A little while ago a ranty Facebook status written by Parisian, Brussels-based gallerist Sébastien Ricou caught my attention: he explained how a certain famous art blog we won’t name here refused to feature his current exhibition because it wasn’t being held in a white cube, and thus the images weren’t esteemed attractive enough. I was seriously flabbergasted by this narrow-mindedness, and also intrigued by Sébastien’s statement about wanting to change the way of showing and speaking about art, as well as attempting to alter the relations between artists, collectors, and visitors. Reason enough to meet up for a chat about the ever-changing art world in general as well as Sébastien’s recent decision to give up his gallery for a much smaller project space he opened in September of last year in a charming little room up under the roof in the massive gallery hub of Rue de la Régence 67: Attic.
Writer Sarah Schug
It’s quite a big step to abandon your gallery for a small project space. What happened?
Running a proper gallery means having so many expenses that you need to sell a lot to just make even. I made a lot of money, but also spent a lot of money. Everything is just about selling. If you want to exist as a successful gallery, you have to play the game and participate in art fairs where a booth costs 10 000€. I didn’t want to continue to live like that, and it made me come to the conclusion that less is more. I have a smaller space, which is much cheaper, and I can concentrate on other things than just making money. My favorite part of being a gallerist has always been the contact with the artists: building strong relationships, doing studio visits, being in touch regularly and intensively… when you run a big gallery, that’s no longer possible.
When you say you want to change the relation between artists, collectors and visitors: how so?
The most essential thing is that people speak more and talk to each other. I want to foster these kinds of exchanges by creating a space that is welcoming and cozy, which invites you to stay and have a chat, not just quietly walk through the exhibition and leave right away. I’m even planning on adding a sofa and a little fridge. 20 years ago it was more like that, people would speak more, and I want to revive that spirit. It’s a luxury these days to take the time and talk.
How would you describe the concept of Attic?
Regarding the curation of the exhibitions the core idea is to show someone young and unknown juxtaposed with an established artist, like right now: Walker Evans and Apolonia Sokol. Visitors will come for the big name but will discover a new talent at the same time. Generally I just want to focus more, and also make the visitors focus more, and build something less superficial: a smaller space with less artists showing fewer works. I want to take the time to build real relationships and friendships, as opposed to just “representing”. I also show works now that are not for sale. I guess you could compare it with the work of an artisan as opposed to IKEA. Just look at the long lists of artists the big galleries like Almine Rech represent: there are so many that it’s just impossible to have close relationships with them. Many galleries find artists on the internet, while I go to their studios. I want to do things differently. I won’t participate in any more art fairs. Think of fashion designers who ignore the whole Pret-a-porter thing, or bands that work without a label.
Doesn’t this scare you?
No, I can live without them. If people are interested in the work, then they can come here, or even have a look at the website. There are many other off-spaces and non-profit spaces emerging at the moment, and I think shows very clearly that we need a bit of a change in the art world.
The art world as such has changed a lot since you first started out. Has this influenced your decision to take a different path?
Probably. The art world has been changing so much, especially since the digital revolution. Artists now get discovered on Instagram, and with a bit of internet research you can know everything about an artist in just a few minutes. Collectors don’t go to galleries anymore but send emails to those who represent a certain artist and see who’ll offer them the cheapest piece. And when an artist makes a piece, the first thing to do is to put it on the net. It’s very different from when I first started out.
But isn’t that also a positive development that in a way democratizes the art world by giving the chance to artists to get noticed without having a structure behind them?
It’s easier for artists now to get their work out there, that’s true. But it also comes with a problem: they need to sell their works in real life. Facebook likes don’t have any value in the real world. Plus, young artists these days think they can have everything right away. They don’t realize they need to build something in the long-term. You can make a buzz at 19 and then at 22 it’s over. A career needs long-term planning; it usually needs years to find your own voice. This is what I’d like to do: I want to help the artists I discover with the knowledge I’ve gained throughout the years, support them in finding their direction, and not just be busy with thinking about selling. In the end it’s about what kind of relationships you want in your life.
What made you move away from the typical white cube setting? And what do you make of the reaction of that certain blog? I’m surprised this is still an issue at all. Even at the art fairs so many galleries paint their walls in bright colors now…
I specifically left the old wallpaper and everything else to keep the original vibe of the space and get away from the typical white cube setting. Why not do something rougher and different? It suits the space and the intentions of the whole Attic project. When you buy a piece of art and put it in your home, it won’t be in a white cube either. It’s more fun, more exciting, also for the artist. It’s good to mix things up a little. Maybe it’s less photogenic, yes, but that shouldn’t be the primary concern. People should really care about the work. Artists like to break the rules, they don’t want to do the same show five times in a row anymore, because the web will already know everything about it after their first. Here, they can do something different. The response has been great so far; people love it exactly because it’s different. The space has a much more inviting vibe than a cold white cube: it’s relaxing and develops its own life in a way.
Last but not least: why did you choose Brussels over Paris?
The art scene in Brussels is so much more open. At one point everyone wanted to move to Brussels. I considered London and Paris, but the art scene is very saturated there, basically every artist living there is already being represented by someone. Plus, Brussels is also cheaper.
Attic, rue de la Régence 67, 1000 Brussels