Interview with Orly Benzacar *

Buenos Aires, 24 May 2016

The period that encompasses the first two decades of this century has been crucial for Latin American art and, of course, also for you and the direction your gallery has taken. Am I right?

Yes. My mother [Ruth Benzacar] died in the year 2000, six months after Marcantonio Vilaça passed away. It’s tempting to believe that it is no mere coincidence that two crucial figures for contemporary art in Latin America left this world a few months apart. I think there was a change of paradigm in the art market right at that time: the consolidation, explosion, and proliferation of art fairs have transformed art history. This goes hand in hand with globalization and the internet: the world mediated by the screen. Almost everything happened at the same time. It’s strange. The market began to function in a different way: now all the energy is concentrated in the fairs and so most galleries are less and less prominent. We still have a real presence, but our actual modus operandi is focused on the screen and the fair. Naturally, we keep producing exhibitions, but less people come to the gallery. In the first decade of this century, the number of visitors to the gallery began to drop significantly.

And the customers as well?

The public yes, the clients no. It’s fashionable to buy art. The art of the twenty-first century has gone international. Now it is socially attractive to collect contemporary art and to possess a home filled with art pieces. Special issues are produced in every trendy magazine. It was not like this in the past. Art belonged to a more selective world and was never a broad social phenomenon. I remember when, in 2002, the first edition of Basel-Miami was made and then the second. There was a lot of hype, a lot of money spent at the fair and in Miami’s grand houses; above all, those of celebrities who organized very select parties. Several parties a day. I recall being at the home of Paulina Rubio, a popular Mexican singer who was at her peak. A very young girl. Her house was made by a star architect, filled with contemporary art of the highest quality. I said to myself: something new is happening here. It was not what I had seen ten years before. 

This phenomenon responds to a combination of factors. 

And this phenomenon kept growing until 2008, when the world economic crisis erupted with the crash of Lehman Brothers. Basel-Miami helped to bring contemporary art to world prominence for the first time. Another global phenomenon rose between the 1990s and 2000s: the proliferation of contemporary art museums, especially in Europe and the United States. In Spain each commune has its museum and, remarkably, the same thing has happened in the United States and throughout Europe as well. People are moving in a different way; they travel much more. The whole world moves, thousands of tourists visit the museums… All that made contemporary art become fashionable.

And what happened after the crisis?

The First World—the northern hemisphere—is recovering rapidly. Interest in art also picked up soon. Not in our country. We are still waiting for that to happen. I think there is a rebound effect. When we go to Miami today, there are 24 fairs, which means there is an audience that demands them. Fairs are full of people buying and selling, right? The market is doing well.

Who dominates that market? Who is responsible for its fall or rise? What are the crucial and determining factors? Which are its driving forces?

I don’t know if we can detect these with precision. Within all these dynamics, we are moving towards an unknown destination. The market determines many things, and that does not seem right to me. Having to work as a gallery owner at a biennial! Instead Biennials ought to teach me something new in my field! Gallery owners are indeed selling at biennials, unfortunately. The art market is being controlled by very powerful galleries: monsters whose directors take charge of the artists and their collectors. They are huge businesses. I don’t know if that’s right or wrong, really. It is what it is. Galleries like mine, like Luisa Strina, like Fortes know their artists. The monsters, on the other hand, make a master plan. They are price-calculating machines, they handle an entirely different apparatus. Within this universe of large fairs, etc., an imbalance is taking place, a real gap. The fairs are convenient for the powerful precisely because we are being left out. I cannot pay to be in Basel-Switzerland. They admit me, yes. So far, so good. But I was not doing well financially at those fairs. I’m not interested in fighting the powerful: White Cube, Gagosian, Hauser + Wirth. I don’t like that gallery model. I like the personal treatment. I don’t want to sit at a boardroom and conduct an orchestra. That’s another kind of business. Seeing all this, I think we are transitioning to something new. Radically new. Having said that, I do understand the importance–on one level—to have all the abundance of information, everything globalized and accessible, to be connected, to know everything, be everywhere, understand everything…

You know, Orly? I have heard exactly the same thing from German gallery owners.

It’s as if you compared a great clothing brand—let’s say Prada, which is a mogul company—to a small designer, like the kind that we have in our Palermo neighborhood. Here [in Buenos Aires] we will always have the small gallery: emerging, experimental or self-managed by artists. And that’s fine. Those who are stuck in a strange place are galleries like mine. I keep saying that one day they will kick me out of Basel-Miami. I bring good art to Miami and I sell almost everything, but considering all my expenses, I don’t make money. And the costs keep getting higher. Maybe in the near future we will have a Basel-Miami Plus for the megagalleries, a Basel-Miami Medium and a Basel-Miami Small.

Let’s turn our attention to the clients. Would it be fair to say that the first years of the 2000’s were almost a bonanza?

Yes.

It was going well for everyone involved. Do you see changes in your national and international clientele?

Yes. Here we are touching upon a particular issue that has to do specifically with my country. In my 25 or 26 years at the gallery I have learned a good deal, and I’m convinced that in a country where the economy doesn’t grow, the art market doesn’t grow either. I speak in broad terms. Obviously, there are always going be rich people as well as the fanatical collector who will buy with or without crisis. What is happening to us is that we have a country that is not growing and that is why its market has also remained small pricewise. In the last editions of arteBA, I conducted a study to see which was the most expensive piece at the fair. It made me want to cry. It’s pitiful. There are no pieces worth $500,000. There are a few that cost 100,000 or 120,000, and nobody buys them! That points to the reality in which we move. And if we go out into the world announcing that we come from Buenos Aires, you can imagine… After the first critical period, Argentina hit rock bottom and came out of that terrible state very well. Everything was very hopeful. However, after the 2008 crisis, the country could not make a rebound and we were no longer interesting to the outside world. In Europe they don’t even look at us, and on top of that we have aligned ourselves politically with Venezuela and Cuba. That affects our small market. It was then that I let go off Art Basel in Switzerland.

In the United States, collectors only buy in a Gringo gallery. Art has to be first sanctioned by a Gringo.

That happens all over the world. In Basel-Switzerland I saw my friends from Brazil, from Mexico… Marcia, Alessandra, the Riestras… We all know each other, of course. And I asked them: Excuse me, who are you selling to here? The Brazilians sell to the Brazilians, the Mexicans to the Mexicans… That’s how it goes! Things change when Latin American artists enter the big leagues and their works begin to be sold to the great museums, in contemporary art auctions, and Marian Goodman, White Cube or another one of those monsters grabs them. They are no longer Argentine or Spic artists. They become international artists. And then the English, the Gringos, the Germans are going to buy them – but not in Argentina. I’ll give you the most painful example: we have here a small international star: Adrián Villar Rojas. I discovered him in Rosario when he was 20 years old, playing the guitar and doing some art. With me, he embarked on a very serious career. I am proud and happy of what he has accomplished. Well, it turns out that I took a very important piece by Adrián to Basel-Miami—to the main section—and I couldn’t sell it. Marian Goodman and Kurimanzutto were two or three booths away and had a waiting list for the sale of works by the same artist! In other words, if an artist at this level enters the international arena, I disappear from the scene, even if I have his works. The prices are the same, by the way. We all take good care of the prices, I must admit. But I have to live with this reality. It has already happened to me with various artists: with Leandro Erlich, with Jorge Macchi… They all give me their works, they all love me, they are grateful. That’s all good, except for the market, which is not good. You see what I mean?

I wonder more and more about the meaning of the local, the provincial, and the truly international. What to do with the clients who don’t know about contemporary art? It seems that nowadays collectors buy with no criteria or concept, and they allow themselves to be guided or diverted by the big brands and names. When the first art fairs began in Germany and Switzerland, the clients were industrialists, doctors, lawyers, etc., and also the occasional intellectual with money. But these people were engaged with the artists of the time and were very well informed.

I increasingly value collections assembled by taste rather than those guided by what is fashionable. When a collector who buys what she loves comes along, I am pleased. A curated collection possesses the soul of the curator. And fashionable collections are only composed of the “must-haves.”

They collect names, instead of works.

Precisely.

Lunch with the staff and artists of the gallery, 2019

They are killing art.

Luckily no. There are always new and young passionate artists. I think that art transcends everything. Some artists lose consistency or direction, but then others emerge. There are always good creators, you know. And also, there will always be people with the tools to detect these talents.

How do you see the artists today in comparison to yesterday?

In general, they are more professional in a good way. They analyze more. They have more controlled productions. For gallery owners, that’s better. They are more organized, less romantic. Sometimes they have assistants and secretaries; they want to see where their work is going. However, I often think of my mom: how would Ruth take all this? She would be 84 years old now. I don’t think she would be happy at all. But I do find this world fascinating. I like the challenge of accompanying the art world at this time.

Many colleagues want to label all art and are afraid of what they think is freaky or subversive or what doesn’t seem to fit in some formula: that which, after all, animates all true artistic production. 

Certainly. There is a need to explain everything.

To death.

The Latin American world is very heterogeneous. How do you differentiate the regions of Latin America, Orly?

Look at Mercosur. It is the best example! It does not really exist: there is no real flow, no free movement. All is insular. Brazil is the largest country in Latin America. Argentina believes that she is the embodiment of Europe in this continent. Uruguay is like a tiny, undefinable province. Chile is a long strip of land on the other side of the mountain range. Paraguay is a jungle. Bolivia, another jungle. Argentina, Brazil and Mexico are these great monsters that devour the rest of Latin America. In the art world, those who are now making themselves felt a little more are Colombia and Peru.

Argentina is a country of immigrants. There were no original peoples. Those that did exist were very poor. Tribes. They did not possess a rich culture, like the Incas, Mayans, and Aztecs. We are not sustained by an ancient culture. In any case, the best thing that happened to us was immigration and the worst thing was the extermination of our native peoples. We still think we are European, but I feel that we are becoming more and more Latin American.

The northern hemisphere looks at Latin America with unfamiliarity. They think we are half Indians or something. A city like Buenos Aires surprises them: a Europeanized metropolis in a very isolated place. Despite all its problems, I have always held Brazil in high esteem. They have managed to maintain the Sao Paulo Biennial. Everyone in the art world knows what the Sao Paulo Biennial is. And we are only two hours away. But Buenos Aires is like in another dimension. People don’t come here. I keep insisting that we need the northern hemisphere more than the other way around. We need to expand our markets. They manage to get by with each other. From here, we have to make a huge effort. You witness a Latin American art auction and then, right next door, you witness a contemporary art auction: that is where the action is! However, I made the firm decision that I was not going to internationalize my gallery. Naturally, I sometimes invite foreign artists, but I’m not going to represent them. That is who I am.

What is a very good work of art for you? What criteria do you base yourself on?

Those of us who have seen a lot, intuitively recognize a good piece. That expertise comes from experience. You know that was trained in the sciences. I have no training in art theory. But ever since I was a child I lived inside this world of art, because the gallery operated at home. I think there are also objective parameters to analyze a work of art: originality, the artist’s journey, technique… But, above all, it is always better to look first, without knowing who you are seeing. Clearly, I have not been so wrong about the artists that I have discovered and supported. In that sense, I think I have been honest and consistent. I don’t work with or promote anyone who I don’t like. I pay attention to my intuition and my eye, which has already become critical. I don’t speculate about what may sell better or who I could make more business with. That does not interest me at all.

 * ORLY BENZACAR (Buenos Aires, 1956)

Trained as a biologist, in 1990 she joined Ruth Benzacar (the art gallery founded by her mother in 1965). In 2000, due to the sudden death of her mother, she took the reins of the gallery. Since then, she has strengthened the gallery’s strong commitment to contemporary Argentine art by participating in international fairs such as ARCO, Art Basel Miami Beach, Art Basel Switzerland, MACO Mexico, ArtBo, and locally, arteBA. For 10 years, she held the “Zero Curriculum” contest, which launched the career of many artists of an entire generation. Since 2009, her daughter Mora Bacal joined the gallery to renew and ensure the continuity of this fertile family saga of women gallery owners.

  1. Ich verstehe die Klagen von Orly Benzacar gut. Kunst und Verkaufen standen schon immer in einem schwierigen Verhältnis. Seit es Künstlerindividuen gibt, gibt es da Probleme. Also spätestens seit der Renaissance.
    Dass heute einige „Großkonzerne“ wie Hauser&Wirth ihr Unwesen treiben, entspricht einfach dem Grundgedanken des Kapitalismus’, der auch vor der Kunst nicht halt macht. Warum auch.

    Aber waren Kunstmessen nicht schon immer die größte Perversion der Sparte?
    In allen Belangen widerspricht eine Messe der Idee von Kunst. Man pfercht die Werke in stereotype Boxen, man treibt die Massen an ihr vorbei, Man buhlt um Aufmerksamkeit mit Lautem, Grellem, Originellem, man kombiniert die Werke nicht nach Sinn, sondern nach Zufallsprinzip, man nimmt ihnen Luft und Freiraum. Eigentlich sollten sich seriöse Künstler (denen es um das Wohl ihrer Werke geht) weigern, auf Messen feilgeboten zu werden.
    Das Problem zeigt sich also nicht erst bei den Kosten, die Galerien für Messen entstehen, sondern bereits im Prinzip der Messe selbst. Aber wer heute Kunst verkaufen will, der muss sich eben den Regeln des Marktes beugen. Auf einem Rindermarkt stehen in den Boxen wenigstens noch Kühe, dass heißt, es gibt ein gemeinsames Thema der Messe, Auf einer Kunstmesse, auf der inhaltliche Konzeptlosigkeit das Konzept ist und Kunst zwar nicht zur Massenware, aber zur Ware in der Masse wird, muss die Wirrnis der Botschaften bei jedem Kunstinteressierten zwangsläufig zu rascher geistiger Ermüdung führen.
    Deshalb eilen sogenannte Sammler auch nur zu den immergleichen 5 Galerien, die mit ihren Namen für Qualität (merkantile Relevanz/mittelfristige Wertbeständigkeit) bürgen.

    Kunstkäufer haben heute so wenig Ahnung wie noch nie, das bestätigt sich allerorten. Sie sammeln daher nur Künstlernamen und nicht Werke, wie es im Interview heißt. Lieber ein drittklassiger Rashid Johnson (wahlweise Tomas Saraceno, Katharina Grosse etc.) als ein erstklassiger No-Name.
    Man könnte sogar noch weiter gehen (entsprechend dem, was Benzacar sagt): Die Leute sammeln nicht Kunstwerke, sondern Galerien. Die angesagte Marke ist nicht länger der Hersteller, sondern der Vertreiber, denn Sammler kaufen die Künstlernamen nur bei bestimmten Kunstmaklern. Derselbe Künstlername in einer anderen Galerie scheint schon weit weniger interessant. Das ist wirklich bemerkenswert. Die Ignoranz der Leute (wahlweise Snobismus, Dummheit etc.) ist auch auf diesem Gebiet grenzenlos.

  2. Ruth Benzacar was one of the most inspirational people I met in my early days in art. I will always remember meeting her at the Palacio de Crystal in Madrid for Kcho’s wonderful show. I have followed the gallery program and sympathize deeply with what Orly Benzacar had to say in this interview. There are unfortunately not many galleries around today who see the art and artists for what they are and not merely for art business.

  3. In the 90’s I met Ruth Benzacar at the Palacio de Crystal in Madrid during her show with Kcho. She was one of the most inspirational people in the art world I met – I was doing my first steps as a young gallery in New York then. Orly Benzacar stepped into the legacy of Ruth, and I have followed the gallery’s program ever since. It is fortunate that gallery owners still think like Orly, as I share her conviction. Elga Wimmer

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