Kamel Mennour Reflects on Transforming France’s Art Scene

In 20 years, Kamel Mennour went from selling art in shopping malls to becoming one of France’s most famous gallerists. His strategy might surprise you.

Kamel Mennour. Kaitlyn Flannagan for Observer

In an age where it seems like more and more galleries are opening by the minute, finding a way to define any one roster of carefully selected creatives has seen many gallerists take an ultra-specific approach. Lisson is known for introducing New York Minimalism to Europe; the group infamous for being “Young British Artists” are still an important part of Sadie Coles’ roster; Leila Heller is a champion of Middle Eastern, Southeastern and Central Asian artists; Bitforms deals with anyone making anything using out-of-the-box tech, and so on. But for Kamel Mennour, the eminent French gallerist who is currently celebrating his business’s 20-year anniversary, his assemblage of artists is maybe not so apparent to the public (though they’re certainly well-respected) but rather internally governed by a very specific concept: creating something he likens to a familial structure.

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“We needed a father,” Mennour, 53, tells me one bright morning in Paris, as we converse in his former apartment in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, which he is planning to turn into a space for gallery soirees as it sits only a few streets away from his flagship space on Rue Saint-André des Arts. Mennour is referring to a catalyst moment for his business: the point in 2005 when he got a call from French heavyweight Daniel Buren announcing that, despite all the competition, he had decided that the then-small Kamel Mennour gallery would be his new home. It represented a leap forward in the plan that Mennour had for his space—a tactic so subtle yet successful that it’s rarely even noted. “I knew that we could try to create this link between the young generation and very established artists— François Morellet, Buren, and so forth. From the beginning, I didn’t want it to only be emerging—I didn’t want to create this kind of love and hate between generations. Because the young are watching the old, and older artists need to feed themselves with the blood of new artists. What I wanted to create was this back and forth.”

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At the point that Buren joined ranks, Mennour was working out of a gallery he describes as a shoebox. His business had been up and running for just six years, the first few years of which were dedicated solely to showing photographic work. And because of shifts in Paris’ art scene in the ‘90s, he was able to attract some heavy hitters: Jan Saudek, Annie Leibovitz, Peter Beard, Stephen Shore, Roger Ballen, Martin Parr and Araki to name a few. “At the time, photography was not very invested in the art world in Paris so I was lucky for that,” he said (Mennour is careful to count luck in his recipe for success, mentioning it often.) That early specialty, plus what many describe as the downturn of Paris as an artistic hub allowed him more attention for early shows than a gallery opening now might receive. 

“Paris was totally mixed up. From ‘64 onward it had been declining. Rauschenberg won the Golden Lion in Venice, and from that time, Paris declined, totally. Collapsed. People were saying that FIAC was nothing,” He says, referring to France’s biggest contemporary art fair held annually in Paris. “So it was an opportunity for me to make something from this.” One might say Mennour pounced. And certainly the circumstances allowed him, within only a year, to gain admittance to FIAC and actually play a significant role in bringing the fair back to the prominence it enjoys today. But it’s not like Mennour was waiting so much for the opportune time, so much as he was waiting to really get the opportunity.

For 10 years prior, Mennour had been plotting to open a gallery. To make ends meet, he’d spent the decade in a job that might seem close to his dream, but felt very far removed. “I was working in commercial centers selling very small paintings, knowing that it was hard work, and that what I was selling was not art. But I was sure that one day, I didn’t know when—I would be a gallerist.” He wasn’t happy, he tells me. A lot of it felt like wasting time. “You have to understand, it’s not like working 10 years at Matthew Marks or at Barbara Gladstone,” a position where you could learn the ropes of the business from one of the industry’s esteemed figures. “I never had a mentor.” So he started from scratch, with the idea that eventually he’d put his strategy of conjoining old and new into practice, and the elder artists, rather than distinguished dealers, would be who he learned from. Enter Buren, and the solidification of a strategy that exists in his gallery to this day, where young artists are supported not only by the person selling their work, but by parental figures, of a sort, for whom they seem to have the utmost respect, rather than a radical disavowal of what has come before that categorizes too many movements when they exist for that purpose alone.

For an artist, what Mennour’s strategy means is that when the gallerist takes a liking to your work, you’ll be on the receiving end of his constant attention, honesty and full support. Speaking to Neïl Beloufa at the opening of his first show with Mennour in September (a big slot for a newcomer to receive, especially as it coincided with the gallery’s 20th anniversary fête) he described how their relationship evolved over many, many years. As Beloufa was friends with a number of Mennour’s artists, they’d met a handful of times. Mennour expressed interest in his work, but as Beloufa put it, “I was not ready.” The sentence was echoed verbatim by Mennour days later, as he explained the long evolution of the body of work that finally went on view in Paris in September. It includes an immersive installation odder than any I’ve experienced before, where video, sculpture, an imaginary story narrated by soccer star Eric Cantona and moving components that rotate viewers much like Alice in a teacup, form a powerful allegory about greed, laziness and capitalism.

Installation view of Neïl Beloufa’s exhibition ‘The Moral of the Story.’ Kamel Mennour, Paris

Starting about two years ago, when both Mennour and Beloufa decided the artist was finally prepared to “swim in a bigger pool,” as Mennour put it, the gallerist began visiting Beloufa’s studio about once every two weeks chatting with him as he smoked, pushing him when necessary and assuring him that the time was right. Indeed it was. Beyond the show in Paris, Mennour also decided to show him this fall in his Mayfair, London, space (his only location outside the French capital), and dedicated his Frieze London booth to the artist as well; being rewarded by selling the large-scale Beach, 2019, for €80,000 along with several other smaller works in the solo presentation that were marked at €20,000 within a few hours of the preview opening. Beloufa is present in Mennour’s current FIAC booth as well.

Success at the fairs is imperative for Mennour. He shows at around thirteen a year, and they represent an important part of his strategy in allowing him to base his life in Parisrather than bumping around outposts in New York, Hong Kong and the many other locations he’s been urged to openwhile still being considered a player from an international perspective. His hyper-involved style does, however, see him travel frequently. We first met on a Thursday, and by the time our conversation on Sunday rolled around Mennour had made stops in Denmark for Douglas Gordon’s show at Aarhus, Helsinki for an Ugo Rondinone exhibition, and returned home. 

What keeps him so dedicated to keeping his business centered in the City of Lights, rather than going for a Gagosian model? Here again, Mennour returns to the importance of family—but now he’s talking about his flesh and blood. He has five children with his wife, Annika, whom he has been with since the age of 23. It’s them he credits for keeping his passion for good art burning. Not necessarily because they love it too (though they do) but rather how they ensure he doesn’t spend every waking hour obsessed with business. “When you come home, and you have the five kids you forget about Klaus Biesenbach or whoever, because of five kids: reality. Welcome to the real world.” On a summer vacation across the U.S., he also made a commitment not to do any art-viewing over the weeks they spent abroad (a promise he kept, save for a selfie outside the New Orleans Museum of Art, which he swears he did not enter). Not only for them, but the break from art was also for himself. “I wanted to recreate the desire. Coming back from holidays, I was extremely happy, excited to work, because I love art.”

Mennour and his son at his 20th anniversary party on September 10, 2019. Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images

The trip across the U.S. was designed to show his kids the country—but the real country. “I wanted to show them it’s not only New York, L.A., Miami, so we went to Kansas, we went to Oklahoma, to Santa Fe.” And while he admits an infatuation with New York City (“It’s a dream!”) the cost for him to open an outpost there is still too high: “In New York, I would be alone—without my five kids. For me, they’re my obsession—to try to raise them. I came from divorced parents. So I want to have this feeling…to keep only family.”

The trip had another purpose, however. He recalled urging his kids to talk to the people they met on the road, to find out about their way of life. It touched on a topic Mennour is reticent to speak about: how his own upbringing influenced his life. Emigrating to France with his mother from Algeria as a child, he detests being held up as a poster child for an Algerian success story—not only because it denies him of his Frenchness, a country that has always been home, but because it seems to insinuate that he had to work hard because of his background. The work is just hard, he wants that to be known. He toiled, he got lucky, he is grateful and he won’t take it for granted—he still picks his cuticles out of stress. That is his story. But he will acknowledge how coming from an Algerian family has shaped his personality. “I would say it’s something which gave me a lot of strength and a lot of tolerance. I feel very close to immigrants. Very close to those who are coming here and hoping to live in France. I feel very close to the people at the Mexican border. So, when you are French and you are from my origin, you understand more about how to understand a human being. Humanity.”

That’s also why they travel—and outside of big cities and the art capitals of the world. So that his kids will see all different examples of human experience. So too does that run as a thematic thread through his roster of artists. Their work, background, age, mediums or countries of origin might not be the same. In fact, what unites them is their difference: the many and varied perspectives they offer about the human condition. “I don’t choose by gender, I don’t follow marketing trends to say, try to get more black artists or Arab artists. No. We try to smell and to see what’s going on: what are their obsessions and what is this artist giving and asking of the world—what are they witnessing of our time? It’s really what I am trying to create: A team, family of artists.”

Many works by that family will hang beside the physical marks left by his real flesh and blood in the space he will soon use for parties, talks and events, which occupies the home he lived in for twenty years and bears the remnants of raising such a brood. For a while he planned to renovate, now he’s decided to leave the reminders of his life there intact. Viewers can appreciate a neon work by Douglas Gordon and a doorway marked with his children’s advancing heights equally. One son made a sculpture of his name that hangs on the wall. The renegade scribbling made by an experimental toddler won’t be far from pieces by Lee Ufan, Camile Henrot and Giacometti. It’s Mennour’s subtle metaphor for his winning strategy, perhaps, but nothing could be more fitting.

Kamel Mennour Reflects on Transforming France’s Art Scene