Thaddaeus Ropac, Salzburg and a path to mega-success

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22

No one seems to have a bad word to say about Thaddaeus Ropac. His artists adore him, and he credits them with the “enrichment and excitement” that have made his 40 years as a dealer a joy. Ropac is now celebrating this anniversary with a show spanning his two Salzburg venues, showcasing the bookmark years 1983 and 2023. In the intervening period, Ropac has opened major galleries in Paris, London and Seoul.

Youthful and dapper, the 63 year old’s enthusiasm remains undiminished, and he seems surprised when asked about succession plans for the business he has built up (without a financial backer). He has none, he says. Instead, it looks like a Ropac museum is on the cards to house his private collection—he has set up a foundation, registered in Austria, which he says is in the process of finding its “best resting place”.

We meet in Salzburg as part of the anniversary celebrations, coinciding with the famous summer Salzburg Festival, when the great and the good descend on this quiet Austrian town. This makes for excellent business, as Ropac knows: Salzburg has long provided the concentration of affluence that art fairs artificially cultivate, with an added layer of European tradition and sophistication. During our first evening’s restaurant rendezvous, this is embodied by Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, whom Ropac briefly heads over to chat with at the next table.

Meanwhile, the elegant Villa Kast at Mirabellplatz, Ropac’s main venue in Salzburg, inhabits a famous Sound of Music film setting overlooking the Mirabell Gardens (where Maria and the von Trapp children sing “Do-Re-Mi”). His immaculate home, Villa Emslieb, in the leafy Hellbrunn park district, is neighbour to another of the film’s heritage landmarks—the “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” pavilion.

Amid all this, Ropac’s realm is an oasis of curatorial rigour. Our interview takes place during the last-minute preparations for the opening of the anniversary exhibition, 1983 | 2023, with works from the early 1980s by the likes of Andy Warhol, Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer, Robert Rauschenberg, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Joseph Beuys and the Austrian Valie Export occupying Villa Kast’s ground floor. Works from 2023, by artists such as Martha Jungwirth and Megan Rooney, were still arriving for the upper floor display. There was an unexpected gasp as Ropac noticed a giant blue portrait of himself by the Chinese artist Yan Pei-Ming. “Un surprise!” says Pei-Ming later with a grin. This is what happens when you entrust the world to artists.

Baptised in Beuys’s worlds

Ropac has regained his poise for our filmed interview 15 minutes later—he politely asks for the camera setup to be changed so he is sat in front of a work by Maria Lassnig. Such awareness of how his roster needs to speak to the current moment is typical. Ropac is also unusually collaborative; most of his artists are shared with other galleries, and finding new names, such as Rachel Jones and Oliver Beer, is a collaborative effort too, he says: “We have a small research team led by Julia Peyton-Jones, and they make suggestions and assemble ideas that come from our leading team of directors.”

Ropac was born in southern Carinthia in 1960, and “arts never had a place in my upbringing”, he says. His father was, however, a great reader and had an “amazing library” that fired Ropac’s curiosity. His “eureka moment” came when, at the age of 18, he went to Vienna’s Palais Liechtenstein and saw an installation by Beuys, Basisraum Nasse Wäsche (1979): “The teacher said, ‘Don’t even look at it, it’s a scandal for the museum authorities to spend money on this.’” Initially, Ropac “couldn’t understand the museum’s decision”. But he went back and “found a little brochure which helped me begin to go into Beuys’s worlds”. Up to that point, “art history ended with Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka”, he says. Ropac would subsequently drive to Düsseldorf and beg Beuys to let him assist in his studio—eventually, he became the artist’s unpaid errand boy.

There was also a deeper influence at work. As a youth, Ropac became painfully aware of the history of the “Shoah” (Holocaust). “It became almost the biggest weight on my shoulders,” he says. “How can I come from a country where this was possible?” He had to “confront this”. Baselitz’s paintings of German fallen heroes had a huge impact—“fallen, sick, poor heroes… these were German heroes—and in the German sense this ‘hero’ had to be a failed hero”—as did Kiefer’s Holocaust works. Later visits to Auschwitz and Mauthausen concentration camps, he says, were “truly devastating. There are no words”. (Ropac has since founded the Austrian Friends of the Israel Museum association).

“My Austrian/German background meant I had to deal with things differently to an English or French person,” he continues. “Our generation demanded an explanation, Germany long before Austria unfortunately. So, the artists I wanted to show were German artists. I wanted to defend and support the artist’s voice, and this definitely helped me to deal with this past. Baselitz, Beuys, Polke … it was central to them.”

Seeped in culture: Ropac with David Hockney and Sydney Picasso © Angelika Platen

In 1982, Beuys was preparing mega installations for the Documenta exhibition in Kassel and Norman Rosenthal’s Zeitgeist exhibition at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin. “Zeitgeist changed everything for me,” Ropac says. One can feel the reverberations of this epoch-making painting survey—which took Beuys’s Stag Monuments installation as its defining image and mixed the cerebral heavyweights of German art with the likes of Warhol and even Gilbert and George—on Ropac’s taste and activity ever since.

Ropac had already had a stint, in 1981, at a gallery in Lienz, specialising in Austrian art by the likes of Arnulf Rainer, Maria Lassnig and Valie Export. However, “Salzburg was a place where culture was concentrated—the best singers, the best musicians, directors, actors—I felt this sense…” he says, laughing. “But, of course, I didn’t realise that [outside of the festival] Salzburg would be just a small town.” Salzburg was “the most unlikely place to open an avant-garde gallery”, Norman Rosenthal agrees. “But Ropac hit a goldmine.”

Ropac persuaded Beuys to exhibit some modest works, and Beuys introduced him to Warhol, who in turn introduced him to Basquiat during a New York stay. And then young Ropac had another stroke of good fortune—Eliette von Karajan, the former French fashion model, artist, collector and third wife of the conductor Herbert von Karajan (star of the Salzburg festival) took him under her wing. Rosenthal believes that it was possibly, at least in part, due to Eliette’s introductions to some of Europe’s high society that Ropac formed the nucleus of his elite clientele; this, he thinks, was Ropac’s “breakthrough”.

From these beginnings, Ropac has grown a business representing 72 artists and several estates (including Beuys’s), with an annual turnover of £41.9m in 2021 at his London gallery alone, a figure dwarfed by turnover overseas. “We want to give our artists the best possible infrastructure, connecting [them] with the right institutions and collectors … so, you are automatically forced to grow,” Ropac says. He now has 130 staff, overseeing around 40 exhibitions a year. “The world is growing faster, you must constantly adjust.”

Anonymous censorship

In 2021, Ropac opened a gallery in Seoul and is now focused on further expansion in Asia, not the US. He has been “watching China impatiently” for the last 20 years, witnessing the “beginning of an incredible art scene there”. But now, he says, “this opening up is failing, and censorship is becoming so strong”. He talks about preparing a Chinese project over three to four months, providing a list of works and then finding that “a number of them had just gone. And you can’t defend it … censorship is totally anonymous”.

Commercialisation, speculation and “jumping on bandwagons” are the potential downsides of today’s rapidly expanding art industry, and Ropac observes that galleries are becoming mega brands today: “A brand stands for something, and I am happy to become a brand, but it has its dangers.” Art, he says, is about truthfulness. “If an artist doesn’t do work that is honest and truthful it cannot succeed. We want to work with artists who are relevant, who are creating the canon and creating the art of our time.”

Which artists would he have liked to represent if history and money were no object? The idea tickles him: “Duchamp would be first on my list, I collected him for many years and am happy to own some important works; Brancusi, he changed sculpture, the way we look at sculpture; Holbein! Dürer, because he was such an interesting figure, he was also clever, a businessman … the first one who was his own art dealer.” He adds Rubens, too, as “when Charles I had the conflict with the Spanish Habsburgs, it was Rubens who negotiated for him. But can art help change society? This is forever an ongoing discussion”.

So, what is the philosophy that underpins his business? “You need to be overwhelmed by an artwork, to be really taken by it,” Ropac says. “What drove me was a mixture of that feeling—to be physically overtaken, to feel authenticity, truthfulness and innovation—so that it talks to you on an emotional level. Then you immediately place it in juxtaposition with what’s been done. How new is it? How creative is it? How does it fit with what we have seen before, what we are used to seeing?”

Ropac believes that today’s urge for “inclusiveness, openness, to look at artists from all agendas, all places … should have been there, without question, 30 to 40 years ago”. It is “astonishing and shameful”, he says, to think back to the male-dominated shows of the 1980s.

Finally, he believes that the art world “has to look, to study, to participate in everything”. Does this mean embracing NFTs? “When NFTs arrived we were all curious,” he says. “And we had to be curious, but we didn’t want to participate yet, as the discussion is still in its early stages.” He adds: “We are looking for a space in the metaverse.” His face lights up, before interjecting quickly: “I’m joking, but we do, we have to … then, maybe it’s not sensible.”

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