JOINT INTERVIEW: Bernard & Gwenolee Zürcher
Bernard Zürcher: I became a gallery owner after a more institutional career in the art world. Between 1978 and 1988 I was a curator in the Musée de l’Orangerie and the Palais de Tokyo, during the Musée d’Art Moderne period. At a certain point I got the idea that I’d like to open a gallery as a showcase for contemporary artists, and also for my own predilections. I’d written several books on modern art, including Braque, vie et oeuvre, which remains a standard work. When I was fifteen or so I marveled at the Maeght Foundation and the history of the Maeght gallery, which I regularly visited with my father, who was a collector. One day, while working on an exhibition of works by Matisse, Derain, Vlaminck and Braque, painted between 1905 and 1907, I had a sort of revelation. I realized that these artists had been very young at the time: Braque was 24, and Matisse, the eldest, just 35. This got me interested in the artists of my own generation.
The inspiration of other dealers
One way of pursuing this desire to present contemporary works through an affirmation of critical preferences was to have a place in which to display them. And I was guided by the example of gallery owners who had played a central role in promoting the artists of their time. I met a number of them: Aimé Maeght (shortly before his death), or again Rodolphe Stadler, who had an amazing eye. He had Swiss roots, like myself, and I had many memorable conversations with him. I also recall Paul Facchetti, a photographer and gallery owner who put on Jackson Pollock’s first Parisian exhibition, in 1958. As a student, I often passed by the Studio Facchetti at 6 rue des Saints-Pères. These were people who fascinated me. They showed that you could do something on behalf of artists you admired, on the basis of what I’d call an "intimate conviction" rather than a market strategy. And my wife Gwenolee, a translator by profession, shared this attitude. We had a great deal of respect for Jean Fournier, but also Lucien Durand and his wife. And this was the start of our adventure in the art world.
Gwenolee: There was an event that acted as a trigger. As we were coming back from a Matisse exhibition in Cateau-Cambrésis, we stopped off by chance at an auction room in Douai (North of France) where a sale of "contemporary paintings" was being held. The auctioneer presented a small picture, and, although we could scarcely make it out from where we were, Bernard impulsively made a bid: "A thousand francs!" And he got the picture! It was signed Paul Kallos, whom we’d never heard of. But on the back there was a label, "Galerie Pierre Loeb".
Bernard: Pierre Loeb, who backed Picasso, Braque and Vieira da Silva, was the one I felt most affinity with. He had extraordinary intuition, and it was he who organized Joan Miró’s first exhibition in France, in 1928. So I saw that as a sign…
Gwenolee: In 1988, we took over a former Nicolas wine shop in Paris, in the sixth arrondissement, which we turned into a hybrid space – something between an assessor’s office and a gallery. And we started showing works. I had management qualifications, and Bernard, though he was an art historian, took evening classes at the Chamber of Commerce to learn some basic accounting, and how to read a balance sheet.
Bernard: We gradually began discovering and supporting young artists, and we put on exhibitions. In 1992 we moved into much bigger premises at 56 rue Chapon. In fact they were the former stables at the house of Gabrielle d’Estrées, King Henri IV’s mistress. Some of the artists made a name for themselves, like the French painter Marc Desgrandchamps, who we met in April 1993, or the Italian photographer Elisa Sighicelli, who we discovered in London in 1998, or again the Swiss film maker Emmanuelle Antille, who we met in Lausanne. However, we soon found that it was a disadvantage to be Paris-based. Some of our artists were "spirited away" by international galleries as soon as they began to establish a reputation. But we also had valuable encounters with artists who encouraged and advised us: Joan Mitchell, for example, to whom we were very close during the last four years of her life. America, already! And the sculptor Wang Keping, an historic figure who, in 1979, founded the first group of non-conformist artists in China: Xing Xing. He’s still one of our mainstays.
New York (when Paris isn’t enough)
Gwenolee: Over the past decade, the pressure of the international market, and in particular its growing monetization, has led more and more French galleries to establish "franchises" in other countries. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t reflect our ambition, or the way we operate, which involves promoting artists who aren’t yet well known. Like everyone else, we’ve been present at a few fairs (and we continue to do so on an occasional basis), but we prefer to take responsibility for a personal, permanent place: this is a gallery, after all. Which is why, in 2009, we decided to open a sister gallery in New York. A lot of people thought we were crazy! And it’s true that setting up a gallery in the US is something of a challenge. But we’d previously got to know a number of collectors, notably Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic Records, who introduced us to his circle. And we made friends. We now hold a dozen solo exhibitions each year in the two galleries, along with shows organized by "curators", which provide opportunities to bring in other artists. So we have a single team, working in two separate galleries: the Galerie Zürcher in Paris, in the Marais Beaubourg district, near the Centre Pompidou, and the Zürcher Studio in New York, in the NoHo district of downtown Manhattan, near the New Museum. But in the end this is just a small contribution to the burgeoning world of contemporary art.
Between 1979 and 1986, Bernard Zürcher was a curator at the Musée de l’Orangerie, then the Palais de Tokyo. Between 1987 and 1990 he wrote several books on modern art, including Braque, vie et oeuvre (L’Office du Livre / Rizzoli, 1988) and Les Fauves (Hazan, 1995). In 1992, turning his back on modern art, he and his wife Gwenolee founded a contemporary art gallery, Galerie Zürcher, in Paris, and in 2009 a second, Zürcher Studio, in New York. He was the vice-president of the Comité Professionnel des Galeries d’Art (CPGA) from 1996 to 2006, and in October 2000 he helped to found the Espace d’Art Contemporain on the HEC campus, where he contributes to the Médias Art & Création course. A specialist in questions of patronage, he co-authored (with Karine Lisbonne) L’Art avec pertes ou profit? (Flammarion, 2007). He is a founding member, and the current vice-president, of CIPAC (the contemporary art professionals’ association). He is promoting the idea of a French Center for contemporary art in New York.
Gwenolee Zürcher is a translator who speaks several languages. She is also an expert in Asian art. She has translated, among other important works, New York 1945-1965 (L’Office du Livre, 1988). Since 2010, she has been in charge of international development at Galerie Zürcher, and she heads Zürcher Studio.