It is Sunday afternoon and, after a delicious lunch that ended with apricot strudel and apricot ice cream, we are by the pool in the very special garden of the gallerist Thaddaeus Ropac’s 17th century small castle. It was built by an Archbishop as his retreat, not far from his main castle. It is like a private museum of precious works of art; from Anselm Kiefer to Georg Baselitz, to a masterpiece of Sigmar Polke, several works of Joseph Beuys, a Maurizio Cattalan, a Michelangelo Pistoletto; and then little sculptures by Medardo Rosso, works of Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg. A beautiful portrait by Jusepe de Ribera hangs next door to a large reception room where Mozart played for the Archbishop who was his patron.
The garden has very old and magnificent trees and, here and there, a sculpture by Haruki Murakami, Baselitz, Kiefer. Thaddaeus Ropac has his art gallery in the centre of Salzburg, near the Sacher Hotel. It is high season, all seats at the Salzburg Festival are booked. Thaddaeus Ropac is a great opera lover, and the passionate discussion during lunch was about Il Trovatore that we saw the night before.
Do you think of Salzburg as your home town?
Yes, for me Austria means Salzburg, even if I am originally from Carinthia. Salzburg combines the qualities that Austria stood for: art, culture, music, architecture. The Festival was started by Richard Strauss, Hugo Von Hoffmansthal, Arturo Toscanini. Writers and intellectuals like Stefan Zweig, who had a house here, came to Salzburg. Von Hoffmansthal said, “Salzburg is the heart of the heart of Europe.”
When did you open your first gallery?
I started thirty years ago with a tiny gallery in the wrong part of town. But still, in those very first days I had exhibitions that are legendary today. I showed Warhol, Beuys. Then the spirit of the gallery was created by artists closer to my generation, like Robert Mappelthorpe, Gilbert and George, Georg Baselitz…
The eighties changed the “art world.” They built the base for the way it opened up. At the beginning the art world was an ivory tower, an elite, with the artist in the centre and then the critics, curators, museums and collectors. The group was so small that you knew everyone. The market in contemporary art was modest. You couldn’t make any money, it was not the motivation.
Why did you decide to do this?
I had tried and failed as an artist. I was an intern in the Beuys orbit in Düsseldorf in 1981 and 1982. I was obsessed by him and his way of approaching art. We did not have a personal relationship. His message was clear: art cannot only exist to serve the bourgeoisie who is trying to be educated. The German word would be the “Bildungsbürgertum.” Beuys changed the rules by saying, “We are not the clowns of the bourgeoisie.” I was very lucky to fall on him because he changed my life. I was looking for my place, I was passionate and so I opened my own gallery. Many of my friends did not know about Beuys and I felt the urge to take art and show it to people I knew.
How have things changed since then?
First of all, I wanted to meet the artists of my generation. When I met Jean-Michel Basquiat I did not know he would become a superstar. Only time can tell the final impact of an artist. The artist is a mirror of his time. In the middle of the process you only see the talent and then, if you believe in an artist, you are happy to see it confirmed, much later. Over a period of time, art has changed from being in an ivory tower to being at the centre of life. Today artists are part of anyone’s life. Thirty years ago you had to go looking for contemporary art. For teenagers today artists are nothing special because they are part of their lives, and this is great. Anyone can participate in the Biennale of Venice or the Documenta of Kassel; and more and more people do.
What do you think about the art market today?
It is something else, a parallel society. Everybody can meet artists; now they are accessible when once they were not. But, as ownership of art became easier, as art became so popular, both demand and prices exploded and this has created a new elitism. We have gone from an intellectual elitism to an elitism of money. Nowadays you have to be very wealthy to buy major artists and their major works.
Even museums can’t afford it?
Yes, of course. If there were no people who give art to museums it would be impossible for them to acquire, because it really has gone beyond their capability.
Is this phenomenon going to last?
People think that we are part of a growing bubble. I am not afraid of this, but there will be some overrated artists where collectors will be disappointed. I believe that the market is at the beginning of another level of growth.
Why? And how is that possible?
I just came back from an extended trip to China, were I spoke to many people. In mainland China alone they are building more than 150 museums, all of which will in one way or another be connected to contemporary art. It is the opposite model to what we are used to in the West. In our tradition, in Europe and America, you acquire artworks and at the end you have so many that you think that a dedicated building should house them. In China, first they build an empty shell and then they think what to do next. So, we will go from one inauguration of empty space to another… even if the markets in Europe and America slow down there will be many new markets, from Asia to South America.
Many of the artists you represented became classics. Are you still looking for new talents?
Any gallery dies if you stop looking for new artists. Curiosity drives you to push your program and to be relevant. We want to show great artists and their best production, and we want to be able to show them in the best possible context. It has to be balanced, a very famous artist and a young one, you need both and they should be connected.
Do you still have this connection?
I do fear losing my connection to the next generation. Each generation has its own code, its own language and symbols. As a gallery we have to find the key to decode, understand and then integrate, and the level has to be high.
But how do you know?
You just need to keep your curiosity alive. Sometimes it is not easy, because it is like learning a new language, and you have to come to understand it.
Do you believe that the new museums, for instance the ones they are building in China, will look for the same artists or for their own?
Of course they want to create their own artists, but in all the great museums of America and Europe you constantly see the same artists; and so they will want their own artists to stand with these American and European masters.
Do you represent Asian artists?
Of course. When I go to China I try to fight for my artists, convincing art historians and critics to write about them and getting collectors to buy them. But on every trip I also want to be sure that I spend the same amount of time and energy seeing local artists and curators about the relevance of their own art.
And is their art as important as western art?
Yes, of course, I really believe it is and to say it is not would be arrogant; and worse, ignorant. Today we represent artists from China, Korea, Pakistan and Iran. The latest artist we just signed lives in Pakistan, in Lahore.
Who are the artists of today?
It is a constant flow. They are changing continuously. It never ends.
Is there a fashion in art?
It is normal that artists come and go, and some don’t make it into the canon. Sometimes it is cruel. Artists do fall out of fashion and it is very bitter. The key word is “relevance.”
What is relevance?
Fashion is something that comes and goes, decided by medias and collectors. But to really make it you have to be relevant. You don’t have only one smart idea that you repeat, that is one of the most dangerous traps. The conclusion is that a great artist reinvents himself all the time. To stay relevant means that people from other fields look at what you are doing, and that means influence. Every great artist becomes a role model.
What is the influence of the art market?
The danger is that the market creates fashion, misleading from the masterpiece. At the end of the day we see what the masterpieces are in the museums. After fashion very little remains. We have to do everything we can to keep high moral standards in the museums.
What about genius?
It is something you cannot explain. Mozart for instance was able to do what Salieri did not. He is a miracle.
Do you think that today we have artists like Mozart?
Yes, we do, but we have to look for them, as we do for pearls. Only time will tell.
Are you also interested in Old Masters?
I never thought I would need to own an Old Master. I needed to see them in museums. But I had an interesting experience when I went to Maastricht and saw a painting that totally took me in. It was by the great master Jusepe de Ribera and I decided to buy it. It was painted in 1624 and it fits incredibly well into my private contemporary art collection.
But what is Art?
Sometimes I have a hard time deciding what touches me most deeply. Art brings out the deepest possible emotions: love, hate, joy, pain. A painting can do that; an old master, a Bacon or a young artist from Lahore. In other words I shall say that art is about truth. Relevance is one thing, aesthetic another, influence another, but at the end it is about truth. You cannot fake with Art.
Do you still have the same passion, the same drive?
Passion changes and evolves, but the energy level of the passion has to stay the same. The passion I felt for Mozart’s Don Giovanni was utterly different twenty years ago than it is today. There are so many details of this masterpiece that I just did not see in the beginning, then by learning more I experienced more. It is the same for a great painting.
So how would you describe your life?
It is a continuous journey and a search, and I have to be careful where to put the same energy. I am only afraid of losing energy.
And what is your goal in life?
I live the privilege of working and being close to some of the most important artists of our time, to work with them, to discover their universe and to be able to help them to create their vision. I feel that I am replaceable; artists are not, they are unique. If we lose one, the world misses him.
Of all your work, what will last?
Hopefully it will be my own collection. I have been collecting for thirty years and I am on a quest for as many masterpieces as I can find. I hope that one day my collection will be endowed and will be available for the public.
What do you collect?
The artists I represent of course, because I am so close to the source. A collection has to be eclectic and reflect the passion of the collector. One of my passions is a great Italian sculptor at the beginning of modernism, Medardo Rosso. I finally found his “Bambino Ebreo” and I collected it because I love it.
When you wanted to enlarge your own stage you opened a gallery in Paris. Why?
Because Paris is the utmost European city, and I feel first a European born in Austria. And then, when I moved there, it was also a sentiment. Without Paris I would not be where I am.
Images are © copyright of the Artists or their Estates
Courtesy of Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris · Salzburg
August 10th, 2014