Interview with Leslie Frey, founder of the gallery Leslie in Berlin
Leslie is just off Kottbusser Tor, in a neighborhood that since the 1960s is quite down-to-earth, but is now developing into a new creative area, with architectural offices, graphic design studios and designers. In this environment Leslie Frey shows Austrian artists she met in Vienna, next to new ones she discovers in Berlin and elsewhere.
When did you start your gallery?
I started the gallery in 2013, but it was a soft transition from a project space that I had started in Vienna in 2009 and moved to Berlin in 2011. It was called “Praterstraße.”
Why did you decide to open a gallery?
I had worked in galleries before, Krobath in Vienna and freelancing at Johanna Kamm in Berlin. I liked their programs, but I wanted to have my own gallery with a program with which I could fully identify. I had some practical experience and I wanted to give it a try myself.
Did you show the same artists in your project space as in your gallery?
The program of the project space was related to the Vienna art scene. Of my current artists, only Rudolf Steckholzer had already shown in my project space. Another artist I had shown and I would have liked to include in my roster was Julia Haller, but she went to Christian Nagel. The program of the gallery has grown autonomously, also thanks to the suggestions of some of my artists like Rudolf Steckholzer.
Why did you decide to leave the format of the project space in favor of the commercial gallery?
On the one hand, because I have to earn a living. But also because I think that commercial galleries are great for young artists. They provide them with a platform, and I wanted to help these artists who I much appreciate. I wanted to introduce them to institutions and collectors. You cannot do this with a project space. With a gallery you have a different standing and are more effective.
What was the first artwork that you sold in your own gallery and how did it feel?
It was a work by Alexander Marchuk in 2013. I knew him through another artist from Vienna, whome I worked with, who introduced me to him. I invited him to have a show in my gallery. A collector came and bought three works. It was fantastic! Not only for me but also for the artist as it was one of his first gallery shows after graduating.
Was it a Berlin collector?
No, from South America. This year I made my first sale to a Berlin collector, who has never bought before and this was almost more exciting than the first sale. By chance, it was also a work by Alexander Marchuk. To sell art to people who know how to appreciate it is the best part of the gallery work. In these cases I am ready to be accommodating with deferred payments, for example, because I think that it is important to make it possible to buy art also with a small budget.
Is it so difficult to get to Berlin collectors, or are there not enough?
There are few big collectors, like Axel Haubrock and Thomas Olbricht, and it is not easy to get to them, partly because everybody runs after them. But I also try to encourage new people to buy. One has to think also outside of the box, because the market is very hierarchical, but you don’t have to submit to it. There are many people who would like to buy art but they do not have access to it. For example, I decided to try out the online platform Artsy because it is very democratic.
Do you sell online?
Yes, I often sell via email. Maybe sometimes it happens because other collectors made a recommendation, but still, people buy just from seeing the PDF, without having been in the gallery. The Internet has changed everything.
What is the leitmotif that connects your artists?
You always ask yourself, what is the leitmotif? Is it me? I have often wondered about this question. I think all artists are timeless. Taft Green is very sculptural, Max Frey builds kinetic and light objects. Alexander Marchuk works with painting—which normally I don’t like so much. The recurrent theme is materiality and also a certain simplicity, which can be very complex at a second glance. I don’t like art that illustrates theories, or that it is too related to the present time. I want to work with artists who will still be interesting in ten years.
How do you find your artists?
Mainly by recommendations from my artists. Sometimes I just find them myself. For example, last year at the Art Rotterdam fair I saw for the first time Lotte Reimann, an artist who works with photography and who will have a solo show in the gallery in March 2016. But more often the program is developed through the exchange with the artists of the gallery. For example I met Imre Nagy, the last artist to join the program, through Axel Koschier. There is often an affinity among these artists and this creates bridges.
How old are your artists?
Between 25 and 40. But I am not interested in young artists only. Good art needs time. It’s the same as for the gender. I prefer to avoid labels.
Are you going to enlarge your program?
Yes, I now represent six artists, but I am planning to add a couple of names of women artists. I often have been said that I should have a better balance between male and female artists, but I have never paid attention to this, as I don’t like that you have to follow the gender rather than the art. But next year Lotte Reimann will be shown, and also Michele Pagel, another artist who lives in Vienna.
Is the connection to Vienna still strong?
Yes, I am often there, and I have worked there five years, so the connection is still strong.
How is Vienna’s artistic scene compared to Berlin?
The artistic scene in Vienna is smaller than Berlin, not so international and multilayered, but it is special and strong because Vienna has very good institutions. In Berlin there are many more young galleries and young artists, while in Vienna at the moment there are not so many young galleries. I don’t understand why there is no second growth, since there is even state support for Austrian galleries taking part in international art fairs such as Frieze.
Are there collectors?
Yes, there are big collectors and also young collectors coming up. Vienna has a long artistic tradition, and there are many initiatives to support the local art scene, like the Vienna art week and two art fairs. In the 1980s it was even stronger with Martin Kippenberger and the Actionists. It is almost legendary.
Is there someone who has particularly influenced you in your career?
There are several people who have influenced me. More than particular people, I clearly remember very strong exhibition experiences, such as Matt Mullican’s show in the Krefelder Kunstmuseen in 2001. It was so simple but extremely existentialist. I remember these moments in which you feel attracted to the art like a magnetic force.
Was this moment in which you decided to work in the art world?
No, I had already studied art history and worked in various “Kunstvereinen” (art associations). What has always interested me the most is the production of art. And this is also a large part of the gallery work: you see what happens in the atelier. As a curator you see the result, while as a gallerist you are with the artist during the decision making process.
How many art fairs do you take part in?
I take part in a couple of fairs, like Art Rotterdam, but I would like to do more fairs. But it is a process. You have to be able to finance them.
What relationship do you have with other Berlin galleries?
I think the exchange is very important. I have a good relationship to Sandra Buergel, for example, who has been active for a long time, and I think the exchange of information is very useful.
Why did you come to Berlin?
It was a personal decision.
And how did you choose this location for your gallery?
My first project space was in Mitte, in a parking garage in Straßburger Straße with many artists studios. But then it was demolished and since I knew this area, because I live in Kreuzberg, I liked it more than the area around Potsdamer Straße. It has the ideal size for me. And I like the fact that it is open to the street. It is a sign of transparency.
What was here before?
It was a bakery. When I took it over, it was already empty, but in the 1960s it was part of a basic services shops with small prices. The administrator of this group of buildings would like to transform it into a creative area. Our neighbors are architects and designers. But I like the fact that it is still a real neighborhood, not so artificial as in Mitte.
What about the name of the gallery?
The artists had a hand in giving it this name, because they never said “we show at Praterstraße”; they used to say “we show at Leslie”. I had long refused to use my first and second names as I think it is old-fashioned and outdated. I am not Leo Castelli. It comes from that time. I think as the gallery as a place, not as a person. Of course the gallery works through me, but I prefer to keep it abstract.
How do you see your gallery in 10 years?
I would like to continue publishing texts and booklets for my artists. I would like to get to the point when you don’t have to struggle as a young gallery. But I am very positive. My artists are doing well. The important thing is that they have good institutional shows and get international exposure also outside of Austria and Germany. Now we have a cooperation in Rome with the Austrian cultural institute, for example.
Tuesday – Friday: 11am – 3pm