Dealing in politics: an interview with Pierre d'Alancaisez

Tuesday, July 14, 2015
Dealing in politics: an interview with Pierre d'Alancaisez

It is one of London’s few, if not only, art galleries with a political programme. And from its premises on a run down estate in the East End, waterside contemporary has promoted sales for a group of international artists - such as Karen Mirza & Brad Butler, Nikita Kadan, and Oreet Ashery - who all share a sense of social engagement. And what these broadly leftist artists also share is a less than straightforward approach to the market. That’s where curator, director and dealer Pierre d’Alancaisez steps in, finding new markets for his opponents of capitalism.

Dealing in politics: an interview with Pierre d'Alancaisez

It is one of London’s few, if not only, art galleries with a political programme. And from its premises on a run down estate in the East End, waterside contemporary has promoted sales for a group of international artists - such as Karen Mirza & Brad Butler, Nikita Kadan, and Oreet Ashery - who all share a sense of social engagement. And what these broadly leftist artists also share is a less than straightforward approach to the market. 

That’s where curator, director and dealer Pierre d’Alancaisez steps in, finding new markets for his opponents of capitalism. 

I meet d’Alancaisez at Shoredtich House. It’s 15 minutes walk from the gallery, but miles away in terms of mood. A pool party is in full swing on the roof terrace, so after meeting the director in the bar we head to a quieter part of the members’ club to conduct our interview. 

“I only joined this place for the gym,” he says, sounding none too impressed by the revels. Instead, sipping from a virgin mary, he turns his attention to my questions with great seriousness.

waterside contemporary, named after a canal near former premises, rather than the pool here at Shoreditch House, was inaugurated in 2008. But has only been running with what its owner calls its “current form and current ethos” since 2013. 

“There was a certain ideological conviction in how I started,” says d’Alancaisez. “We wanted to promote practices that were engaged and practices a little more in depth and better connected to intellectual discourses and social discourses than what you see on average represented in the art market”.

In other words, one imagines this quietly-spoken, thirtysomething gallerist has one of the toughest jobs in art: selling social agitation to those who stand to lose most. The remarkable thing is that it works. D’Alancaisez is not short of invites to art fairs and biennials, where his specialism is surely, to use a dread marketing term, a unique selling point. 

Karen Mirza and Brad Butler,  You are the Prime Minister (neon sign) 2014, installation view at waterside contemporary

The art world is full of surprises, and as the gallerist tells me: “I’m very happy to see an incredible number of collectors who have absolutely no problem with looking at challenging work”. As all the anecdotal evidence suggests, the stereotypical rich collector may be just that, a stereotype: “Every time I go to a fair, every time I travel, every time I go to a party, I find there is another person who isn’t scared of video, isn’t scared of the word politics”.

But his stable is committed in more ways than one. “They are pretty established,” says the director of his artists, pointing out that many have already enjoyed museum shows. In this way, he makes his job sound easy: “At least one part of the art world has validated their practices and all I’m doing is bringing them to the other side of the market.” He is even able to point out that, in many cases, his ‘product’ is on its way to joining the art historical canon. “So in a way I’m not doing anything that isn’t kind of obvious,” he says.

But emulators beware. Plaudits mean very little to most collectors, as d’Alancaisez tells me: “One of the things I learned the hard way is that there is not much relationship between critical acclaim and sales”. He also has sobering news for journalists, saying, “You can wave as much Art Forum, Frieze and Art Review at collections as you want, but it won’t necessarily break the ice”. So the world of private collections is a context which follows its own rules.

Nikita Kadan, Limits of Responsibility 2014, installation view, waterside contemporary

The question remains, how do you convince a wealthy person to support an artistic agenda which may run contrary to their financial interests. Today said question appears unanswerable, but what d’Alancaisez can tell me is obvious: “People generally don’t like to be offended. They’re not going to be spending money on things if they are offended. If the match isn’t there I don’t do anything”.

The director could be talking about any number of his recent shows when saying, “You might have a massive installation that would contain a number of political or philosophical points. But you are more likely than not to sell a framed piece that, in itself, maybe doesn’t contain everything”. Which suggests that collectors pick and choose their messages.

However, d’Alancaisez also points out that, if this be a problem, it is also one which befalls most contemporary galleries. All artists and all curators need to come to terms with the ways in which their work circulates. And so the picture which emerges from our discussion is one of a fine line between the substance of the art he represents and the delicate palate of the market. 

It seems the gallerist is equally trusted by artists and collectors alike, even if this balancing act is easier on the continent. (“I’m finding that if one talks politics or philosophy or theory, I can more easily maintain this conversation within Europe,” he says, speculating that the middle classes are more likely to collect on the other side of the Channel. But at the same time he adds: “What I do in London is more significant on a curatorial level”.)  

Oreet Ashery, The Un-Clean (mermaid) 2014, installation view waterside contemporary

However, as is clear from his careful choice of words around the more sensitive side of his venture, treading carefully has always been the way for this dealer. While he may claim that artist views are “not by necessity my own”, he invests plenty in their work. “I’ve been very slow and very methodical in developing the roster of artists,” he tells me, “then representing only the strongest bits of their work internationally”.  As a result of his ensuing reputation, the gallery’s list is expected to double in size over the next two years. 

“You start something and the next thing follows,” says d’Alancaissez, citing his Masters in Physics (at Oxford) as good preparation for his endeavours in the art world. Selling left-leaning art to well-off collectors may be seem like a challenge, it may indeed prove very difficult, but at the end of the day (or the end of the art fair), it’s not rocket science. And the director of waterside contemporary  knows this better than anyone.

Pierre d'Alancaisez

waterside contemporary in Clunbury Street, Hoxton

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Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Femme au béret orange et au col de fourrure (Marie‐Thérèse), executed 4 December 1937. Oil on canvas. 24⅛ x 18⅛ in (61.2 x 46.1 cm)

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Femme au béret orange et au col de fourrure (Marie‐Thérèse), executed 4 December 1937. Oil on canvas. 24⅛ x 18⅛ in (61.2 x 46.1 cm)

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