How art gets generated.

Dealer’s Notebook: Stefania Bortolami on the Gallery’s Role as Creative Catalyst

Tom Burr at the Bortolami Gallery

Tom Burr at the Bortolami Gallery

Interview with Stefania Bortolami of Bortolami Gallery, 520 West 20th street, New York. Interview by Art+Auction, published on December 18, 2012.

What is your background? Was there art on the walls when you were growing up?

My father is Italian and my mother is Dutch. I grew up with my father and stepmother — who is from the former Yugoslavia — and started visiting my mother in Geneva as a young child. I learned a great many languages and did a lot of traveling, but did not grow up with art. Art is something I discovered on my own in my late teens.

Do you recall the first work of art that impressed you?

I was visiting my mother in Geneva and out of boredom one afternoon I went to the Musée des Beaux Arts by myself. I saw a painting by Arnold Böcklin, Isle of the Dead, and it suddenly felt like a visual representation of the way I was feeling, the way I thought every angst filled teenager must feel. This painting just struck a chord. It wouldn’t be my favorite painting now, but the feeling was undeniable. From that moment art became my obsession. I changed my major from political science to art history and never looked back (or learned anything else aside from art)!

When did you first open your gallery, and what drew you to the business?

I first opened a little gallery in Barcelona in 1993. There was an existing gallery owned by a friend of a friend, and he gave me a little cleared-out storage area in the back. I called it Backspace. I realized that if you are not an artist, your options in the art world are to be a critic, a curator, or a merchant of some sort. I was interested in being a catalyst for making and showing new work rather than being devoted to the purely commercial part of the business.

What is most challenging about running an art gallery? Most rewarding?

By far the thing I dislike the most is looking at the bottom line. Sometimes I must be cautious with what I can produce or how extensively we can experiment. The gallery is entirely independent with no investors or silent partners or wealthy spouses. This is an enormous challenge but also spectacularly rewarding — I am beholden to no one but my artists and myself.

What has been your strangest experience in the art trade?

I was on holiday in Siwa, a remote Egyptian oasis in the Libyan desert. I struck up a conversation with a Swiss man who lives in Madrid. The subject of collecting came up, and I asked what was the last piece he’d bought. He pulled out his phone: A Richard Aldrich work from my gallery was his screen saver! The painting had been consigned to a group show, and he had purchased it the week before. He became a client.

What sets your gallery apart?

I like the fact that my roster of artists is multigenerational. It runs the gamut from Ben Schumacher, who is 27 years old, to Barbara Kasten, Morgan Fisher, and Daniel Buren, all in their 70s. I also like the diversity of my program, from the rigor of Buren to the expressionism of Jonathan Meese. I don’t think anything about my gallery could be described as “one note.”

Is there somebody who early on gave you good advice?

Anthony d’Offay. It was less about any one piece of advice and more about the way he ran his gallery. I worked there for almost three years, and Anthony held a staff meeting every day at 9 a.m. We discussed everything in these meetings, and they became a daily hour full of advice. It made me realize that every single detail of having a gallery and mounting exhibitions requires thought and care.

If you could own any artwork in the world, with price being no object, what would it be?

I think I would be very happy owning the Baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca that is hanging in the National Gallery in London. Despite being a very important Old Master painting, its formal solutions and conceptual strategy are still avant-garde today.

Beyond the art world, what are you passionate about? If you were not an art dealer what would you be doing?

If not an art dealer, I don’t know what I would be! It really does define me in many ways. I swam for the Italian national team as a teenager, so perhaps I could have been an athlete, but only for a minute. The art world is the only environment I have found that is constantly changing and always stimulating.

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