Women in Art: The voice of gallery managers

Art managers play a major role in the development and communication of artists and their work. Naive talked to three women running art galleries around the world about their inspiration, values and feminine perspective.

Artists are used to being at the forefront of the art industry. But what about art managers and dealers? With a wish to always give a voice to women in the fashion and art industries, Naive interviewed Nicole Russo, founder of the gallery Chapter NY, Andrée Sfeir-Semler, owner of Galerie Sfeir-Semler and Rosemarie Schwarzwälder, gallery director of Galerie nächst St. Stephan.

From managing the placement of the artists’ work to helping them grow, an art manager’s role is wide, challenging and always unique. Nicole Russo, who founded Chapter NY in 2013 in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, explains that “the gallery is committed to facilitating each artist’s narrative.”

Andrée Sfeir-Semler is the owner of two eponymous galleries in Hamburg, Germany and Beirut, Lebanon. She is a manager and works with the primary market, unlike a dealer or a reseller. She details: “We see our functions in representing the artists as a publishing house would represent writers or as a label would represent musicians. We do everything from A to Z: From assistance to discussions. We really are a partner to each of our artists.”

© Andrée Sfeir-Semler

Representing new artists is at the core of an art manager’s functions. They all have different criteria corresponding to their inspiration and aesthetic, but intuition still prevails. Rosemarie Schwarzwälder has been the gallery director of Galerie nächst St. Stephan, located in the center of Vienna, since 1978. The last artist she included in the gallery’s program is the South-Korean born painter Jongsuk Yoon. Her choice was intuitive and straightforward. “I immediately felt stringent analogies between the gallery line and Yoon’s artistic approach,” she says.

Russo shares this idea of intuition as well. “In many ways, it’s intuitive,” she says. “Initially, it’s about the practice and whether it excites me. But, also the artist’s sensibility, how they view their work and how they look at the world. It’s key that their ideas challenge me, but also connect to my own thinking.”

In an industry ruled mainly by male artists, the issue of gender equality is raised. A 2017 Artsy study revealed that women art dealers are 28% more likely to show artists who are women. The three art managers we talked to said they don’t consider gender in regard to choosing the artists they represent. Schwarzwälder, who represents twelve women out of twenty-nine artists, says: “For me, the most important point is the artistic quality. This is the key point of my interest and my impetus.” Even though the last three artists she has worked with are women, she admits that this has not influenced her decision.

Rosemarie Schwarzwälder © Nathan Murrell

With nine women out of twelve artists represented, Russo from Chapter NY explains that “the artist’s practice dictates really how we decide to work with an artist.”

Despite the constant growing representation of women artists within the industry, Schwarzwälder and Sfeir-Semler say their women artists are not necessarily keener on producing a form of feminism in their work. “Most of the female gallery artists would say they are feminists,” explains the Austrian art manager. “But in their artistic practice, this doesn’t play an important and visible role. Even though this aspect might be present in a subcutaneous and subtle way.”

Sfeir-Semler does not represent women activists but her artists “work and consider human rights in general, and when you consider human rights in general, you consider women rights automatically.”

Women art managers are actively and importantly part of the art world, dealing with international artists and constantly developing new partnerships. Both at Galerie Sfeir-Semler and Galerie nächst St. Stephan, the directors acknowledge that differences exist between man and women art managers. For Sfeir-Semler, “many women are not as pushy as men,” while for Schwarzwälder, “[women] have maybe a certain sensibility and more capacity to commit deeply.”

Yet, regardless of the inequalities still present in the artistic field, change happens. “Today, we have so many wonderful and strong female artists of all generations,” says Schwarzwälder, who celebrated the 40-year anniversary of her gallery in 2018. “I think it is important to focus on this fact and empower their work and presence.”

© Nicole Russo

Being a female art manager has never changed Sfeir-Semler’s perspective on her work. “I don’t want to be considered because I am a woman,” she says. “I want to be considered because I’m doing a good job. I should be judged only by what I do, my job. And it should be the same for all of us.”

In a time of change, where raising awareness regarding social inequalities is key, the art world should not be left apart. Russo, a feminist herself, explains: “I’m acutely aware of the many levels of inequality within the art industry, some of which are visible while others are much more subtle.”

Though, she is confident regarding the future. “The knowledge informs our decision making,” she concludes. There is no better time for such a statement.

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