These are strange times – for the world, and the art business. Fairs were canceled or held digitally, not even exhibition openings could take place because of Covid-19. How has this changed the way gallery owners work? And, more importantly, how has the pandemic shaped the work of artists and art itself?

A conversation between gallery owners JOHANN KÖNIG and MARIANE IBRAHIM on the status quo of art in times of crisis.

MARIANE IBRAHIM: Creativity is an expansive word you can use concerning different facets of culture, right? Creativity doesn’t depend on age, it has no social status or age. Generally, I look at creativity in two ways: There is the creative mind and the creative spirit that artists are connected to, something almost divine. Creativity has a spiritual connotation, without sounding religious of course, but that’s how I look at that creative mind. A mind that has a certain type of genius that might revolutionize and alter the way we look at reality. This is not something that has to be presented in a banal way.

Secondly, there is the creative side of us, of each one of us that makes our consciousness and our mind different from other species. We have the ability of adapting and being flexible and I think in this time during COVID-19, we have been searching deeply inside our creativity for a reason to feel hopeful, through our inner voice. So, creativity can have this functionality of making things and changes the way we look at life. As we are both working within the art world and among artists, that is the essence: That is what we have to preserve as gallerists – we have to make sure the creative is not suffocating for the artist, like he has to be creative all the time. After speaking with many of our artists, I actually do not think this is a great time for artists to be creative. I think there is so much negative energy, so much uncertainty. But once we come out of it – who knows? Maybe there is going to be a creative explosion.

JOHANN KÖNIG: Some people say how I run my gallery is very creative on positive and negative levels. But the real reason I got into it was because I wasn’t able to become an artist. I didn’t really dare to just follow that path and I didn’t have a strong enough urge to make art myself, but I definitely wanted to work with creators, creative people, artists, and was very attracted to that idea. So due to the inability to be creative myself, I chose to work with creative people. What I find interesting about what you say regarding the intense times we are living in: Some of the artists I am working with say nothing has changed, they are alone in the studio all the time anyway. But they are in the privileged situation to live in a country like Germany with proper health care and a political system which kind of works, compared to the current situation in the US. Artists there are probably confronted with way more substantial problems than here. Some are psychologically so hit by the crisis that they can’t be creative because they are just in pure shock. And, in a way, this weird state of the world is leaving subtle traces. So, I assume, it must also be difficult for many artists in Germany to stay creative all the time. Surely, this crisis will not leave them untouched.

MI: Johann, I wanted to touch on what you said about the artists being in an isolated environment. This time, the isolation was imposed and it was not something they wanted or desired, like everyone else. When you are in a forced isolation, you don’t look at your escape from society as a form of privilege, because no one has any privilege in this scenario – which, in a way, put everyone on the same level of adversity. In my personal opinion: I think the art world right now is depressing. And it is depressing because there is, on the one hand, sort of a high consumerism, you know? The collectors are not living their normal lifestyle of traveling and visiting spaces. They are home and when they’re home, I think a lot of things can happen when you are isolated in lockdown, in front of your computer, visuals easily demand attention. We have been moving into a sort of immediacy and urgency that was already present and that was accelerated within the art world, that sort of acceleration of wanting things immediately. But does it really make artists produce more? Does it make them do better art? Are they more self-critical? How do we deal with all of the artists that are completing their works and doing some critique on a Zoom call? I feel this ultimately is dysfunctional. I have made the decision to focus more on the relationship with our artists and how we as gallerists have to create a new way of looking at art and a new way of physical contact with our visitors by appointment. That is actually like looking back ten or twenty years ago, when people were making appointments to go to galleries.

JK: True.

MI: I like this sort of mental preparation, where visitors can say, “I’m going to the gallery at a specific time.” As you know, my program is focused on artists of color, artists from the African Diaspora. Some of them have received exponential exposure due to the political debate around Black Lives Matter. I have a double exposure – due to the fact that I work with artists of color and am also a person of color. There is a constant battle of what is right and what needs to be pushed, and how the validations are coming and from where. The question is: Is this just a trend or is it a real lack of conversation, generally speaking, within the art world? And last, I would say in this creativity, in the art world that we are in, yes, in America, it is more complex. This pandemic is social AND political, and so we feel that on a daily basis. There is a racial clash that has been dominant and existent in America which is resurfacing in a new way with the pandemic. The pandemic revealed how people were unequal and how a majority of African Americans were not getting the right health services, among many other issues. American artists are in a more difficult place than, for instance, in Africa or in Europe.

JK: I couldn’t agree more. It’s interesting, when the lockdown happened, I thought
we needed to find some way of staying in dialogue with the public and clients, so I started this 10am series on Instagram where I talked to different people in the art industry, from museum curators, artists, advisors. In the beginning, I thought, okay, we are all in this together, we all somehow face the same disadvantages. But, I learned very quickly that this pandemic dramatically exposes the inequality. I’ll give you an example: The city of Berlin granted every artist 5000 € without any condition, just as an immediate support and you didn’t have to prove how much you needed it, you could just apply and receive it within a day. That is crazy and a great initiative, that unfortunately only existed in Berlin. In Bavaria, for example, it was granted only under certain circumstances. It is probably unthinkable in the US. In regard to the art fairs: Really, the only positive advantage of the pandemic is that art fairs aren’t happening. Of course, we need them to do business, but at the same time, there’s somehow pressure to always attend them. Especially when I started my gallery, I always felt the urge to be present and my validation was related to what art fairs I got into. Simultaneously, the costs to participate are very high. So, putting a pause to all this has felt a little bit like a relief. But that is, of course, my very personal opinion on the matter.

MI: I agree with you. I think we need a little bit of a break. I think that you are only able to appreciate something if you are missing it. I think our elder communities rely a lot on art fairs, which are geared toward the more mature collectors. When they will feel safe and comfortable to come out of their homes and to socialize, is another question. I think they would experience sort of a renewal and a joyful moment. On the other hand, I think we will forget about what happened and revert to what we are used to doing. For better or worse.

JK: Although, it makes me think about how I didn’t make it to the last Art Basel MiamiBeach, but one of my directors went. I called to check in and to hear how it was going, and she told me about your presentation of Amoako Boafo. She said it stood out so much, obviously, the energy was so clear, it immediately felt relevant. I think it is important to understand how you get the chance for big exposure to a big audience at one place and use it very effectively. How often can that really be achieved? There is not unlimited great art out there. If you think of all the hundreds of galleries participating, and how that circus in Miami somehow competes with New York Fashion Week, and all the other events happening in Miami, it’s interesting to see how the Post-Covid art world will look like in terms of these mega events.

MI: That was my first participation at Miami Art Basel and it was a very intentional first participation. I had been invited to apply to the fair and I would refuse because I felt like exactly what you described. It’s such an overwhelming, highly competitive environment. I really took the time to go. And I now inten- tionally took a break from fairs between March and September this year. I want to make a difference, I want to be creative in the way we present the work of the artists, but I also want to allow the artists to be creative. I want to allow the artists to come up with a new concept. Looking back, I feel the art fairs have turned us into machines. Our last gallery show was with Clotilde Jiménez. We met in London, and I was taking really great interest in his work. As we got to know each other, he was already anticipating and talking about the possibility for an exhibi- tion. I told him that we would not be doing an exhibition at the gallery for at least three years, because I needed to see first how his career would develop. So, for this exhibition, there has been a long, long build up. But, in the meantime, we have worked on some extraordinary projects and exhibitions. We were still placing his work among collections and institutions. I think it’s worth the wait. The exhibition was very well received, and is a strong base for his work.

JK: Absolutely. If you look in the past, artists had so much time to develop their practice, and their careers. Now, you do a fair in Basel and then you do another one in the fall, and the audience constantly expects a new body of work. The cycle of that used to be slower. But as you said, probably as soon as the machine starts again, we will all forget about that and go back into the speed mode again. So maybe the longer the crisis takes, the bigger the impact and the change that could happen. I always try to see the best in this pandemic, but in the end, there is probably not much good to see in it.

JK: I think Instagram offers amazing chances for artists to express themselves directly without any gatekeeper to filter what they’re working on. Somehow, it’s also a way to democratize art. Think about Sound- Cloud, for example, and the possibilities for musicians to self-publish via the platform. Instagram is doing the same for visual artists. Generally, that’s a great thing, and they don’t necessarily need a gallery anymore. But, then again, it’s also the context that counts, and that’s why your and my gallery carry our names. We present our subjective view and what we think is relevant. I think it’s very locally influenced, or personal and prospering in the specific environment we are working, living and socializing in. That brings me back to the reason why I opened the gallery: because I had no other option to work with artists as my eyesight was so bad. The only way was to open this space and to keep it running. To keep it running, I had to start selling... Initially, the art market didn’t really appeal to me, I wasn’t so interested in it. That was pre-Instagram and pre all forms of digital presentation. In my opinion, these types of new media have some disadvantages, but I think there are more pros than cons.

MI: The idea of democratization – with a part of exposure that could reveal a fragility on the artist’s end. I compare the artist to an athlete from time to time. You have to be able to train yourself and be ready to expose yourself. I think, in part, that instant consumption you mentioned is good, allowing people to be on the same level. There is a break amongst the elitism existing in the art world, with the exclusivity art has. There is a level of needing to be in the inner circle of the art world, being a part of a large amount of validation. I am really happy that has been put aside for the moment. But, what is the replacement? And how are we encouraging artists, specifically younger artists, to stay focused? To stay where they need to be to work? It takes time for such an artist to come out, to make the work, to reflect. It could take a few years, sometimes five years, to come up with a new body of work. Frankly, it is quite crazy energy – that while everything is shut down, we have become fast and furious, operating on digital platforms and Instagram. This type of speed is similar to what was happening at art fairs recently, but now the same thing is happening, just on a digital online form. The natural way of operating is to receive a new work and to share it with a collector, either who I know would be interested, or one who has been waiting to have access to a work by said artist for some time. This allows for space to converse, to learn about the work, and to understand its discourse on a more intimate level. Instagram does not offer this type of criticism. It does not offer an intellectual review of the work.

JK: I live in the gallery. That gave me the chance to get a deeper understanding of the works themselves and the artists. Before the pandemic, I was always on the run. Now, I started to go through the works I had in storage and which I have in consign- ment or in my house. I started to have a different relationship to the things because I was grounded and spent more time at home. And I really had time to talk with the artists again in a deeper way. I really hope that we are going to be able to hold on to that.

MI: I have been reading a lot of biographies from the generation of art dealers just after the second world war and a little bit before. Their relationship to artists was completely different to the relationship that we have with artists at this moment.

JK: I think there’s a good chance that we won’t have the same speed anymore because we all learn now that we don’t need to go to every art fair and do everything expected of us as a gallery.

MI: This comes to fruition in many different ways. I don’t think anybody discovers anyone anymore. Artists have been existing publicly, showing their work on the internet. Sometimes I am recommended artists. My favorite situation is when an artist recommends another artist. That reveals how generous the artist is. My other favorite encounter is an accidental encounter with an artist/artwork. There are so many ways. Recently, I was reading an article about this young woman who is based in Berlin and I fell in love. I normally would not ask anyone to work with me in our first meeting. But, in this case – I proposed a collaboration right away.

JK: Who is the artist?

MI: Her name is Shannon Lewis. She is a very young, but extremely talented, painter. Another artist in my program, Cologne-based Peter Uka, I discovered via Instagram. I saw his work and immediately contacted him. This happens very rarely, but when it does happen, I take it as a blessing. It’s like your heart and your mind and your sight are all in tune. You feel it in your skin: You have to make this happen. At that point, I know I want to be part of their journey. I have to feel the connection and I have to want to grow with an artist, after being able to see their trajectory. How is it with you?

JK: I couldn’t agree more, I also think that it is not about discovery – the best we can do as gallerists and art dealers is to be an amplifier to help raise the visibility of an artist’s work, to provide context. I also agree with you, Mariane, that you have to feel it. It has to capture you. For me, it is also essential that the artist is unique within the program. I don’t really want to represent a specific movement or one group of artists, I rather try to be very distinct. The artists I represent are all in their own world somehow and they don’t work in the same field. It’s very important to me to make an impact. I’m not interested in just being the guy who does great marketing for an artist. I want to be able to... not influence the work, but help develop the career in one way or the other. Sometimes you have successful and sometimes non-successful artists and you need to work with that. But what does success mean, anyway? There is institutional success as well as commercial success; so then, depending on each different artist, you need to adjust the perception, the context, and the particular market. That’s very important for me. But not all artists want that. Some just want the gallery to be the distributor. What I learned after all these years: We discover artists anyway, whether we look for them or whether we don’t look for them. They come to you. You can’t really amplify it by looking more.

MI: I can also relate to the failed artist’s struggle to become a gallerist as you mentioned – we must know our limitations. It’s like someone forcing you to take singing classes because you love to hear people sing, but you can’t sing! But you know you have a great ear, you know you can listen, you can see, you can recognize a great voice. I often notice that something deep inside my memory has been planted. And only I know when I see it. It is in my subconscious and a part of my memory. I can feel when I find the right person.

JK: Exactly, exactly.

MI: I think we discover ourselves. Discovery in a sense that, when we suddenly see something we’ve been looking for, but couldn’t put any words to it yet.

JK: And you can’t force it, you know.

MI: No, you can’t!

JK: Interesting is, that this often reminds me and shows me how much respect I have for every artist who dares to go their own way. Because you have to find your own language and your own artistic expression, and that’s hard enough when you try to achieve that, but then you also have to find others who can read you and understand you. I find that so brave. I must say, I wouldn’t dare to become an artist, just because of the uncertainty. I would question if it’s not good, that it might not be good for others, and especially just not good enough for yourself to really be satisfied with it. And then even if you’re satisfied with your own practice, how do you push it further, and find a support faction of people who believe in you and so on. We really need to respect artists in that manner, that they are taking the risk for us. For all of us.

MI: Many people tend to think they are like angels, that they’re always flying, always creating, that they don’t have any materialistic needs. We tend to think that they have a wonderful life. That they have this sort of bohemian lifestyle, but it’s connected to a lot of risk. To detach yourself. To create. To give yourself. And to know if this is going to work. You have to have persistence and confidence. The strength when you have found the right partner, found the right listener. As a gallerist and representative of the artists, it is our job to be there for them, to strengthen their confidence, and to enable creativity. If we are not fighting for them, they will have to deal with the fact that they’re strong and allow themselves to create by sourcing their own fragility.

JK: Mariane, I really hope we meet in person one day!

MI: Me, too! Stay safe!
© Courtesy of Mariane Ibrahim