"We Want to Invent a New Model": Why Jérôme de Noirmont Closed His Paris Gallery
PARIS — ARTINFO France met recently with Jérôme de Noirmont in his office on the rue Matignon in the eighth arrondissement, surrounded by the red, blue, and apple-green catalogues published by his now-defunct gallery. For 20 years, Jérôme and his wife Emmanuelle represented important contemporary artists such as Jeff Koons, Fabrice Hyber, Benjamin Sabatier, Shirin Neshat, and the late Keith Haring. When they announced March 21 that the gallery would close its doors on March 23, at the end of its exhibition of Marjane Satrapi’s paintings, the art world here was taken by surprise. Noirmont explained his reasons for closing, his disagreements with the current French government, and what he and his wife are planning to do next.
I don’t know if you realize this, but the announcement that your gallery was closing caused a lot of surprise and even turmoil in the art world.
Yes, I realize. Since our letter went out, we’ve received hundreds of emails and phone calls from people who expressed their friendship but also their sadness. Saturday, the last day we were open, the gallery was full. Some visitors gave us flowers, to thank us for what we accomplished over all these years. Great artists contacted us. This show of support has been very touching.
There were only two days between the announcement and the gallery’s closing. Why did you keep it under wraps for so long, and why announce it at that precise moment?
Until last Thursday only the artists knew. That seemed to us to be the least awkward time to announce the gallery’s closing. We tried for the best timing. It would have been harmful for the artists if we made this announcement in the middle of some important event — like for Fabrice Hyber, for example, who had three exhibitions up at the end of last year (at the Mac/Val, the Palais de Tokyo, and the Maeght Foundation). Despite this imminent closing, which we had been preparing for for months, it was still important to us to show the graphic artist Marjane Satrapi’s paintings for the first time.
Was the financial health of the gallery in danger?
No, not at all. The gallery is doing very well. Was doing very well. For Marjane Satrapi’s show, which ended March 23, we were sold out! The 21 paintings shown were all sold. We aren’t closing for immediate financial reasons. We had a great 2011, and a great beginning in 2012.
Why are you closing then?
Our decision comes from an observation. For two years now my wife and I have been thinking about the economic model for galleries. We have identified two types. On the one hand, there are galleries with very lightweight structures, which support young artists with few costs, and which are clearly essential. On the other hand, there are what we call “mega-galleries,” galleries which function like brands and spread all over the world. One example is London’s White Cube, which has three huge spaces, and a new branch in Hong Kong. But also other galleries that have up to ten branches in several big cities. Faced with the growth of this system, and in order to serve our artists the best we can, we had to move to a higher stage, to a different scale, and therefore to get bigger. That’s what we almost did last year, by opening a second space in Paris. But the social, political, and financial climate in France ultimately dissuaded us. We thought it was too big a risk to take. Because opening this second space was a very significant investment — we’re talking about millions of euros — and we would have needed to recruit dozens of new collaborators.
In the letter you sent to the media, you talked about “tax pressure” and an “unhealthy ideology.” Could you elaborate on this? The term “unhealthy ideology” is a bit shocking.
What’s shocking for me is to hear, for example, the current minister of culture running down a French patron, the Wendel Group, which financed part of the Pompidou Center-Metz. In France, they turn one group of citizens against the other, instead of uniting them — they want to crucify the big French industrial families. I’m thinking of certain speeches by [Jean-Luc] Mélenchon [presidential candidate of the Left Party in 2012] and [Arnaud] Montebourg [currently the minister of industrial renewal and a candidate in the Socialist presidential primary in 2011]. The whole world is shocked!
Look, I’m not criticizing one political class in particular but a general state of mind. Every year, the UMP deputy [Gilles] Carrez puts back on the table the idea including works of art in the wealth tax. In his calculations, he forgets that works of art don’t produce any interest. On the contrary, they cost their owners money, since they have to be insured for significant sums. And these are the legacies and donations that enrich our museums. So, in such an atmosphere, I didn’t see myself taking an entrepreneurial risk. But I’m speaking personally here.
Did you think about moving the gallery abroad?
Yes, we thought about it. About moving to London or New York, and making the Paris gallery a secondary space. But for personal reasons we don’t want to leave our country. So we thought about the possibility of supporting artistic creation by other means, because there’s no question of us stopping! None of our collaborators will be laid off. We still have a full team. And we’re keeping our space on the Avenue Matignon.
What are your plans for the future?
We are still thinking about it. We want to put art back in the center of society, in the center of the city. We’re not sad — on the contrary, our frame of mind is very positive. We want to invent a new model. To give our support to artists, to other colleagues. To set up charitable operations, specific projects, without a commercial dimension. It’s kind of like we’re going from ready-to-wear to haute couture. We’re getting our freedom back. I believe in art, in creativity, and what it can do for society.
What will happen to your artists?
The weeks and months ahead will be devoted to finding the best galleries for them — in Paris for some, in London for others. That’s our priority in the short term.
Do you think galleries are being hurt by competition, from art brokers for instance?
No. Or if so perhaps only on the secondary market. Look, I’m not questioning the profession of gallerist. We’re not denouncing anything — we can’t do what we would have liked to do. It’s a strategic choice, a personal choice — it’s not a general observation. Even if it could happen, eventually the mega-galleries will impose their laws. But it will never be the same relationship with the artist as in a smaller-scale gallery. The relationship with the artist is essential.
Over 20 years, what moments stand out in particular?
First of all, the initial meeting with the artists. The first time you go into their studio, that’s always a powerful moment, and a enchanting moment. And of course all the solo shows, which were designed in close collaboration with each artist. Also the catalogues published by the gallery, which remain the only material trace of the projects.
What about Jeff Koons, whom you have represented in France since 1997?
Yes, in 2000 in particular there was his monumental plant sculpture “Split-Rocker.” Today it’s still his most imposing work — it’s 41 feet tall. It was supposed to be installed at the Champs-Elysées traffic circle but that wasn’t technically possible. So it was shown at the Palais des Papes in Avignon, for an exhibition titled “Beauty.” It was a very demanding project, and very financially risky. Later in 2008, the gallery was behind Jeff Koons’s exhibition at the Château de Versailles. For this American artist, Louis XIV was the greatest patron in the history of art. He is fascinated by this symbol of power. So it was very coherent to suggest an exhibition in the palace, where one finds the same grandiosity as in the artist’s work. That is still an extraordinary memory.