When gallerist Rachel Lehmann describes her young self as “odd” or “marginal,” it seems she must be speaking about someone else. The Ethiopian-born, European-studied art connoisseur has long followed her own compass and devotion to contemporary art. After attending the University of Fribourg, Lehmann worked at New York’s noted Sonnabend Gallery. She then opened two of her own spaces in Switzerland, where she identified new artistic talents, showing early works by David Salle and Jeff Koons.
With business partner David Maupin, Lehmann founded Offshore Gallery in New York’s East Hampton and a few years later, Lehmann Maupin. Their collaboration has since grown from a small space in Soho to four major international galleries: two in New York with recent additions in Hong Kong and Seoul. And, along the way, she has amassed a large collection of contemporary art notables personally: Matthew Barney, Bruce Nauman, Mickalene Thomas, and Teresita Fernández. If Lehmann is unusual in any way, it is her aptitude for predicting and knowing great art. “I am very curious in the way I approach life and art,” she tells CR. “I like to take a chance and defend it.”
Her deep love of forward-thinking art inspired her first gallery endeavor three decades ago. Lehmann’s approach since has been intuitive, forthright, and savvy. All these years later, she is still enamored with the creative sensibilities behind the artwork: “Hernan Bas once told me: I come to the studio seven days a week. I see an empty white canvas and I need to fill it, I need to give it life. There is the commitment—he has dedicated his full purpose to visual art.”
CR spoke with Lehmann to learn the secrets of her gallery success, how she defines true artistic talent, and where her professional aspirations lie for the future.
Prior to opening Lehmann Maupin, how did you approach art as a collector? How did this perspective lend to your gallery ventures?
“I began looking at art in high school, and I opened my first gallery in Switzerland in 1988. I have always enjoyed living an adventure and trying to understand artists’ works. There is a level of interest and global perspective I have that is fulfilled by these pursuits. As a collector, I have to consider how to protect the personal investment I have made, especially in buying young artists. This has greatly influenced my point of view in the gallery, because there is a level of trust that I need to protect for our supporters. Passion, genuine commitment, and responsibility are the three most important elements.”
You were born in Ethiopia, and then lived and studied in different cities across Europe. How does the global diversity of your own background inform your ideals as a gallerist?
“I grew up in Ethiopia, went to high school in Germany, and college in Switzerland, so I was raised with a very international background. In creative professions, there is always a part of us in what we do. My views were developed by moving around and having to adapt, but also taking with me different expressions of where I have been. I remember seeing pink and blue colors in reflections on the water in Ethiopia—there are different aspects to every culture and experience, and you carry them with you afterwards. Artists need new ideas, motivations, and exposures to create. We live in a global, interrelated world, so today having international exposure is a necessity.”
Your artists are individual and distinct in their concepts, mediums, and expressions. How do you know if an artist is a good fit and addition to the gallery?
“When you dig into it, you find that there are elements of connection between our artists. For example, many of them deal with identity. It is not so obvious initially, but Do-Ho [Suh], [Hernan] Bas, and [Nari] Ward all have undercurrents between them. They all create the idea of theatre in their work. We are not a gallery of paintings-of-the-moment or a specific subculture, but there are connections between the artworks. My partner and I are very involved in understanding our artists—we know why two paintings cannot hang next to each other. We know the appropriate concentration of works, the best transfer of knowledge. Of course, there are easier markets than international artists and more elusive, meaningful connections, but challenge is a good thing. It is not always interesting or stable to rely on surface associations.”
Many of your artists were once emerging creators that the gallery was first to exhibit. How do you spot raw, exceptional talent in an artist and their work?
“I don’t mind having the experience and being slower to an ultimate resolve. We were the first gallery to show many female artists, the first gallery to show in different areas of the world. Our first exhibition in Seoul was Ward, who is very successful in America but then totally unknown in Asia. Someone said to me that it was typical for me to show someone unknown in an arena as an opening for the gallery. My response was: that may be true, but what is more important is that you should know the artist. Taking risks can be a more difficult road but we feel very comfortable because that has worked long-term for us as a gallery.”
You have said that a successful gallery needs to balance growth, stability, and creativity. How do you ensure that these factors stay in proportion?
“Those in the art world know that it is not as easy as just buying and selling. There are many more straightforward products for commerce—stocks, wine. There are many other ways to buy and sell without the art world’s complexities…Then there is the way that artists look at the world. I am looking for that commitment and persistent connection to their work. I look at the message of the art—its relation to past and present culture but also, is that message valid for the future? In two years, five years, ten years? I collect in depth because I take the commitment, I take it in faith that there is a message that will withstand change to be relevant into the future. I am fascinated by artists I collect, but as business owners, we need to make sure that the future is in our own minds and intentions, and in the those of the artists and collectors as well.”
Lehmann Maupin has grown from its first Soho storefront in 1996 to four international
locations. What is next on the horizon for the gallery’s artistic objectives and expansion?
“When we looked into our DNA, we were one of the first galleries to really explore global possibilities. It became clear that there was an exchange we could initiate, bringing artists to the East as we did to the West, and showing a commitment to our message as a gallery in different parts of the world. We are opening a viewing room with offices in London in 2020. We are also looking into some other opportunities in East Asia. If we feel we can add somewhere else artistically, we will because that emphasizes who we are. It is an emotional business, we really care about developing meaningfully and giving legacy to all parts of the gallery.”
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