Interview with Lisa Fetisova — the founder, the owner and the director of Russian Tea Room gallery, Paris, France – about difficulties of opening a gallery in Europe from scratch, how a photographer estimates the chances to get on the art market, who is collectors and who buys the modern art photos

Лиза Фетисова

Liza Fetisova, founder, owner and director of Russian Tea Room Gallery, Paris. Photo: Michel Gaillard.

Bleek Magazine: Tell us a little about your gallery and how did you find yourself in France?

Liza Fetisova: I always wanted to leave Russia. On the one hand, there was a difference between Russian reality and my opinion about the humane treatment of people.

On the other hand, I wanted to escape my comfort zone, to give up Moscow inactivity for total uncertainty. To make a fresh new start. This was in 2001. I was 25 years old.

I’ve just finished a one-year Cultural Manager course in France (DESS Management Culturel en Europe). Then I came to understand my situation. It was almost impossible to find a job in the field of culture without connections or family ties. Besides, I really can’t stand hierarchy, and France is kind of a Medieval country when it comes to social hierarchy.

That’s why after some experiments, I randomly but consciously started a small gallery. I did it with Oleg Dou and Sergey Maximishin, the artists I’ve discovered and shown in a commercial context for the first time. I had no contacts at all: no press contacts, no clients, no public. I’ve learned everything on my own and very quickly. It was quite fun.

“Then I came to understand my situation. It was almost impossible to find a job in the field of culture without connections or family ties. Besides, I really can’t stand hierarchy, and France is kind of a Medieval country when it comes to social hierarchy.”

The press came to love us very quickly and permanently. Typical Le Monde readers (low-key bourgeois style, age over 55, raincoat and elegant hat, even a cane sometimes) dropped into my gallery more than once.  Perplexed, they asked if this place was an exhibition space for Antanas Sutkus, for instance. They would show a press-cutting and ask: “Indeed? Is it really here? In such a small gallery?” They would leave satisfied though, holding a book they bought and making a promise to tell everybody about the marvelous exhibition.

I was mostly showing Russian photographers and some young Russian artists too. My first gallery space was like a small flat with its atmosphere, flower wallpapers, black and white floor tiles and tea for clients. The last exhibition I arranged there was «L’objet du désir» where I put together a group show consisting of the works of Antoine d’Agatha, Jeffrey Silverthorne, Araki and the works of Evgeny Mokhorev, Margo Ovcharenko and Nikolay Bakharev.

I moved into a new 200 square metres place three years ago. I decided to work only with photography, mostly Russian. I also exhibit non-Russian photographers sometimes because there’re just some works that’s impossible not to show. I’m talking about Fernando Brito, a Mexican photographer, who’s been working for 7 years on the project on the victims of the Mexican drug war. Following journalistic ethics, he takes pictures in such a way that we see epic pictures of fantastic beauty. In fact, pictures you see on your screen don’t have the same effect as the real prints hanging on the wall do. And there is a Czech artist Jiri Hanke who has been making pictures of the views from the window of his own flat for the past 23 years. It was a time of difficult geopolitical changes and he captured that.

Автор: Антанас Суткус. Лиза Фетисова, интервью для Bleek Magazine.

Antanas Sutkus, 1974. Provided by Russian Tea Room Gallery, Paris

Bleek Magazine: What problems does a young gallery have? How long is a gallery considered “young”?

Liza Fetisova: Every gallery has its problems, regardless of age. These problems are mostly the same for everybody, the most common one is a lack of cash.  That’s why I have to do many things by myself. Of course, I find some advantages in that. I can do everything by myself. I find artists, correspond with them, write press releases, install exhibitions, keep in touch with the press, clients, the public and suppliers, also I keep the books and I hate that part. So what do I have as a result? I think about my gallery all the time, even when I fall asleep and when I wake up. I have almost no vacations and I’m really tired of 8 years of nonstop activity.

Also, of course, there is a problem in that my artists and I are from nowhere. It doesn’t take much time to understand that all the participants here are connected through family ties or friendship. A gallery business is a business for rich people. And outsiders are not supported and not accepted here, no matter how hard you try.

The notion of a young gallery matters only when you apply for some fairs or grants. It is specified every time how many years a gallery should exist to be counted as a young one (3, 5 or 8 years). For instance, Art Brussels has individual offers for young galleries such as you pay for a fixed size stand less than others do.

Автор: Олег Доу. Лиза Фетисова, интервью для Bleek Magazine.

Oleg Dou, 2006. Provided by Russian Tea Room Gallery, Paris

Bleek Magazine: What kind of relationships do you have with other European gallerists? Do you have any mutual assistance, support in your society? Or is it mostly about business competition?

Liza Fetisova: There are two kinds of relationships between galleries in the art world. The first one is when you sell absolutely different stuff, that’s why you are not business rivals. The second one happens when one gallery wants to exhibit another gallery’s artist, even if it’s only one work in a group show. A framework agreement is signed in this case. Anyway you can’t expect a strong friendship or support here. It’s a tough business and gallerists are egocentric.

Shunsuke Ohno. Лиза Фетисова, интервью для Bleek Magazine.

Shunsuke Ohno, 2009. Provided by Russian Tea Room Gallery, Paris

Bleek Magazine: Who are your customers? Russians, Europeans? Can a middle-class person afford to buy a piece from the gallery? If he can, does he buy often? Or is it designed only for collectors? Tell us about the culture of the market for creative photography in Europe.

Liza Fetisova: I’ve never sold to Russians. (A new client appeared at the time of writing down this interview. He is Russian, serious and he understands clearly what he collects and why.) I sell mostly to the French. There are a few customers from the USA, Belgium, Switzerland, Luxembourg, England, Netherlands, and Italy.

There are only a few true collectors. So, who is a true collector? It’s not someone who buys a lot but someone who has a concept for his or her collection. This concept is not always explicitly expressed but denotes a certain mood, a delicate emotional line. We can find the same difference comparing plain hanging pictures on a wall to arranging an exhibition where every piece has its place and polyphonic dissonance of art objects creates a new single whole because of the skillful composition. A collector has a personal opinion, which is like artist’s unique statement. It’s rare.

It’s hard to speak about the middle class nowadays. The situation in France is much more complicated.

A collector has a personal opinion, which is like artist’s unique statement. It’s rare.

Paris is an expensive city, prosperity matters here. It means you must have at least 3000-4000 Euro of income to live here. But it’s wrong to say that 5000 Euro is the average middle-class salary, that’s more the upper middle class. 4000 Euro is the average salary of the middle class.

So people who can afford to live well in Paris can afford to buy an artwork.

But it does not mean then that they buy it. And even if they do buy, they often buy not the art itself, but some decorative photography. Decorative photography can be represented by galleries but, in my opinion, it belongs to arts and crafts, to the decorative genre of arts.

Clients have become completely different in the last 10 years. There are few connoisseurs and experts. The new market system works nervously and quickly being part of the consumption system.

Автор: Марго Овчаренко. Лиза Фетисова, интервью для Bleek Magazine.

Margo Ovcharenko, 2011. Provided by Russian Tea Room Gallery, Paris

Bleek Magazine: Why does an artist need a gallery? What does a gallery provide him with? Why does a customer need a gallery? A lot of people think that they can make a profit going to an artist directly.

Liza Fetisova: An artist needs support. He needs to show his works not only to his friends on the Internet, but also to professionals and to the general public directly if he is seriously thinking about a long-term career. He needs to get not only “likes” in response (it’s not hard to get one), but also newspaper articles, purchases of his prints, and all the other steps on the long way of building a reputation.

An artist needs a producer. Usually an artist has no money but you need plenty of cash for printing and design, for renting a place. An artist needs press contacts and clients but has no time or the capacity to work on them. Ideally, an artist should only create. All the other stuff is a gallery’s business. It’s important to note that an artist pays his gallery nothing. A gallery gets half of the profit from every piece it sells but only if it’s sold.

Galleries don’t work with every single artist. You have to take into account all the financial expenses and human resources a gallery bears before putting an artist’s works on the market. So a gallery thinks twice before taking the risk to represent any artist. But if you become a gallery artist once, it’s a big step in your career. It means you’re in. So you have more chances to be seen. And if your works are in ever-growing demand then the prices are going to grow too.

“But if you become a gallery artist once, it’s a big step in your career. It means you’re in”

A client may go to an artist directly to buy his work. And if an artist wants to keep the price at the same level, he sells his work for the same price as a gallery does. But there is a rule that an artist should send a client to the gallery. This is a gentleman’s agreement. Or it would be a one-sided game. And if an artist sells his work at a lower price, usually the gallery finds it out and a dissolution of an agreement with this artist follows. As it’s a small world: everybody will know about it quite quickly. And the artist will have nobody to work with.

A true client respects an artist’s work and a gallery’s business. He goes to a gallery, especially when there are relationships based on trust between him and a gallerist. It’s also a point of status and ceremony to go to a gallery. Gallerists tell and show you everything, they devote their time to you, make you a cup of tea or offer you a glass of wine. My permanent clients even bring me something tasty for tea as if they’re my guests. Clients know that my gallery and I both have a good reputation, my gallery is one of the seven best photo galleries of Paris according to TimeOut. My reputation is my capital. It took me 8 years to build it. And now my artists share my reputation because the artists I start to work with are unknown or almost unknown to the Western public.

Автор: Евгений Мохорев. Лиза Фетисова, интервью для Bleek Magazine.

Evgeny Mokhorev, 2000. Provided by Russian Tea Room Gallery, Paris

Bleek Magazine: Who are your artists? What criteria do you use inviting them to your gallery? What’s your gallery’s main feature?

Liza Fetisova: Mostly I work in the field of Russian contemporary photography. I make some exceptions sometimes. I’ve already told you about that. So that’s my main feature.

As for criteria, there are simple guidelines. One the one hand, the photography should be very powerful, i.e. should have an individual visual language, should be competitive and different from everything else at the same time. On the other hand, it should be sellable. It means I must be sure that I can sell it.

Автор: Jiri Hanke. Лиза Фетисова, интервью для Bleek Magazine.

Jiri Hanke, 1986. Provided by Russian Tea Room Gallery, Paris

Bleek Magazine: How do you rate the interest in Russian photographers today? Have there been any changes in the market during the last year? Are there any tendencies or signs for change?

Liza Fetisova: People buy quality pictures. So if an artist happens to be Russian, it’s just insignificant additional information.

There is no interest in Russian photography, and it’s going to be the same until it’s important for Russia itself.

The market here cannot be created without a large sum of money and adequate public policy. As we all know everything that happens in Russia happens not because of something but in spite of it.

If there are no collectors, no educational system, no grants in Russia, then there will be no interest in Russian photography abroad. Only China has strong market positions here. It’s easy to sell Chinese artists because their national reputation was built in record time and a fantastic sum of money was invested in this business in China. A speculative market was created, and art purchase is the way for capital outflows from China.

If you are an artist from a non-Western country, most likely, you will be represented as an exotic artist, to observe balance of Western context.

“There is no interest in Russian photography, and it’s going to be the same until it’s important for Russia itself.”

Bleek Magazine: Are there any differences between Russian contemporary photography and Western? Does Russian photography have any special subjects or visual language? What motivates your European customers to purchase works of Russian artists?

Liza Fetisova: I guess, if we are making comparisons, Russian photography should identify itself and arrange itself.

My opinions on this subject are more like observations. It seems for me, everything that happens in Russia happens in spite of all the things. It happens in spite of common sense, forces of attraction, laws, etc. Our entire life is one huge resistance. And we keep holding this pressure, keep living under stress. And Russian photography at its best reflects this process, this condition. Our country has everything for happiness but… it does not work…

It’s rare to meet “merry” Russian photography. In Soviet times propaganda was used to make artists show how happy we were living in the supposedly gorgeous USSR. But we know how far that was from the truth. A good photography must be truthful. That’s why the Soviet artists’ works are full of insincerity, but the works of Lithuanian photographer Antanas Sutkus are not. He was honest and many of his works show us proud and worthy (that’s anti-Soviet nature) people of Lithuania. His famous Western colleagues and contemporaries (Cartier-Bresson, for instance) never had such a problem making pictures in their countries. So willpower and courage were needed to do what was impossible not to do.

And, probably, Russian photographers are able to capture the Russian soul in all its variety. To make an X-Ray of that mystery. Look at the pictures of Sergey Maximishin, for example.

Collectors like Russian photography for this unconscious part, occasionally mystic, occasionally violent. But it’s often not important for them where a picture comes from. The point is that a picture is powerful and it moves you.

Автор: Сергей Максимишин. Лиза Фетисова, интервью для Bleek Magazine.

Dergei Maksimishin, 2008. Provided by Russian Tea Room Gallery, Paris

Bleek Magazine: Can you give any advice to Russian photographers who wish to find their way to the Western market?

Liza Fetisova: I can give many advices, of course.

The hardest question to ask is whether your works are worth fighting for. I vote for an ecological philosophy. I don’t like it when the market is cluttered with inferior photography or even worse.

That’s why you have to look at your works as fairly as you can. Compare them to the works you see on the market. Is your work competitive with what’s out there? As Russians have no national reputation in this field, your works must be damn good to make it.

It’s very important to decide what’s your level and to follow it. You should realize what your context is. You must look purposefully for any chance to show your works. You should do it indirectly via competitions (there are plenty of them, watch the winners’ works, compare them to yours to see if your works are at their level or not), portfolio reviews, numerous sites displaying artists’ works. This means you should use every chance to be seen by professionals. Don’t waste the time of museum directors, gallerists, etc. They should find you, not the other way around. Your site must be simple and clear. And the most important point is you should be making pictures instead of looking for grants. It must be clear that you have something to show and to tell. I always take photographers from Central Europe as an example here. The Czechs, the Hungarians, and the Poles have a fantastic standard and an amazing school. They work hard and with integrity. They don’t have a lot of resources but they become famous because of the quality of their works. They organize festivals where they bring together local artists and famous Western artists.

Автор: Игорь Мухин. Лиза Фетисова, интервью для Bleek Magazine.

Igor Moukhin, 2006. Provided by Russian Tea Room Gallery, Paris

Bleek Magazine: Tell us your plans for the future. Which projects are you going to do? Tell us in a few words about your “dream project” if you have one.

Liza Fetisova: My plan for the future is to continue working.

My dreams are private, and I’ll keep them to myself. I have one dream to share though. I want to organize a big Russian exhibition and to display it worldwide. In three years, perhaps…

© Bleek Magazine. Translation: Kseniya Cherepanova.