UNITED WE STAND The duo behind the Sprüth Magers gallery join forces to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their exhibition space
Two decades since the launch of their first gallery, Monika Sprüth and Philomene Magers continue to showcase the finest women artists of our age
Women cannot paint – or so Georg Baselitz would have us believe. As recently as 2013, the German artist told Der Spiegel newspaper that female painters ‘simply don’t pass the test’, subsequently claiming that their failure to command high prices has ‘nothing to do with education, or chances, or male gallery owners’.
Monika Sprüth and Philomene Magers would beg to differ (as, fortunately, would many others, judging by the ensuing public outcry). The duo have been flying the flag for greater female representation in the art world ever since they joined forces to launch their Cologne-based gallery, Sprüth Magers, in 1998, followed by a Munich space in 2000. Two decades on, much has progressed – ‘No museum would now dare not to show women at all,’ says Sprüth – but as long as they remain the minority in both exhibitions and the secondary market, the struggle is far from over. Magers is blunt in her condemnation of the Baselitzes of this world: ‘It’s pretty disgusting.’
The ability to present a united front in the face of
prejudice gives Sprüth and Magers greater clout in an otherwise male-dominated industry. They initially worked independently, with Sprüth launching her eponymous gallery in Cologne in 1983 and Magers following suit in 1992, but decided to merge their institutions when it became clear that they were dealing with, in Magers’ words, ‘a group of artists who were intellectually very interconnected’. Their current portfolio reads like a Who’s Who of the contemporary-art scene, from Ed Ruscha and Andreas Gursky to Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, Jenny Holzer and Rosemarie Trockel. Sprüth describes the latter quartet as role models who dealt with feminism ‘not offensively but in a subtle way that makes men unconsciously uncomfortable’. Though their work has now gained iconic status, they were by no means an overnight success. ‘They didn’t get started as quickly as the male artists of their age, and they had a slow career going up,’ says Sprüth. ‘It wasn’t easy for them but they had a big influence.’
Slow and steady wins the race: in many ways, this philosophy lies at the heart of Sprüth and Magers’ business model. They have no interest in rapid growth, either for themselves or for their artists, whom they mentor with care. ‘Developing a career doesn’t mean you have to make the most money you can at the beginning,’ argues Sprüth. ‘I’ve seen many young artists hyped too early on, so they produce more than they should and don’t develop further.’ Magers attributes this failure to the frenzied mood of the modern art market, where the vogue for one creative approach (or ‘-ism’, as she puts it) so swiftly gives way to another that ‘the public attention span for any artist is terribly short’. For those starting out in the industry, therefore, ‘it takes a lot of stamina to keep doing what you’re doing’.
They too have shown plenty of stamina, managing an international business that now encompasses galleries in Berlin, Los Angeles and London’s Grafton Street, as well as offices in Cologne and Hong Kong. They are cautious about overreaching themselves because, admits Magers, ‘it is really intense work to keep a system like that running’. ‘We don’t want to become too much of an “artdepartment store”,’ adds Sprüth vehemently. ‘We see art not in terms of the market but in terms of content and the close relationships we have with our artists. We want to focus on what really matters.’
That includes working with their artists to challenge the status quo. Last year, Kruger, Sherman, Holzer and Trockel were among more than 1,800 signatories of a powerful open letter calling for an end to sexual harassment in the art world. The ‘Not Surprised’ movement was triggered by revelations about Knight Landesman, the long-serving co-publisher of Artforum magazine, who had been accused of numerous counts of sexual misconduct. His resignation, the letter emphasised, was not sufficient to ‘solve the larger, more insidious problem’ of endemic inequality in the sector. ‘There are all these male-dominated structures where women are getting mistreated and there seems to be some kind of gentlemen’s agreement that nothing will happen,’ says Magers sadly. She is, however, hopeful that in the wake of the Me Too and Time’s Up movements, we will finally see evidence of change. ‘Today, men will definitely think about the consequences of their actions. As time advances we are most likely going to be in a better situation, but it’s still a fight.’ A battle lies ahead, then, but there can be no one in a stronger position to take up the cause than this pair of quiet, enlightened crusaders. www.spruethmagers.com
Monika Sprüth and Philomene Magers in their LA gallery
Left: ‘Papagallo’ (2014) by Rosemarie Trockel. Below: an installation from Jenny Holzer’s 2017 show ‘Softer’ at Blenheim Palace
Left: ‘Untitled Film Still #58’ (1980) by Cindy Sherman. Below left: ‘My Sister and Me By Sir Thomas Lawrence’ (1996) by Karen Kilimnik
33Works by artists including Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer and Cindy Sherman at the Sprüth Magersgallery in Berlin