In 2008, Craig and Leona Mattoli founded one of the first foreign art galleries in Southern China. Craig, born in Lebanon, and Leona, a native of China, made a formidable duo to introduce Western artists to the local audiences, bringing works by Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró—and, most importantly, Pablo Picasso—to Guangdong Province.
In the years since, Craig, who got his start working in arbitrage on Wall Street, passed away in 2013, and Leona has been left to forge the future of the gallery, which bears both her name and that of her late husband. Today the gallery is located within the CTF Finance Center K11—the tallest building in the business hub of Guangzhou—and specializes in the ceramics of Picasso.
We caught up with Leona to discuss the origins of Leona Craig Art Gallery and what it means to carry on the legacy of her husband.
How did you first come across Picasso ceramics?
As a gallery owner that also has financial background, we are always trying to discover unique and desirable art and bring it to our clients. When I was in France, I met the director of the pottery studio where Picasso used to make all his ceramics. I was so impressed at how passionate the artist was in the ceramic field.
We have done lots of research on why Picasso spent almost 30 years in the south of France making ceramics, and realized how important his ceramics are in his late years. Ever since then, I have been collecting and selling Picasso’s ceramics to my clients, especially in Asia.
What did you think would appeal to Chinese collectors about Picasso’s ceramics? Would you say collectors in China were aware of Picasso’s paintings but not his ceramic practice?
Well, before I brought Picasso ceramics into the Chinese market, a lot of people indeed didn’t know that Picasso even made ceramics. It takes me quite a lot of time to educate people, to let them know about this history, and teach them how to appreciate his ceramics. The name “Picasso” is very popular in China, however; you are right that lots of people are aware of his paintings, especially his Cubist style, but not everyone knows about his ceramics. I am so glad to be in this role, to let more and more people know about this treasure Picasso left to us.
How did you develop your eye for art and in particular for Picasso ceramics? I know you studied abroad, though you have a background in business.
I think this requires some gift in art, and lots of experience with seeing different kinds of art. When I was in the U.S. and Europe, I got to visit the homes of many royal families and private museums with vast collections. For ceramics, I believe it is hands-on experiences that count. Having been in this field for 10 years, I have seen and touched lots of ceramics, and done lots of research on the medium, so I can easily tell if works are authentic or not.
What has been your experience as a gallerist and dealer in China? Are many women in this field?
As a female gallerist who has been working in China since 2008, I have seen lots of women working in the art business, but not many of them are primary dealers. This is a challenging field, and while some were very passionate about entering the market at the beginning, but ultimately do not last.
Tell me about your partnership with Craig Mattoli. How did your relationship come about and how did it evolve into a business partnership? After his death, what motivated you to keep the gallery going?
Criag Mattoli was my late husband; we started the gallery together. Because of his rich experiences in art and finance, he contributed a lot to building a very strong foundation for the gallery. When he was working on Wall Street, he began to collect and interact with lots of masterpieces and antiques. His expertise in both finance and art gave me plenty of inspiration.
As for the future, the Apple brand is still famous without Steve Jobs, and in the art world, there are lots of galleries still running after multiple generations. One of the biggest motivations is my passion for art, and to share the best art from different countries with art lovers is really an amazing feeling.
What do you see as your major contributions to the Chinese art world, in terms of new knowledge about Picasso ceramics, but also more broadly?
We have been one of the few foreign galleries in Southern China, and even in the early years, we have been bringing Chinese artists into the International market. Since 2013, I have been bringing Western masters like Picasso, Miró, and Dalí into the Chinese market.
As a result, today clients will come to me when they want to buy authentic work by a master artist like Picasso. He is a very famous and popular artist, but we still didn’t see many of his artworks or exhibitions in China. I have organized many such exhibitions here, to let people see all of these museum-quality artworks without having to leave China.
What do you see as the future of Leona Craig Art Gallery?
The name itself is a good combination of Chinese and foreign, and one of my missions is to continue to discover art from different countries and bring it to China, while continuing to promote excellent Chinese artists. Another bright spot in the future I can see is the potential of opening a Picasso museum in China.