Interview with dealer Emmanuel Perrotin on taking risks: “People imagine it must be easy for me now”

The Parisian dealer was one of the first to tap into Asian markets


Emmanuel Perrotin is one of the foremost contemporary art dealers, having represented some of the world’s most popular artists, most notably Takashi Murakami and Maurizio Cattelan, for over 20 years. The Parisian dealer was one of the first to tap into the Asian markets, and now counts Chiho Aoshima (Japan), Mr. (Japan) and Bharti Kher (who lives in India) among his artists. He also now represents some of France’s leading living artists, including Sophie Calle and Tatiana Trouvé, as well as market darlings Matthew Day Jackson and Elmgreen & Dragset. His clients include Christie’s owner François Pinault, who is known to collect around half of Perrotin’s 36 artists.

The gallery is based in two floors in Paris’s trendy Marais district, with an adjoining exhibition space across the road. In 2004 Perrotin opened a gallery in Miami, but this closed just after the global economic crisis in 2010. He is now actively looking for a space in Hong Kong, a market in which his artists have proved popular.

Fresh from success at Art Basel, where he sold works by artists including Wim Delvoye and Tatiana Trouvé, he is now busy with an exhibition on the history of editions which focuses on works by Murakami alongside Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Beuys (until 30 July).

The Art Newspaper: How do you define your success?

Emmanuel Perrotin: My passion has always been to make artists’ projects possible. At the beginning, because I didn’t have family money behind me, the only way to show the outside world that I’d had success was to show that I was a commercial success. I needed to give my existing artists confidence and encourage others to join the gallery. When you have money from the beginning, you can hide your commercial success, you don’t need to talk about turnover, which is preferred in France. They are very sceptical of success here—[Raymond] Poulidor, the cyclist, was very popular with the French public because he always came second…

But now you measure success differently?

Of course. Success is not only about money. There are many other ways to define success. I am, for example, very proud to have so many French artists who are now known internationally. Trouvé, Xavier Veilhan, Jean-Michel Othoniel are now in so many museums, that is a great success.

How would you characterise your programme?

My artists are all very different: young, old, unknown and very well-known. I have one deceased artist, Duane Hanson, whose estate I look after. It’s an interesting new intellectual exercise to think about how to relaunch the career of an artist who is dead. It is very different from starting someone’s career from scratch.

Do you like being described as “risky”?

Yes, it’s a good word. But every day it is more difficult to explain why we take a risk. The gallery looks great, we’re in a good place, people imagine it must be easy for me now, but every day is more difficult. Expectations are higher, and you’re still only as good as your last show. Because I know every stage [of the process of building an artist’s career], I know they are all difficult. I don’t know how you find a balance for less stress.

You gave Hirst his first solo exhibition in 1991, why didn’t he stay with you?

We included him in a group show in 1990, then he had his own solo show [“When Logics Die”] in 1991. It included autopsy tables, complete with photographs of suicide victims—and went well. But only six months later, he had become really well known so while it had gone very well between us, I was just starting out and didn’t have any money for him to produce works. So of course, he went elsewhere, it was natural. The exhibition for Damien did more for me than it did for him so I’ve never reproached him for anything. The only thing I regret is not being entrusted with more of his works at that time—just one would have represented two years of turnover for me during the more difficult years.

Were you not going to collaborate again this year?

Yes, we were going to. He very generously suggested re-doing the exhibition 20 years on. He had some ideas, but after 20 years, I wanted to do something that was a real renewal of Hirst’s career, rather than works that people were more used to. I had wanted people to go “Wow! This series is wonderful,” so in the end I decided against the show. Maybe I was wrong. Other galleries are good at doing certain projects to enable the financing of others. Sometimes I think I should have brought in the money, been attacked by the Paris critics, but then financed more ambitious projects for other artists. Maybe if I am lucky, he will offer me another project.

You met Takashi Murakami and Maurizio Cattelan very early on. What difference did that make?

The huge advantage I had with Maurizio and Takashi is that their real, big commercial success came after ten years, so we all grew together, did everything together, we were and are connected. The worst thing is if success comes immediately to one of your artists, there’s much less rapport that way. You have to remain helpful to your artists throughout, not just at the beginning, but at every moment. That is what makes this job so difficult. You can never take yourself away from the gallery. If you are not totally behind your artist, they’ll find somewhere else. You have to be 100% all the time for all of them, it’s very difficult. Having said that, Maurizio and Takashi are my best motivation to keep up this crazy rhythm. Plus they have two completely different personalities (although they get on well) so that between them, I think you can understand all artists.

Are you still looking for new, young artists?

I still do work with very young artists, but not all the time, I don’t have the same energy as I did when I was younger. JR [some of whose work sold at Art Basel] is one recent example of a new young artist [he is 28]. And we now do “projects with” younger artists, which is a good place to start. That way they don’t have the pressure to produce work to the gallery’s standard—and also it avoids a catastrophe if we stop working with them. Ivan Argote is a good example: he is a 27-year-old Colombian artist and had a pretty successful exhibition in our gallery recently.

Have you dropped many artists?

Not many, no. Of course, there have been some, but really not many. Sometimes the evolution of an artist’s work doesn’t go the way you’d like. And with young artists, because there’s such a volume of work, there’s a greater chance that you won’t like more of it. You have to be careful. I don’t want to have 100 names on my list and have some artists that I don’t really work with or bring to fairs, etc.

Tell me about your new show, which unusually combines Duchamp and Beuys with Murakami.

I’ve had this editions project in my head for a long time. But what I imagined needed to be in a museum, based around all the people who have ever done prints and to look at these in a different way, through the prism of the art market. But it works on a smaller scale too because the common theme—doing prints—is what made these artists even more popular, as their work was disseminated more. Duchamp loved doing edition work, he did posters, the boîtes-en-valise (suitcase boxes), etc. Lots of Duchamp’s original works are lost, so these are increasingly important. Beuys managed to emphasise the fact that making editions was generous, enabling people with less money to access his work. When I was a gallery assistant I remember thinking I could just afford a Beuys print, but everyone said “there are 200 examples, they won’t have any value.” And now I regret not getting them. For Takashi, editions were a very important part of his work from the beginning. When I met him he was already doing t-shirts, carrying them into every shop, asking if they would sell them.

This show would enable a collector or museum, say in Asia, to have a collection straight away. I will have examples from 80 series that Duchamp did and will sell them as a group only [for E1.8m], as well as all of Murakami’s prints (2001-11).

Is the contemporary market moving to Asia?

I have Asian artists, and have had for a long time, and I had very successful fairs [ArtHK and Singapore]. You need to have a very trusted relationship with the Asian collector and then you can also encourage them to look at other works. These collectors are not stupid, if you are opportunist with the works you bring, they know that you don’t really have their interests at heart.

Are you still planning to open in Hong Kong?

Yes, I want to. I’d wanted to open in the Pedder Building [where Ben Brown, Gagosian and Hanart galleries are], but for various reasons I can’t go there. But these things happen for a reason, the rents in that building have now doubled.

Would you open in the old Central police building [being restored and turned into a centre for contemporary art]?

Yes, I would be happy to be there when it’s ready in 2014, but we have to open before. I have someone working there already. We’ll open a little office and a modest gallery where we can have small projects at least. Real estate prices in Hong Kong don’t give us many possibilities.

I heard you were opening another space in Paris?

I was thinking about it, but that hasn’t worked out. I will buy some storage space though.

How did you find the Venice Biennale?

There were so many people at the professional day that there was almost no reason to go there. I think they should arrange for the people who really need to be there first to go for the first few days, and then have three professional days afterwards. Also, I didn’t feel that there was as much to discover artistically this year. Every time I was disappointed by the number of artists who are invited to do something so important, but don’t take on the scale of the opportunity they have. But of course, I love the fact that Maurizio’s pigeons [stuffed and positioned on the entrance to, and inside, the central pavilion], have clearly copulated a lot: there were around 250 in 1997 and now there are nearer 2,200!

Pinault is a major client of yours—how did you meet?

I can never remember. It was a long time ago, he was an early patron. At the time, I never said that he was buying this or that artist from me, because people would speculate on that. But once he showed the artist, then I was happy to talk about it. For many of the early years, nobody knew he was collecting art from me. So maybe because I took it so seriously, he was comfortable with that and stuck with me. The context of this extraordinary collection promoted many of my artists.

What did you make of the criticism that artists that were in Pinault’s collection and your gallery were being favoured to show in Versailles?

You tell me a museum that doesn’t have a good relationship with other people in the art market. And how many artists does Pinault collect? I did understand the concerns, but there were a few stupid things said—I read in one magazine that I represent Jeff Koons. Also, it’s tricky to find artists that can show in Versailles: you need to show big works that are lightweight and don’t take up too much floorspace, and you can’t put anything on the walls or furniture. So, Cattelan was cancelled because people were making a big deal about there being three of my artists [Xavier Veilhan and Takashi Murakami were selected previously]. But some dealers had three artists in a row at the Venice Biennale French Pavilion, two in Monumenta [and] no one complains… I wouldn’t dream of complaining. I would imagine such decisions are made based on the artists, not the gallerists. And when two of the three artists in question are two of the five biggest artists in the world, is there really a problem? Jean-Jacques Aillagon [the president of the Château de Versailles] did a very good job.

How do you feel about being called “Gagosian à la Française”?

On one level it’s a compliment. But on the other I know people are insulting me! But all these people who laughed at Larry are now losing their artists to him. I am a very small gallerist but I take my artists before they are famous so we are different. I hope I will keep them.

What has been the highlight of your career?

I think that the highlight is going to be in the future! Perhaps the Cattelan exhibition coming to the Guggenheim in New York [4 November-22 January 2012].

Gallery history

1985-89: Perrotin works as an assistant at contemporary gallery Charles Cartwright, Paris

1989: Opens his own gallery in a rented apartment

1991: Holds Damien Hirst’s first solo exhibition

1993 : First group show including Maurizio Cattelan. Meets Takashi Murakami in Yokohama, Japan

1995: Shows Murakami on his stand at the Gramercy Art Fair (now The Armory Show). Holds his first solo shows for Murakami and Cattelan in Paris gallery

1999: Funds the production of Cattelan’s La Nona Ora Pope John-Paul II sculpture

2004: Opens a space in Miami (closed in 2010)

2005: Opens at 76 Rue de Turenne, Paris

2007: Opens exhibition space in the facing Impasse Saint-Claude

2010: Takes over upper floor of 76 Rue de Turenne building; launches artists’ books collection