In March 2021, you announced that Cinnnamon Gallery would not proceed in the previous format, and mentioned that the gallery was not just a brick-and-mortar model, but rather an agency. Did the pandemic situation of the last year influence your decision or was it an existential shift – not to live within old formats?
The idea had been brewing for a couple of years, but the pandemic became a catalyst. I used to half-jokingly say that the only reason to have a physical space is to be able to apply to art fairs. And the main reason for making shows in this space is to post-installation images of a show on Instagram. We have made some fantastic exhibitions over the years, but with these exhibitions, we have always catered more to a crowd of artists and art world professionals than to collectors. However, since the pandemic, almost a hundred percent of our sales have been unrelated to gallery shows. We increasingly connect with our clients online. I believe that the world, including the art world, will look different after the pandemic. Not instantly or dramatically, but inevitably. This is the time to take the leap, for me.
I think there is a systemic crisis in the art market. The model of a ‘bricks and booths’ gallery has run its course. It will linger for several more decades, but it’s a bad business model so it will not last long. I’m not saying I have the answers though. The market is in full transition, and we cannot fully comprehend how it will be developing in the coming decade.
Are you keeping Rotterdam as the main location or will the gallery turn “nomadic”?
The exhibition program will go nomadic, although I prefer the expression ‘roving gallery’. We’re not going to be based in a specific place or city. The Netherlands is a small country, it’s easy to move around and find interesting locations. International projects may also be possible after the pandemic.
Why did the artist decide to open his own space? How did you start running the gallery? How many times have the thought to quit it all come to your mind?
There were several reasons. I wanted to make exhibitions. I wanted to talk about art. I wanted to write about art. I wanted to discover art, promote art, help develop artistic careers, and I wanted to create, to build something worthwhile. I wanted to work with people, rather than materials, and I wanted to be inspired.
I started with doing my own research, made a plan, talked with some people in the field. When I was ready, I found a space and just opened it. My sheer enthusiasm helped me through the first few years; it was a lot of work but also a lot of fun! The gallery quickly gained a good reputation internationally as a gallery with an exciting program. Local recognition grew a lot slower; I certainly overestimated the effect of international reputation on local sales.
I’m not sure what you mean by ‘quit it all’, but I certainly have had the urge to break out.
How does an artist’s vision differ from the vision of a gallerist, when they look at the same piece?
As an artist, you see other people’s art from the perspective of your own practice. It can be quite an egocentric way of looking.
As a gallerist, I have a broader view. Creating a programme is like curating, I look for connections, collisions, I aim to facilitate a dialogue that makes the programme interesting in the long run. Some artists in the programme work in ways that are totally different from my own former or current artistic practice. However, I must have some connection with their oeuvre. I see a piece of myself reflected in all the gallery artists’ pieces. It’s very personal, I put on display things that I would buy as a collector. Which doesn’t sound like a good business strategy, I know. Passion trumps fashion.
As a dealer, to distinguish this role from the program-building part of being a gallerist, I also have to look at what I believe or what I expect to sell.
What is the core of professional life for you as a gallerist? How has the nature of collecting, exhibiting, promoting, and selling art changed with technologies?
I believe it has changed, even in the relatively short time I’ve been doing this. The move online is inevitable. Most people nowadays see artworks only online through Instagram or designated art platforms. It’s both good and bad. We reach many more people, but unless the art itself is digital it should be seen in real life, its ‘aura’ so to speak needs to be experienced physically.
Where is the main borderline that separates the new generation of collectors from the previous one? Is this generation just younger or are there new principles in professional practice independent of age?
I think the new generation of collectors operates more independently. Younger people consume information differently. They go online, and seem to navigate multiple social networks more easily. Reliance on the expertise of a few local gallery owners is simply less of an issue. We, as gallerists, need to reinvent ourselves to reach the new generation. New technologies and the changing market also affects older generations of collectors, but perhaps less so. My impression is that older collectors stick with their existing networks and would be less open to online-only galleries. But this is of course a generalization!
One of the main Cinnamon’s themes is investigation and representation of the new materiality and digitalization of different spheres of our lives. How long will this “trend” remain influential, from your perspective, and what will come next? ‘Post new materiality’?
If you consider this to be a ‘trend’ it might already be over. The new big thing is identity politics, which is something I am not particularly interested in. However, digitalization is more than a trend. The digital is a part of life; it will keep developing, so artists will keep reflecting on it. For me this remains interesting, especially in relation to traditional media. I don’t see a new dominating trend yet, there is both focus on materials now, and on the digital. However, I think a younger generation of artists is much more aware of the ecological impact of materials. I think we’ll see less plastics. Also, this return to the ‘aura’ indicates that we’ll see less slick aesthetics. Prints on Dibond have proven not to resonate that well with the art market, in general, at least from my experience.
Is that “back to the aura” real after W. Benjamin sentenced it to “death” in the age of mechanical production? How could you define the “aura” of an art object in the post-digital time?
I refer to Walter Benjamin’s use of the word ‘aura’ here, which he problematized in the age of technical reproduction, because you could consider the existence of artworks as digitally reproducible as another challenge to the notion of the aura, the so-called ‘soul’ of the artwork that is linked to its uniqueness. People simply like to see traces of the making process, to see the hand of the artist in the art piece, to smell wet paint.
Do we still need the offline network and self-promotion within art-fairs? How has the relationship between a gallerists, collectors, and art-fairs organizers transformed since the establishment of submission platforms and online galleries?
I think we have reached the peak with art fairs. Art fairs play a major role in the systemic art market crisis I mentioned before, but it’s the galleries that have created this problem by focusing so much on the art fair escalator willing to bleed financially just to move up the hierarchy. You have to understand the reality of art fairs for small and mid-level galleries. They’re a huge financial risk, and fairs are not primarily about art, they’re market places. Surviving this system is an endurance test, endurance in this case means having deep enough pockets to survive the competition for subsequent years.
As for small and young galleries, our added value for the fairs is entertaining clients of bigger galleries. We bring the new that they can ‘discover’, but collectors mostly buy conservatively from established artists and galleries. As Jerry Saltz put it, the name of the game is sadly ‘keeping up with the Gagosians’. Well, you can’t do that and run a tight curator programme at the same time unless you have deep pockets. Art fairs also have a fun side and I’ve occasionally made some good sales, but I really believe that the system is out of control.
Of course, art-fair organizers, collectors, gallerists also notice all of this. Art fairs are moving online. We saw that the pandemic has had a huge impact on this; almost every major fair had an online edition last year. I’ve read very mixed reports on the results. Big names would sell; collectors buy those just as an investment. But the time collectors spend on online art fairs is very limited. If you are a small fish in a big pond, you simply won’t get noticed. So I think it would be smart to look for alternatives. To focus more on other types of collaboration, or more on local initiatives to forge new networks.
How do you see the balance between art as a part of commerce and business, and art as a form of reflection of the surrounding world, including commerce and business?
This is a complicated topic. I think it is almost impossible to reach such a balance. I also think that the relationship between art as a representation of the world and art as a commodity is one of the most interesting ones precisely because of it. Some artists, like Andy Warhol or Jeff Koons, succeeded in reaching the balance by making their work about commerce and branding, though I don’t think that this approach really succeeds as art. In the end, its cynicism falls flat. Perhaps we shouldn’t worry about such a balance. In my gallery programme, there are few, if any, artistic reflections on the world of commerce and business. Some of the art I present is critical of it in a more implicit and philosophical way.
Are you a kind of person who breaks the rules that everybody follows in the professional world or rather a gallerist who tries to keep the well-known system away from challenges?
I’ve always been a challenge-the-rules type. Not for the sake of rule breaking itself, but when the rules cannot live up to critical analysis, rationally or morally, I don’t see the reason to follow them. Although I’m very much of a social cohesion and mediator type of person, it’s just not in my nature to follow group mentality. Like I said above when discussing gallery models and art fairs, a lot of the rules, norms, and social codes don’t make sense to me. At the same time, I’m well aware that the ‘system’ rewards you when you play along and that stepping out of line is a risk. So far, I’ve been trying to reach a balance.
I believe we’re in a transition market. There’s an increasing schism between commerce on the one hand, and content and curation on the other. Some of the fastest growing businesses in the art market, like Avant Arte, have a superb understanding of the online marketplace. They are not burdened by the unwritten rules of the art world and understand that this also applies to the younger art buyers they cater to. They don’t care about ‘programmes’ and are put off by the elitism of the traditional market. I think the anti-elitism is refreshing, but this approach to the market is also too commercial nowadays. On the other side, there are mega galleries. These two sides of the market will find each other. I believe that the role of smaller, more idealistic galleries will increasingly be defined by ‘niches’. This could mean playing a more local role, or to operate globally within a well-defined specialism or sub category.
I have to figure out what my own future role will be. It looks like it will remain more ‘content-driven’ than ‘commerce-driven’. Changing the model and lowering the overhead should make this possible.
What is the core of your relationship with artists: business interest, a prospect of future investments, or friendship? Is it possible for a young artist to reach you on Instagram Direct and just write “Hello, Pieter, can I show you my portfolio”?
It differs. Each relationship between an artist and a gallerist is unique. Some are friends; with others, it’s more business-like. But it always starts with an interest in the art piece. I couldn’t work for an artist whose art I don’t like or don’t appreciate.
In a broader context, I consider the gallery as a network. There is solidarity, there is friendship – also between some of the artists, but of course, it is a business relationship in the end. I’m the one who makes decisions on the course of the gallery. Sometimes interests and views don’t align in the long run, they just develop naturally, and that’s ok. It’s not a ’till death do us part’ arrangement, that’s an overly romantic way of looking at a business relationship. Having said that, I am loyal by nature.
Artists can always contact me on Instagram, but please understand that I cannot always respond. It’s not personal!
What is the forecast from Pieter Dobbelsteen for the global art market in the next 2-3 years?
I think the local is the new global. The ‘airport artist’ is out of fashion.
Online activity will continue to grow; investments will increase in online platforms and presentations. Young, tech-savvy online entrepreneurs will be recognized as players on the market more often. The transformation continues.
Mega galleries will maintain or solidify their position. New galleries will continue to be established by those who have money to play with; others will shut down when the money runs out. Slowly, the traditional bricks-and-booth model will disappear, but that’s not a matter of 2-3 years, I think it’s a matter of a few decades.
Art fairs will keep trying to find new forms to survive, either by going online or by organizing more small and local fairs.
In terms of the art that will be successful in the coming years: I think that female artists and artists of colour will continue to do well in the English-speaking world, this trend isn’t over yet. The expressive-figurative painting will stay on its course as the safe option for art buyers.
I’m unsure about the NFT-hype. I think blockchain technology is here to stay, but to what extent it will be embraced by the more traditional contemporary art market is unclear. So far, the pieces I see on NFT-platforms are very much the antithesis of high art, it’s basically deviant art with a price tag. It’s unlikely that traditional art will find its place in the crypto world, so the technology will have to be imported into its conservative world. I think it’s an interesting perspective, but traditional art is slow in adapting to such innovations.