Aujourd’hui dedicates this interview and spotlight to Pauline Foessel, current Director at Underdogs Gallery in Lisbon. Pauline is responsible not only for the gallery, but also its editions and a public art program. The Grenoble born curator, manager and director studied Management at SKEMA Business School before working as gallery manager in Magda Danysz Gallery in Shanghai. Read the interview to discover how a management background gave her the perfect set of skills to manage art facilities, how her firm belief in public art and why it matters is so contagious and how Shanghai – Lisbon left her a little lost in translation.
How did you change from a Business School background to working in a gallery like Magda Danysz in Paris? When did you first develop your interest in art?
I've always thought there was a clear connection between a business school and an art gallery. Today, in France, business schools are increasingly designated as management schools and I think that's what you actually learn there: management. Management of people, management of projects, entrepreneurship, marketing, accountancy, which is essentially everything you need to know in order to run a gallery or any other business in this field (museums, foundations, etc.). I became interested in art when I was quite young. My parents used to take me to museums and I suppose I began developing a keen eye from early on. One of the most striking memories I have is being taken by my visual arts teacher on a school trip to an art centre in my hometown when I was about 11-years-old. She was able to provide an in-depth explanation of what we saw and that was essentially my first real approach to art. I believe that was the very first time that contemporary art resonated in me. It really struck a chord and from that moment on I felt captivated by it. As I completed my studies in the following years I used to ask myself whether or not I wanted to become an artist. I was fast at arriving at the conclusion that I wasn't an artist and didn't want to become one. I studied very hard for two years to be admitted into a French business school. This is an arduous, gruelling process in France as it translates into a mountain of work in order to acquire an incredible amount of knowledge. After being admitted at the age of 20 I felt somewhat lost. I wanted to work in fashion, but had doubts about it. I was still very interested in contemporary art but at that stage wasn't really considering a career in the art world. Then one day I was speaking to my mother on the phone, telling her that I didn't want to work for L'Oreal selling shampoos or for Deloitte or whatever, and she pointed out my interest in art and asked why not consider the art market and try getting an internship at a gallery. And that's when things clicked for me and I decided to follow this path. Some time after that I arrived at Magda Danysz Gallery in Paris and was made part of the team. From then on I knew this was it for me.
How was the transition from working as a gallery manager at Magda Danysz in Shanghai to working with Underdogs in Lisbon? Lost in translation?
As a manager I was responsible for organising each exhibition and dealing with the day-to-day life of the gallery: organising the framing, the printing of invitations, taking care of the artists when they were in town, etc. I was also in charge of sales, of course. I loved it and at the beginning I couldn't believe my luck in being there doing what I was doing. I ended up in Shanghai quite by chance: I didn't have any plans to move to China but then Magda opened a new gallery in Shanghai and chose me to be its manager. At the age of 22 it was a huge responsibility but I had an amazing experience. Today, at Underdogs, I'm the gallerist! Along with Alexandre (Farto) I can choose the artists and curate the shows. It's very different from what I was doing in Shanghai. This is really where I've always wanted to be but I had to be patient and learn all the gallery work from scratch. The move from Shanghai to Lisbon was a whole new experience. Completely lost in translation. China is an incredible place, everything moves fast and everything is possible. I have a love-hate relationship with it, you're confronted with striking differences every day. Back in Europe things are different, but I have to admit that I was struck by how during a serious recession, when it's obviously much harder to create and launch a new project, the reception was so incredible. Underdogs has caused a great impact and has been amazingly well received, which would not have been the case in Shanghai as there is already so much going on there. In the end you can get much more attention in a country like Portugal than a country like China.
How do you maintain coherence over time in the ever-expanding projects that Underdogs has been creating?
To be honest I don't give it much thought, I just think that each of the areas we're operating in complement each other. They are aimed at different types of public and reach different targets, but still manage to reflect a broader cohesion. A classic gallery targets a certain type of public, whereas we are trying to create a broader impact. With the Underdogs Public Art Programme we're kind of imposing art on people from/visiting Lisbon. We don't ask people to come to us, we come to them. The result has been mainly positive even though some people dislike the murals, but that's one of the great things about it: art should be out there for all to see, generating reactions in people who would normally have no access or interest in it in the first place. With the gallery we're welcoming people who would normally visit this environment, and with the Art Store at Mercado da Ribeira and our online store we're reaching out to a more international public who can buy affordable art. All of these fields make up a strong and coherent project.
After working in such an established market like Paris and a hot, emerging one like Shanghai, why did you choose to work in Lisbon? What challenges does the city have for you?
Well, I didn't really chose Lisbon, I just ended up here once again by chance! Just like Shanghai, life has been driving me to places where I'd never thought I would go to. Lisbon is a very interesting city, full of amazing places and a great playground for public art. The understanding of its impact by the city of Lisbon is also quite unique. Few cities in the world are open to the change and I think that is a great challenge in itself. Speaking more personally, it's always a challenge to move to a city you don't really know anything about. You don't know the rules, the language, how the art market works, etc. To me it's both fulfilling and enriching and always will be.
Do you collect art?
I do, I started with Chinese art. I had a great love for Chinese contemporary art, and I'm not talking here about those artists everyone knows, I'm talking about the younger generation. They have a poetic and subtle way of speaking of the changes their country is undergoing that I find very touching. I've also started a collection of antique wooden sculptures. I look for them in the countries I visit and keep them as a reminder of space and time.
You have recently curated an exhibition at Magda’s gallery in Shanghai. Can you tell us about your role as a curator? Do you have any future projects?
I work like a radar. I always keep a sharp lookout, trying to see as much as I can, trying to create an archive with everything that has interested me and I've seen in art fairs, museums, books, magazines, websites. I don't necessarily think how I'm going to work with this or whether I'm actually going to work with these artists but I keep this information somewhere. As far as working as a curator is concerned, I have a different approach depending on whether it's a group or solo show. For a group show I write a text with the concept after choosing the artists. I feel there is a point of cohesion between them, that they share common thoughts or at least explore a common subject and it ends up falling into place. Of course, the use of the space is also decisive. For solo shows I have long talks with the artists (depending, naturally, on the artists themselves) and we exchange ideas on the concept, working closely for the layout.
I always have future projects in stock, that's what makes me get out of bed every day! I have China calling me back, I'm working on an art project there with two Chinese partners. It's still at an early stage but it's coming along nicely. At Underdogs we also have great projects and exciting exhibitions lined up for the future. I also want to make the project travel or at least inject the Underdogs' DNA abroad. Perhaps in Asia as we've already got the connections there. You'll just have to wait and see!
Exclusive interview by Aujourd'hui
Images courtesy of Pauline Foessel