In all modesty Guy Pieters runs one of the largest art dealers in our country. A conversation about Christo's new project, his entrance at Arman and the hypes in contemporary art. 'The cemetery is full of supposedly irreplaceable people.
Actually, he's pensionable, but art dealer Guy Pieters (67) doesn't know how to quit. 'Imagine being forced to quit, if you're actually still healthy and ambitious. I hate that. I still like to do my job. But the commercial pressure of the past has fortunately been removed,' he says. Art dealer is fortunately a nice profession to grow old in. Leo Castelli, Ernst Beyeler, Konrad Fischer: many dealers keep it up until their death. But even though the gallery bears his name, he doesn't find himself irreplaceable. I've just finished a meeting at which I'm giving people from the team a little more responsibility. The cemetery is full of people who are supposedly irreplaceable.'
Quiet wasn't exactly on Pieters' agenda this year. Over the last few months, he was very busy with Christo's latest project: his wish to wrap the Paris Arc de Triomphe in 25000 m² of recyclable silver fabric. That has already cost me headaches,' he sighs. Christo conceived the project back in 1962. At first it was planned for April 2019, but then it turned out that a falcon had a nest on the monument. To let her quietly hatch the eggs, the intervention was then postponed to September. The organization is incredibly complex: we have to take into account the president, the police, the security and the monuments & landscapes department. I have been working with Christo since 1984. Without a contract, purely on trust. And all this time we've never let each other down.'
Partner galleries such as Pieters satellites also recently opened its Fondation in Saint-Tropez, where some 200 art lovers come to visit every day. Life on the Côte d'Azur is a little less stressy and Saint-Tropez has remained a small village, with the authenticity of the former Knokke. At the moment Guy Pieters still runs his art empire from Sint-Martens-Latem. But in the future he wants to settle more in Knokke-Heist. That's where he opened his Office & Storage this summer: a work and storage space where collectors are only received by appointment to discreetly view a selection of works of art. The practice is reminiscent of the private sales at large auction houses: important works of art are often sold privately, outside the auctions, so that both seller and buyer remain discreet. Guy Pieters may be one of the largest art dealers in our country, but he does not have the clout of these large auction houses. Nor do the large mega galleries, such as Gagosian, Perrotin or Zwirner, which, with a handful of branches all over the world, control the trade in masterpieces. Nevertheless, Pieters organised himself very cleverly from Sint-Martens-Latem: he works with a network of some 30 satellite galleries, which sell works from his stock worldwide. Those partners are not the big boys. But they are galleries with local anchoring, which have direct access via a login to my stock, which is online. 60 percent of our turnover already comes through these partners. Some auction houses are also connected to that stock system. So I don't see the auction houses as the big enemy, I sometimes work closely with them.' On the terrace with Armán Pieters grew up
in a family of local entrepreneurs. His grandmother had a café, his father a newsagent, where he also sold art. Among other things, modern works by painters from the various Latem Schools. Guy continued that business, but made the step into the international art world, thanks to his wife Linda. That happened completely by chance. On holiday in the southern French town of Juan-Les-Pins, the couple started talking to their neighbour on a terrace. He introduced himself as the French artist Armán and invited them to his studio the next day. Pieters did not know him, but he was able to convince the artist to sell his work through him in Belgium. Without knowing what they started with, they looked in Knokke for their own gallery space where they debuted in 1983 with a solo show by Armán. At that time his star in France was waning, but thanks to the democratic prices in Knokke, Pieters was able to sell out his expo. Armán was so happy with the unexpected success that he convinced his artist friends Niki de Saint Phalle, César and Jean Tinguely to work with Pieters as well.
Thanks to this series of artists, the dealer commanded some credibility. As a result, he was also
introduced to the international art world, including artists such as Karel Appel and Andy Warhol. It is no coincidence that Warhol and Picasso are now the greatest artists in the world. If there is no supply, there is no market. No matter how beautiful some of the works from the Latem School are, if only very sporadic good works come onto the market, you can never serve an international market. No production, no market share.
Hypes and price corrections
Guy Pieters has an ambiguous relationship with the world of contemporary art. On the one hand, he also sells work of for instance Jan Fabre and Wim Delvoye; on the other hand, he saw how hypes have dominated this market in recent years. Nowadays, it sometimes seems as if contemporary art pushes more classical art to the background. But 30 years ago it was the other way around,' Pieters knows. In 1999, Jan Hoet had the greatest difficulty in the world in founding his Stedelijk Museum of Contemporary Art in Ghent. Contemporary art has only been really hip for a good 30 years. In addition to the museums, a whole new circuit of fairs has emerged, with in their wake a generation of collectors who are often investors or speculators at the same time. The historical knowledge of these collectors is often not so great. Above all, they know what is 'in' or 'out' fashion. I was fortunate enough to build up my success between 1982 and 2005 by working with established artists, who already had a certain curriculum in the 60s and 70s, such as Armán, Tinguely and the Saint Phalle. The collectors who bought that from me at the time were happy with their purchases, because they saw that prices for these artists continued to rise steadily. With contemporary art that price evolution is much more unstable.
Just look at Marc Quinn or Anselm Reyle: artists who have been incredibly hyped, but have experienced a
serious price correction. Nowadays, some contemporary artists are artificially blown up into the air by their galleries. But the fall is rock hard, when the hype is over. Their market is not solid, simply because the work is not powerful enough. For my artists, I want to build a house with foundations, solid walls and a roof so that their market value remains stable or grows organically.' Because of that instability, Pieters prefers to keep as far away as possible from that segment of contemporary art. He even admits that he does not know that world very well. I'm not even going to look at what my colleagues exhibit in their contemporary gallery owners. I consciously keep myself out of it. There are 80 galleries in Knokke alone. I have good friendships with Ronny Van de Velde and Patrick De Brock, but I prefer to focus exclusively on my own art gallery.
Of Pieters with his gallery has written art history will show the future. He was certainly influential for the careers of some of the big names in his stable. But he himself prefers to sweep his role under the carpet. History is written by the artists in their studios. Traders are of secondary importance,' he says. By the way: I would be nothing as a human being and as a trader without my wife Linda. We have had many setbacks in our lives, including the loss of our son. But in the gallery's early years she opened my eyes to the international art market. Pieters himself also collects modern and contemporary art, which he displays in Knokke, Latem and Saint-Tropez. But surprisingly, he also wants to venture into another collection domain: classic cars. 5 years ago, vintage cars were the biggest competition for contemporary art: everyone started buying them. I've never had a great passion for cars: I drive a Bentley now, and used to drive a 7-series BMW. Now I ask myself, as a layman, the question: what is a real museum-worthy classic car? Which car belongs in the MoMa in New York? I've been documenting it there for months now. And not until I know enough, I'm going to buy myself one.
Photography by: Birger Stichelbaut