What I learned during my 15 years as a gallery owner

In many ways, German-born Dominik Mersch is an unlikely gallerist. He explains: “I am an engineer. I have a doctorate in biomechanics and I created the artificial hip, I created hip prostheses.

Mersch is not averse to career change. Previously, he was a management consultant for nearly a decade in Europe and London. “You make a lot of money, but it was really grueling with the travel and the demands,” he told ArtsHub. But it was a path that led him to the hospital, putting his future in question.

“I made a great spreadsheet – as a good German engineer – and came up with options to go back to college and become a teacher, but a friend said, ‘You have to write galleries on this list – all the money and time you’ve spent on art and going to museums and artists’ studios – that’s where your passion lies.

Know where to start

Mersch continued his methodical lists. He acknowledged that many of the artists he would like to work with already had gallery representation in Berlin and London. So he chose Sydney to start a gallery, settling there in mid-2006.

‘I did my research on where to start a gallery – location is so important – and then worked on making contacts with collectors and finding artists. I had no network here. People thought I was completely crazy,’ he told ArtsHub. “Looking back, it was pretty bold.”

However, he now recommends the same strategy to anyone considering opening a gallery or starting a career as a gallerist.

“Do a lot of research and understand what your point of differentiation is. Research where the gallery should be located, then you should network before you open the doors because when you do, it’s like turning on the tap – it’s ‘is very expensive and it keeps flowing,’ advised Mersch.

The best plans

Even methodical strategizing can work against it.

A year after opening a space in the then fashionable warehouse district of Danks Street in Sydney’s Waterloo boroughs, the GFC struck.

Mersch said that reflecting on the past 15 years, the biggest misconception he had about a career in the arts in Australia – which has been debunked – was the lack of government support.

“Coming from Germany, that’s a huge difference. The will to drive and do something is so much harder in Australia. Government funding is very disappointing; this has really been highlighted in the pandemic… when you think of all the money Europe has spent to keep the arts in survival mode; that’s the most important thing I’ve learned.

“I thought there would have been a better chance of supporting projects. If you want to do it, you have to do it yourself. We bring in a lot of international artists – you don’t get any money for that, so I have to pay. But I think it’s really important to introduce these artists to an Australian audience,” Mersch told ArtsHub.

One of the first to present an international cross-border program alongside an Australian artist in the commercial space, Mersch says that while it was difficult at first, it has absolutely improved.

“At the time, it was heartbreaking to see all these big names coming here and we’re not selling anything, and people were asking why was it so expensive? A big game changer was Art Basel Hong Kong. People (Australians) were engaging with international artists and being more informed, and saying, ‘Okay, I saw them there, so that must be good.’ It was a very good period, 2012-14.

Collective exhibition, Dominik Mersch Gallery. Picture provided.

Surfing on trend changes

Mersch says that over the past 15 years there has definitely been a shift from bricks and mortar to more hybrid models.

“That’s the question I’ve been asking myself for many years now, ‘Do I need physical space?’ And I always come back to yes. It gives collectors and curators confidence when there’s this point of anchoring, but you have to be more flexible with pop-ups and gallery swaps – that’s part of being a gallerist today.

He continued, “I think pop-ups and project-based exhibits are in high demand right now.” He is also a big advocate of ‘gallery swap’, which he has done through the CONDO project – a network where galleries swap spaces for free for 4 weeks.

‘It was super successful; it all started in London and New York, then in Mexico City. It was such a delightful experience… which could be an alternative model to art fairs, where gallery owners stay longer and bond.

Read: 30 things I learned working in a gallery

Mersch observed along with the rise of hybrid spaces, marketing has become more important across the board.

“Marketing is a big thing. When I was in Danks Street, there were 300 people passing by on a Saturday – before it was a kind of ‘gallery hopping’, just to watch and talk. Now, it’s more like a destination made after doing your research online.

“The whole pre-sales and sales process has completely changed to the point where someone will come into the gallery to make a final decision. Even with a younger generation, people want to see its texture, feel the paint and that will never change. But it’s really important to have these sales channels on Instagram and an online store and virtual tours,” he explained.

Mersch has been running the space producing 3D virtual tours of its exhibits since 2018.

Find the right balance

When asked if there’s a secret to finding the right balance in growing a gallery — the number of artists you hire versus the relationships you build and the sales you make — Mersch said. said it was a constant question he grappled with in the first year.

Today it represents around twenty artists. That’s about what I can manage with my team. I say I’m married to 20 people; they are demanding, I demand. I think 20 is the golden compromise. If you have more, relationships will definitely suffer,” Mersch said.

He acknowledged that some galleries will accept up to 40 artists, but that means they end up running an A and B list given that there are only a limited number of shows that can be held during the course of the event. a calendar year, and these artists are offered a show less often. .

Mersch spoke of having this “stable” of fair artists: “I call it the Model T. In Europe, when someone collects, they collect deeply – you have one or two artists and you buy at each exhibition. In Australia it is wider and collectors tend to collect one or two works by many different artists.

He added that there were really only around 200 to 400 active and serious collectors in Australia. ‘So everyone is after them, obviously. You have to reach out to the next generation of young professionals, work with ambassador programs in museums and of course you have the whole Instagram community – it will be the 10-year-old collectors,” he said.

He added, “You have to be careful not to grow old with your artists, but also to encourage young artists to come. Ditto for collectors. You need to start with young collectors and grow them.

One of the ways Mersch has done this is by working with art schools, as well as through the Dominik Mersch Gallery Award (DMG), which has existed for 12 years, and the DMG Curator Award, which has existed for 2015. .

Trendy professionalism

Mersch remembers visiting the first post-graduation fair at a university when he arrived from Berlin. “It was so unprofessional. The works were poorly hung, there was no information, compared to now it’s super professional. All the artists have their own websites and business cards, there are different levels of exhibition preview.

“The students learned a lot about the business side – the transaction of art. It’s always been a bit of a stain, ‘You don’t talk about that’, but from my point of view as a gallerist, it’s so much easier today to work with artists because of this professionalization,” said Mersch said.

And when it comes to more established artists who have achieved success in Australia, Mersch says: “In terms of professionalism and expectations, they require a more international presence. Most of them are no longer happy to just show in Sydney or Australia; they want to go to Asia-Pacific or the world, and as a gallery you have to meet that demand.

Ethical operations

It is well known that the shopping mall industry is largely unregulated. NAVA has done considerable work on a code of practice, but it is not binding.

Mersch admits there is an inconsistency in business practices and ethics. He works very transparently and immediately, again emphasizing his German passion for a spreadsheet.

“When we sign up a new artist, we only have chips we’re talking about. It’s a two-way street. That hasn’t changed over the years,” he said. “And I always pay my artists on time.”

What does “on time” mean? For Mersch this is in the second week after full payment by the customer. “It’s a matter of cash flow. If you do it all the time, it doesn’t matter once you’re up to speed. Ditto with your rent or bills. I know there are black sheep in the market.

In conclusion, Mersch said, “Part of the reason I love my job so much is that you always learn something… it’s kind of like a hotel – people come to you and tell you their stories. experiences. I am a storyteller; I tell the story of the artist and the genesis of the artwork, and these stories are told on the dining table by others [living with this art].’

The Dominik Mersch Gallery is located at 1/75 McLachlan Avenue, Rushcutters Bay NSW. A fifteenth anniversary group exhibition opens this weekend and runs until March 5.

About Margaret L. Portillo

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