With the exhibition ‘Quinquagesimum’ in Fondation CAB in Ixelles, Brussels, Albert Baronian looks back on 50 years as a gallerist: 50 years of his métier, of Brussels, a history, another world? Kathleen Weyts joined the gallerist in conversation.
Albert Baronian considers himself a citizen in the noblest sense of the word. He is good-humoured, passionate and societally engaged, and he rarely minces his words. In 1973, he organised his first exhibitions in his Brussels apartment on Boulevard Saint-Michel. He would go on to introduce the Belgian art world to the artists of the Arte Povera movement. He invited artists such as Lynda Benglis, Mario Merz, Giuseppe Penone, Sarkis, Matt Mullican and Georg Baselitz — now internationally recognised names — for their very first exhibitions in Belgium. As president of the Association des Galeries d’Art Actuel de Belgique, he was for many years one of the driving forces behind the internationalisation of the Brussels Contemporary Art Fair, now Art Brussels. Today, with the exhibition ‘Quinquagesimum,’ the affable gallerist looks back on 50 years of his métier. Not with a retrospective, but with a singular selection of works by 30 artists who helped write the gallery’s history — works all chosen in keeping with Fondation CAB’s programme of minimalist and conceptual art.
While preparing for our conversation, I learn that Albert Baronian studied political and social sciences at KU Leuven. His parents imagined he would follow in his father’s footsteps and enter into a career in diplomacy, but the young Baronian’s interests lay predominantly in the arts and their potential social impact — a passion that would come to define his life and convictions. He took his first steps into the art world as a young writer. ‘I had just finished military service and my friend Jacques Evrard, a photographer, took me along with him to meet artists. He took photos and I wrote articles for publications like Le Ligueur, the magazine of Gezinsbond [the Flemish “Families Union”], and Chroniques de l’art vivant, where Jean Clair was the editor-in-chief. I didn’t really write for a living, more for the fun of it. In 1971, Evrard took me to a performance by Gilbert & George that took place in the Garden Stores in Galeries Louise and was organised by the collector Dr. Herman Daled. A few days later, we went to the Sonian Forest for a performance by James Lee Byars. I wasn’t a proper journalist and I didn’t understand much of what I saw there, but it did intrigue me.’ How do you write about something you don’t understand? ‘I mostly kept it to a description of what I observed. I’ve since held onto every edition of Chroniques de l’art vivant, but unfortunately I lent them to someone once and the issue in which I wrote about Gilbert & George went missing. I would love to look back and read what I wrote at the time. Years later I started working with them at the gallery, but at the time it was my first introduction to people who called themselves artists and who shaped living sculptures. It made me realise that art doesn’t have to be a picture on the wall or a marble sculpture, it could also represent an artistic attitude, such as in the case of Marcel Duchamp. In the early 1970s, art was still mainly something you went to see in museums and there was no place there for what was then referred to as the avant-garde. There were only a handful of galleries that approached art in a more adventurous way, like Saint-Laurent, MTL and Le Disque Rouge in Brussels.’ It was in the latter gallery, an initiative of Jean-Marie Labeeu, that Baronian would be introduced to the artist Jo Delahaut (1911–1992) and to constructivism.
As a May 68 sympathiser, Baronian nurtured the dream of making art accessible to the general public. Fascinated by the initiative of Parisian shopping chains Prix Unique and Galeries Lafayette, who brought art editions to market at democratic prices, including by modern artists such as Pierre Alechinsky, Baronian decided to specialise in this himself. ‘I found it appealing to go against this idea of the unique artwork for the elite. I was enthusiastic about the idea of walking into a shopping centre and buying an artwork as easily as you might buy a dress, but I soon realised that it was not the average Joe who was buying the works, it was collectors. So much for the social revolution, I thought.’ He then founded Delta, releasing a number of editions with Delahaut, François Morellet, Amédée Cortier and Aurélie Nemours. ‘One of the first artists I worked with was Antonio Dias. I was supposed to publish an edition with him but, instead of a design for an etching, he came up with a series of original drawings. We hung them up in my office and that was my very first exhibition. After that I started exhibiting in the apartment where I was living with my wife Françoise and I changed the name from Delta to Delta Galerie. My second exhibition was with Jochen Gerz, with whom I had previously released an edition, a box of photographs. Herman Daled was the first known collector to buy work from me, work by Didier Vermeiren. It was Vermeiren who would eventually convince me to take a leap of faith and move the gallery to another space. I found a property on the Rue Des Francs and there I would stay for three years before moving to a space on Avenue Émile de Beco. I have fond memories of all the spaces in which I’ve worked; they all had a certain charm, although the present location is the most beautiful of them all.’
It was through Antonio Dias that he came in contact with the Italian art scene. ‘Dias introduced me to Giancarlo Politi, then editor-in-chief of the magazine Flash Art, as well as to the young gallerist Massimo Minini and artist Luciano Fabro. We went to Turin, where I met Marco Gastini and Gilberto Zorio. I came into contact with Mario Merz. Italy was important to me, and I’m especially fond of Turin: it has many parallels with Brussels. There’s a kind of kinship between the people there. At that time, there were no contemporary art museums in Italy. Everything was private, like in Belgium. There were some key collectors who made a difference, who were committed to artists and were known throughout Europe and even in the United States, just like we [in Belgium] had collectors like Anton and Annick Herbert, Dr. Matthys, André Goeminne, Herman Daled, … The discovery of Arte Povera was a revelation. I loved the political and societal engagement these artists had, which was completely in line with the values I myself find important. I never joined a political party, I’ve never been a militant, but that doesn’t mean I’m politically neutral. It is important to defend certain positions, to engage with society. To me, art is a form of engagement. You can call it naive and utopian, but I like to believe that as a gallerist I can play a role in society. Artists enable people to look at the world differently and if, through the exhibitions I present, I can broaden the outlook of even just one person in a million, then I’m happy. Art is not impartial, it makes us more conscious citizens. I owe it to the artists to create the best conditions for them to show their work, but, even more importantly, I believe that through the gallery, by showing art, I can contribute to a more humane world. Through their choice of materials, their thinking, their views, the Arte Povera artists — as well as artists like Donald Judd in minimal art and Joseph Kosuth in conceptual art — contributed to the evolution of a societal vision, whether consciously or unconsciously. This side of art is incredibly important to me. I’m shocked when I hear fellow gallerists say that their main incentive is money.’
Italy was formative for Baronian, but so was Paris, where he came into contact with another artist who would play an important role in the development of the gallery: Daniel Dezeuze. ‘He really helped me to understand what contemporary art was and the role it played in society. I first saw his work in Yvon Lambert’s gallery. These days, if you want to work with an artist who already has representation at a foreign gallery, you’re met with a whole host of questions: “What’s your programme? Who are your collectors? How much do you sell? What’s your business plan?” But back then everything was very informal. I was a young guy who had only organised a couple of exhibitions, but Lambert didn’t make an issue of that. He said, “You want to do an exhibition with Dezeuze? No problem, I’ll put you in touch with him.” And that was that. They came to Brussels together for the opening. Lambert talked non-stop, whereas Dezeuze didn’t say a word. It was only when Lambert left to return to Paris and I was taking Dezeuze to the airport that we got to talking. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I remember that he opened my eyes to the potential significance of the artist for society and how you could put together a coherent programme as a gallery. Without naming names, he helped me to figure out which direction I could take, how I could fully engage with the world.’
Baronian is in a position to observe like no other just how drastically the art world has changed over the past 50 years, for better and for worse. ‘When I opened the gallery, there was Wide White Space in Antwerp, the gallery of art historian Anny De Decker and artist Bernd Lohaus, and in Ghent you had Richard Foncke Gallery and Plus-Kern by Jenny Van den Driessche and artist Yves de Smet. Together we were an artistic community, we all knew each other: artists, gallerists, collectors, magazines … we all acted in the same spirit. And though we may not have reached a lot of people, there was nothing elitist about it. We were all participating in the same intellectual adventure, and that was what was so important to us. We were in the same boat: we didn’t have a lot of money, but we were very enthusiastic. Certain new movements were emerging at the time, too, and within that you saw artists at the start of their careers, you saw them grow and establish new things. Today art has become a hip lifestyle. That has also come to be the attitude of many new galleries. It is perceived to be chicer to open a gallery than to open a perfumery or another kind of boutique, but the approach is not a lot different. Now art is sold like hot cakes, but in the early days it would sometimes take months to sell a work. This may sound nostalgic of me, but visitors to museums and galleries used to be informed art lovers. Today the art market reigns and we are dealing a whole new generation of ignorant gallerists and collectors. They have no idea who the important artists were in the 50s, 60s, they’ve never heard of Der Blaue Reiter. They visit the studios of trendy artists who are doing well on the art market, but they don’t know anything about art history. Oh well, there are positive developments, too. The interest in contemporary art has never been greater, our horizons have broadened to include other continents, there is more attention being paid to women artists. But with the rise of new art markets like China, Russia and Brazil, another major shift has taken place. Today, art is no longer bought for aesthetic reasons; economic and speculative motives are more often the decisive factors. There was a time when people bought art and that work would stay in the family. Today a collector will buy the work of an artist and, if he notices that the work has appreciated in value after three, four years, he won’t hesitate for a moment to sell it on. Another frequent reason people buy contemporary art is because it’s “in”; they buy it as expensive decoration. Today, everyone suddenly has to have works by African artists. The quality of the work doesn’t necessarily play into it at all, just the fact that it is currently fashionable. Don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against the increased attention being paid to artists of African origin. I just question the hypes that are being created and followed.’
The city of Brussels has come to have a large international art scene, with many artists coming to establish their studios here. In the past few years, various foreign galleries have opened a location here. ‘Artists love Brussels because you can find great studios here for modest prices. In Paris you’d have to go out into the suburbs for that. In the past it was advantageous to have a gallery in Brussels, but these days it’s becoming more difficult. The proximity to Paris and London has become an obstacle. In the aftermath of Brexit, Paris is gaining in importance again and for collectors it’s no trouble to relocate there. Artists, once they break through internationally, also often prefer to have a gallery in London or Paris. On top of all that, we lack the support of important museums here. Today all hopes are pinned on KANAL, but it all very much depends on whether they will have sufficient resources. Contemporary art survives in Brussels mainly thanks to private initiatives, galleries and a few private collectors. Of course, there are WIELS and Bozar, and some smaller players like ISELP, Botanique and CENTRALE, but none of those have a collection. It’s baffling, if you ask me, just how little public funding goes into museums here. The small museums in the French provinces have bigger budgets — 10 to 20 times more resources than our largest museums. The lack of a contemporary art museum in Brussels has been a major shortcoming all these years. The directors who have led Belgium’s Royal Museums of Fine Arts — including the Modern Museum — have thus far done nothing for the contemporary arts. Even worse, they haven’t even succeeded in putting the museum on the map of most important museums in Europe.’ But they do have a contemporary collection. ‘True, but it is a collection consisting of donations and works they bought 20 years too late. When Anny De Decker was still running Wide White Space in Antwerp, she offered the museum a top work by Carl André, but the museum wasn’t interested. Years later they bought a work by Carl André at a public auction for 30 times the price to make the collection complete — a collection that is collecting dust in a warehouse. It’s a sorry situation. Museums have a role to play in creating a nation’s culture. But, sadly, that culture has become the property of politicians who have often — and especially in Belgium — failed to understand its importance. A museum fulfils an important educational role, it’s an accessible place where everyone should feel welcome. Our policymakers of the past 50 years have in no way encouraged this. There are too many social barriers: people have not been taught that museums are there for everyone, that you can see amazing things in them almost for free.’
Over the past 50 years, Baronian has worked with an impressive group of artists. Some of those collaborations have been long-term, while others were limited to just a few exhibitions. ‘From time to time I’ve been wrong about artists who I thought had it in them. Other artists I’ve worked with went on to become international stars, and so I was not able to keep them in the gallery for economic reasons. A lot has changed in this regard. Many artists today know only one word: strategy. “Why should I exhibit with you? That’s not part of my strategy. Brussels? Hmm, no, I have other ambitions …” I used to think that artists were different to most other people, but that’s not true, of course: they’re not only out for artistic success, but also social and financial status. And that’s their right, of course, but some are very extreme in this. I call it the tyranny of the artist. They only want this kind of transport box or that kind of lighting, they make impossible demands about how the gallery should be arranged, and sometimes they have unrealistic expectations about who should be present at the dinner … Ah well, I certainly don’t want to generalise, but it’s a development I have observed over the last few years. It’s perhaps for these reasons that I decided to start working with people like Seyni Awa Camara, although it was also just a complete coincidence. One of my friends lives in Senegal, and one day he sent me some photos of some work he had just bought in a remote village. It turned out to be Camara’s work. I thought it was marvellous and I immediately proposed to do an exhibition with her work. It was only afterwards that I realised that her work had been exhibited in Paris in 1989, in the exhibition ‘Les magiciens de la terre’ at Centre Pompidou. Every encounter with an artist is an adventure in itself, but she is really very special. She makes her work far away from the whole art world. She’s not concerned whether her work ends up in museums or private collections. Louise Bourgeois once went to see her, but [Camara] had no idea that she was being visited by an important international artist; she thought she was an American tourist who had lost her way.’ In common with Mekhitar Garabedian, Baronian has Armenian roots. ‘It was late in life before I gave this much thought. My grandmother never spoke about the genocide and my parents rarely spoke about it. It always surprised me that some artists expected me to work with them purely due to their being Armenian. I have never operated like that. When I’m at international fairs, Armenians often come and speak to me, having recognised the surname. I got to know Mekhitar’s work through my cousin Marie. It intrigued me and, of course, we share a common history and an interest in French literature, the diaspora, Armenian culture …’
‘Quinquagesimum’ in Fondation CAB, which runs until 25 November, offered a unique opportunity to explore the legacy of five decades of activity. How do you translate that into an exhibition? ‘It’s easy and at the same time difficult. Hubert Bonnet of Fondation CAB has a very particular but minimalist taste and he makes radical choices in his programming. When we talked about the exhibition, he gave me the strict instruction: no figurative artists. So, I had to make a selection. In this way, it didn’t end up being a retrospective, but nevertheless it offers a nice insight into the history of the gallery. It may sound a bit pretentious to say this, but I’m proud to be the first in Belgium to show work by artists such as Lynda Benglis, Matt Mullican, Philippe Van Snick, Mitja Tušek, Mario Merz, Stanley Whitney … I’ve chosen work by 30 artists from the minimalist and conceptual movement who have been important in my career. And I did make one exception after all. Hubert Bonnet did not initially want any work of Gilbert & George in the exhibition, but when I sent out the invitations for the anniversary, they were the first to respond. I’ve made five exhibitions with them. When you can work with artists of such calibre, it’s a gift. And so I’m installing a work by them at the entrance of the exhibition, as a generous welcome.’