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Artissima Stories: Ilaria Leoni in conversation with Salman Matinfar

23 October 2019 Artissima Stories

Ilaria Leoni (Ermes-Ermes): With all the fairs I’ve been participating in, one specific thought arises: what does identity mean for a gallery nowadays? That’s the point I would like to start with, since sometimes after an art fair I feel lost and need to go back to my original reasons for starting Ermes, why I still want and need to keep it going, and what I’m looking for as a next step. Also, I would like to talk about how art fairs can coexist with a gallery’s program and space, in terms of market, promotion, and the vision of the gallery itself.

Salman Matinfar (Ab-Anbar): I believe your point regarding the identity of a gallery is a valid one, as I have always struggled with it myself in the past six years. I am an Iranian Canadian gallerist who lives in London, runs a gallery in Tehran, presents artists around the world and participates in different fairs all over the globe. But what has always pulled everything together is the way my work reflects my own truth. My nomadic lifestyle is mirrored by my management style, choice of artists, and networking and selling strategies. From this perspective, I would say fairs are temporary destinations perfectly in tune with this nomadic approach of ours. That said, I also wonder whether I have created this identity or have been forced into it by the latest trends of the global art scene, which simply mean that to survive, you have to be mobile and an active fair-goer. I’m happy to be having this conversation; I think this kind of dialogue helps us understand each other even without knowing each other!

IL: It’s great to read your story. The nomadic condition is something that means a lot to me. I founded Ermes almost five years ago as a nomadic gallery; at the time, using the word nomadic in association with a commercial gallery mostly drew skeptical reactions. How can you represent an artist without a permanent space, etc.? Nowadays, as you said, being nomadic is a way to survive, to be part of an international discussion. Actually, when I started the gallery I didn’t have enough money to pay the rent on a permanent space, so I decided to build the gallery around my weak points: money and space. From the start, the idea of identity was at the center of my thoughts; I built the program, the booths, and every element of Ermes in accordance with my own tastes. In my mind it’s like a book-portrait of myself, divided into different chapters with different flavors. Now, the task is to maintain that level of freshness. When I walk around an art fair, sometimes I feel that everything is too homogenized. I’m very curious about how you build up your program, and also about the contemporary art scene in Tehran. What is it like in terms of artists, collectors and institutions? My second thought was about how a gallery space can survive if a gallery only sells at art fairs, since it’s become quite difficult to sell from shows at the gallery. What do you think? How we can bring collectors back to the galleries?

SM: Such an interesting idea: building a gallery around your weak points! For me, the weak point was that I’d left Iran behind. After leaving Iran in my twenties, I emigrated from the Middle East to Canada in 2011. Soon I realized that the type of gallery I wanted had no place in Toronto. So I decided to take another look at running my business in Tehran. But how could I do that when I wasn’t living there? Eventually, that’s what became my gallery’s identity. I started representing Iranian artists in the diaspora. I used my network abroad to expose the unseen art inside Iran. From this perspective, my artists share the same nomadic lifestyle, so the gallery, in spite of its permanent location, has become a context reflecting these relationships. As for the art scene in Tehran: it’s a city that is tangled up in many socio-political impositions. In such cities, art is a powerful means of expression and artists have many sources of inspiration. I should say that the number of artists, private galleries and gallery-goers is impressive. However, the public institutions are very limited. They either do not receive enough financial support or are tools for government propaganda. Therefore, the role of galleries is a bit different compared to many other countries. We have to shoulder the burden that normally belongs to institutions and non-commercial spaces. In the past six years, we have had a few non-commercial exhibitions just to create a healthy dynamic in the art scene, since the culture of collecting and patronage cannot be built and practiced in a purely commercial context. I also suffer from the lack of local collectors and have to improve my sales by continuously participating in art fairs—a process that is extremely tiring, expensive, and in many cases not rewarding. This is a very problematic phenomenon and has reached the point that nowadays, many collectors prefer to buy their artworks only at fairs. The same collectors may pay us a visit at the gallery, but would rather make the purchase at the fair. As a result, the moment we decide not to participate in a fair, we may end up losing that collector, since the relationship was a sudden, fragile bond created over a short period of time. I believe a gallery can succeed if it has “local” collectors who are aware of the gallery’s contribution to the society they all belong to, and want to be part of building something together. Obviously, this only happens if the gallery believes in what it’s doing and in the kind of art and artists it is presenting. In that case, the combination of local collectors and foreign ones (at fairs) may lead to a healthy outcome.Now, given what you mentioned about your limited budget, have you finally managed to settle down and have a permanent space? If so, I would be interested to hear how you managed the shift. If not, I would love to know more about your story, as I am thinking of expanding to London but am debating whether to go for a nomadic style or a permanent one. As you know, London is quite expensive and I believe my situation would be similar to the one you had in Vienna!

IL: Salman, it’s great to hear about the scene in Tehran, and your impassioned tone makes everything seem vivid and familiar to me. In Italy the scene is actually similar in terms of institutions: we have only a few museums with a decent permanent collection. Apparently they have very small budgets to allocate to supporting young galleries and artists, and mainly buy establish artists. On the other hand, Vienna is much livelier: local institutions are very present and active in supporting the younger scene, or at least very curious to find out what is growing up around them. The discussion is quite vibrant and open, you still have bars and places where you can get together with colleagues and artists and share your thoughts. This year, Ermes will be part of the Vienna Secession fundraising dinner along with a group of other young galleries; this is the first time the “youngsters” will have a couple of tables, and we are all very happy to be part of this event. Regarding collectors: I think that you have the same problems that we have in Europe, where there are many discussions focused on how to bring the collectors back to the gallery and how to sell the shows. How can we survive without investing so much energy in the art fairs? We were saying that maybe we should refuse to go to some art fairs, as Team Gallery or other galleries from the same generation have already done. But that may be possible only if you are in NY, and in other places could be very risky. At the moment I feel the need to travel as much as I can to promote my artists and our vision. Now it’s Cologne, then Paris, Naples, Turin and Vienna again. You know what I mean! When people ask me about Ermes, I always say that it’s a family-run gallery (where the family used to be only me, but now I have a part-time collaborator…) and I want to promote it personally with my own voice, my own smell, and my own mistakes. I think that everything should stay connected to what we are. That said, I’ve found our permanent location in a late nineteenth-century building close to the Secession. It’s a former stable in the courtyard of the building, a small, very charming space without heating or Wi-Fi. The rent is quite affordable and most of the artists are very happy with it. Probably the next step is to find something more classic with an office, etc., but for now I’m keeping my eyes open and will see what happens.

SM: Many people in the West tend to think of my country as a place where people still ride camels and live a barbaric lifestyle. And my job is mainly to explain the opposite: no, we don’t ride camels or live in tents! And yes, we have art galleries in Tehran: actually, there are quite a few! I have had many visitors at art fairs ask questions about Iran and the political situation and whether it’s safe to travel; they may even be surprised to learn galleries exist in the country at all. In response, I like to encourage people to visit and assure them that the media do not always tell the truth. Sometimes it gets frustrating, though. After four years of participation, Artissima almost feels like home to us. We have met many people and made friends with many collectors, curators and art lovers. I remember the first year in our booth, we were just answering Iran-related questions and did not make a single sale. I think it’s very important to be persistent and not give up if the first year is not what you hoped for. I particularly like Artissima because it’s not like other big fairs. It’s not only about mega-galleries, but pays more attention to next generation of artists and gallerists.

IL: I should say that last year at Artissima I finally met the collector I had in mind as the ideal kind of collector for Ermes when I opened the gallery. We started up a dry but funny conversation about our program and our approach, and after a couple of months he eventually bought a work. It was a very special moment for the gallery, because it gave me hope and faith. Turin and Artissima are always an important place for meeting people and presenting our vision and dreams.

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