Johann Koenig on the Art Market, Art Careers and Making Money Quickly

Within minutes of meeting Johann Koenig at his gallery in Berlin, the reasons behind his prestige in the art world become obvious. A curious combination of factors makes him absolutely magnetic. Perhaps it’s his body language—loose enough to invite you into his perspective, yet also indicative of his comfort sitting on the higher perches of the industry. Or perhaps it’s the way he answers my questions—with the insights and unrestrained honesty of a respected gallery director, yet the utopian positivity of somebody truly passionate about helping artists. That passion means that since opening his gallery in 2002, Johann Koenig has grown to represent 27 International artists, and is about to move the gallery into a mammoth of an impressive space: a postmodern church in Kreuzberg that is as sublime as it is institutional. Before doing that, though, Johann talked to me about the art market, money, and building a legacy for artists.

Polina Bachlakova: I hear a lot of talk about social media playing a role in the art market—Richard Prince on Instagram, that sort of thing. Do you feel social media has affected the art world with realistic transaction and impact?

Johann Koenig: I don’t think social media is relevant for selling but it is relevant for communicating what the work is about. This is how Instagram comes in to play: although you can share a lot of information with many people at the same time, there are also negative sides. Like all these abstract painters who look the same online; there’s no more deep looking past the surface, I feel.
The art market was always driven by opinion leaders, and followed by others who heard about it and didn’t really do their own research or form their own opinions. But where it used to be a smaller group of followers who through word of mouth propaganda heard about the latest hot stuff, now you can follow online to hear about it—and there are thousands of followers.

PB: How would you describe your specific motivation and vision behind your gallery?

JK: Because I realized I couldn’t be an artist myself, I always wanted to work with artists and help them. That’s still the main force—to support the artist so he can do something he wouldn’t be able to do without my support, whether that’s production through financial resources or content or feedback or mental support.

PB: So operationally, how do you hit all those points? Do you have a big team?

JK: The team is key. I have ten people working with me, including three artist liaisons. We focus on organizing museum exhibitions because that’s what we care most about. The strategy is less about the market and more about the institution—the permanence of the cultural legacy. You can be a young artist and sell an abstract painting for $100 000—but you probably had no museum show, maybe one gallery show, no critical respect. I don’t think these are solid markets. However, if somebody participated in five major exhibitions, it doesn’t necessarily impact the market—but in the long run, if it’s archived in museums, it has cultural value. And I think at some point cultural value will transcend to financial values.

PB: Do you think it’s hard for artists to establish that cultural value considering the climate of the art market? Sales are going faster, prices are getting higher, and it’s hard to develop a stable path.

JK: The weird thing is that these selling points are coming way earlier than they used to. Normally the market would pick you up step by step and at a certain point in your career you would fetch higher prices. And now, this suddenly changed. Maybe it’s good to have a quick market but I think it’s important to think, what’s next five years from now? Who cares, and how will your work develop at a good pace—with all that financial pressure? With artists suddenly selling for a higher amount they have to take into account the market pressure—especially from the secondary market, where people mainly follow their work because of financial interest. That’s something we try to protect our artists from. Not all of our artists are in the whirlwind of the art market. I’m happy to have no artists on this buy or sell lists.

PB: You also mentioned art critics. Do you feel the role of the art critic has diminished or is still prominent in some ways?

JK: I don’t think it’s about the art critic as a persona but more about the discourse in general. An inexperienced 24 year old painter´s work is generally undeveloped: you can’t yet see his mission. Discussion is very important artistically to help artists understand—where is this work going? It’s the same with literature or theatre or soccer. Somebody hit a goal—but is he a good player?
The market is per se different from that. If the sale is high and you buy it low, it’s a success. That’s all that counts. But that’s only one aspect of the art market. Because of the media, the greed, the money, a lot of other things fade out of focus. Too many things are about money.

PB: You sound quite disillusioned.

Not at all. I think it’s a problem in the media, which I also understand: money is something highly attractive that creates a big fascination. But there are so many more fantastic things in art than making lots of money quickly, and they’re way harder to describe and experience than quick cash.

PB: I think also part of it is because it’s easier for everyone to talk money. Not everyone can talk about the intricacies of the work of art, but everyone can talk about money.

JK: Exactly, and another phenomena is that now, there’s too much money and no idea where it can go. That’s what the art market is profiting from on a certain level: what’s happening now is entirely free market. If in the stock market you did the same things as in the art market, you would end up in prison.

PB: Do you have predictions for what will change – or who knows what will happen in the future?

Right now, there’s still a big focus on rocket stars and not on cooled down, fallen stars. It’s always about those who rise from ashes to the sun; there’s a need for new names constantly. But logically, the art market can’t go on like this forever. The money is draining out, and I think this whole speculative market will change.