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Sadie Coles: An Interview

Sadie Coles

While working for the distinguished art trader Anthony D'Offay, she was already widely known. But since she opened Sadie Coles['] HQ in London's Heddon Street the British gallery-owner Sadie Coles has become a star of the international art scene. Apart from young British artists like Sarah Lucas she also promotes contemporary American art and organises "Gallery Swaps" every summer, exchanging her exhibits with an important gallery in another country. For two years now Coles advises the Deutsche Bank with her expertise in international young art. met up with Coles to ask her what actually happens behind closed doors when the curators gather to select new acquisitions for the collection.

Let’s start with your gallery: how would you describe your programme?

It’s international. When I opened the gallery, I deliberately programmed it to have an international rather than a British profile, and my choice of artists reflects this: from Richard Prince to Sarah Lucas to Urs Fischer.

How did you get to know the Deutsche Bank curators Ariane Grigoteit, Friedhelm Hütte, and Britta Färber?

They were looking for a new international advisor, and they’d visited a lot of galleries. They came to London and saw maybe ten galleries in one day. Then they rang up and asked if they could come by and have a meeting with me. But I really didn’t know what it was all about. They just came and asked me to talk a bit about my programme and the artists I represent. So I showed them a lot of material, on transparencies, in catalogues and the like – and then, at the end of the meeting... we were just laughing a lot! The next day, they rang up and said that they wanted me to help them widen their collection.

Why do you think they asked you to join their team?

They liked my jokes, I guess (laughs). I think it was because they wanted somebody who wasn’t too local, somebody who was seeing a lot of stuff internationally – not only British artists, but European artists, Asian and American artists, and particularly West Coast, because they knew I’d been doing a lot with the United States and especially Los Angeles. They were really interested in that. And they liked the broad scope of the artists I show. And also, I suppose, because the bank had merged with a big American bank, Bankers Trust. Maybe they particularly wanted to expand the collection into American art. They knew I’m well informed in this area and have contacts with other international galleries. They obviously have an amazing German collection, so they didn’t need somebody who was an expert here.

How did your involvement with the American art scene actually begin?

I’ve just spent a lot of time looking at art in both New York and Los Angeles. N.Y. and L.A. are very different – and therefore produce a different kind of artist. When I opened the gallery, there was a whole generation of people: John Currin, Elizabeth Peyton, Keith Edmier, Laura Owens, and others who weren’t showing their work in London.

Do you see a similar artistic approach connecting the scenes in London and L.A., and what are the differences?

The similarities are the dominance of the art schools, a relatively new art market, and that museums and art schools are more dominant than the market is. The differences are that London, for one, obviously has more of an infrastructure for an international market and a longer history of art trading. It’s more developed, but can also be more crass. Rent, space, and materials are cheaper in L.A., and so you tend to see artists making more ambitious projects. Also, L.A. has this great tradition of artists who continue teaching: Charlie Ray, John Baldessari, and Mike Kelley for instance, which is an amazing thing for young students. We don’t really have that situation in London – Damien Hirst and Co. don’t teach.

When you think back to the beginning of your collaboration with the Deutsche Bank, what was your first impression of the collection? Do you have a special affinity for German modernist painting?

No, not particularly. But I have to say that when I had a look at the building in Frankfurt, I thought that the collection had some amazingly impressive German material from the early 60s: its scale and the focus on works on paper are sensible and have helped define the collection.

The bank’s commitment since the 50s is astounding, and it’s this longevity, together with the fact that the purchasing has been left up to the art historians and not board approval that have given it such quality. I don’t believe in local classifications, but I like German painting from the 60s because of its brave interpretation of the post-war relationship to American and Pop Art and the impact of photography. They have some amazing things, for instance a really early series of drawings by Polke. And there are a lot of works that were bought in this period of German eighties painting – masses of Dokoupil and all those people…

Would you say you’re particularly fond of this period of German painting?

Look, if you’d asked me before I went, I would have said “No,” but when I actually looked at some of these works on paper, I really did like them. There are some really good things amongst all of those painters of that period.

So you can deal with the basic structure of the collection?

Yes, I can. And I like the fact that the curators are very keen to buy younger things. They really want to start early with an artist. They continue to look at the works. Once they’ve bought one thing by an artist, they’re completely happy two years later to look at something else by that artist. And that’s why I think the collection is so good. Just as I’ve said, they have really early Polke pieces, and then, over the years, they’ve been adding other works of his to it. I also like the fact that people are living with the collection day by day. It’s not disintegrating in a warehouse somewhere.

What do you think about the concept of presenting art at the workplace?

The same as I feel about it being anywhere – it sparks an interest in the ordinary person, and in this case, most employees I spoke to at the Twin Towers in Frankfurt seemed well aware and proud of the bank’s commitment to contemporary art. I think that the more people are surrounded by art, the more interested they become – and they get into it and see that the collection is growing.

Are there any controversies concerning the works chosen for purchase?

Because the art is hanging in the offices of the bank, it cannot be sexually, religiously, or politically offensive – which does mean that some great things don’t make it into the collection. Also, the budget doesn’t allow for serious retrospective acquisitions to fill the gaps – for example purchasing important American pop work such as Warhol, Johns, or Rauschenberg to show alongside the 60s German works.

Is there a common idea on what to buy, or do you have to fight for your ideas?

Yeah, sometimes. First of all, there’s this pre-selection process where we look at slides and the Deutsche Bank curators say “I’m interested in this art,” and I collect the material and they say what they like. But then there’s this one meeting, the one day when we’ve actually brought specific works to Frankfurt. I also meet the renowned gallery-owner Bärbel Grässlin from Frankfurt there. She has been advising the Deutsche Bank for a number of years already and I work together with her on these occasions. There’s a sort of panel moment where the people from the bank and Bärbel Grässlin and I present the things and discuss them all, and of course some rather heated discussions take place, where I say (screams hysterically) “You must have this!” Sometimes they don’t want it because they don’t really know about the person’s work, or maybe I didn’t present enough of it and they have to see more. And then I go back a year later and show them something else and they remember the work from the previous year. So you’re building up their knowledge as much as anything else.

Do you also have to deal with bankers?

I only have to deal with the curators, which is actually the difference between this and other cooperative collections, where you’re usually dealing with a company’s directors. In this case, they employ three art historians who have to stick to a budget but are otherwise completely free, which is pretty unusual.

What kind of perspective do you see for the collection for the future, now that the business is getting more and more virtual?

That’s why the bank’s curators started to think about display in a larger sense. For instance, the collaboration with the Guggenheim Foundation is also very important, because you actually have the opportunity to put up exhibitions in a museum such as the Deutsche Guggenheim, rather than just in an office. In Edinburgh, they collaborated with the Scottish National Gallery. I think that’s the obvious way for them to go, that the curators in the bank will be initiating more partnerships with institutions, publicising more, and getting the collection out into the public.

How has your choice of works influenced the appearance of the DB collection?

I present younger and more international works to the curators. I’m also introducing more figurative and textual works.

Which young artists do you consider to be especially promising?

Salla Tykka, Dirk Bell, Lucy McKenzie, JP Munro, Kai Althoff, Urs Fischer, Wilhelm Sasnal, and from the UK Nigel Cooke, Daniel Sinsel, Jim Lambie, Don Brown, Victoria Morton, and Mark Leckey – but I could go on and on, because there’s a lot of very good work out there.

Oliver Koerner von Gustorf

Translation: Christian v. d. Goltz/ Oliver Koerner von Gustorf