In order to explore the possibility of opening a gallery I put on shows. These lasted around a month and had a certain number of overheads and then, when I got a great space, this translated into 365 days of overheads.

How has this space evolved?
It’s evolved a lot. When I first opened in Hong Kong, I felt the remit was to bring great Western art to Hong Kong, which I did. And then when a lot of other, very good, very prominent Western art dealers opened in Hong Kong, that remit was no longer the only remit. So I’ve changed a bit: I’m now doing more Asian art, and am bringing Asian art to London.

I’ve read that you believe in flying artists out to exhibition openings where possible. Is this something which you still do? And why do you think it’s something which is important?
Yes, absolutely, I feel that’s very important. I think it would be wrong for an artist to put on a show without the artist seeing the show.

How do you find your Hong Kong and London Galleries differ?
They’re completely different. Hong Kong is a much much smaller market, with much less competition. London is a vast market with very well-informed people, we have museums here, which they don’t in Hong Kong, and there are so many good galleries in London, and people go and it’s an integral part of cultural life. In Hong Kong, there is very little cultural life, it’s basically provided by five of us top galleries, which, of course, are kind of financially interested, rather than the dispassionate Tate, White chapel and the Serpentine. In London you can go and see art which doesn’t have a financial edge to it, which you can’t in Hong Kong.

Is the gallery’s publishing arm part of a desire to promote artists in a vocal way, or is your intention to produce new, critically authoritative, works?
I think it’s just an old-fashioned view of mine that you should do a catalogue for a show. The artists love it, it certainly helps me get artists, and they love publications like they love shows. Half the time, people don’t even come and see a show, but you have to do it because that’s what the artists want.

Do you work with external curators and writers?
Yes, I’d say around half of our catalogue we commission a writer – that’s a rough guess. Occasionally, we get the painter himself to write about it, occasionally it’s just me, and a writer costs some money.

With regards to curating shows, I think I’ve probably done between sixty and eighty shows, about ten of which I’ve curated.

And have all of those shows merged into a blur, or do you have any shows which stood out as being particularly important?
Some are more important than others. Some were the beginnings of great relationships, and some ended up being one offs.

What are your plans for 2014?
Continue to expand the galleries both in London and Hong Kong in the medium to long term, and do bigger and better shows.

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