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Interview with Sprüth and Magers: “We didn’t want to become bigger, we wanted to become smaller”

Dealers Monika Sprüth and Philomene Magers discuss the benefits of teamwork and the Berlin art scene

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Monika Sprüth and Philomene Magers have been at the cutting-edge of the contemporary art world for over quarter of a century. Monika Sprüth’s Cologne gallery, founded in 1983, was instrumental in developing the early careers of major figures including Fischli & Weiss, Louise Lawler and George Condo. She published three editions of the radical Eau de Cologne magazine, which gave conceptual and feminist artists such as Rosemarie Trockel, Barbara Kruger and Cindy Sherman a critical voice. Philomene Magers’s gallery, founded in 1991, focused on artists such as Sylvie Fleury and Andrea Zittel, as well as their heroes—an older generation of mainly American artists including John Baldessari, Dan Flavin and Ed Ruscha. Sprüth and Magers joined forces in 1998, because “it made sense”. They have galleries in Berlin and London, and recently took part in Berlin’s gallery week (30 April-2 May).

The Art Newspaper: Why did you choose Berlin for your flagship gallery?

Monika Sprüth: We had four spaces open, and it just didn’t suit the way we work. During the crazy years of speculation, you had to question what your understanding of this job is. There was a drive to this incredibly stupid big bubble that we were always suspicious of. We didn’t want to participate and the gallery was a possibility for us, at that moment, to focus more on what we really wanted. We didn’t want to become bigger—we wanted to become smaller. We are German, we have a German gallery and Berlin is the right place.

Philomene Magers: The focus was shifting away from the art onto organisation, and we didn’t like it. The art world can be crazy and you have to concentrate. It was really a private decision. You want to put on interesting shows and have the maximum exposure, and the best discourse. That’s the most important thing for our artists. Our artists liked the idea of Berlin so much that we really had to do it.

TAN: How did the Berlin scene develop, and how is it changing?

MS: After German unification in 1989, there were a few galleries moving here, but it was not a clear picture. Germany is very decentralised, it’s a real republic, and there are a lot of strong places. But it became clear that only one place in Germany can really take the role of a real metropolis, so then you accept that and participate.

PM: The slow economic development meant it was cheap, and there are still a lot of neighbourhoods that are utterly cheap. The whole point of an interesting art city is that the artists have a place they like to live. The curators come, then critics and eventually the galleries move as well.

TAN: And what about collectors in Berlin? How does the scene compare to London?

PM: There is no difference between London and Berlin.

MS: Completely not any more.

TAN: Is that because London is quieter now?

MS: Maybe London’s a little quieter but it’s also because Berlin’s just attractive.

PM: I was extremely surprised about how well it was going here because we didn’t expect to do a lot of business. It might be because, after that time of speculation, the people who make the effort to come here are genuinely interested in art. Berlin, like Los Angeles, is perceived as a place of art production. It has a virginity to it. It doesn’t have any connotations of being a place where people speculated with art.

TAN: Have you seen the return of the traditional European collectors?

PM: Absolutely. There were very few Americans at Art Basel in 2008, and it felt very different. Europeans take their time to decide, but at the end of the day we realised that although it felt slower, we had done the same kind of business that we had done in previous years.

MS: You have to ask: “What is it that we do?” Is it about selling like crazy, is or about trying to give artists an opportunity to be more public? Of course you sell, but in order to help the artist to continue to work, not to be proud every month because you made 10%, 20% more.

TAN: How did your collaboration come about?

PM: I met Monika when I was a teenager. Monika had her gallery before I had mine, and when she heard that I was going to open my space, she called to offer me advice. She really supported me. Then around 18 months after I opened, we founded our first little company together. We go back a long way, and we’ve always been talking to one another.

MS: That is the intellectual part of it but also, when you are a woman and you have children, and you want to compete with the way the art world works, you have a strong desire to find somebody who has the same ideas as you. We were lucky.

TAN: Could you have achieved so much solo?

MS: 100% no. I could not compete on this level if I were by myself.

PM: We have both been able to have our lives the way we have them because we have each other.

TAN: Is that a situation that is changing?

PM: No, it’s exactly the same.

MS: There are a lot of really interesting women, but the real power game—which is at the high-price level—is generally played by men. The question is what you consider to be power in the art world. What is really influential in the long run? Culture should be discussed, and of course we want to be influential in that way. You can’t just hide in a little corner and make nice shows. You have to go out.

TAN: Your art fair participation is mainly European. Why is that?

MS: That’s the first step. This is a European gallery, and we are very interested in the great structure of European collectors. That’s number one. The rest goes from there, but you can’t do everything. Every art fair costs money, which can take away from supporting artists, so you have to balance.

TAN: What role does the gallery play for its artists?

MS: The art world is totally different from 30 years ago when I started. It’s more confused, so the role you play for a young artist is much more important. You want to help them to focus on the right things. We try to show them the dangers.

PM: We are definitely not overdeveloped. You have to be extremely careful about who you give work to.

MS: We say to our artists: “Look, do you want to work with us? The media may explode your practice but you have to make a decision. We will help you have a long career.”

PM: We are good for certain artists, and we would not be good for other artists. We work for artists who want to have a steady career, but that could be boring.

TAN: Boring in what way?

MS: With our gallery you cannot have huge hype. We are a little on the conservative side. Sometimes when we could really make a lot of money, we say no, let’s just not do it.

TAN: Is it easier to tell artists this now that they have seen both boom and bust?

MS: Yes, artists aren’t blind to it. They don’t now think the market’s always going to go up.

PM: My mother was involved in the art world, and I experienced [the downturn] in the 1980s, so I was shocked in the 1990s when people started to make exactly the same mistakes. In the boom of the last decade, I thought people don’t seem to learn.

TAN: Will the market repeat that cycle?

PM: It’s more that there are two different kinds of people involved in a job that has the same name. There are people who work in the arts because they want to make a lot of money, and there are people who are genuinely interested in art. They happen to be selling it, but they could have done something completely different in that field, like writing or curating. I think we belong to that second group.

MS: There are two completely different markets, too. That’s happened in the last 50 years. Before there was not so much money involved.

TAN: And what are your plans for the future?

PM: To see what comes.

MS: We hope to continue. We want to help our mid-career artists to become really important artists. The criteria don’t change. You just have to question everything again and again as the world changes.

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