By Olga Fromentin
Magda Danysz is the founder and owner of the contemporary art gallery Magda Danysz Gallery in the heart of the Marais neighborhood in Paris and in the center of Shanghai. Her gallery is recognized as one of the most dynamic galleries on the international contemporary art scene. She worked with globally known artists, such as Obey, JR, Miss Van, VHILS among others. In the interview to MadameSuccess.com, Magda talked about the easy and difficult aspects of running a gallery, her work and life between France and China, the role of women artists in the contemporary art world, and why it is impossible to be available 24 hours a day.
Magda, thank you so much for finding the time for this interview. Tell me, please, what do you do for a living?
I’m an Art Gallery owner. This profession is probably not quite comprehensible to many people. I work in the primary market of contemporary art, which is different from trading on the secondary market. A big part of my job is about finding new talents, supporting artists-run initiatives, organizing art exhibitions in my gallery, museums, and other exhibition spaces.
We often actively participate in the creative process and the ambitious projects together with the artists.
Is it true that you opened your first gallery at the age of 18?
Yes, it is.
I started off when I was very young. My mother was an artist and I felt that I knew everything about this field. I started in a very intuitive way, maybe it is something typical for many entrepreneurs.
At the time, there was a need for people who would connect artists with their audience, potential clients, and art collectors because many artists don’t really have time to take care of all this.
After I opened my first gallery, I realized that the reality was different from what I had pictured but I still really loved what I was doing, so I stayed and started slowly developing my own niche. This was a long and laborious process.
Was it in Paris?
Yes, I opened my very first gallery in the Bastille area of Paris in 1991. It was a buzzing and creative neighborhood at the time.
Later on, I moved to the 13th arrondissement of Paris, but thanks to a lucky coincidence, I returned to the area around the Place de la Bastille.
Nine years ago, I also opened a gallery in Shanghai. Besides, I have an office space in London.
Why did you decide to specialize in Street Art?
It is not only about Street Art but right from the start, I decided to dedicate 30% of the exhibition space to Street Art, this is how I still work today.
I grew up with the generation of the first Street Artists, it’s absolutely natural for me to promote street art in my gallery.
Some of the earliest expressions of street art were certainly the graffiti. At the time, I was asking myself whether I should dedicate my gallery to graffiti only or represent street artists together with other artists, which meant I wouldn’t have to limit myself to street art only.
Having had 25 years of experience in art, I have acquired a certain knowledge of this field. I have also a very good idea about visual arts. This is a less known area, but it is getting more and more attention in the media.
Would you call yourself a “geek”?
Sure, why not, I am an “advanced” geek, My father worked in science, this approach is in my genes.
Today, visual arts are still underrepresented, but I love to work in the primary market and discover talents in every field.
The visual art is developing a lot now, that’s why I am interested in it, but I also organize some so-to-say “classical” exhibitions, like the one by James McNabb that you can see here, he works a lot with the wood.
It’s really impressive!
You see, I don’t want to miss the opportunity to work with artists like James, that’s why I don’t limit myself to showcasing Street Art only.
Once you see the work of James, you immediately know why I picked him, even though he has nothing to do with Street art.
And then, I do not like labels. It would be easy to say: come to us, we have everything you want – high quality and the cheap stuff, all possible colors and formats… but the thing is, this is an art gallery, not a supermarket for art.
Street art is often believed to be part of the youth culture in the suburbs of big cities. I’m trying to fight the “desintellectualization” of street art and I write about it in my books, for example in Anthologie du street art (FR) and Au-dela du Street Art (FR), as well as in our gallery magazine MAGZ.
I also run conferences on this subject.
Where do your conferences usually take place?
I often work at the Sorbonne. There I would encounter all sorts of people – specialists and those who hardly know anything about Street art.
You see, people who come to the gallery are often the ones who are already interested in the art we exhibit.
People who come to my conferences might drop by just out of curiosity. And that’s where a big debate would often start. These people are interested in learning something new. Some of the conferences end late, and we keep talking for a couple of hours after the end of the official part. I love this part of my business.
I love and know Art of the 21st century, and I love discussing it and introducing it to my audience.
You have worked with many famous street artists, such as Banksy, JonOne, L’Atlas, Ludo, and others. Tell me more about it.
It’s interesting that at the time I worked with them, some of these artists were still unknown.
You see, I started from scratch. I did not have any family money, I didn’t have an investor, I run the gallery entirely on my own. I could show a list of artists I picked for an exhibition and some people would say: “Who are they? We’ve never heard of them!”
Just imagine, I decided to open an exhibition of JonOne on the day of my eighteenth birthday, this was my gift to myself.
At the time, very few people heard about him, and today, the pictures of that period, which is the beginning of the 90s, are the most popular in his portfolio!
Yet, of course, there also are artists who never manage to grow. This is the risk of working in the primary market. It’s like working with an independent label, we may release an album and either it becomes platinum or it fails.
Besides, we do not specifically monitor the prices at art auctions… Why shall the auction prices really be the indicators of value? I find that people don’t buy artworks based on the auction figures. A more important indicator is what emotional impact a piece of art may have on them.
How do you find the artists? Or do they find you? How does it work?
It’s more complicated than just a meeting. The relationship between an art dealer and an artist is more like a friendship. It is a relationship that allows us to connect on professional and personal levels and to get to know each other better.
We help the artists to keep working in their personal space and introduce them to the bigger audience. We help to organize this transition from personal to public.
Besides, we take care of the sales. Selling a piece of art is a very important part of my work, it helps the artists to keep doing what they love, being able to rent a studio, pay their living, create, it’s a big responsibility for us.
This is a very personal approach. How does it work in your gallery in Shanghai? When did you actually open it?
It happened by a lucky coincidence. 10 years ago, I was considering Los Angeles as a place for my new gallery. I guess I just probably boarded the wrong plane and flew into the opposite direction.
Jokes aside, I made the decision to open a new gallery back in 2008, the year of the Bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers and Madoff Investment Scandal. These events affected many Americans, which meant, our potential customers did not have much money. Many of the collectors from Los Angeles, whom I knew, told me back then: “Darling, this is a rather wrong moment!”
So I went to Singapore. On my way there, I had a stopover in Shanghai, I went to visit the city like a tourist, which happens to me very rarely.
Imagine, walking along the 5th Avenue in New York and suddenly seeing an amazing penthouse on the rooftop of one of the buildings, and then saying to yourself: “I would love to buy it!”
That approximately happened to me in Shanghai. I saw a place in the very center of the city and thought: “I would organize an exhibition here”. Six months later, my new gallery was opened right next to the building in front of which I first had this idea!
To me, that is what Shanghai is all about.
In China, if you have an idea and people are still talking about it the next day, can mean that it has every chance to succeed. I found in Shanghai the mood of New York of the 90s, the same dynamics, the same crazy rhythm.
Three and a half months later, my gallery became one of the most known galleries in Shanghai. It was not easy. At some moments, I would cry, scream, and I would feel like killing someone. But in China things happen in their own way, it is important not to have any illusions about this world, but also to be able to grab every opportunity.
Do you also run a gallery in London?
No, it’s just an office but we have used it as an exhibition space for about a year.
My Paris gallery is my home, I know my team, here I feel as a duck takes to water.
Working in China is still full of surprises, sometimes it is difficult. But at the same time, some amazing things happen, it’s impossible to get used to it.
Do you have a team there, too?
Yes. But things are a bit different in Shanghai. It’s a different kind of a learning process, and people often change jobs. We use different methods to train and motivate our staff over there.
But there I also met very special people, sometimes all the doors just get open, the sky is not the limit, it is surely nice. It would be difficult for me to live without my “Asian adrenaline”.
Do you live two different lives here and there?
Absolutely. First of all, I have to live with the time difference. I wake up at 6.45 am every morning. I would wake up my kids and immediately start doing my things. There might be days when I have to talk to other places, like Los Angeles at the end of the day, which makes things even more complicated but I try to plan accordingly.
How do you manage to do everything?
I believe we should stop pretending that this is the case! At times I ask myself: “How is it possible?”
Yet, I have to say that I have a wonderful husband who is also an exceptional father, it is a huge advantage for our family life. Still, it is very difficult to do everything, and even more so when you have 4 kids.
How old are your kids?
4, 6, 10 and 13 years old.
Fortunately, the older one goes to school on her own. But sometimes I may return home from an event and discover that I still need to check my kids’ homework.
Being an active entrepreneur in the 21st century involves a lot of traveling. And it’s a big question how to incorporate it into the family life. We do the best we can.
When my youngest daughter was just 4 days old, I was already back in the gallery. I brought her with me. When people came up to me while I was nursing her, I would ask them: “Does it bother you?” If yes, they surely had to wait.
I find that we got to the point when we should be more open and make our choices. For example, we can say: “I have a meeting with my children between 7 and 8 pm.”
It is possible to set up a remote conference call between 9 and 10 pm when the kids are in bed. But in this case, your spouse might not be pleased. Yet, there is always a solution, we just need to look for it.
Still, I would say that for success in business in the modern world, it is impossible to be available 24 hours a day, we need our work-life balance, we can not sacrifice it.
How do you define your priorities?
I don’t have any miraculous solution.
I am lucky to have the opportunity to combine personal and professional.
If on Sunday I need to go to an exhibition, I may bring my family. I have a good work-life balance and it is important for maintaining friendships too, as in life it’s not just about family and work.
In my profession, it is a lot about being open and sharing things with other people.
Is it important for you to share your interests with friends and family?
Absolutely, 24 hours are not enough, if I don’t share, it is impossible.
Please, tell me about your typical day.
I would so much like to have a typical day!
Would you say that most of your days are unpredictable?
Oh yeah! Though thanks to my kids, I have some sort of a schedule.
I get up at 6.45. I start my day with my mind in Shanghai and a bowl of cornflakes in Paris. By the time my kids woke up, I am already having a video conference, but wherever I am, I try to spend the morning with my children.
Every day is surely very different because we have to take care of many things every time – contacting the artists, managing different issues, taking care of logistics.
Working in art is also a lot about sending, receiving, transportation, insurance. We have to take care of administrative issues like any other company. And then comes the business planning, exhibitions, and meetings with art collectors.
There surely are moments when I look at people who are quietly enjoying their lunch at the terrace outside of a cafe and wish I could do the same.
It happens to me too but more often I would find myself at 2 pm asking someone to get me a salad because I haven’t had my lunch yet. My typical day is full of chaos but it’s also full of smiles and fun.
What apps do you use the most and do they somehow help you to cope with the chaos?
I use the major social networks, even though, I dislike them because they intrude into our life! However, I use Instagram a lot, it’s my window to the world.
Do you handle your Social media yourself?
No, I outsource it but I run an Instagram account where I mostly post myself. It is also difficult at times because I am often in Shanghai, where Facebook, Instagram, and other social networks are blocked.
As for the rest, I love to use my phone apps to read the news every morning, even if it’s only for 5 minutes. I try to go through the most popular news sources, including art, of course.
My phone apps make my life much easier, I would often use apps like Uber, WhatsApp, or Paypal. They help me to organize my life.
Do you have spare time for hobbies or fun?
Yes, I do. I make sure to find the time to do yoga and swimming. Besides other things, I love these activities because it is difficult to use a phone, I won’t write a message in the water or when I do an asana.
I am often away from home, as my work involves a lot of traveling, but it is also very important for me to spend time with my children, I really adore them, they fill me with energy.
And if I planned to go with to the swimming pool with my kids, everything else can wait, even in some of my busiest moments.
Are your children curious about your work?
Yes, it’s rather fun for them! They were lucky to be baby-sat by some of the artists I’ve known for a very long time.
Let’s talk about success. Would you call yourself successful?
No, I still have so many more things to achieve! Besides, in our society today the success criteria can be so different.
What are your criteria for success?
It’s a lot about the balance, the harmony that we are seeking on a personal and professional level. Money is not necessarily the most important thing.
But like some other ambitious people, I always try to look for new challenges. If there were no challenges in my life, I would be very bored. New challenges help me to move on.
Do you believe that it’s easier for men to succeed today?
Absolutely. I do not consider myself a feminist, but I started working when I was very young, and even today, when I am over forty and have a family, sometimes I feel that some people do not take me seriously, just because I’m a woman and look younger than my age.
Women may have some advantages but I believe that we still don’t have full equality between men and women.
Are there more men or women in the creative environment?
People tend to forget that until recently there have been very few women in art. Take the gallery owners in the 60s, it’s very male dominant, and you hardly see any women artists back then.
When we start talking about women artists in contemporary art, I immediately think about Marina Abramović, she is tough and she is a rebel.
And we are just starting having a new kind of women in art, women who accept themselves the way they are.
It is still possible to hear someone talking disapprovingly about a woman artist: “She only thinks about money!”
But you will never hear something like that about a man. It is acceptable for men to do their job, to sell. Why not allow women to do the same, what should we be there for? For our beauty?
I feel that this attitude makes women choose to be tougher. It is changing but we are still far from the equality here.
Funnily, some people see me as tough. And I completely disagree on this.
Do you see yourself as assertive?
Sometimes I am more assertive than I would have loved to.
Do you exhibit more women or men artists?
You know, every fall I come up with a new season program.
At some point, a friend of mine who is the gallery owner from Switzerland drew my attention to the fact that there are almost no women artists in the program!
That’s how we decided to organize a video exhibition of women artists only. I’ve organized many more other exhibitions since then, but the fact remains:
There are still more male artists in the contemporary art.
Magda, what would you recommend to our female readers who would love to go into art?
At the very beginning of my career, I was working with Leo Castelli, I call him “my guardian angel”. Unfortunately, he has already died but I always remember what he told me:
“This business is your life.”
Do not think that everything can go fast and easy. Art business is a business that may require a lot of your attention, sometimes you should be present 24/7. I also feel that it is better to start at the younger age.
You need to invest a lot and then act. Unlike some startups that are created to be sold after a few years, my galleries are the work of my life.
What’s next for you?
I am working on many new exciting projects. We are representing Liu Bolin at the Parisian salon “Asia Now”, an exhibition of contemporary Asian art.
There are new exhibitions planned for Paris and Shanghai.
I am working with the ArtScience Museum in Singapore on organizing a major exhibition on Street Art featuring works of more than 50 artists, it is touted as the first big street art retrospective to be shown in Southeast Asia.
In May 2018 we will be holding a retrospective of Vhils in 104, an innovating and cultural workspace in the 19. Arrondissement in Paris.
By the way, I would also love to ask you something:
If you ever have a recommendation from a successful businesswoman who found a secret of how to be in several places at the same time, please share it with me, I will be happy to learn it.
We’ll surely share it with you once we found out! Thank you, Magda, for the interesting interview!
Useful links, addresses, and notes
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Images: Assia Moiseeva
Translation: Natalia Yurevich