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This month, we’re speaking with Helene Dumenil, founder of Ballon Rouge Collective & Club, a contemporary art gallery defying art world protocol through a focus on collaboration and exchange.
Horst: Since its inception in fall 2017, Ballon Rouge has organised 23 exhibitions and participated in numerous fairs worldwide. What is the structure of your initiative? How did you come up with the idea?
Helene Dumenil: For Ballon Rouge Collective, we have curators in seven different cities; they each represent an artist, establishing the gallery’s roster. We do pop-up exhibitions in these cities, having the artists move around to collaborate with each of the collective’s curators.
The project is a direct reflection of my life. I’ve been wanting to open a gallery for a long time, but having lived in five different countries, I didn’t quite know where to put my focus. So I switched it around, and reached out to the cities where my collaborators are based, in order to create a network focused on temporary, nomadic exhibitions - rather than to start one centralised space. The director, Nicole (O’Rourke), is my best friend. She’s based in Istanbul so us being apart also played into the concept.
We wanted to offer valuable opportunities for emerging artists: facilitating solo-exhibitions in spaces that fit their work rather than to cram everything in a standardised white cube. Through this model, they get in touch with new audiences in cities where they don’t know anyone; they get to express their artistic universe; they get to build a decent portfolio.
And then there’s Ballon Rouge Club. A year or so into B.R. Collective, I thought of another way to deepen the collaborative side of our project: with a fixed space in Brussels. We do exchanges with international galleries: they come do a show here with their artists, we go to their space with ours. It’s another way of connecting artists to cities, galleries, the people that work there, curators, collectors and so forth.
Horst: What is your personal trajectory? How did your past experiences and projects lead up to the concept of Ballon Rouge?
Helene: I grew up going to museums with my family, it was the one thing we did together. Art is the only thing in my life that was never a question mark. However, I had no clue on what angle would be mine in that world.
I started out studying interior design in England, and briefly worked at an architecture firm in Paris. After a short detour trying to make it as an artist myself, I eventually moved to New York for a job at Sotheby’s: my first insight in the business and commercial aspects of the art world. I came to realise however that I didn’t have the proper background or necessary vocabulary to talk about art, so I enrolled in a Masters Contemporary Art at Sotheby’s Institute. I then ended up in a gallery in Brooklyn, where I quickly became the director, handling everything from sweeping the floors, hanging the works, working with the artists and figuring out how to pay the rent every month since the owner was slightly detached from it all. It was the best learning school, and the idea of starting something myself really originated there.
By then I had started to collect art myself, generating more and stronger relationships with small gallerists. One of them was Simon Christopher, with whom I started a space in the Lower East Side, showing works by artists that grew out to be pretty renowned such as John Rafman, David Ostrowski. Then the crash of 2008 happened, and I decided to move to Istanbul, but remained involved as he moved to Brussels to set up a gallery. Just as I decided to move here as well, the attacks happened and we decided to close down as it wasn’t viable to take risks in such a drastically changed art scene. Simon moved back to the UK, and I was alone with my baby, without people I knew or a project to manage. My friends were on my mind a lot those days, I longed to be with them, creating a web of friendship to get through that weird phase, and that’s how the project came to be.
Horst: Can you explain to us how B.R. is organised? Who is in your team, what does a working day look like?
Helene: I run the gallery together with Nicole O’Rourke, we met in NY where she’s born and raised. She actually took the directing job at the Brooklyn-gallery where I learned the trade. I liked her right away, and even though she had very little time for me, I actively pursued that friendship (laughs). Once I was in Istanbul, I reached out again to invite her to visit me. We didn’t know each other that well, so I was quite surprised that she came, and even more so that she decided to stay. While she was building her career in the arts, I got pregnant and decided to move to Brussels. When Rampa (the gallery she worked for) closed, I saw my opportunity to pursue her again, this time professionally. We brainstormed through many hypothetical ideas on how we could collaborate, and eventually refined the idea of Ballon Rouge.
She’s the director, which means the gallery doesn’t run without her. We talk and organise ourselves every day, and since we’re such good friends, that truly is a joy. She’s mostly in touch with the artists and manages a lot of the practical stuff, while I’m more in charge of the financial planning ahead. Let’s say she’s more operating on a micro-level, where I might be more in the macro, but we do really meet in the middle to make every decision.
Horst: Setting up temporary exhibitions in rented out spaces all over the world requires a lot of energy and work: finding places, dealing with various suppliers, but also generating visibility and an audience every time again. How do you navigate these challenges?
Helene: The curators function as our gates to the cities where we are active: they curate the shows, but they also put us in touch with the necessary people at every stage of the process - both in building up the exhibition as well as once it’s on. They have their own network to which we tap in, that’s how it works.
Horst: With regards to Ballon Rouge Club: how do you find or select the galleries with whom you want to set up an exchange?
Helene: That’s super personal as well: relationships with gallerists who we admire and support, such as Hannah Barry (London) or Galerist (Istanbul). We don’t aim for major high-end galleries, but projects that make sense with our focus on emerging talent.
Horst: Why did you choose Brussels to be the heart of your globally-oriented endeavour? And after New York, London and Paris, what keeps you here?
Helene: I don’t find moving to a place a life-altering decision. I do it instinctively. I left Paris at 14 to go to England and study, a decision which I made in the span of two days, considering I wasn’t doing well at school. The idea of moving and starting over was brought to me very young, so I never feel stuck somewhere. As I said, the choice for Brussels came through my collaboration with Simon. At the time, Brussels had this aura of being the new place to be, with dedicated, loyal but also adventurous collectors. Because my focus has always been emerging talent, the ability to trust your own eye more than to follow what other people tell you, is appealing. It’s something that I hoped to find here, which I did in a way. What I didn’t expect was the circle of other galleries to be so welcoming, interested and encouraging.
Horst: What is the business plan that kicked off Ballon Rouge and that is currently keeping it alive?
Helene: The initial business plan wasn’t more than a quick draft, based on the rather random sum of 5K per exhibition. It turned out to often be more, of course we became the kind of gallerists who let artists run wild and free, without always considering whether it would be a commercially happy show. I’m keen on keeping that freedom, but it wasn’t something that we anticipated. As not all of our shows sell out, we make up for that by participating in fairs, they’re a big investment but often worth it.
Overall, we launched Ballon Rouge with a humble starting budget. I continue to run another business parallel to finance it all, selling art by established names to collectors. The commissions on these big sales are invested in B.R., which has allowed us to manage up until now, and finally we’re slowly able to pay ourselves back. No gallery is financially viable for the first 3 to 5 years, so you have to hold on to your belt and make sure you can last that long without generating profit.
Horst: With regards to the Covid-19 and its repercussions on contemporary art: how would you delineate the future for young artists, for local art scenes, for Ballon Rouge?
Helene: We have a ton of new plans! Because we had to limit our travel, we actually got to diminish our expenses a lot and weren’t as financially pressured as other organisations are. We did a few online fairs, though quickly realised that this doesn’t really work for emerging art, which really needs this one-on-one dialogue. Because of Covid-19, we’re again conceiving new ways to collaborate. Together with four other Brussels-based galleries, we’re planning a series of curated group shows in beautiful and unexpected places all over Belgium. Suddenly, there is such a willingness to do something together. It’s an exciting trajectory: instead of holding on to the little that you have, to actually share and expand together.
Horst: Do you hope this crisis brings about changes for how the art world is organised?
Helene: A growing consciousness on what, how and why we do things is definitely on the rise. Even in the art world, first small steps are made towards a culture of collaboration in favour of competition. I think it’s not only Covid, but also everything that is happening in America, all these global issues - we’re all feeling involved. It’s a divisive moment for some, a together-moment for others. Instead of thinking local and doing global, we seemed to have switched to a global mindset embedded in local actions.
Horst: Will these changes have a lasting effect?
Helene: I think so.
Horst: As you have a heart for art, it's your passion. I can imagine your profession runs through your private life like an octopus, how do you manage that?
Helene: I don’t even consider my job to be different from my private life, they’re not separate. I work with people I like, with friends, and I want to see them grow. It’s all completely intertwined. My beliefs run through everything I do, and I don’t compromise on that.
Horst: Do you have any advice for young artists or art professionals?
Helene: If it’s not a passion do something else. Especially for artists: if it’s not something you need to do, then don’t even get started. And be prepared for it to be tough for a while. What else can I say that is a bit more hopeful (laughs)?