Lorcan O’Neill arrives at my house wet and frozen by snow that just keeps on falling. The New York he has just landed in from Mexico looks like a fairy-tale landscape. There is an art fair going on, The Armory Show, where he has a stand, in the middle of which hangs a very large drawing/collage/watercolour by Kiki Smith.
One of the artists he represents in Italy is Tracey Emin, and she is expected any minute. Lorcan is an Irish gentleman who is very interested not only in his artists but also in writers and poets, and he gets together with them in a New York that he feels still plays host to a lively literary world.
I ask him:
Lorcan, why did you open a gallery in Rome eleven years ago?
I was working in London for Anthony d’Offay, a very famous art dealer, maybe the most active in a global way in Europe at that time. He is famous for bringing Joseph Beuys, Kiki Smith, Gilbert and George, Julian Schnabel and Francesco Clemente to London.
But why Rome?
I used to go and visit Cy Twombly in Rome. I was the person who organised things for him, and with him everything was delayed. He wanted to go for a walk, then to have dinner, to postpone… And so I often had to stay in Rome, sometimes for quite a few days. In the meanwhile Mario Codognato, a friend and an art curator, had moved back to Rome from London and we thought about finding a small space to make exhibitions in Rome. When we found the space Mario was already working towards making the MADRE Museum in Naples, so I rented the space. I was 38, I decided to have an adventure and so I opened my gallery. The art world had changed a lot.
When I first went to London and was going to dinner parties in Kensington or Notting Hill the people who were there did not even know who Gilbert and George were, or Richard Long. Nowadays taxi drivers know who Tracey Emin is, and shopkeepers know who Damien Hirst is.
Ten years ago in London I could not find a role for myself that had the balance I felt I needed. In a city like London you have to claim a territory, for instance ‘second market’, or ‘new artists’, or ‘well-known artists’. What is interesting to me is to cross the board, and if somebody is 78 or 20 years old it is irrelevant.
So you went to Rome?
Yes. I felt I could incubate ideas there without too much scrutiny.
Who did you start with?
Richard Long. And the second show was Jeff Wall. This is why when I opened my new gallery last summer I did a show with Richard Long, Jeff Wall and Enrico Castellani.
Why Enrico Castellani?
He is an Italian artist, and I always liked his work. He is still alive and lives near Rome. He is a great artist and it was an honour for me to work with somebody like that.
Are Romans interested in contemporary art?
Yes, they are. In the beginning we sold a lot in Italy, but in the last five years, because of the crisis, things have changed and people are more prudent.
Who are the artists that work with you?
From very well-known international artists like Anselm Kiefer or Jeff Wall, to unknown artists on their way up. Eddie Peake, for whom we did his very first exhibition – now he is in demand. We have Prem Sahib, half-Indian half-Polish, and he is another quite well-known young artist. A gallery is like a family and has grandparents, parents, children, grandchildren. For instance, Tracey Emin who did her first show in Italy in 2004. At the time nobody knew who she was. She was a young, unknown, talented artist. Now she has moved on and is well known in Italy.
What about Italian artists?
It is difficult to be an Italian artist, because in Italy they are not cohesive and self-supportive. In cities like New York, London, Berlin and Paris the art scene is self-supportive. In Italy it is very fractured. There are too many cities, too many centres, and it is hard for an Italian artist to become recognised unless they are very patient.
You represent Luigi Ontani who is quite well known?
The best-known Italian artists today are Rudy Stingel, Francesco Clemente who lives in New York, Maurizio Cattelan who lives in New York, and Francesco Vezzoli whose success was made abroad. Maurizio Cattelan is one of the great artists of his generation. Luigi Ontani is a great artist whose work is still under-recognised abroad, even if artists like Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman and Julian Schnabel have his work.
And the young ones?
Pietro Ruffo is doing well abroad. We have sold his work in Mexico, Hong Kong…
Do Italians collect contemporary art?
Yes, Italians have art in their blood more than any other nation in the world. Art is part of life.
Are you going to open galleries anywhere else?
I am wedded to Rome. I dreamed all my life of living in Rome because it always seemed caput mundi in everything. There has to be a reason that Rome and Jerusalem have been essential for thousands of years.
How is the art market today?
It is expanding. The art world was so small that it had so much room to expand. As long as one is active in the world there is a very consistent art market.
Do young people collect contemporary art?
Yes, there are young collectors, but all over the world the real collectors are older. There are a lot of new people collecting, but my impression is that it is quite virtual for most young people. In Dallas I have a couple of young collectors who really do carefully put their works in their home and they live with the art.
What kind of relationships do you have with the artists you represent?
They are profound and entail the cornerstone. Without relationship to the artist, for me the entire venture is meaningless. Because, as a gallery, you are only dealing with things, material objects. The relationship with the artist is what gives energy and viability to the enterprise of having a gallery and bringing out art to the public of a particular place. If we do a show with Kiki Smith or Luigi Ontani we bring out the ideas that come up. A gallery has a public role. Our job is to bring the immediacy of an artist’s ideas to the public of a particular place.
Is there a lot of competition?
Yes, in the international sense. I think that for the Italian artists it would help them if we had a space outside of Italy. As I said before, Italian artists are disadvantaged by the fracture. That is why we opened an office in London; and I don’t know yet if we will open a gallery.
How many shows do you do?
Five to six per year, as well curated as possible.
Are you looking for new artists?
We do always look for new artists, but with only one gallery we have to choose our artists very carefully. I like the idea of a familial compatibility. It is good when one artist respects the work of another artist.
Are you content with your choices?
Yes, more and more so. Very much so with my new gallery. I like to go there because the space allows art to sing and that is very rare in any space.
You seem to travel a lot?
Yes, we just went to Mexico for eight days, we will stay in New York for eight days, and then eight days in Hong Kong for Art Basel…. and then Rome.
March 5th, 2015
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