Q&A With Gilles Dyan
As curator and founder of Opera Gallery, Gilles Dyan threads through the art world with perhaps what most would consider the lesser star-lit role – a quiet tastemaker with an inkling.
Before opening his first gallery in Singapore in 1994, Dyan began his career at the age of 25 as a door-to-door salesman, selling prints. Moved by intuition and a sense for the fantastic, he has since created a business that spans worldwide from cities like Hong Kong and Paris – and most recently, a new location in New York.
Binding contemporary works with the classic and iconic, Dyan emphasizes an eccentricity that is about both approachability and range. His curation has included 20th-century artists such as Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall, as well as contemporaries such as Yasmina Alaoui-Guerra and Joe Black.
Here & There visited the Opera Gallery’s new Manhattan location on Madison Avenue and caught up with Dyan to chat about his journey as an art entrepreneur.
Laura Phillips: How did you first get involved in the art world?
Gilles Dyan: I had a taste for art and the art market from my mid-twenties, but no idea it would end up being my whole life. In doing so, I identified a gap in the commercial art galleries’ market: there were no easily accessible galleries selling high-value masterpieces as well as more affordable “entry level” contemporary art. Walking into an art gallery can be a daunting experience for the new or aspiring collector, and I wanted to create a model of gallery that was open, welcoming and stress-free for such buyers.
How has Opera Gallery evolved since opening your first location?
I created Opera Gallery in Singapore in 1994. I didn’t know the city well but I was invited to have a stand at an art fair there and it worked out really well for me. So, three months later I opened my first gallery there. It took off and was followed by a Parisian branch the same year. Now, almost 22 years later, Opera Gallery has 12 branches and employs close to 150 people worldwide.
The New York gallery recently moved to its new location on Madison. How is the new location different from your previous one in Manhattan?
The new gallery is bigger and more luxurious, but the main difference comes from the clientele, who is top-end on Madison Avenue. This change enables us to feature numerous high-quality artworks renowned on the art market, whereas at the former gallery in Manhattan we rather used to sell works by young artists.
The gallery boasts a mixture of styles and artists from around the world. How do you choose the artists you represent?
The first artist I ever signed and represented was Spanish painter Lita Cabellut. She is an amazing person and a fascinating artist. Her large-scale portraits convey all the strength and willpower that lie within humankind. I am proud to still be working with her now; and to showcase her works in several solo exhibitions every year throughout our network. Nowadays, we select new artists in accordance with the taste of our directors, and my taste too, of course, but also bearing in mind that they must be able to be appreciated and distributed. We take the risk of buying our works, and not just stocking them like some galleries do, so it must be a business decision as well as an emotional one.
Which artists have been the most successful in the New York market?
Since our moving in we have mainly sold works by Manolo Valdés, Yayoi Kusama, Alexander Calder and Joan Miró, as well as pieces by contemporary artists.
How do you go about choosing neighborhoods and cities to open gallery spaces?
Our approach relies on a considered strategy to be situated in the world’s biggest cities’ trendy high-end luxury areas. The business idea is to source a wide base of clients with high available income and advise them to help them become confident art collectors.
What’s the meaning behind the name "Opera Gallery?"
Opera is the Latin word for “artwork,” so Opera Gallery literally means “gallery of works of art.” I also chose Opera as a word that is easy to understand and pronounce in most languages and easy to remember—an imperative for a brand with strong presence across the globe.
In the past you've featured artists from emerging capitals like Seoul and Beirut. How does Opera Gallery get involved with local art scenes and why is this important to you?
Opera Gallery aspires to be as much an actor within the local art scene as an influencer on the international art scene. For this reason, every gallery of the group is encouraged to source artists locally and share their work with the other branches.
Additionally, in growing markets especially, it is rare for art buyers to collect modern masterpieces first. Often, they will buy a piece of contemporary art by a local artist—either because they can relate to the style or because they know the name, or even because it has been recommended to them by a friend… and of course, because it is more affordable and therefore a lesser risk in terms of investment. Later, as we build a relationship with the buyers and present new types of art to them, they can broaden their views and start collecting international art, both contemporary and modern. It is a fantastic journey for a dealer to advise a novice art lover and witness them becoming a knowledgeable art collector!
Which artist do you think is the most exciting to watch right now?
Not that I have encountered him for the first time recently, but an artist whose work has really spoken to me lately is Umberto Mariani. Working alongside the Zero movement, he has used abstraction because following the World War II, he felt that representation no longer seemed to provide the answers to the world’s savagery. Using materials such as lead and sand, he puts into perspective the way shadow and light play out on canvas. His works absorb and partially refract light in a way that I find deeply moving.
What can we look forward to with Opera Gallery in the near future?
We are going to pursue our American expansion with projects to open a gallery in Los Angeles in 2017; and we are also going east and opening a branch in Doha, Qatar the same year. And of course, we are going to continue sourcing the highest quality masterpieces and the most exciting contemporary art for our art collectors worldwide. ■