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Emmanuel Perrotin enters the bear pit

Opening in New York may be the French gallerist’s bravest move yet

Perrotin engages with Paola Pivi’s Who told you white men can jump?, 2013

There’s something puckish about Emmanuel Perrotin. The 45-year-old Frenchman played the role of giddy ringmaster at the carnival-themed launch of his first New York gallery last month, where gallery artists such as Takashi Murakami, KAWS and Daniel Arsham created amusements for the guests.

In person, though, Perrotin exudes more the concentrated energy of a professional gambler preoccupied with calculations of risk (a word he uses nine times within an hour of our meeting). Bold moves have defined his career since he opened a gallery in his Parisian apartment when he was 21. “Retrospectively, I feel that was crazy. I didn’t have any money. I was the kind of guy who would go to a nightclub until 6am—and I didn’t even drink alcohol,” he says.

Perrotin gave the young Damien Hirst one of his first commercial gallery shows in 1991, transporting the works on the roof of his mum’s car. He carried art to international fairs in his luggage. “It was great; it was beautiful. But I was suffering a lot to do it. It was really taking a risk day after day,” he says.

High stakes

The stakes are even higher now. “It’s difficult to imagine how much risk we will take at this level. I’m not really a big gallery. I’m not small, either, and I’m not young any more. But I was at a point where I said, ‘OK, let’s do it’.” The new gallery is his fourth: in addition to two spaces in Paris, Perrotin opened in Hong Kong last year (he opened in Miami in 2004, and closed in 2010). “It has been a dream to open in Manhattan since the very beginning because New York is the capital of the art world,” Perrotin says. “But I know it is very dangerous. You can burn yourself. Sometimes the dream can be trop—too big.”

The New York move points to a generational shift unfolding in the city. There are whispers about which dealers will become the next power-players as the pioneers of the Chelsea scene creep towards retirement with no apparent succession plans. It is no coincidence that dealers of a similar generation to Perrotin are jockeying for position. “I’m sure the moves of different galleries here are completely based on this. That earlier generation had real success with their galleries when they were aged between 40 and 45. I am 45 years old when I open here, so things are possible,” Perrotin says. “If I don’t do it now, it would be such an effort later.”

There are other, practical reasons for the Manhattan opening. New York dealers poach other galleries’ artists so aggressively it may as well be a blood sport, and Perrotin feels the pressure. “My dream is to be able to keep my artists and to not feel so much the shadows of someone who wants to take what you have. It’s not an egomaniac situation. I don’t want to be the biggest; I just don’t want to lose. So I need to make a move.”

Perrotin has worked with many of his artists—such as Cattelan and Murakami, whose careers have gone from negligible to supersonic—from a young age. “When you really invest your energy to develop the career of an artist and you finally create a nice situation for them, you push them to do a great show for another gallery in a different city like New York because you know it’s important for them. But then you have to wait three years for new work—and every artist keeps their best for New York,” Perrotin says.

Many of his artists are without American representation, which has made the decision to open in New York an easier one. In the past, he was approached by Manhattan galleries that wanted to work with his artists, such as Paola Pivi, whose exhibition “OK, You are better than me, so what?” (until 26 October) is the first in Perrotin’s Manhattan space. “We weren’t really interested in the proposals we got. Many galleries were interested in showing her, but they wanted a project that was already accomplished or to produce an easy work. But an artist like Paola comes to you and says she wants to have two zebras on a mountain in the snow, and you find a way to do it,” he says. “The first piece I produced with Paola is still in storage. It didn’t sell because the production costs were so high, which made the price a lot for her at that time. But we made the work because it’s the kind of piece that makes her so important. You take your risk and that’s it.”

He has taken a ten-year lease on a 4,300 sq. ft space at 73rd Street and Madison Avenue—an unusual choice for a dealer focused on the primary market, since the area is more commonly associated with secondary market galleries. “It’s more exotic for me to be here, because it’s such a contrast between my programme and the area,” he says. “I like Chelsea. It’s efficient because you can visit many galleries in one visit. But you don’t have time to refresh your eyes between one show and another, and, from the outside, every gallery looks the same. And if you want to exist in Chelsea, you need to open a very big gallery, and I’m not ready for that. It would look arrogant.”

New York gives Perrotin the potential to develop the secondary sales side of his business. “We are big compared with many galleries. But our capital is no comparison next to some of the really big fish that make huge amounts of money from the secondary market,” he says.

For now, Perrotin is celebrating 25 years in business with a show at the Tripostal, Lille, entitled “Happy Birthday Galerie Perrotin/25 Years” (11 October-12 January 2014)—and focusing on making his most recent gamble pay off. “Maybe I will fail, but you know, I want to accomplish the complete story. I have to do it.”

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