SARA LYSGAARD: a Few (Real) Things About Existing In The Art World
The hardest part of living is to exist truthfully; especially if it means exhibiting parts of life in public. We've all learned to survive in a new world where the depersonalization of truth has become the lasting circumstance of every human interaction, it’s people I swear I miss the most.
Speaking with Sara Lysgaard began like most of my experiences in contemporary living: two individuals coming together in a confined space, pretending to talk about life. Everyone lives, yet no one seems to want to explain why, and I’m certain the misuse of trust is one of our biggest tragedies. Yet, if we continue cultivating a society where everyone echoes the same sterilized answer that suggests that we’re breathing but not feeling, where—and especially how—do we grow from here?
At times, it takes a combination of patience and something as humanly-fabricated as hope for some ordinary encounters to turn into beautiful encounters. The Copenhagen-based collector and gallerist-turned-entrepreneur Sara Lysgaard proves to be one of them. A few moments into our conversation, she realized that the worst she could do was waste time with things that have probably never meant anything to anyone. The only way to be alive is to realize all this while others are existing just the same. And I think it's a good start.
Lara Konrad: You once said, “Art is immediate. It doesn’t need to save the world.” I think it demonstrates well how you meet art with enthusiasm, yet no expectation.
Sara Lysgaard: Art doesn’t need to be everything; it doesn’t need to be political or to ‘save the planet.’ Quite the opposite, actually. It just needs to be what it is.
LK: You had a gallery in Copenhagen, and after five years decided to shut it down. How come?
SL: Running the gallery was wonderful, as well as challenging. The best part was meeting and working with artists; you form such a special bond with their work, but also their humanity.
Since a new opportunity came up, I decided to shut down the gallery and go off into new territory. Sometimes you need to close a door in order to open another one. I actually didn’t think about it too much, it somehow just happened naturally. And I haven’t regretted anything ever since. I think it’s often these types of drastic changes that make you feel most alive.
LK: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced when owning and directing the gallery? Did your relationship with art change?
SL: I have to admit, had I known how challenging it would be, I probably wouldn’t have done it. But that’s also the beauty of it, right?
When I got into the business, I was 25 years old; I was very naive, and definitely too young for an environment that in the end is very close-minded and old-fashioned. There’s a certain way you present art, how you talk about it and how you run your gallery; and people make sure to tell you all the time!
So, as a young woman trying to enter a tight, male-dominated market, it certainly did not come without difficulties. But hey, what business is easy?
LK: In what ways did the art business feel antiquated? I guess, I can only emphasize. We’ve fostered a world where we encourage a constant state of being underwhelmed, instead of overwhelmed…
SL: Nothing works if you don’t do it with passion. That’s a given. However, as my mother says, “You need to feed energy into those things where the energy is at.” You don’t need to waste your time by feeding energy into things other people ‘think’ is best for you, and your business. There’s a difference between good and bad advice, of course, and you should take the good advice as much as possible.
During my time as a gallerist, I met a lot of ‘why don’t you do it like this’ people, which just showed me how old-fashioned the art world is run. That was quite shocking to realize. I had thought the art world was more relaxed and open. I mean, I was 25, I didn’t know much at the time. But man, did I learn fast…
LK: Can you give an example of a time you went your way and people didn’t agree?
SL: I’ll give you a rather funny example, just to underline how absurd it is when people think they’re entitled to give you advice. I certainly don’t want to sound too arrogant, I’m a firm believer of listening instead of speaking because you might actually learn a thing or two. However, you still need to be selective with what you let in; unfortunately not everyone has your best interest at heart.
Returning to the example, it was between Christmas and New Year's, and I was thinking a lot about my gallery and its upcoming calendar. I had three very large windows facing out towards the street, at a rather prominent address in Copenhagen. So I thought I wanted to display the exhibition program for the next 6 months in one of the windows next to the entrance. I had a pretty cool graphic design team setting up this amazing way of presenting the shows — I thought it was brilliant. My next door colleague, also a gallerist, made sure to tell me what an awful idea it was. He went on and on about how a gallery shouldn’t show that much face, how it should be quiet, how it should be the anonymous white cube space. I printed the foil even bigger than first anticipated, and hung it in my window for 6 months.
Still to this day, I don’t know if he was right or wrong. But I followed my heart and vision at the time, and I think that counts for something in the long run.
LK: Did the sudden visibility of the program boost the traffic at your gallery?
SL: I’m not really sure it did. At least I can’t remember if it had any particular impact in terms of the number of visitors. But it was also meant to be more like a ‘service’ to the viewer, a way to connect with the people who passed by on the street. I often felt people who weren’t in the art world, were a little hesitant to just walk in and take a look.
LK: Yeah, and no wonder why. Look at your former colleague…
Regarding your gender, did you experience difficulty in terms of your role as a gallerist? Or did that type of reality never concern your profession?
SL: It was never really a concern of mine. Of course, I felt it in some occasions, but I never wanted to tap into it. Maybe it was more my age or lack of experience that created challenges, and with good reason.
LK: By saying you didn’t “want to tap into it,” you're suggesting it was a conscious choice. But maybe it was also a certain lack of awareness?
SL: I felt similar until sort of recently, claiming that I never felt particularly affected by our male-driven world. I realized, however, that I’d just not been very truthful to my realities of the past. I think everyone is always a part of it, and therefore affected. This does not mean victimization of oneself, it merely means to look at the reality of things.
I like your point though. I actually believe it was a semi-conscious choice to not tap into it. To be honest, I felt it at times and often wanted to play the ‘female victim card.'
I used to work in the shipping industry for a couple of years, and that’s an area packed with men too; a lot of them. So I already tapped into it a lot, and decided that I would much rather focus on doing a good job and hope that people recognize it for what it is, disregarding my gender.
It’s an entirely different story being a female collector than being a female gallerist. Being a female collector is sort of a ‘cool’ thing, especially here in Denmark, where we’re a tight crew of collectors, and very few women. Go figure…
LK: Actually, coming to think of it, you’re like the third female collector I’ve spoken to…and I’ve met a few collectors by now. Why are there so few female collectors in Denmark? Is it a matter of power or money?
SL: There aren’t a lot of collectors in Denmark, period! We’re such a small country. As I’m sitting here, I can only think of a handful of female collectors besides myself. And maybe that’s even a stretch.
I don’t know why there aren’t more female collectors, aside from the obvious fact that the art world is undeniably male-driven; and this goes from artists to collectors to gallerists. But that reality still puzzles me.
The Guerilla Girls posted this ‘letter’ the other day: “Dear art collector. It has come to our attention that your collection, like most, does not contain enough art by women. We know you feel terrible about this and will rectify the situation immediately. All our love, Guerilla Girls.”
It resonated with me and I posted it on my Instagram, because there’s such truth to it. A female artist, whom I’m fortunate enough to own a piece by, wrote a comment back to me: “I’m happy to be in your collection. And it's always a question about good or bad art—not about man or woman.” I think that’s true as well. So at times I’m quite torn.
Is it a matter of power? To be honest, I’m not sure. Maybe it’s more a matter of following conventions, and being afraid to step out and do something different. I believe the stage in every business is equally open for both men and women, but who dares to claim the spotlight?
LK: Is it a personal goal to actively support and collect female artists?
If I take a closer look at my collection, it’s in fact dominated by male artists. I want to support talented female artists, but I have to like their work too. Otherwise it just doesn’t make sense for me.
Due to the fact that male artists are more displayed and highlighted in public, collectors (and myself included) are likely to choose a piece by a man rather than a woman. That doesn’t mean works by great female artists aren’t out there. Women need to step up and claim their spot, and the art world needs to start looking outside the box.
LK: What’s a personal solution for cultivating more female collectors and artists? What can we do so change continues, every day?
SL: That’s an extremely challenging and important question. I’m not sure I can answer it justly, but I believe it starts within us. As women, we need to feel and act like equal participants in our world, that we’re worthy of everything we want. And this awareness needs to build within our very bones.
The potential of women is absurdly untapped. I guess all of us (which includes myself) need to ask ourselves what we can do in order to get out into the world and make an impact. This occasion should be lived every day. And in the meantime, we need to remember to surround ourselves with people who want to support our goals.
LK: Do you mind if we briefly return to this idea of you playing the “female victim card,” what did you mean by that?
SL: I really sort of caved into this idea that it was ‘tougher’ because I was a female gallerist. I experienced the same while working in the shipping industry. All my male colleagues would hammer down beers and point at me while yelling across the bar, “Finish yours in one go, too!” They were having fun at my expense, because often times I was the only woman amongst 30 men in a pub in London. That can be a little tough, to be honest. But it will surely roughen you up!
Truth be told, it can also be extremely rewarding being around and working with men. There’s no bullshit in your daily operations. As mentioned, I’m cautious about going ‘down’ that road, it doesn’t serve any good to play the ‘female victim card.’ Only when you do so, you feed energy into the topic. Best is to rise above it and make no particular case of it.
LK: After quitting your job as a gallerist, what followed?
SL: My father’s friend called me one day as I was still running my own gallery in Copenhagen. He talked for a long time about this huge art center in Mallorca, and said it might be a great opportunity for me to join as they were looking for partners. I was 4 years into managing my own gallery, so I was really intrigued by the idea of joining a partnership; hence, not deciding every freaking detail on my own…!
I took a flight down there, with a bag filled with prejudices about the island. But I was (not surprisingly) wrong about this magnificent island, its generous people and amazing food. I was over the moon about this art center, which was and still is located at the foot of the Tramuntana mountains in Andratx. I immediately plunged into the project wholeheartedly, and signed up as a partner.
Now 6 years in, I’m at the point of searching for new opportunities. It has been a great ride and I’ve learned so many things. I can learn a lot more down there, for sure, but I’m just not interested in learning more of what they can teach me.
LK: I found pictures of your current home, as well as from the one before. It’s amazing how different they are from one another. Now you live in an ocean of colors, whereas before everything was white; not clinical-white, but somewhat ‘save’ in aesthetic. It just such a drastic change.
SL: The transformation of my house has been, by far, my most fun home project to date. It was actually the separation from my ex-boyfriend that sparked the transformation, since I stayed behind in our joint house.
So, even though the reason behind this shift was unfortunate, it really was a fun and interesting journey to get to know myself. It took me about a year to complete the house, and I realized how materialistic this project was. But at the same time I realized how important this journey was, to get to know myself through this process. I found so much color hiding inside, it was bursting to get out of me. I can’t really imagine life without colors now. I have one room upstairs which is still white, but I think you need that one white space in order to appreciate the colors more.
LK: And also all this color to appreciate the white. Did your taste in art also change accordingly? Perhaps the meaning you search in art? Why did it take a breakup in order to access all this color?
SL: I think my taste in art changes all the time, at least I would hope so. Since I regard the collection as a visual diary of my life, I hope it shows that I’m on a journey which takes me in all sorts of directions. Obviously your eye will sharpen, evolve, and grow over time. Seeing so many pieces will naturally affect your taste in art. The great task at collecting is to connect all of these threads. This happens naturally, I think, if you stick to your core beliefs.
LK: Your father and grandmother were collectors way before you began...
SL: I remember sitting across from my father during family meals, and behind him hung a piece by the Danish artist Paul Gadegaard. I didn’t understand the work, so I often asked him what it meant. The only thing he’d repeat was, “One day you’ll understand it.” It drove me crazy, because I wanted a straightforward response. Now I get it though. Art never gives you the right answer, and that’s the beauty of it.
I was about 17 years old when my father took me to a gallery in Silkeborg, Denmark. Both of us stood in front of a David Spiller piece (‘I Want to Be Where Love Is’) and it was right then when suddenly his passion for art poured into me. I asked my father to take out all my savings, so I could buy it. It was such a special day. He died one year later, but I’ll forever be grateful for this moment we shared. In every venture concerning art, I always feel connected to him in some way.
LK: You avoid researching artists before you take a look at their work, since the information messes with your experience of viewing their work. Why does certain kinds of information change your initial experience?
f course I try to buy ‘smart’ art too, but I’m really conscious about buying with my emotions. Otherwise I feel this sacred space gets ruined by boring and calculated facts that only pertain to potential investment gains.
LK: What do you think would be a way to champion the intrinsic value of art, rather than just its capital value? While directing your former gallery, did you apply a similar ‘rule’ as you do with your collection?
SL: I find it very challenging to be simultaneously emotional and commercial about art. So as I grow older, and hopefully slightly wiser, I really feel the need to separate the two. Partially that’s also why I wanted to move on from the Mallorca project, and really just focus on collecting. I do other investments in the more ‘traditional’ business industry, and it’s going fairly well. So why not stick to doing business there, earn money and spend it in the art world. If you ask me, that’s the perfect balance.
Text: Lara Konrad
Photography: David Stjernholm for Collecteurs