Sharing insights : the gallery owner and the collector

The area of Quartier des Bains – which is set between the River Arve, (a river which starts life from the Mont Blanc massif in the Alps) and the Plaine de Plainpalais – incidentally also where Mirabaud is headquartered, comes alive with activity for just four nights a year. On these nights, all the art galleries in the area, including the MAMCO (the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art) throw open their doors to the public.

During these "Nuits des Bains", as they are locally known, thousands of amateurs and collectors alike get an opportunity to explore the cultural mecca of Geneva to discover the latest pieces, while also getting a rare chance to meet and speak with the artists.

This renowned event is organised by the Quartier des Bains association, whose mission it is to promote contemporary art in Geneva. Its chairman Stéphane Ribordy is a gallery owner himself. He and the association’s lead partner Lionel Aeschlimann, Managing Partner of Mirabaud Group and CEO of Mirabaud Asset Management, naturally share a mutual passion for contemporary art, but what's more, Ribordy was once a fund manager too.

Stéphane Ribordy and Lionel Aeschlimann gave MirMag an insight into their discovery of and passion for contemporary art, drawing parallels with the world of finance.

From art lover to collector

How were you first introduced to contemporary art?  

Stéphane Ribordy I was introduced to contemporary art while I was still young, primarily through contemporary literature. Reading books by popular authors like Claude Simon, Nathalie Sarraute and Alain Robbe-Grillet, I became aware of the world of contemporary art, which sets itself apart from traditional art in much the same way that modern literature sets itself apart from the classics.

I went to see as many exhibitions as I could, which allowed me to develop a keen eye, and it wasn't long before I decided I wanted to have a piece of my own. As the years passed, although I started off seeing myself as an amateur art fan, I soon realised that by acquiring these works of contemporary art, I had indeed joined the ranks of art collectors.

Lionel Aeschlimann When we were younger, my parents often took my brothers and I to art museums, which – at the time – were sometimes boring to us. Our parents preferred classical pieces, antiquities, the great masters of the Italian Renaissance. Although at the time we were not fully appreciative of the art, the trips certainly planted a seed in our hearts and minds, which as we know developed further down the line. It wasn’t until my friends took me to see exhibitions by contemporary artists that I discovered this modern art genre.

Over the years, I have  ended up becoming a collector of contemporary art without even realising it, thanks to my mentors who took me in hand and showed me how to develop and refine my tastes. Until then, contemporary art was a world that I would walk by without really seeing it. Then a world emerged that I never realised existed, that I never realised had such depth and such strength in evoking emotions.

Has it broadened your horizons?

S.R. Right from childhood, we become used to certain types of art – mostly focused on the classics. Contemporary art is a form of expression that departs from what we are used to – from what we know, one that asks new questions and allows us to delve into a world that is entirely unexpected, triggering as yet unexplored personal reflections.

L.A. Contemporary art takes us out of our comfort zone. It opens our eyes, awakens strong emotions and lets us see the world in a different light. Often, the artists are 10, 15 or even 20 years ahead of us, and  they see things that we can't – but, they make it possible for us to see their visions too.

Each artist interprets the world in their own way. Each individual sees the world the way they were taught to, which is shaped through their respective educations and cultures. Contemporary art can shed new light on this; it can break down these barriers and allow people to relate on a mutual level. This receptiveness to other ways of seeing the world is precious. Once you've had a taste, it can be very addictive.

In the art world, a distinction is made between collectors who keep their pieces locked away and those who keep them on display for all to see. Which category would you put yourselves in? 

L.A. I have long defended my role as a collector and always said that it was a case of love at first sight, but then realised that I couldn't bear to part with even one of the pieces that I'd acquired. Some collectors hide their pieces away in storage. I'm one of those collectors that keep them on display and want to be able to see them at any time. I have to put up with the fact that I'm unable to display all of my pieces at once. So, I have to rotate them instead. I like to have them around me in my day-to-day, I like to see them. I don’t think I will ever tire of them. People work a lot, they get stressed and anxious; contemporary art can give you a sense of meaning and a sense of stability.

S.R. I have two identities: that of the collector and that of the gallery owner. It was being a collector that led me to become a gallery owner and get more involved. I didn't want to simply own pieces, but also to display them, share my passion, and get acquainted and maintain contact with artists. The gallery is purely a showcase.

Contemporary art is somewhat eclectic. How would you define it?

S.R. The term is a broad one; it groups together so many different styles and movements. Contemporary art is an artistic retelling of our time, of a certain reality; it questions the status quo. The key difference is that there are no limits in terms of how the story is told. Contemporary art takes many forms: video, sound or light installations, figurative painting, abstract painting, and so on.

L.A. Throughout history, art has often been restricted by noble media such as painting with oils or sculpting with marble. Contemporary art has exploded. It doesn't matter what media you use – it could even be just a sound. For example, take Joseph Beuys piece at the Hamburger Bahnhof museum in Berlin, where you just hear "Ja, Ja, Ja, Ja, Nein, Nein, Nein, Nein...".  Then there is Lawrence Weiner, for whom the work is an idea, a piece of text. It's up to you to display it on a wall just how you like it. This complete freedom is marvellous, it's stimulating.

In reality, art does not have a definition, just as it does not have a pre-defined function. And this is precisely why we need it. Art is not something we can do without. Ever since humans have existed, so too has art. Dating back to the Neanderthal period, a man with the head of a lion was discovered. This is an abstract piece, an artistic work. There has always been this need to interpret, read, understand and finally transcend reality.

Parallels with the role of fund manager

Collectors, as well as gallery owners, research both pieces that appeal to them as well as those that are unique and promising. Are there certain parallels here between this and working as a fund manager?

S.R. I worked in finance for many years as a hedge fund manager. Part of my job was to select managers, to find that rare pearl. This is also something that interests me with regard to contemporary art. Discovering talent before anyone else is something that really excites me. That's why I opened the gallery. It's not a business strategy. It's about the opportunity to determine which artists stand out, which artists' works you want to collect.

L.A. Managers who select businesses in which to invest take macro, political, sector-specific and fundamental aspects into account when forming their perception of the world. Gallery owners, too, read the world and interpret it in their own way. Collectors are different; they have less of a calculated approach, following their hearts instead of their heads.

How do you choose the pieces, both for the Mirabaud collection and for your own gallery?

L.A. My Partners entrusted me with the responsibility of building a collection for the company, in addition to the works already owned by individuals. For the Mirabaud contemporary art collection, I choose pieces based on what appeals to me, but I also get advice from specialists - since this is an investment for the whole company. This is a long-term commitment that will affect generations to come. It is a different kind of responsibility. For a company like ours, building a collection is also about making sense of what the company does and what it invests in. The pieces are exhibited in Switzerland as well as in our various branches, not only in Zurich, but also in France, Spain, the UK and Luxembourg. Our collection, which is a constant work in progress, is one of commitment, with both established artists and emerging young talents alike.

S.R. Personally, I would never exhibit an artist while thinking to myself "their work is going to fly off the shelves!" When organising an exhibition, I don't think about sales at all. There are enough artists out there to exhibit those you like first and foremost. There's something for every taste out there.

L.A. I like galleries. Gallery owners get involved and almost become artists themselves by putting exhibitions together.

Geneva, an international aura

Thanks to the galleries grouped together as part of the Quartier des Bains association, Geneva has positioned itself as an important centre for contemporary art. How would you explain this development?

S.R. Within the context of Switzerland, after Zurich, Geneva offers an alternative home for galleries and quality institutions. Basel is another key location, but primarily thanks to its institutions. Internationally, Geneva may be relatively small, but it still has a great reputation. I was surprised to learn that museum directors in the US have heard of MAMCO and even the Nuit des Bains.

Artists love coming here. We attract the same artists as New York, Los Angeles and London. We have fewer exhibitions, but the quality of artists is not lacking. Take Wade Guyton, for example – an undisputed international star who is currently on exhibition at MAMCO.

L.A. Geneva has always been a relatively important scene since there are a number of collectors here, both from Switzerland and abroad. The pool of collectors has grown larger in the meantime. They come from all over: some from Basel and Zurich, others from as far afield as Milan, Paris or London. We have excellent galleries; the city is one of those places where artists are promoted and presented to the world. This is a real opportunity in a city with 500,000 residents. Its international feel is very much in evidence in the area of art and culture. MAMCO is at the heart of Quartier des Bains. It is the flagship around which the galleries of today are gathered and next to which is the Centre d’Art Contemporain – our version of the Kunsthalle, and just as remarkable. Interestingly, one of Mirabaud’s former partners was also one of the founding members of MAMCO, which just goes to show that our attachment to contemporary art is nothing new.

Exhibition programme for May to August 2017

Download the programme