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Interview with dealer Andrea Rosen on 20 years in the business: “People are rightfully cautious and focused. I like that”

The pioneer of the resale agreement talks about the recession and what it means for both artists and collectors

The Art Newspaper: Do you have plans for your 20th anniversary?

Andrea Rosen: I don’t, ­actu­ally, 25 will be the marker. I can’t believe I’ve been open for 20 years! I’ve made a lot of big changes in the last two years so I’m happy to be on this path.

TAN: You pioneered the resale agreement. When did that come about?

AR: Since the day I opened, but it’s supremely misunderstood. I realised there were unspoken rituals in the art world, and not everyone knew the rules. Gallerists felt that if a collector sold work, and didn’t sell it through them, it alienated their relationship. I felt collectors didn’t know—there was a kind of embarrassment. My position is: “You own it, you have the right to sell it.” It’s an understanding that the correct thing to do is to at least be engaged in dialogue with the gallery who sold it to you. I think it’s been extraordinarily helpful. I’ve never experienced a conflict—everyone realised that I’m never going to do anything that’s going to be disadvantageous to my collectors, in the same way that I don’t want to do that for my artists. At some point the auction houses weren’t so happy that it became standard practice, but now even they realise that we’re not trying to compete with anyone. If the auction house can do better, then that’s perfectly fine.

TAN: What unifies the artists you represent?

AR: It is really important that each artist has their own territory. I’ve never been interested in representing a particular movement—it means that one artist is going to be the most important, and the others secondary. When you’re developing a programme it’s important to think about what each artist has to add to its depth, breadth and variety. It’s imperative that artists are interested in ideas, that they’re involved in discourse and have interests outside their practice.

TAN: Are there different types of public?

AR: The art public is a tiny percentage of who goes to galleries in New York. I was reluctant to leave SoHo, and thought: “Why are we running away from the public?” But the truth is that it wasn’t until, almost because of, the press around Chelsea—and something about this neighbourhood being exclusively art, a destination—that a kind of barrier broke down. People had felt intimidated to go to galleries. Now 95% of the audience isn’t buying art, and a good 75% have nothing to do with what we’d consider to be the art world.

TAN: How much is that accessibility specific to New York?

AR: I’m Canadian, and I think there is something super-powerful about the sense of equality in New York. It’s why people are here, that sense that everyone has the same rights and opportunities. In New York anyone can be exceptional. And it’s not just about exceptional. New York is extraordinarily social. People live here because they want interaction. It’s super-important that galleries are free. People feel they have the right to come and have a point of view. It’s empowering, but there’s also a responsibility that comes with it.

TAN: Has that idea of the American dream been impacted by the economic climate?

AR: People think the American dream is about monetary success and I don’t think it is, actually. It’s about achievement and being accepted. It’s about being recognised in some way and having a voice. Certainly the economy is a big deal. It’s easy to talk about how the recession has affected the art market, but it’s much deeper and harsher than what we’re experiencing.

TAN: How different is this recession from the last?

AR: They’re very different. I opened the gallery in the first recession. This boom went much longer and further than it should have, and it caused another level of damage that we hadn’t experienced before.

The art world is extraordinarily malleable in terms of regulations and I think people want to preserve the integrity of the art world, for the most part.

TAN: How has the downturn changed collector behaviour?

AR: I’ve mostly felt that collectors separated their practice—what they do in their business, they did not do, or want to do, in the art world. Collecting can be about how collectors want to contribute to the world in a bigger and better way. This boom was so extreme that people were almost forced to step over lines in ways I’ve never seen before. Very good collectors felt that if they were the ones to have access to works, they were foolish if they didn’t buy more.

By January, people had tamed their impulsiveness. There was a period at the beginning of the year when it just stopped for a couple of months. People are rightfully cautious and focused. I like that. People have changed their behaviour. They continue to buy, but it’s more specific.

TAN: How about artists?

AR: Art history is about progression, development. Every 25 years or so you clear the slate, and see [which] artists are going to be remembered in history. That’s something that happens separate from the economic cycle, generally speaking.

With the last recession we were seeing the beginning of a freedom after the 1980s, when there [had been] a questioning about the validity of making art. There was an incredible stockpile of amazingly significant artists like Robert Gober and Christopher Wool who were able to develop and evolve. It was an extraordinarily exciting time for looking at art. In that recession people thought “OK, we’re not going to spend”, but their motivation was: “Let’s go be inspired by the new.” This recession is exactly the opposite. The boom went on too long, some of the young artists got sucked up.

TAN: Are we moving away from that hype of the new?

AR: It’s cyclical. There are times when you’re interested in focusing on what you have, or in looking backwards. It’s going to take a new crop of artists longer to come, but they’re definitely coming. Right now, I’m particularly interested in looking at new work and continuing dialogue with younger galleries. I’m excited about a big group exhibition we’re doing [this month] of lesser-known artists.

I’m interested in the under-rated artist. Over the past 10 years I have developed Gallery 2 as a way of saying: “Let’s educate ourselves around the ideas of new work, let’s look at things which are historical.” It has been an underlying part of my programme. People wanted information, things were moving too quickly and they didn’t know what context things existed in.

There is, however, something slightly frightening about the fact that people are more comfortable looking backwards at what is safe. It’s also interesting to see what people missed in the boom, what they weren’t able to concentrate on.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 208 December 2009