Interview with Michael Oess, owner of Neue Kunst Gallery
Mr Oess, you have been working as a modern art gallerist for decades.
However, you trained as a conservator, how did you get into that?
After graduating I established a company dedicated to the restoration of artworks, which operated on an international basis and employed over 10 staff at various points in time. In the mid 1980s, my wife at the time motivated me to start collecting art myself and as a consequence, I met a host of young artists. At some point, more and more people asked me to establish a showcase gallery and help emerging talents display their work. As a result, I established my first gallery in Konstanz in 1997. I even went a step further and came up with "Konstanzer Kunstnacht", a series of cultural events held on an evening/night of the year, organised together with the cities of Konstanz and Kreuzlingen in Switzerland – and the event is held to this day. My wife back then had been born in Greece and so it was a natural progression for us to also open a gallery in Athens for which she was mainly responsible. The name "Neue Kunst Gallery" (new art gallery) was also devised during that time. Using the English term "gallery" in its name was to denote the gallery's international focus. After having separated from my wife, I focussed on Karlsruhe, where I feel at home and have established a very keen audience.
You helped many emerging, unknown talents evolve.
One of your artists is a prime example of this – he has made the leap from street art sprayer to renowned international artist. How do you do it?
What are the key elements?
Like in so many stages in life, coincidence is a factor. Some years ago I wanted to organise a fully fledged urban and street art exhibition and was seeking young artists. Someone gave me a tip and introduced me to an artist for this exhibition who immediately sparked a passion in me with his technique and understanding of art. That's probably the most important element – I myself have to like the artwork very much. Second to this is the development of a trusted relationship between artists and gallerists to help both cope with any difficulties along the way. The art world is never stagnant, involves many ups and downs and artists are very rarely "en vogue" all the time. That's when you have to stay on the ball. It's the privilege of a good gallery to know art collectors who safeguard artists' economic survival, even in dire times. I have many, long-standing customers like this, some of which have also become friends over the years.
What do artists need to be good at – apart from their talents – or what type of character must they have to be professionally successful for a prolonged period of time?
They must unconditionally believe in themselves and their art. Creativity must be a character trait (and not a "one hit wonder"), they need stamina, plenty of patience and consistent faith from gallerists. And it goes without saying that they must also produce new work on a regular basis.
And what exactly characterises a good gallerist?
Without a shadow of a doubt, a good gallerist must be able to rely on a vast amount of expertise surrounding different forms of art, painting techniques, the art market and – of course – they must also hit the nail of the current zeitgeist on the head. They must organise at least one exhibition for artists they promote once a year, publish several press releases, regularly take works to shows and be a partner to artists within the context of pricing. In my opinion, it's a privilege whenever a gallery promotes an artist. As a result, it will be easier to sell their artwork compared with self-promotion using online media.
What has profoundly changed during the time you have been active on the art market as a gallerist? Can you recommend artworks that are particularly popular?
Looking at digital opportunities, it has become significantly harder to run a gallery. However, luckily, genuine art collectors – the ones who accompany artists' work with their purchases – are generally personalities that want to come as close as possible to the work and the artist. Just looking at a photograph online isn't enough for them, they want to see the artwork in real life, be able to touch it and feel its aura.
You also promote artists that operate on the market with their objectified, kinetic art installations. What is the appeal of these kinds of works of art and will anyone ever buy them?
Absolutely, yes, it goes without saying that there are buyers for these kinds of works! Just like there are art collectors focussing on photography, paintings, drawings or sculptures. Of course, the market is significantly smaller and artists producing kinetic works or installations are more prominent in museums or in public spaces (e.g. percent for art). I would like to emphasise one thing: as a gallerist, I am not the one to interpret why a work of art is particularly popular. It's purely a question of taste and I have always tried to avoid explaining works of art.
You were at "L.A. Art Fair" in Los Angeles (USA) at the beginning of the year.
And in as recently as April you exhibited at the "Affordable Art Fair" in Stockholm (S). In autumn you're off to "Fair for Art" in Vienna (A) again. What stimulates you when you encounter aficionados and collectors of art from other countries?
It's not so much about meeting art friends from other countries in this context. It's primarily about enhancing my artists' range – this is crucial with an eye on online sales portals. Only exhibiting in Germany would mean missing out on many sales opportunities in other countries.
When you look back at the art world over the past decades: is art nowadays just something for the elites?
No, I wouldn't say that. I am delighted about the many young people from all walks of life and people with different financial means who are passionate about purchasing art. Just like collecting jewellery, watches or extravagant fashion, art sales will always be fashionable. In my opinion, there is an ample range of artworks in different price categories you can be passionate about. Throughout my many years as a gallerist I also frequently came across art collectors who were passionate about an artist when their work was still very affordable – and the more popular the artist became, the more valuable their own collection got.
What kind of challenges and projects have you got lined up for your "Neue Kunst Gallery"?
I won't change much in terms of what I already do now. I am extremely happy with my life as a gallerist – I love what I do! And providing the market, circumstances and my health stay on the up, I will carry on doing what I do for quite a while still.
Thank you for the interview, Mr Oess!