20 years ago in New York, Rachel Lehmann co-founded Lehmann Maupin with David Maupin. Since then, the gallery has become a powerhouse of the art world – representing renowned artists around the world. The list includes Adriana Varejão, Tracey Emin, Do Ho Suh and Shirazeh Houshiary. With an international focus on artists across the globe, it is no wonder that Lehmann Maupin has achieved a notable reputation for its artists who contribute significantly to contemporary art and culture. Now present in key cities such as Hong Kong and New York, Rachel shares her thoughts with us – on what it means to both manage an artist’s career and run a gallery today.
You mentioned that it’s important that the artists you manage do not belong to groups. That they have an individual approach, be it conceptual or philosophical.
Yes, it’s not going the easy way though. I know Korea very well. But now, with the Tansaekhwa movement, there’s so much of attention because of the group and not the individual work. But it’s always easier in art history to discover groups like pop, minimalist and conceptual art. But I’m not so much interested in it.
Do you see a difference in managing the career of the artist in Asia or the West? How different are their aspirations?
Yes and no. Ultimately, an artist wants to be recognised, to be positioned with the right group of artists and to have the recognition in museum shows. I find that when you start working with artists unknown in the West, their priority is to have their work placed to be sold to the Western public so it would enlarge the market. When that’s covered, they want the museums. The difference is that everyone wants the other side. So when I do a Tony Oursler show in Hong Kong, the big hope is that the works remain in Asia. But it can also be a case where careers are revived in different ways. Hernan Bas has a museum show scheduled in China and now suddenly he has museum shows lined up in the United States. He showed more in the United States when he was a younger artist.
How do you decide which artists to work with?
First of all, we like to work with complex artists who actually relate to contemporary culture, rather than only contemporary art. Artists who matter in the course of history and who we believe have something important and different to say. Very often, these artists work with different media. We like to work with artists who take risks and work with all these media. So what else? I tell you what else.
By now, we have over 30 artists from all over the world with very recognisable names. We try to create parallels between artists. Identity, colonialism and femininity are themes that are often repeated. Half of our artists are female artists. We also like to have at least two artists from the same region. That’s how we work now. We put most of our resources to building an artist’s career. So we have to feel from the artist that he’s willing to put a big commitment as well. Tracey Emin, for example, goes to a country house she has in the south of France. There are 40 acres with nothing but animals around. She closes herself in to create the poems that come out from the soul.
What does it take to manage an artist’s career?
The most important to do is find an artist that has the commitment. Working closely with the artist, giving him support and working extremely closely on curatorial support – and also to have museum shows and help museums.
In the West, it’s very normal to have museums telling us that they are doing an artist’s show but they don’t have enough money to do the booking and would need help in doing so. You have to invest in those things. It’s also vital not to push prices too quickly, but to have a stable home with stable artists. To stimulate an artist is crucial. You have a fantastic place that we’ve been taking a lot of advantage of. STPI has stimulated our artists so much it’s endless. Do Ho Suh said he has now the most comprehensive two–dimensional body of work because of working here in Singapore. STPI has offered technical means that I don’t know who else offers it. Artists do fantastically well and they are doing second residences.
What kind of collaborative projects are you looking to explore in Singapore?
One appointment I have is with STPI. I’m looking into introducing other artists to them. The other is to find a dialogue with the museums here and be able to show some of the artists here. Residences also take priority. We provide teaching opportunities for artists in other countries and that is very stimulating for them. I don’t know about Singapore; we haven’t opened that up this year.
With a presence in both USA and HK, what’s your take on collector interests between the two regions?
America is very, very big and the market is very, very deep. You have a very knowledgeable market, which also works with art advisors. It’s very easy to go to four big art fairs because they are near. Beyond Korea and Japan, if you were to look more at China, Malaysia, Thailand and Hong Kong, the big difference is that they are very hungry for education about the art.
In America, I can send out an email about the work of somebody and, whether they will come or not come, they would buy it. In this part of Asia, collectors still need to see. Having those shows that we have in Hong Kong are excellent. They can speak to the artist. They are also very keen on works that are not specifically shown or done for a local market. They are looking for something authentic. They are not yet in a place where they could remove themselves from their own history and say this is incredible, but they can see the importance of the artist in another way.
What changes have you seen having run galleries all these years?
It’s a different world! I could never imagine in 1995 even, that it would be such a professional endeavour. Today, we have teams. The market would be what it is because of communication and wealth in many parts of the world. It was something that was part of an elite and now it’s democratised. I’m surprised daily. So what has changed is that the gallery was actually very often a family affair run by an owner and maybe two or people, and you were happy if you could cover your costs and if you could keep an artwork or two for yourself in a year. That was the deal. Today, in Switzerland, you would not be able to survive unless you did an art fair or two and you have an international public and you sell a little bit.
How do you position Western and Asian artists?
We do the same in Asia and New York. We don’t change our message because we can’t be saying two different things. We show the same artists, although the space is much smaller in Hong Kong. I don’t position them differently but make an effort to open education by having more artist talks, one-on-one meetings and press understanding. It’s what the audience needs and what we try to give.
What are some leading trends to note?
I don’t know if I’m saying it because I just came from Korea. The Tansaekhwa movement in Korea is opening up attention to all art in Korea. The trend in the West is also to focus more on the relevant positioning of the artist. In December, durin Art Basel in Miami, we had a museum show for Nari Ward. His work deals with race with everyday found material. The show was sold out because there was a museum show. He’s a serious artist in mid career, not a hot, young artist. There is a trend to identify the real serious artists, who will develop and become more important in the next 20 years. They want to see museum support, which can turn a non-commercial artist into a commercial artist. Serious art that matters is the trend. There is this need to connect to something that is relevant.
Lastly, what would you say have been key to Lehmann Maupin’s success?
Perseverance – being behind artists and having a belief in pushing artists. We also believe in working with artists on a long-term basis. And also, in not changing everything every two seconds. We believe in global, important and relevant messages coming from everywhere, be it from Iran, Asia, Africa, Germany, America or London.