Matthew Wood: how to run an art gallery and live happily

Maria do Carmo M. P. de Pontes  -  September 12, 2017

Founder member of Mendes Wood DM gallery explains why having a reliable cultural strategy is more important than money to succeed in the international art arena.

Maria do Carmo M. P. de Pontes

In response to the epidemic of closures that has been affecting contemporary art galleries during the last two years – this year roughly 30 galleries closed down in New York – we sat down with Mendes Wood DM founder Matthew Wood to discuss about how the contemporary art gallery he established in 2010 with Pedro Mendes and Felipe Dmab is developing and what is the strategy behind its current success. As you will find out,  it all starts from philosophy.

Though the gallery is just seven years old, you rapidly secured a pivotal position within the international art scene. You have a rather unorthodox standpoint, being young yet already established. Can you tell us about how it all began?

In the first place, there was this very clear, gigantic synergy between the three of us (partners Pedro Mendes and Felipe Dmab). We’re very complementary, yet very different. And what really stands between us as a common ground is a commitment to the idea of art, that is, art not as an object but as a way of life. Pedro and I have known each other for fifteen years, we both studied philosophy. When we first met Felipe we were absolutely idealistic. We – Pedro and I – had started an artists’ residency called, in Belo Horizonte. 

When about?

From 2007 until 2009, so about two years. still exists, and it is run by one of the other founders called Francisca Caporali. It’s great. Anyhow, coming from philosophy, Pedro and I carried a rather considerable baggage. And really philosophy about how you live and what you think applied to the art world means not only supporting artists, but also being with artists. Then when we went to Sao Paulo, where Felipe had a space just next door to us. It was a really cool, 1960s-era almost open-concept gallery, where artists would drop off things and he would sell them, or just consign them. It turned out that we had this enormous chemistry. On the one hand, Felipe knew so many things that we didn’t but he also shared our same, radical belief in artists making art. For us, artists always come first, and everything else is sort of secondary. So we met around this premise, that of art as a living idea.

And is this what you’ve been emulating ever since?

Yes, it is. Mendes Wood DM became this kind of three-part dynamic, in the sense that we have three different personalities. This meant approaching the same goal with different dynamisms, and this goal was really about artists making art. Which is also why we started very quickly doing shows with artists that we didn’t represent yet, and we didn’t necessarily plan on representing. It was much more about these artists creating a relationship with Sao Paulo and, to a larger extent, the legacy of 20th century Brazilian art. Until ten years ago, the world was only looking at Brazilian art through the lens of its economic interest and people are just waking up now to the idea that maybe Sao Paulo and Rio, in the 1960s, were doing things as interesting as New York. It’s not just this economic boom that makes everyone pay attention to a new economy and its aesthetic language. I also think that, luckily, the relationship between the world and Brazilian art is becoming more interesting and more complex. And because a lot of these avant-garde artists are no longer around, such as the Lygias, and the Miras and so forth, we really wanted young foreign artists to come into contact with this cannon, and see what happens to their work when they produce their pieces here. Therefore, there has always been a kind of residency component. Every time we show international artists, they come at least for a few weeks, often for a few months. Sometimes they even move here, they get married and stay, I mean forever! (laughs). So the gallery has consistently had this drive to connect living artists, as well as to let Brazilian artists meet international ones.

Something remarkable about the gallery is that you do solo shows with your artists alongside shows with artists you do not represent, or with a curator that you invite to do a project and bring along a whole new scope of art practices. How does it work? Do the three of you meet at the beginning of the year and agree on doing a certain number of shows with your artists, and a number of shows with guest artists?

It is more fluid, for we are fundamentally very fluid people, that is another thing we have in common. But as time goes on, when you have a stable of represented artists, of course you have a responsibility to do an important show at least every couple of years. Despite being pretty smooth, as said, we nonetheless try to maintain a balance between represented and non-represented artists. I think that the idea of representation is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, of course it’s fundamental that art galleries represent artists, and this embodies a commitment to an idea, to a person and to a practice. But on the other hand – and this is very taboo to say – I think that representation always justifies that galleries take a position and protect their artists. The dark side is that it is an art economy, and we are the interface between creative practice and that kind of economy. There is a sort of paternalistic dimension to representation, which a lot of times just benefits the gallery and not the artists. You may notice this with certain big galleries, whose artists become a sort of luxury brand. This doesn’t mean to say that these are not incredible artists, it’s just to point out that the same system that supports artists can have underneath a commercial motivation which leads you to close yourself to a limited possibility of investment in products that you develop as reinforcing brands. I don’t think a lot of galleries actually do that, but it can become a dangerous secondary effect, albeit unconscious, of the representation system. To sum up, of course representation is crucial, but breaking it up, and taking a risk with different positions, being left or right, upward or downward, is very healthy for the whole. And then it’s important to keep the system from being static, because I’m very suspicious of static ones. I think systems need to be dynamic, and rethought all the time, especially art.

But among the artists you do represent, it’s amusing how you have a balanced mix between overlooked figures, even within Brazil. I mean, every art history has its narratives, and it’s becoming more and more common that people are looking to all these Paul Theks within their countries, hidden underneath the obvious. I think Solange Pessoa is a bit like that. Or Marcelo Cipis at BFA Boatos Fine Arts, and so on. And then you also have the cool young gang. When you decide to represent an artist, what do you look for?

When we look for artists, we try to pay a lot of attention and do the best that we can. But one of the things I’ve learned over the years is that if you like food, you should talk to people that like food, and if you like music you should talk to people that like music. Or even better, you should talk to musicians, and they’ll tell you about all this music you had no idea of. And talking with artists, I’ve been amazed at how much they know. For instance, Paulo Nazareth has loved Solange Pessoa since he was twenty years old. So if you listen to artists, they usually know something about other artists. Particularly here in Brazil, as this country has a very unique art ecology, in my perspective as a non-Brazilian, in which artists are actually quite supportive of other artists. I’ve seen so many times that curators get dragged around by artists to studios of other artists that they weren’t planning on visiting. So that’s a very unique feature to the Brazilian scene, that would not happen in New York for instance.

I reckon you get tempted to represent several of the artists that you invite for shows, but it’s tricky, as you don’t want to end up with a hundred artists! So how do you make that distinction?

There is absolutely a curatorial element, in terms of the cohesion of the entire program, which is totally diverse. Within this diversity, however, there is a composition, like a garden. There is also the market question, of course. The longer you have a gallery, the more you understand how important it is to have living relationships with artists, and be able to do things for artists.

Does personality also count?

Personality is huge. Affinity and connection, too. But there are certain artists who would be so much fun to work with. For instance, Lawrence Weiner is wonderful. His work is wonderful, he is just wonderful. But at some point you have to be practical and ask yourself, ‘what can I do for Lawrence Weiner?’. It would be a very amusing relationship, but he doesn’t exactly need a museum show. So it’s also a question of how much you can actually give to an artist. In other words, you also ought to take into account which kind of needs artists may have, like support into publishing a catalogue, or getting into a residency. Because it’s much more fun working with artists whom you can do stuff for. It’s like being married and having sex. It’s good.

You mentioned the ecology of the Brazilian market, and it’s interesting that you have a privileged perspective on that, since you attend a lot of international fairs. Is there anything particular regarding the market in Brazil? For instance, I always find it funny how, when you buy online at any shop here, the product is not priced ‘500 reais’, it’s priced ‘five installments of 100 reais’! And that’s a very Brazilian tradition.

Well, that actually became world famous. Funnily, this practice has started to be exported. Because of Brazil, literally. Every international gallery that deals with Brazil, in occasion of art fairs, or because they consign artists to do a show here, has now learned that Brazilians will pay in instalments. It’s cultural and part of the landscape. And since they agreed, they’ve now opened a flood gate. I’ve seen American collectors who come to Brazil and say, ‘I know that Brazilians are paying in three instalments, I’m going to pay in three instalments too!’. So I think this practice is probably going to catch up soon. And it makes sense if you’re buying something more expensive, why couldn’t you pay in instalments?

Are there any other peculiarities? Like, do you have to establish more personal relationships?

Yes, customer relationships are really personality-based. People are very patient here, and it doesn’t have to be perfectly white gloved. New Yorkers, for instance, like very much white gloved services, but they are willing to make a transaction within fifteen minutes. On the contrary, Brazilians are eager to have a more casual relationship, which is much more about intimacy and trust. It’s the strongest social dimension of the art world that I know. I mean, here you go to people’s weddings, you become friends, in a way that you don’t exactly do in the US. It can happen, but it’s rare. In Brazil it’s much more common. There is also a singularity of the market, which was overlooked for a long time. Brazil might in some ways be perceived as an emerging economy, but the art economy is not an emerging one. People like difficult things and are willing to pay money for art, if they believe in it. I don’t know if this is a legacy of the Neo-concrete, because we had a sense of geometry, or because Abstraction was the word of the day, or Conceptual art, for so long we just made amazing Conceptual art pieces. It’s not the world’s largest collector base, but it is a collector body that, in its integrity, has a quite sophisticated taste. You can sell a video, or an installation with a piece of ice, which is not something that you are able to do as easily in places like China, or Russia, or India… And it contributes in creating great collections, very often made of difficult things and young things. There is also an ability to collect Conceptual art, which is now fifty years old, as well as collecting young artists. In New York, for example, collecting emerging art is very vigorous but there’s also a strong speculative dimension to it. In Brazil people collect young art because there is a tradition of taking some kind of risk. It’s not such a wallpaper country, which is amazing.

Besides having this huge international presence at art fairs, you recently established permanent outposts abroad – an ‘office’ space in New York shared with Michael Werner, and more recently an impressive venue in Brussels. What did motivate this expansion? I’m thinking in particular of Kurimanzutto which, like you, is not in the US-Europe axis, has a huge international presence but never opened a permanent space outside Mexico – though it certainly could have.

Mexican artists have a much bigger foot in the game, because they are right next to the US. Of course Mexico has difficulties which are real, but there are constantly Latin American curators, or even from Europe, who dedicate their attention to Mexico. Mexican artists are fairly well placed. Brazil, because it’s so far from everything, isolated linguistically and historically, and because it’s so huge, is not proportionally represented in the world. I would say that our programme is made up at the moment by 70% Brazilian artists, a mix of younger and already internationally exposed ones. So it seemed productive, and responsible, to bring Brazil to the world. We even plan on showing, in Brussels and New York, Brazilian artists whom we don’t necessarily represent, but who need to be seen abroad, because they are sensational. So we are going to do a lot of collaborations with other galleries too. This is something that needs to be done, and we enjoy it. It’s the inverse of what we’ve been doing so far, that is bringing people here to know Brazil. At some point we realised that instead of getting all these twelve-hours flights, we could have a place in Europe where people can take a one-hour train and still get to know Brazil. But then of course there is this aspect of the programme which is really hybrid. Even the three of us have moved a lot. I met Pedro in Paris, and he has lived in Europe half of his life. I also spent a lot of time in Europe, before coming to Brazil. I think I only lived in the States sixteen years of my life. So we are all kind of hybrid. And our partner in Brussels, Carolyn Drake, is Dutch from South Africa and American, and grew up everywhere, so there is this international sphere, which is also very much the language of our generation. This is the way the world is going. I mean, there’s a lot of pushback obviously, but the world is developing into this place without frontiers. Eventually (laughs).

So in Brussels will you have a similar programme to the one in Sao Paulo?

Brussels will be a sort of mirror. Totally experimental on one hand, because we can run two autonomous shows but we can also show two artists at once, or a collective, so usually giving exposure to a Brazilian artist, and then working with international artists.

How about the space in New York?

New York is a funny thing in a way. It happened because I’ve always had an affinity with New York, which I find difficult, but amazing. And it also came from this affinity that we have with Michael Werner Gallery, specifically with Gordon (VeneKlasen), for thinking art. When Michael Werner was only twenty years old, he gave all of the German painters their first show around 1960. It’s unbelievable, he touched every spectrum of German art.

Werner just bothers me in that there are no female artists!

Yes, I know! I’ve pointed it out too. And in fact it is funny you mention that as in our partnership in New York, I’ve been paying more and more attention to that. They were also really open, considering they are such a historical and established gallery, to having a space where they could show one of their artists next to one of our younger ones.

So is this how the programme is going to be, one of your artists and one of theirs?

Yes, indeed. Or a suggestion from them and a suggestion from us. So next year we’ll have Jean Arp next to Solange Pessoa. There will be this biomorphism cohabiting. I think it’s going to be interesting to have Solange next to a Werner’s artist. Sonia Gomes just had a show with (A. R.) Penck, this absolute German Expressionist. I would describe them as improbable combinations. My personal philosophy, which the boys have so far tolerated, or so I’d like to think, (laughs), consists in ‘keeping them guessing’. I don’t like when things become predictable as it happens with certain galleries from which you know what to expect. It doesn’t seem to me that art should ever be predictable. At all.

So what are the goals for the future? Let them keep on guessing?

Yes! We are trying to be as fluid as possible, having however very clear in mind our principle of ‘artists first’. We always go back to our ethics of art, which is that an art object is not a static thing, but a product of action, and of belief. Of course it’s very easy to commodify art, but this is the least interesting thing about artists. So as long as we can actively support artists as experimenters, as radicals, as a way of being in the world, then we will keep on doing it.