‘Artists are appreciating in Nigeria, but not so much on dollar rate’
On October 1, 2011, Alexis Galleries opened its doors to the public, offering premium art, entertainment and enthralling shows. It debuted with a difference and was reputed being the first to sign on artists in Nigeria, amid hosting four residencies, 100 exhibitions and showcasing almost 100 artists in a decade.
Trailing the one decade journey, Patty Chidiac-Mastrogiannis, CEO, Alexis Galleries, speaks to Obinna Emelike, the secret of the success, appreciating the value of art/market, challenges and impact on artists.
How has the journey been for the past 10 years in the business?
It has been 10 interesting years of loyalty, deception, money making, loss and a lot of experience. It has been very well-seasoned. We had our ups and down. When I look back at the 10 years, it has been very challenging, the Nigerian market has been very challenging, but we are glad we made our first milestone because I believe that every decade is a milestone.
Hopefully, we will be there for the next 10 years, and more decades to come.
Can you recall days of your little beginning?
We started on October 1, 2011. We started with four-five artists and it was much easier because we have to manage the works of just four to five people. Then, these artists just started coming, through word of mouth, they grew from five to 10 artists, to 50, to 100 and so on.
I think times were easier then than now; there wasn’t such a big rush on the artists. So, collecting was very tangible at that time; who knew that Nigeria would boom like that. It was so easy 10 years ago, and now it is a much more saturated market and the survival of the fittest. But, having said that, it is also a good chance for the artists who are emerging and who are getting fame. The artists are really getting more famous now than 10 years ago.
How difficult was it getting the five pioneer artists 10 years ago?
I had help from Ayola Agbolamu, an artist who was working with me then. Even today, bringing an artist is much easier than an artist coming on his own. I had help in the beginning; Ayola lunched me. The artists then felt better when there is an artist around and they could relate with. Obviously, they will know the gallery better 10 years later. They have heard about it time and time again. But we were launched well with Ayola, it was a good launch.
So, the five immediately became 10 because we immediately hosted an exhibition with about 30 artists, it was called Meet The Artists and we had one painting from each artist.
The artists were here, everybody met the artists and it was a chance for people to meet the artists because at the time there was nothing in any gallery. The galleries had the artists, and were keeping them quietly, people did not have access to the artists, we came and there was a big boom and we gave all the collectors the connections, especially the expatriates because Nigerians will always find a way to reach the artists but the expatriate community could not.
It was here that it happened, they met and I think that has a lot to do with the growth as well because it has earned the artists international exposures and among other benefits to their career. It was a good one for us, for the artists and the art world as well.
Why art and gallery in such a prime environment like Victoria Island?
Actually, it started off by accident. We were a shop that was importing furniture and accessories from India, Indonesia and from many other countries. We have space at the back of the building, which was used for storage of the containers we use to get. I had already had the five artists who came and dropped their artworks and Ayola said just paint it and hang your paintings there and it just happened. It was not meant to be; it wasn’t to spite anyone, a hidden plan or a future project. It just happened and this is how art happens.
I was a young collector then and I was always drawn by art. To my luck, Nigeria boomed and Nigeria’s middle name became art. In the last decade, we are very well known. We and the Chinese are the two countries, which are topping the art world in the international art market at the moment.
Nigeria made a name in the art world as well as in football a few years ago as opposed to Nigeria being fraudulent. From football, we now have art, which is amazing, a plus for us and a gift because we are so gifted and talented here.
Finally, we have a younger generation derived from mischievous things to produce beauties, and this is where the market has moved to and it is incredible. It has given a lot of chances to a lot of people. At the moment, the people who collected art 10 years ago are millionaires because artwork has appreciated more than land.
Talk about people like El Anatsui, talk about the big boys, the emerging artists. If you bought land N750,000 about 10 years ago, today you are buying it at N7.5 million, if you bought a painting N100,000 10 years ago, today you are selling it for $100,000. At the end of the day, the art is presenting one of the biggest investments Nigeria has ever seen.
Everybody is trying to get into the art. I am not talking about opening galleries, I mean everybody sponsoring art, everybody patronising and everybody trying to get into the art because art has become a very big language here.
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The language spoken in the world is football, now art is becoming a language of the world and we are a big chunk of it.
What is the secret for growing the art business in the last 10 years?
There is no secret. It is honesty, integrity and transparency. We have never hidden anything; we always fulfill our promise and have always worked for the benefit of the artists and the art.
For us, it is not all about money. Of course, we work to survive; we make money but not as much as other people. We have one catalogue, which applies to both customers and artists. We do not throw numbers. We hold the hand of the artist from the first day and show him how to be professional, I can name many.
Unfortunately, in the last 10 years, we have had some artists stay with us, we have had some people leave, some dropout in the art, and some die, and you know this is a seasoned market.
But throughout, whoever dealt with us, and stayed with us, we met the promises we made to them. For us, it is all about transparency; we need the artist and collector to trust us and we cannot do that based on lies. After 10 years, if there were lies, they would have turned their back on us. I remember when I first opened, some artists were saying that I do not know anything and I will close down in one year. I was ok with it and never pointed a finger at anyone.
Today, I am respected; people say I have maintained, and still around promising the same thing.
I don’t know about other galleries and I don’t even ask what they do. A lot of artists come to me to complain about what other galleries did, but I tell them I don’t want to know, this is not my take because each one has enough problems in their own companies. With due respect to other galleries, I have my own way of doing things and my way is based on trust. I can call any artist and he comes immediately and this is my reward. I don’t hear stories like we have boycotted Alexis Galleries, though I hear a lot of that about other galleries.
Then again, I am not interested in the gist of the artists; I am interested in what they can produce and give and how they can evolve. This is my interest.
What are the remarkable achievements for the 10 years in business?
In 10 years I have achieved greatness in my opinion. I have one or two artists that started here that have really made it, they are artists I have spent a lot of my time with and I am very happy to see them grow.
You have to understand that as much help we gave and as much nurturing we did, I am not taking all the glory and I am also humble in that sense.
It is the artists who did the work, we basically steered. For instance, I remember Gerald Chukwuma 10 years here and I remember his growth and how he made it. We have a small percentage of his growth, but we count him as one person in whose life we were and the same as Ibe Ananaba and Oluwole Omofemi, who started here.
Oluwole Omofemi and I used to fight about his works. He is one of the best examples because he is young, he used to bring his works here and we used to fight over things he needs to improve. He will leave the gallery angry and will come back with better works and improvements. Obviously he found his bearing and he sent me the first painting of his Afro Series and I told him Omofemi, I now respect you, you are an artist. I have the first three of the series. Now he has made it into fame and not me. I was just there to steer him and I am so proud of him. In a nutshell, my 10 years have been very fond and sad memories at the same time.
Ruben Ubine was a friend for 32 years. He was not the only artist I was dealing with then, but he will come here and have lunch with me every weekend. People like Ruben, who is a master, and has died on my time, for me was very sad. He comes from Benin City. People were condoling me then because they knew how close I was to Ruben. Ruben was part of my 10 years, I did not steer him, I did not help him in any way, and I was selling his works like hotcakes here. I was part of his journey as well.
I have been part of a lot of people’s journeys and I am proud to say I am there today.
There is also Dominique Zimkpe, who started with me here in 2011. I brought his first statue here and was selling it for $300, now it is selling for about €7000.
How many exhibitions and projects did you execute in the last 10 years?
We have done three to four residencies so far and we have another one in January. For the exhibition, we exceeded 100 because we were doing a minimum of between 8-12 exhibitions a year. The year we did Moremi, we did 24 exhibitions and we were so tired that half of my staff ran away. We exceeded ourselves that year because we wanted to prove a point; we wanted to be back in the market, to be in the papers and we did everything to elevate art because after Ebola, everything had gone down.
So, in one year alone we did 24 exhibitions and in 10 years, exceeded 100 of which I can say 90 were successful and 70 were sellouts. We have also exhibited between 50 – 100 artists.
Which year was you most remarkable and how did it impact the gallery?
It was 2019, the year we did Moremi. It was remarkable because of how many exhibitions we did. It is a year I will always remember because it was a very tiresome year, but a very productive year as well. We had a lot of ins and outs, this place was bubbling with lots of artists, paintings, and activities.
At a point half of my staff left, they couldn’t stay for as long as I offered them to stay because they were all exhausted. We wanted to make it and we made it.
It made a reputable name for Alexis Galleries. I don’t know whether we have done it or not, but we have made a difference today, but it put a spark where we wanted to be because after Ebola we did not show for seven to eight months and things were stagnant. So, it did put a spark on the top of the list.
A lot of galleries were doing one to three exhibitions a year and they were known for daily sales. We have always done numerous exhibitions a year and this is part of our signature. Now, they have all woken up and are doing two to three weeks of exhibitions, which in my opinion is very good for the art world. If it is not good for the gallery, it is good for the artists and the art world and unless we do that we are not going to maintain our status internationally.
What are some of your major projects that have seen artists from zero to fame?
There are many, especially with Oluwole Omofemi. He was here in my last residency. He was part of the six boys with Dr. John Oyedemi. He is the best example because he started with me. I remember when he was shy. I will talk to him and he will shy away.
Now, his works sell in Christie’s, Bonhams, Sotheby’s and all major art auction houses. When he started in 2011/2012, his proportions were rusty and today his is the epitome of what would happen to an artist in such a short time. Now everybody is claiming a bit of him, which is normal.
He did the work and the good thing about him is that he listened to what I was telling him, he took it home, slept over it and put it on canvas the next day. It was his hard work.
Now, galleries here have started to sign on artists, which I started and which is very good. But I hope they will be able to hold their hands along the journey and not claim someone that has already made it and call them signed on. Galleries should start with someone who they help get direction and identify for. When Oluwole Omofemi was here, he was a student of Ebenezer, he was painting the twilights and the market scenes and today he is doing the Afros, which a lot of people are trying to copy and cannot.
I hope that other galleries will start with the artists from scratch and not claim them when they are emerging. You sign on young artists and not established ones.
What does it mean to sign on an artist, and do you still do that?
When I signed on artists, I was buying their works, helping them with materials for work, but I couldn’t afford to give them a monthly salary, which is what a lot of artists want. However, signing an artist also means you can be helping them, pay them salary every month, and pushing them.
The seven I had, I managed quite well, steering them up to a point where someone or gallery from abroad clicked and picked them. Here we ripen the fruit and allow other people to carry them because we don’t have the means to carry them out. So, we prep them for people to take them along. Aside from just giving them money, we offer inspiration and ideas, which go through all the process.
For now, I have stopped signing artists because there are many galleries at the moment that are doing the work, which is fine, it is too much work and I have not found anyone that blinked my eye yet.
I had seven people sign on, I did not sign every artist that came to me; the artwork has to speak to me for me to sign on the artist who made it. Now, there are too many artists copying too many styles, there is no one that has come to say to me that he has the potential to be different because they are all passing out from the same schools, which was the case before, but they are all going through the same style and direction. For me, there is a lot of copying and no originality.
Do you have partnerships with galleries abroad?
Not yet. I read something the other day that said the grass is not greener on the other side, and it said, no, that the grass is greener when you water it. It is very easy to get galleries abroad, and to carry my artists for exhibitions abroad. But I am not ready for that, I think the work needed is here. We are not fully ready and we have galleries with branches abroad that can do that.
So, I suggest that when an artist wants exposure, he should go to galleries that will show them abroad. I was approached by some galleries from abroad and I was not thrilled and I pushed them to other galleries because I think that the Nigerian market is not fully ready for that.
I still have a problem, which I had 10 years ago; the artist will just leave school and will be calling half a million, N1 million and N3 million for his paintings. There is no sanity in the market still, there has been to some extent, but the market is not fully sanitized yet. You have an artist that happened to sell his work for N45 million and an upcoming artist suddenly wants to put his work at that price or you have an artist who just left school but managed to sell his work for N2 million and from then set his price at N2 Million. It is wrong and that is where sanity has to come. For me, this market is not ready and I don’t know if it will ever be ready because every gallery needs to be on the same page for the artists because preparing the artists is preparing him to take him out, and preparing the market to take them out. They are appreciating in Nigeria, but on dollar rate, they have not appreciated.
What are the major challenges in the business?
The main challenge for me is sanitizing the market and prices. Steering an artist is not just telling him what to paint and how to paint, how to fix his brush and subject and do the proportions. It is not just that, it is also about the monetary aspect, which is very important. When I get an artist here, I bargain their prices and bring them down and they wonder. But they do not understand that I make less of a commission when I sell them cheaper. So, I shot myself on the knee. But at the end of the day, I need to hang the works everywhere; I need people to buy them, so, I need the works to be affordable. When you start selling and we see how frequent you are selling then we start bringing the prices up. The price thing is not a competition and should not be a competition among the galleries. We are not competing with who will sell the artist more expensive, we are to work together to make the artist somebody who is looked for. I tell a lot of the artists I work with to remove their works on Instagram because there are lots of their works there. By doing so, you do not allow people to wonder what works you have because you have put all your cards on the table.
So, there is some sort of sanity when galleries are talking and guiding the artists. It is not about how he paints, what he paints and the idea you gave him. It is also how you steer him money wise, publicity wise and all that. I am shocked when I go on Instagram sometimes and I see over 200 paintings, people don’t want such a prolific artist. People want artists like Olaku, who takes six months painting one work. Olaku doesn’t finish his work before it is sold. He is a master, and we are not debating that, but he is very scarce.