ArtAttack X Rosie Osborne: Rosie interviews Nicolas Hugo

ArtAttack is thrilled to be collaborating with Rosie Osborne, founder of one of our favourite blogs, Free Spirits. This creative hub is home to countless fascinating and inspiring interviews with some of the art world’s most interesting minds and we are so happy to be able to share a few of them with you!

For our first of Rosie’s interviews, meet Nicolas Hugo, young Parisian gallerist and champion of emerging artists…

Nicolas Hugo founded his own art gallery in Paris in 2012, at the age of 23. More than three years on and 20 exhibitions later, he represents young, emerging artists from all over the world and is a rising star on the art scene. During his sell-out first exhibition, ‘I Ran with Iran’, which showcased works by young Iranian artists, his energy and initiative sparked a frenzy of press interest. Since then, he continues to innovate. His shows now demand a larger space and there are plans for a third international pop-up gallery, in London this year. In our interview, we discuss his childhood inspirations, his mission to break the mould, and the power of the sharing economy in the art world.

Do you remember the first painting that made an impression on you?

I do actually. It was a Picasso painting that I saw at the Musée Granet in Aix-en-Provence. I was six years old – we were on a school trip. I remember it so well; it was a musketeer painting. I looked it up years later and saw that Picasso painted it in 1968. It was such a young painting, so colourful, with purples and greens. I remember that moment so well.

 You have a lot of little objects in your apartment. When did your passion for collecting things start?

 I started collecting stamps as a kid. When I was eight, we had a teacher who gave us a stamp when we got a good mark. I was like “I need to start a collection!” My grandfather was a huge stamp collector. He had so many, some from the Third Reich – really old ones. Then, I went on to collect CDs and vinyls. When I was 18, I started collecting art.

Do you find that there is an addictive side to collecting art?

Completely, it’s like a virus! You buy one, then you buy another. I just can’t stop. Pieces that I bought a year ago are still in their original crates because I haven’t got enough space to put them up.

Do you remember the first painting you ever bought?

Yeah, I do. It’s a Picasso lithograph. I saved for months and months to buy it. I just love it. 

So if there was a fire, and you could only take one piece, would it be that one?

Yes, probably. I have always had it on the wall wherever I’ve lived. I’m very attached to it.

Lithograph by Picasso. 1956.

Do you remember the moment when you knew you wanted to be a gallerist?

Yes, perfectly. Originally, I wanted to be a publisher of children’s books. In 2009, I was in New York and I met up for dinner with my father. He happened to be with a friend who was a prominent art dealer, from the New York of the 70s and 80s. She was really nice to me and we talked a lot. When my father went out for a cigarette, she said, “you know what, I’m going to tell you something, but not in front of your father. I see you more as an art dealer than a publisher.” I was surprised, like “really? Why?” I think I was a bit scared to do something in art, because of the pressure of my family. She said to me: “The Gagosian Gallery is about to open a space in Paris. You should look into that.” Five months later, I started my internship at Gagosian. I was 20.

What happened next?

Well, I was only supposed to stay at Gagosian for two months, but I stayed for six in the end, because it was going so well. My job was to be an assistant, doing quite menial tasks, but I just observed everything. The exhibitions were so, so fantastic – with artists like Twombly, Prouvé and Rodin – it was incredible. That was when I first met the gallerist Patrick Seguin. During Art Basel the year after, Belgian gallerist Stéphane Janssen, who I worked for and now consider as my mentor, told me “you know, Patrick Seguin is about to start looking for an assistant. I think that if you go on Monday with your CV, you have a good chance of getting the job.” I was like “shit!” So I went there on the Monday, and dropped off my CV. He agreed to hire me for a trial period of three months. Working for Patrick Seguin was one of the best experiences of my life. Seguin didn’t come from a family of art dealers. He came from nothing and built a huge empire, and I have an enormous amount of respect for him for that. He is a brilliant dealer, but also a very good boss – tough, but good. I learnt a lot, and he supported me in my projects. After that, he hired me, and I became his personal assistant. 

‘Victor Hugo Boss’ by Thomas Lélu, from Nicolas Hugo’s personal collection.

What were the most valuable lessons that you learnt from these successful gallerists? 

Well, they taught me so much, without teaching me on purpose, you know? I had such a close working relationship with them, and just observed everything they did. And actually, that suited me well, as that’s how I learn best – by myself, on the job. Since I was a child, I have always known that I wanted to work for myself.

When you opened a gallery in your own apartment, you had to make a few sacrifices. You stripped your home of your personal belongings, you slept on an inflatable airbed, and your home became a public space. Were there some downsides?

Well, there weren’t many downsides, because it was just so exciting to do this. It was all part of the plan. All of the inconveniences – I saw them as advantages. I couldn’t afford to rent a gallery space in Paris, nobody knew me as a gallerist, and many of the artists I wanted to exhibit were completely unknown in the art world. I needed to bring the spotlight onto my gallery. I knew back then that the traditional gallery model was outdated, especially for young gallerists. I thought, “ok, I have my apartment, it’s a rectangle, it’s well-located…” And that’s when I thought, “why not try?” The only real downside was the airbed that I slept on for a whole year. I would inflate it and deflate it each day and it was so uncomfortable. I had such a bad back all the time!

The first show at Galerie Nicolas Hugo – ‘I Ran with Iran’. October 2012. Photo courtesy of Galerie Nicolas Hugo.

‘I Ran with Iran’. October 2012. Photo courtesy of Galerie Nicolas Hugo.

Were those first few days quite surreal, once your apartment was transformed into a gallery? 

You know, it’s funny, because when I took out all the furniture, and I was surrounded only by the works, I felt that I was at the same stage as the artists whose works I was exhibiting. I lived with those paintings day and night. I was depending on the artists, and they were depending on me. I have such good memories from that time. 

A lot more people turned up to your first show than you had expected…

Yes. So many people showed up, that, logistically, it became quite hard to manage. My apartment is small after all, it’s only 30m2. After the first exhibition, there was a lot of national press covering the gallery. I had so many calls each day from people who wanted to come and see it. So for the second exhibition,’Freaks’, I had to think of another solution. I thought that if 200 people showed up to my apartment at once, it would be a disaster. I wanted to do something original, to find somewhere that wouldn’t be hard for everyone to get to. Once I had decided where to have the show, I didn’t tell anyone that there was going to be a change of venue. It was pouring with rain on a December night. I paid someone to stand downstairs in the courtyard – his job was to tell everyone to go a few doors down, to the launderette. I wanted to keep the location a complete secret. I didn’t even ask anyone at the launderette if I could host the exhibition there.

You mean, the owner of the launderette didn’t know that there was going to be an exhibition there?!

They didn’t know a thing. I watched the launderette for days, to see what time the guy closed up, and worked out what time I could have the exhibition. I didn’t tell anybody. What was great was that people were doing their laundry during the exhibition, and they started looking at the works too. My friend did an impromptu music performance. It was a show featuring young artists, but I also had some pieces that I borrowed from a private collection in there. There were drawings by Andy Warhol in the show, and people were saying “are those real Andy Warhols?! You’re exhibiting them in a launderette?” I was like “yeah!” I liked the contrast. At 8.45pm, I was like “Ok! Everybody out! They’re going to close!” My friends helped me take the works out quickly. It was so funny.

Art by Emilie Abou. ‘Freaks’ exhibition. December 2012. Photo courtesy of Galerie Nicolas Hugo.

 ‘Éclat d’une Vie’  by Alexis Dubois. ‘Freaks’ exhibition. December 2012. Photo courtesy of Galerie Nicolas Hugo. 

What was the public reaction to the exhibition in the launderette?

People loved it! They still tell me now how surprising it was. You know, I’m 26 now, but I was 23 back then. I was really young, and the whole point of my gallery was that I didn’t want to go into anything pretentious. I wanted to go into something serious, but something fun as well – something that artists from my generation would relate to. I wanted to encourage others to start something like I had done. I didn’t want them to feel like “damn, this is too hard.” I wanted them to see that, “you don’t have any space in your apartment? You just do it in the launderette!” You can find solutions to anything. There are no problems, only solutions.

‘Freaks’ exhibition. December 2012. Photo courtesy of Galerie Nicolas Hugo.

 ‘Mickey Mouse’ by Andy Warhol, 1981. ‘Freaks’ exhibition. December 2012. Photo courtesy of Galerie Nicolas Hugo. 

You often choose to exhibit young, emerging artists. Why is that?

Well, as I’m in my twenties, I think I would feel quite uncomfortable exhibiting work by older artists. I need to show things that I feel represent me. My artistic role is the curating part, and that’s about representing me and my generation. The artists that I exhibit are mainly between the ages of 22 and 40. When I’m talking to the artists, I need to feel that we have the same references, that I can understand them. Mixing that with old, dead artists amuses me a lot too! 

Nicolas Hugo during the Theo Haggai show, ‘La Première’. June 2014. Photo courtesy of Galerie Nicolas Hugo.

You maintain very personal relationships with your artists. Some of them have even become close friends. Does that help you to be a better gallerist?

Definitely. In the past, I have met artists I didn’t get on well with. I just said, “ok, there’s no point in us trying to work together… I like your work, but there’s no connection.” You know, that connection is really important to me, because I need to have their full trust, so that they can have mine. I work with a whole range of different artists, who come from Canada, Belgium, Denmark, China, and many other places. I need all of those artists to feel that I’m going to put on the best opening for them, that I’m going to sell their works, and that I’ll receive the best reaction about them in the press afterwards. It’s so important that they feel really confident in me. It’s a partnership – we choose every detail of the exhibitions together. I’m always going to see them in their workshops, whether that’s in Montreal, Brussels, London, wherever. One of the artists that I work with for example, Matthew Feyld – I discovered his work on Instagram. I said to him “Ok, I’m going come to Canada in a month to meet you and to see your work.” He was like, really?!”, and I said, “yeah, I want do a show with you in March, so in January, I’ll come to see you in Canada.” When I got there, we spent time together and got on really well. He said to me, “I didn’t know your gallery, but the fact that you came all the way to Canada to meet me, to spend time with me. I couldn’t not trust you.”

Nicolas Hugo with Matthew Feyld in his studio in Montreal. 2015. Photo courtesy of Galerie Nicolas Hugo.

So, giving your full support to your artists is one of the most important things to you?

Yes. It’s absolutely vital to me. I’ve never exhibited someone’s work that I haven’t met, and I never exhibit works that I haven’t seen in real life. I’m in constant contact with the artists, so that they can tell me how they feel about the new work they’re doing, and how it’s evolving. Following up with them is crucial to me. For some, I suggest ideas for new works – others don’t need it. I’m really just trying to give them my advice as an external eye, as someone who has worked in big galleries, small galleries, and then having started my own. I’m really engaged with them. An artist is like a plant. Young artists, they’re like young plants; they’re fragile. 

Nicolas Hugo with Théo Haggai, the first artist he signed. 2014. Photo courtesy of Galerie Nicolas Hugo.

Nicolas Hugo with Théo Haggai. 2013. Photo courtesy of Galerie Nicolas Hugo.

How do you feel that the gallery world is changing due to social media and new technology?

Well, I do believe that the gallery model that we know is completely outdated. I’m selling a lot of works now through Instagram, and even through Facebook. In my opinion, going to a gallery – that’s over. Nowadays, if a collector sees a work on Instagram that he wants to buy, he doesn’t have to travel to meet the dealer to buy it. It means that the process is not as static as it can be in a traditional gallery. The world is getting smaller, but people also have less time on their hands. As a gallerist, if you have the right works, wherever you are, the collector will come to you. Artists also work digitally now, so they all show their works as jpegs and email photos to buyers. Collectors often buy very expensive works now without even seeing them. It’s crazy, but it’s the way the market has evolved, and you have to be in touch with it. Paradoxically though, I’ve noticed that exhibitions have become even more curated. When I started to go to art fairs as a teenager, there were just paintings on the walls, and that was that. Now, shows are highly curated, the walls are painted, they’re almost like museums. The presentation has become much more important. You have to be better than your neighbour now, because everybody has access to any piece of art. If you want to make a difference, it’s vital that you present the art in a better way.

Nicolas Hugo curating ‘We All Know That Making Out In The Sea Is Not That Comfortable’. June 2015. Photo courtesy of Galerie Nicolas Hugo.

You have lots of books in your home. Which one has inspired you the most?

There’s one book that I love. David Hockney – Images. It has influenced me a lot. I used to look through it when I was a kid at my father’s house. I love David Hockney, he’s one of my favourite painters. When I was a teenager, I would look at it all the time.

If you could have a piece of art, from any time period, with no limit to the budget, what would you choose?

A painting by Picasso called Portrait of Dora Maar. Picasso’s the best, right? I just love that painting. It blows my mind.

‘Portrait of Dora Maar’. Picasso. 1937.

What can we expect from Galerie Nicolas Hugo in the near future?

Well, I have a lot of projects in mind and some upcoming shows at the gallery in Paris. I did pop-up shows in New York and Arles last year, and I’m doing one in London this October. I like the way that nowadays, the art world is becoming more of a community than a competition. I’ve always been really interested in that way of thinking, and I’m going to be doing some more collaborations with gallerists. I organised a show at Cité de la Mode in Paris with the start-up Artsper and another gallery. I liked the idea of organising a show, without being in competition with the other galleries. It’s the revolution of the sharing community, and that’s really what I stand for. I have my business and I work alone, but doing projects with people always excites me. It brings new energy, and you meet more people. It’s beneficial for everyone.

The gallery. Photo courtesy of Galerie Nicolas Hugo.

What does it mean to you to be a free spirit?

Being totally free and independent to make my own decisions. My life philosophy is – go as far as you can, on which ever path you choose. I think that it’s important to rethink and evolve all the time. Curiosity and discovery are essential. 

– Rosie Osborne

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