Interview with Wilfried Lentz, founder of the gallery Wilfried Lentz in Rotterdam
Wilfried Lentz shows us around his gallery, his office on the third floor, the main exhibition space on the second level, and at the end, up to the 4th floor, to the “panopticon,” a more intimate space with small windows and a view of the Rotterdam harbour. “Entering the gallery is like a ritual,” Wilfried Lentz will say a little bit later in our conversation.
Let’s start with the location. You moved to your current location in 2014. Why did you choose this neighborhood? What was the purpose of the building before?
The building is from the early twenties and it is part of a monumental housing complex in the western part of the city, near the harbour, its function was a bathhouse. The gallery is on two floors, the second and the fourth floor. The shows on the top floor run a little bit longer. I use the space as what the work and the artist needs and what fits.
Sometimes I curate shows by myself; I do it on the top floor when a gallery artist wants to show in the main gallery. The upper floor is like a panopticon in a way, you may think of a prison with small windows. The total exhibition space is about 200 square meters, and in the basement I have my storage. Approaching the complex feels like a ritual, first you enter the whole complex, than you get into this building and at the end you approach the gallery.
I am here in this building with the non-profit project space A Tale of a Tub. They are on the ground and first floor. I was looking for a new spot because I did not have enough space in my former gallery and then I discovered this building. But I did not wanted to go alone. So I found some curators and they started the project space. We do openings together and you are more part of a biotope. In the old place I did not have so many visitors but this is now changing.
When did you open your gallery?
I started in 2008, in a totally different building, although it was also a state monument. A huge former wholesale trade building from the fifties just opposite the Central Station, and now used mainly as office building. Somehow it was similar, the gallery was just in the middle of the complex and both are buildings with a great architectural history.
How would you describe the program of your gallery?
One of the most important developments within the last 100 years is the use of appropriation as a strategy to make art. It is also my personal interest, so you see in my program, that all artists use certain forms of appropriation in their work. All artists have an interest in the things and world around them, it is this attitude that connects them, their interest in culture, politics or society. They are very conscious about their role and position as an artist. I’m not interested in “art about art”, or very hermetic art. The medium is for me a less important criterium than the subject.
How many artists do you have in your program?
At the moment I represent 15 artists in my gallery program. It will grow a little bit, but it will not become more than 20. This is a good size. I rather prefer to keep it small so you can have a kind of personal conversation with the artist yourself. It is very important that the gallery can be involved in the production process of new works through gallery shows. That requires also a higher involvement from me as a gallery owner. If the gallery becomes bigger, it will be a different type of business. Now I am very close to the artists and even closer to their work.
Where and how do you find your artists?
In the first place I am triggered by works and you have a kind of connection through the work. I travel a lot and I see a lot of shows. But at the end it all centers around the work. I can do two things very well: I am really good in developing projects and I am quick to recognize talent.
What motivated you to open a gallery? Has there been an influential person?
I had a very romantic idea about having this little shop for selling the most beautiful things in the world. To sell really good stuff, that is the fun of it. It is not so much about the social aspect for me, it is really about the work itself. As agent I want to be part of that production and distribution process. If you sell good products, than you also have a position. It all starts with the idea behind the gallery, that is really important.
My father had a pastry shop in Den Haag. He sold the best pastries in the region. What I learned from him is his entrepreneurial attitude and the belief that just good products is the best start to be successful.
What was your first show?
I opened with a show by Matts Leiderstam. He is interested in the influence of earlier artists vision and perception on contemporary viewers. Also how the history and provenance of art works changes the reading. This may sound a little bit abstract. To give an example: Our way of looking at an artwork is for example influenced by the money that was paid for it or who owned it. Matts’s work has a lot to do with that way of looking at things.
Recently I did the show Unknown Unknown with him, where he selected 16th century paintings from the depot of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. These works have two problems: the people portrayed are unknown and the authors are unknown. Really beautiful portraits but in the depot. In a way he brought them alive again. It was no coincidence that I did the first show with Matts, because it is very layered work that always has a kind of story behind it.
What are the pros and cons of running a gallery for young, emerging and international art in Rotterdam?
I think I have a good position here, also internationally. Your are a bit in the shadow, you can do your thing and not everyone is watching you, but still I am very central. Brussels, Amsterdam or Cologne are very easily reachable by car for example. The Witte de With is an important art institution and I know the people who work and have worked there very well. I have lived in Rotterdam for 30 years and therefore I am quite well connected.
The first six years were more about branding the gallery and building the program, and during that time it was not so important to have a close relationship with the immediate environment. At the beginning it was much more important to become recognized internationally, to be in direct contact with international clients. Part of my idea now is to position myself much more in the Dutch context.
Have you ever thought about another location?
I while ago I thought about going to New York. But not too soon, you have to grow first. Your position must be very strong if you do this. You need to have more artists and more staff. But that would mean also a different type of business. At the moment I am not very interested in that, I prefer it like it is now, because I really appreciate working here in the gallery directly in the production process with the artist.
How would you describe the role of a gallery in the art world today?
For me the role of the gallery should be seen much more at the own venue instead of doing eight or ten fairs a year. You become more part of an industry, and you may lose your independence. I want to become less dependent on only international channels.
I sometimes call this development “Art in the age of the commodity”, which means for me a special kind of art that has more to do with ways of distribution through fairs or the internet. I have chosen another direction, international but rooted in a local context and less dependent on this international distribution channels.
Does digitalization affect your work as a gallerist?
What I think is good, is that you reach a totally new audience. The accessibility for art grows. I do not know the facts really but I can imagine that the turnover of what people spend on art is much higher than ten years before. For the artists this is also very positive. But I really think the gallery should be the place where you can experience art. Moreover I see a next step where the collector becomes a co-producer in creating work and sometimes even meaning.
The collectors could be involved in the whole creative process by having the budget and inviting an artist to make an art work. All of this is more interesting as an experience and the opposite of seeing or even buying something from a flat-screen.
What are your plans for the future?
I think I will stick to what I am doing now, experimenting with the possibilities a gallery has to offer, that is what I will do in the future: Continue doing one or two fairs or projects a year in the international context out of the gallery space. But all in a kind of intimate atmosphere where you can really have a conversation.
Wilfried Lentz takes part in the 3rd edition of Granpalazzo from May 27th to 28th, 2017 with a selection of works by Giorgio Andreotta Calò.
Justus van Effenstraat 130, Badhuis
3027 TM Rotterdam
Friday to Sunday: 1pm–6pm