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Blooming Mavericks in a World of Giants

This article was commissioned by and for Inside the Burger Collection and it was published in Art Asia Pacific in May 2018. Read it here.

Nothing sounds more gratifying than making a living from selling art, right? The mere thought of spending your days surrounded by works that nurture your soul and spark your creativity make my hairs stand on end. The idea of supporting Art History, contributing your tiny grain of sand, traveling the world all year long attending art fairs and biennales, getting caught up in mind-blowing conversations with curious, like-minded nomads such as yourself is so romantic. All the while, you’re selling the work of artists you are passionate about that in turn allow you to live a full, exciting and comfortable life. 

But having your own gallery is no walk in the park, and the job of a gallerist is the toughest one of all. 

Enter Maria Bernheim: an art world wonder-woman of many talents. Petite, ambitious, dynamic, knowledge-hungry and sassy. Born in Romania but raised in Paris, Maria grew up with art running through her veins thanks to her father – an artist, a communist revolutionary and art dealer. After finishing her studies at Oxford, her Masters in Paris and working for the department of Russian Art at Sotheby’s Paris, Maria relocated to Zürich in 2009. It was in the stars. Galerie Gmurzynska was calling her name and off she went to Switzerland, the land of milk and honey, Art Basel and Kägi. A few years later she would transition over to Galerie Eva Presenhuber, the most important pillar in her formation as an art dealer, where she remained until she dove beautifully, synchronized swimming style, into the world of entrepreneurship. Galerie Maria Bernheim opened its doors on December 15th, 2015 in Zürich.

This is where our story begins. 

Let’s call a spade a spade: art galleries are strange creatures – business wise – as they have too many fixed monthly costs, their only source of income is sales and generally speaking, art fairs (which to call them ‘expensive’ is an understatement) are essential to the survival of the gallery. The art world also depends on an army of well-educated, sometimes over-qualified, patient, unpaid interns who are needed to do the research:  essentially the most important part of the job and ironically enough, what pays the least. Funny world, the art world. Why would anyone in their right mind plunge into such an adventure? Well, because this is where the excitement is. Young galleries are the biggest risk takers and they play an important and necessary role that is crucial in the art market ecosystem: they find the talent. They gamble and take a very different risk of that which an established, ‘mega-gallery’ takes on the artists they represent. Young galleries are the art world’s scouts whose mission is to validate artists that they consider worthy. The art gallery business is a long run, big picture kind of business. It’s not about selling volume but selling quality. It’s not about selling for the sake of making money but selling to educate your collectors who take a risk alongside the gallery the moment they decide to support a young artist. At the end of the day, however, Maria has fears like those of any gallerist reminding us that she’s flesh, bones and brains, like the rest (or some) of us. “I am scared to not be able to pay the bills. I am scared that my financial strategies don’t pay off and that I won’t be able to sustain my activity and I will let my artists down. As opposed to what people might think, we are all saddened when a colleague and friend of ours closes their gallery; it reminds us of the fine line we walk on to sustain our businesses.” 

It is, nevertheless, Maria’s intangible skills set that has grabbed success by the horns and made it her own, paving the way for the young gallery’s reputation and livelihood. These skills come from never ceasing to learn, from being a collector herself, from having a clear understanding of what an acceptable price entry point to the market is by emerging artists, and plunging head first into the madness that is a young art gallery when art is your passion, educating collectors is your talent, a gallery is your medium, and “Let’s Make Art History” is the name of the game. “An art gallery is a business like any other but if you treat it as such, you should sell cars or carpets. A lot of or most people in the art world don’t come from an art historical background which I often judge because they don’t have a thorough thought process of what is involved in selling a piece, what it means for someone to buy it, and the kind of value the work is adding to their collection. These people hop from gallery to gallery which means they could be selling anything,” affirms Maria over one of our entertaining phone calls.

The decision to open her gallery in Zürich was a strategic one. Besides the fact that she had been living there for six years, the city and the country “has historically had a long standing tradition of collecting, [of wanting] to support young artists and art being made, institutions are very present and the artistic scene, which is essentially run by the artists themselves, is super strong. There is a lot of support from big entities on an every level and the art schools are fantastic”. Bigger art nuclei such as New York or London are tough for artists as the basic costs of living are so high that their time is consumed by their need to survive and they have no time left for produce art. Zürich is a petri dish of possibilities and variety. 

Galerie Maria Bernheim started off with a couple of phone calls to a few artists she had been following and with whom she was close to: “Hi, listen, there’s a space available in Zürich, if I open something will you do it with me?” Seven ‘yeses’ later the gallery was as real as Donald Trump’s spray tan. Mind you, it wasn’t just any space in any given location, but rather the créme de la créme street front space, small but just right, located across from the prodigious Löwenbräu building, a former brewery that now houses some of the city’s leading contemporary art galleries including Hauser & Wirth and Eva Presenhuber. Again, her fate was written in the stars. Her focus was her artists as she believes (rightly so) that they are the most important part of the gallery. “Everybody thinks it’s the collectors. But you can find collectors any day if you have fantastic artists. The main focus of any good gallery should be its program. Spending time with curators and collectors is great and it can help your artists but what you have to care of is your artists”.

Armed with a small battalion of artists, Maria set off to plan the first year of the program. “For me that was important because I think you can make very poor choices in a rush so I didn’t want to be in a position of ‘I don’t have a show in a month’. You end up showing the most random thing that is available and it doesn’t work.” Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets. As a dealer, all you have is your name and your eye. No one can go about lightly on showing anything less than what your gut feeling tells you is right. So with art’s subjective nature in mind I had to ask if there was any part of her that has ever doubted what people’s responses might be to the artists she shows – 

“Are you kidding? Every night! But something I learnt from Eva [Presenhuber] is that she would take a little card with her list of about 40 major artists and every day she would reconsider who is important, and who will make art history. And it is precisely because I go to bed every night thinking ‘this is not good enough’ that I wake up and I try to fix it. I try to put on the best show that I can and I appreciate people who have this kind of blind faith in my artists; however, even the best artists also need a little bit of guidance sometimes because when you work so hard on something, on anything, you can’t really step back and look at it. Sometimes you need someone to step in and say, ‘this might not be your best work, maybe you should stay in the studio a little longer, work on it and I’m happy to show other work that you have done, and that is fantastic’”. 

It is precisely doubt that keeps Maria on her toes, constantly challenging herself.

Obstacles are a dime a dozen for galleries but finding the right balance between business and the art itself is crucial to its survival. Ten years of experience under her belt has allowed Maria to design a strategy that works for the gallery and for her artists. Although many young galleries have been dropping out of the art fair circuit because of the exorbitant costs, fairs are an essential element of Galerie Maria Bernheim. It provides unique exposure for her artists that nothing else can top. Her first hand understanding of the demands, the financial stress that participating in an art fair entails, and having been in the industry for a while has given her an upper hand when applying to fairs. “There are more and more art fairs everywhere and what they are essentially looking for are either big galleries that attract big crowds or very young galleries showcasing the best of the most avant-garde art today. What’s difficult in that section is that a lot of these very young galleries who haven’t done that before don’t always comprehend the quality level of the presentation that is needed”.

Art fairs are about bringing art to a wider audience, not making more sales. However, a certain amount is required to cover the costs of the fair itself. For example, a small booth in Art Basel starts at $10,000 USD, shipping costs are around the same, plus travel and accommodation (of course sleeping in places that could never be described in anyone’s wildest dreams as fancy or cool) add up to a total of around $22,000 USD just to participate in the fair. Her artworks’ entry price point is $1,500 and it goes up to $15,000 USD. Specific works by historical artists can go up to $70,000 but these are exceptions. Art fairs are crucial to her strategy to the extent that she participates in seven to eight fairs per year. It is hard to find the balance with her finances as art fairs are her biggest costs and “often a great presentation is rarely commercial”. However, art fairs are more than just a place to transact, they are a tool to harvest collectors that have seen the work in the flesh. They can later buy via e-mail, phone calls and PDFs as “with young artists it is crucial to have a real conversation about the work.” 

Today, when it comes to art, competition is across all boarders especially given that once upon a time an established gallery would not even consider representing very young artists with absolutely no track record. That is now a possibility that Maria must always consider. However, she doesn’t believe that there is real competition between young galleries as “we present artists that we believe in and all I want is for other good galleries to also represent my artists. Our most precious thing is not collectors but artists, and good collectors come regardless of the gallery to have access to good artists.”

This is where the education factor comes in: teaching people that they can collect at any price range. A big aim of the gallery is to bring in young collectors (in their late 20s and early 30s) to grow alongside it. Today, these collectors have a small buying of power of around $10,000 dollars a year. Having the trust of just five of these collectors represent the gallery’s rent for the year and if that’s their buying range today, by the time they are 40 they will have tripled that or even added a zero to the current figure, “so if you have taught them to collect they will follow you and support you. That is key in the long run”. Educating takes time, which is why many gallerists don’t do it actively. Let’s not forget that there is also another part of the art world fauna who collect not for their love of art but for the parties and invitations that come with the spending. However, that is not the essence of the relationship Maria aims to achieve with her collectors. She is the kind of dealer who introduces her collectors to artists she does not even represent as she is far more interested in her collectors having the best collection possible. These collectors will continue to follow her because they believe in her eye, her integrity, and her recommendations.

Bigger galleries that represent more established artists don’t have to educate collectors the way a young gallery does. These artists already have a name; they are safer bets. The galleries have a safety net as the artists’ name provides a certain security and assurance to collectors who are willing to pay the high prices demanded without the need to see the work in the flesh. For these galleries and unlike Maria’s, online platforms like Artsy are another medium that allows them to reach potential collectors who already know the work of their artists very well. But these galleries have sales pressure and quotas that must be met by their sales team as they have higher costs, a large staff, possibly multiple locations, contract stipulations they must abide by for their artists, and more. When these annual sales quotas exist (and they do in almost all the big galleries), sales consultants don’t pay attention to smaller works in the inventory as they bring in less money for the gallery while taking up as much time and effort to sell as anything else. Bigger galleries have hundreds of hidden jewels in their inventories, beautiful series of works on paper or small sculptures, that even collectors don’t find out about as they are not pushed the way larger works are. Moreover, sales consultants don’t spend as much time trying to sell to institutions because museums are always short on funds, their decision period procedures take months, and you can always expect a request for a 20-25% discount on the work in addition to a payment plan. As a result, this means less money in the gallery and the sales consultant’s pocket. The artists’ commission is usually left intact.

As we all know (but secretly wish) there is no manual, no ‘Art Gallery Business for Dummies’, no true pearls of wisdom when it comes to running a gallery. A good gallerist “should tailor their work to what the artist needs and expects; some may need more institutional recognition, some may need more support from collectors” and the expansion of her artists’ representation abroad is an integral part of the job. What we should learn from Maria is that Rome wasn’t built in a day, a watched pot never boils, and Maria’s saucy secret ingredient to success (by example) is persistence, time and an unquenchable thirst to educate not only her collectors but herself. All the time. 

Maria Bernheim – petite, ambitious, dynamic, sassy – a wonder woman on a mission to “defend the work of artists that I believe in, help build great collections and bring to the attention of institutions interesting works and artists.”

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