This month Thaddaeus Ropac celebrates its 40th anniversary with 1983 | 2023, a show at the gallery’s home base in Salzburg that pairs work by older artists who have shown with the gallery since its early days—like Tony Cragg, Sylvie Fleury, Adrian Ghenie, Lee Bul, Daniel Richter, Sean Scully and Imran Qureshi—with works by artists who have joined the gallery in more recent years, including Alvaro Barrington, Lisa Brice, Mandy El-Sayegh, Han Bing, Rachel Jones, Martha Jungwirth, Megan Rooney and Zadie Xa.
Ropac has come a long way since opening in Salzburg in 1983, and the gallery now boasts spaces in London, Paris and Seoul. Much, too, has changed about the art world, and Observer recently caught up with Ropac to hear his thoughts about the business and the gallery’s significant anniversary.
It seems like no two dealers come to the business the same way. What impulse made you want to get into it 40 years ago?
For me, it all started when I saw the installation Basisraum Nasse Wäsche by Joseph Beuys on a school trip to Vienna. I didn’t understand the artwork—it fascinated me, but I also found it extremely irritating. I wanted to learn more about this artist and attended some of his lectures in Vienna. In 1982, I decided I needed to meet him in person and took a train to Germany. During this summer, Beuys was preparing for his 7000 Oaks project in Kassel and they could use an extra pair of hands. So, I stayed and helped, and from that point on, I knew I wanted to work with artists.
So much has changed about the art world since 1983. What’s stayed the same?
I feel that the art world is still driven by passion and innovation. Ultimately, all artists describe human existence in their own unique way.
How have you seen the international base of art collectors shift over four decades in the business? Who collects now?
I’ve seen the art world shift from the ivory tower toward the center of society. It used to be very exclusive and has become much more diverse and open in recent years. The collector base has also become much broader.
Paris has been an important part of your story, but there aren’t an abundance of other galleries there. To what do you attribute your success in that city?
I must disagree—I think Paris has always been a great art city, not only because of the fantastic museums. The public holds art in high regard, and we have an incredibly respectful audience. The collectors are sophisticated and curious. For instance, Parisian collectors were interested in art from Asia very early on.
You’ve shown Warhol, Basquiat, Judd and Sturtevant across Europe. What do you like about American art?
After 1945, American art redefined art, and American artists challenged ingrained patterns. During the 1980s, when I first traveled to New York, there was a unique, vital energy that I found very exciting.
You’re at the forefront of a nascent wave of fairs and galleries in Seoul. How would you compare the art market there to Europe’s?
The audience in Korea is exceptionally knowledgeable. I think this is rooted in their longstanding tradition of art academies in the city, and for a long time, they have had a thriving local art scene in Seoul. Korean artists have great confidence. If you speak to Korean collectors, they’ve also had an open look toward international art for decades—at least since the 1980s.
Are there any missteps you’ve taken in your otherwise successful career that you’d advise younger dealers to avoid?
I think during the last years there has been a strong trend towards art fairs, which we have also participated in. Showing art in an art fair setting always goes hand in hand with some compromises. The light, the floor… the whole surrounding is never ideal. I feel we should draw our focus back to the gallery space, where we can create ideal environments for the artworks. The importance of art fairs—which is substantial, of course, from a commercial perspective—should not overshadow the importance of how art can be understood in exhibitions in the gallery space.