Mathias Ary Jan or the art of reconquest

By Artkhade with Art Media Agency

Paris, 3 September 2017

He’s young and (very) dynamic. And he’s also at the head of the most exclusive event of the back-to-school period. His mission is to bring new life to the Biennale, the paragon of taste and vigour. An hour with Mathias Ary Jan.

The platform is international, the dialectic commercial. For its first edition (as a yearly event), La Biennale Paris shows a desire to leave old rivalries aside and to devote itself to new goals. Created under the sign of excellence, this twenty-ninth opus may well be the one that reconquers the public. This, in any case, is the priority of Mathias Ary Jan, a specialist in paintings from the end of the 19th century and the Orientalist school, now also president of the Syndicat National des Antiquaires. His strategy? Gathering around 5000 objects under the glass roof of the Grand Palais over eight days, according to new standards of rigour. A renewal, thus, for this upper-end rendezvous that remains the most chic event in the world of art. One where international collectors can (finally) get back on the track of big deals!

  • Despite its new yearly rhythm, the Biennale is preserving its name. Isn’t that a little strange?

M.A.J.: The Biennale traces a history. It’s also a name that, over the years, has become a brand. A brand that we wish to develop, a signature that we’re going to energise even more. So detaching the event from its name would have been, I think, a strategic error. While semantically, it’s no longer a biennale, strategically, the term remains well identified. It refers to a path, a history that started in 1956, and to which we’re very attached. And then again, isn’t the Paris-Dakar held in South America?

  • How would you describe this twenty-ninth edition in three words?

M.A.J.: I’d say rigour, transparency and… pleasure! These are the three key values that we cultivate, and on which we’re focusing our efforts. First of all, there are the works. Rigour comes from the choice of elegance, in other words, the alliance of rarity and high quality in objects. Next is everything to do with trust. On this topic, transparency is indispensable today, and we intend to make an impact with offers for the whole art market. Finally, there’s the pleasure of strolling through the Grand Palais, for both big collectors or mere curious individuals.

  • Have you set out to make the fair more vigorous, commercially speaking?

M.A.J.: You know, the Biennale isn’t exactly a fair, and it’s more than a show… It remains a business platform, sure, and it’s undeniably a commercial event, but not exclusively. The strength of an event like this also lies in its cultural dimension, namely illustrated this year by the exhibition devoted to the Barbier-Mueller collection.

  • Why have you closed the Salon d’Honneur this year?

M.A.J.: In my opinion, a genuine loss arose from the use of both the Salon upstairs and the nave. I’ve preferred to inject energy downstairs, to offer more comfort to our 93 exhibitors. So the central alley has been abandoned to create three alleys of equal width. Thanks to this new plan, all the exhibitors are considered as equal to one another. Because I’m keen to promote not just some of them, but all of them as a whole. This principle of equity, incidentally, doesn’t exist at any other fair.

  • The previous edition was marked by a visible cut in the number of stands occupied by jewellers…

M.A.J.: I see haute jewellery, whether from the houses on Place Vendôme or international brands, as fully having a role at the Grand Palais. It is part of the Biennale’s DNA. And this dialogue has been renewed; the major houses are represented once again, and this will be the case more significantly, as of the 2018 edition.

  • Last year, Old Masters painting was very present at the Biennale, with the integration of Paris Tableau, which has since gone off to Brussels. Are you thinking of creating a new focus, as at the BRAFA for example, which has set up a solid platform for primitive arts…

M.A.J.: No, not at all. On the contrary, we think that the strength of the Biennale is its diversity. And this is why we’re not in favour of sectorisation, organising zones according to speciality. The other thing is that the Biennale doesn’t have 270 exhibitors as you can find in Maastricht. It’s an initiatory path, a rhythm composed of very different universes, with discoveries from stand to stand. This year, for example, you can go from the Ateliers Brugier, specialised in lacquered works, to Galerie Delalande, to admire marine antiquities and scientific objects. Here lies our strength and wealth.

  • 80 % of the galleries from the 2016 edition are coming back this year. Does this come as good news?

M.A.J.: This, obviously, is a mark of loyalty. But it also opens up the possibility of renewal. We don’t offer showcases like some fairs. Instead, I’m more inclined to bring young dealers to the Grand Palais. I’m very attentive to this new and very talented generation, that we need to support and bring to Paris. I’m thinking of the young Zurich gallery Plektron Fine Arts, specialised in archaeology, or Nicolas Bourriaud for 19th century sculpture, who are exhibiting at the Biennale for the first time.

  • Vetting is the catchword at today’s fairs. How is this being achieved this year at a time when, even in politics, we talk about “moralisation”?

M.A.J.: Transparency is indeed the keyword of our action. And this commitment is translated in a number of ways. First, in order to guarantee utmost independence for the Committee for the Admission of Works (CAO), copresidency has been entrusted to Frédéric Castaing, president of the Compagnie Nationale des Experts, and to Michel Maket, president of the Syndicat Français des Experts Professionnels en Œuvres d’art et Objets de Collection. I’d like to point out, to make it clear, that vetting is not a matter of calling on members from these two chambers alone. The committees are made up of independent experts, restorers, curators from overseas. Transparency is thus total, and the CAO lists are made public.

  • Do you mean that vetting is no longer in the hands of the Syndicat National des Antiquaires in any way?

M.A.J.: That’s right, the president of the SNA and all the elected members stand back completely from the CAO decisions. In addition, the Committee does not include any exhibitor who is participating at the Biennale. This is much more than a symbolic measure. Also bear in mind that appeals on CAO decisions are now limited to three objects per gallery. At the Biennale, you’ll only find unique pieces, no editions, and only works created before 2000. Amongst the new references that we’ve introduced, I can also mention pre-vetting, carried out this summer, and a real source of support for the Committee, namely for objects associated with very specialised knowledge.

  • We could even say that it’s surprising that such measures weren’t adopted earlier…

M.A.J.: You know, no other fair in the world, as far as I know, shows this rigour. With all these measures being put together, La Biennale Paris is becoming the fair that implements the most criteria of rigour. And thus of quality.

  • Which company will be taking care of scientific guarantees?

M.A.J.: I insisted on backing the presence, this year, of a French laboratory that carries out scientific and technical analyses of artworks: the company ArtAnalysis, namely equipped with digital microsopes, infrared reflectography with the means to carry out, for example, non-destructive chemical analyses using X-ray fluorescence. We can also mention our partnership with Argos, whose database on stolen objects or objects from illicit digs, can be easily consulted.

  • How can confidence be restored after the cases that have recently shaken up the art market?

M.A.J.: Our strategy is based on a demand for rigour, incarnated by the committee that has selected galleries upstream, and by vetting which, by the start of September, had already validated numerous stands. All this takes time; confidence, by definition, takes time to restore, but the initial feedback is very positive. No exhibitors in the admission committee, vetting independent of the fair organiser, only three possible appeals… All these criteria bring guarantees to all stakeholders, from the perspective of collectors of course, but also dealers. This is a real gauge of serenity. By relying on numerous standards – which I think will shortly become international – the Syndicat National des Antiquaires intends to be on the cutting edge of ethical measures, not just for galleries, but for the whole of the art market. Incidentally, we haven’t applied for any copyright in this area! Everyone who wishes to fall in with this dynamic and to adhere to these criteria of rigour, is welcome to.

  • Can you say a few words on the Biennale Committee, this year presided by Christopher Forbes?

M.A.J.: Christopher Forbes, who enjoys an international reputation, and demonstrates complete commitment, communicates on the Biennale all over the world, in Asia as well as the United States. He, for example, rallied together a considerable number of collectors in June at cocktails in New York, and in Paris, at a dinner held for major donors of the Louvre, alongside Becca Cason Thrash and The American Friends of the Louvre. So this year, Christopher Forbes has acted, on a volunteer basis, as president of the Biennale Committee, composed of fourteen members, six from the SNA, and height independent personalities from outside the Syndicat.

  • What do these “qualified personalities” contribute to this edition?

M.A.J.: From Prince Amyn Aga Khan to Alain-Dominique Perrin, from Max Blumberg to Jean-Louis Remilleux, from Christian Langlois-Meurinne to Jacques Garcia, or Roxana Velásquez, curator at the San Diego Museum of Art, all add to the Biennale’s strength and international renown. They also contribute to making Paris the meeting place for the new artistic season.

  • The Biennale has sometimes been criticised for being too French- and Paris-centred…

M.A.J.: Today, 30 % of our exhibitors come from overseas. We also have many international contacts, like Mikhail Piotrovski, director of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, or else, in India, Nirav Modi, a specialist in haute jewellery and a great collector. These are our ambassadors. With them, we have all the assets we need for strengthening the Paris market, building up the event, and drawing the world to us.

  • Your predecessor Dominique Chevalier went to China, to Shanghai, Hong Kong and Beijing… Are you thinking about an international Biennale?

M.A.J.: Not for now. My desire is to strengthen La Biennale Paris event. An event that is unique in its genre, exceptional, with a gala dinner gathering 1200 persons under the nave of the Grand Palais. An opening that lasts all day Sunday, two nocturnal openings… Paris is the only capital in the world where whole districts are occupied by galleries, antique dealers. I’m thinking of the Carré Rive Gauche, Avenue Matignon, Faubourg Saint-Honoré, the Puces (Fleamarkets)… What richness, which we’re the only ones who can boast about!

  • Yet this is the strategy of many fairs including the TEFAF which has launched two New York sessions…

M.A.J.: No New York, and no Shanghai! I think that it’s a weakness to want to export the brand, at the risk of weakening one’s own roots. Of course, there are wonderful projects in the United States, and it’s quite tempting to set up a fair in Hong Kong, but the foundations must be absolutely solid. They are solid, but there’s still space to develop extraordinary things in Paris… And then, the nave of the Grand Palais is such a symbolic place, it’s one of the Biennale’s values. This setting corresponds perfectly with the strategy which we wish to implement in the coming years. As you know, the Grand Palais will be closing at the end of 2020 for renovations, which still leaves us four editions in this magical spot.

  • Whether we’re talking about dealers or collectors, what can bring back the great international players?

M.A.J.: La Biennale Paris must be positioned as a unique rendezvous in the world. This is what will make people come back. A VIP programme for cardholders has been developed for the Biennale for a few years now. This is a privileged invitation which offers the possibility of discovering otherwise inaccessible spots, entering haute jewellery workshops, taking part in private museum tours… By adding up a certain number of avant-première offers – I’m thinking about the Musée Jacquemart-André and the Musée Marmottan, but also the Parcours des Mondes – we can make the Biennale week a highlight in the new cultural season. Something about which collectors can say: “That’s when Paris is the place to be!”

  • What’s new with the Syndicat?

M.A.J.: The new feature, entailed by the yearly rhythm of the Biennale, is the duration of the president’s mandate. Three years allows for more solid structuring, bringing efforts in line with continuity, longitudinally. Elected last November as president of the SNA, I thus have the duty of steering, within the new and highly participative Council, three successive biennales. This is a guarantee of genuine stability.

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