I met with Louise Beer, the founder, and director of Prag Art Works gallery in Prague. Louise comes from Montreal and previously had a long career in the hotel business. She studied at a prestigious hotel school, she was the Director of International Affairs at the Montreal Convention Centre and was on the Board of Directors of L’Institut de Tourisme et d’Hôtellerie du Québec. Last year, she turned another one of her passions into a profession and opened a gallery of contemporary art in Prague. We met to talk about why buying art should be part of your culture and how the Czech art market is still quite undervalued compared to abroad.
The Prag Art Works gallery opened in October 2019. It specializes in Czech contemporary art, and you currently work with 50 artists. Why does a Canadian open a gallery in the Czech Republic? Why not in Canada?
We moved to Prague in 2002. I was following my husband. I had left my career in the hotel business, and I have been a good wife and followed him. I was always interested in the art scene. I was going to museums, galleries, and meeting artists already back then. The internet was just starting, but I was always very involved. The first artist I met here was Pavel Roučka. I saw his painting in the dining room in the Four Seasons hotel, and I asked the waiter: “Who is this artist?” and he said: “Oh, he is dead, he died a long time ago.” A year later, I was with a group of friends in a cafe, and Pavel came over. He knew one of the ladies and invited everybody to his atelier. I had no idea who he was. Once there, I said: “You have beautiful things, and it looks so familiar.” It took a long time, until he mentioned he has paintings also at The Four Seasons Hotel. “Yes, but they told me you were dead!” We laughed about it and then became good friends. I met his family and a lot of artists through him. It was a very slow beginning. Through another friend, who knew a lot of glass artists and through The International Women’s Association, we also organized trips to Novy Bor glass factories and other places. So I was always in this group, and since we have made our life here, it was natural. Everybody who knows me back from Montreal knows that even when I was in my twenties, I was always buying art. I was buying one piece a year. Nobody was surprised that I followed this passion. Meanwhile, I did a work of an ex-pat: a lot of charity work, raised our daughter, assisted my husband in the role of a wife of a general manager, and so on. Everything I did, I did with passion and the best way I could. So finally, the gallery opened in October 2019, but before, I already did several pop up exhibitions. The first one we did was in 2016. We took 9 artists to London. One was Dutch, but she lived here for 18 years. Thanks to the Czech ambassador in London and a Dutch company Royal Ahrend, we were able to do it. We had 100 pieces of art. I thought for sure that we were going to sell all 100 pieces and we sold one! We were really not prepared for the London market at that time (laughing).
Who is buying art more? Men or women? Do they have a different approach to buying? I can imagine women following their hearts more and men more thinking about making an investment?
That’s a good question. I think in both cases, first, they see something and say: “I really like that.” Women are quicker to buy. Many men bought pieces before Christmas, as gifts. So maybe it was an investment, and perhaps they just liked it. So it can be both, and it can also be present for both of them.
How do you recognize which painting to buy, which artist to invest in? There are established artists, of course, but how do you find promising young artists whose art is perhaps affordable now but will rise in value? Do you need to do a lot of research before?
A lot of people would do a lot of research. I think first you have to like it, buying just for an investment is a shame. You really have to like the piece that you buy. Nobody has the crystal ball to tell that this will make so much money in the future. Of course the older generation, like over 70 years, these would be good to buy. So there is an age factor, especially if they are established. But even the young ones. I bought a lot of things but never thought about the age of the artist, even when I purchased pieces from Olbram Zoubek*, for example. I had to see him many times until he even sold me anything. The Czech market is still very undervalued. In the Czech Republic, there are just so many talented artists. It’s still quite affordable here compared to American prices, for example. You can buy something here for 10 thousand or 15 thousand Euros, and in the US, something like that would be 100 thousand dollars. There should be investors to buy just one piece a year, for example, whatever your budget is, in order to help. Because there is so much talent. You could be out every single night for a gallery opening, or even three per night.
*Famous Czech contemporary sculptor and designer (21 April 1926 – 15 June 2017). For example, the author of Memorial to the Victims of Communism in Prague.
Many people think that buying art is only for the rich.
Personally, I think, if you like something, you should try to make an arrangement, either with the gallerist or with the artist. You might see something and think: “Oh my god, how am I going to buy that.” But if you pay in 4 installments, you don’t even see it. Don’t ever buy something you don’t like and don’t let anybody say that this is going to be a good investment. Anybody who gives you that type of advice is just trying to sell. You also have to go out to the galleries. There is a lot here to see for you to say: ” I like this, or I don’t like this.”
How would you compare Czech artists to artists from other countries? Do they have something in common?
For example, Pavel Roučka, last year, had an exhibition in Shanghai. He had a joined exhibition with a Chinese artist who was as recognized as Pavel is here. I think there will be more and more of this kind of cooperation. There is a lot of request for Czech artists to go to Asia now because there is a big market that’s opening up. Czech art is still somewhat affordable, and Berlin is very close, for example. We have many Czech artists that have studios in Berlin, several of whom I represent too. The German market is very close, and with the surrounding countries like Poland or Austria, there is a lot of cooperation. With the Czech centers and the embassies, there are a lot of possibilities now for Czech artists to do exhibitions in say Italy or France. Before it was always a question of how do you get the stuff there, there is transfer costs and insurance. It’s a long process to organize it, but there are great possibilities because the prices are still so affordable, and it’s an emerging market.
Czech glass has an excellent reputation abroad. Probably more than the other forms of art.
There is a massive show in Chicago in the fall, for instance, that really concentrates on glass Art. So there are all the big glass galleries from the States. There are collectors who are just waiting, descend on Chicago, and they are actively buying. But it’s unfortunate that certain collectors buy there, knowing that if they contacted gallery here, it would be much more affordable. The prices are just so high in the US. When you buy the piece here, it’s almost half the price. It’s a different market. The same is in Asia.
You have collected art since your late teens. If there would be a fire in your house and you could save only 1 painting, which one would it be?
One of the first pieces I bought was Walasse Ting. He has passed away, but he was very famous and his prices just skyrocketed. When I bought it, in the ’80s, it was 5000 USD, and I was thinking, where am I going to get 5000. It took me probably a year and a half to pay it off. Paycheck to paycheck, I was bringing money to the gallerist. So it’s just the idea of the sweat and tears of paying for it; it would probably be this one.
We live in consume society. Is an average young person interested in art at all? Or are they more interested in having a new smartphone? Will art be in crisis during the next generations?
I don’t know. The singles in later twenties and early thirties I know, I think they find it inaccessible. They pay for a new tattoo 400 Euro, for example, but you could still buy an original piece for that price. There are still some traditions that continue, like going to the theater. The younger generation buys an apartment, which is excellent, but then don’t have the budget to buy some piece anymore. It’s the whole culture of buying antiques, good carpets or art, that’s the question.
What’s your estimate of % of artists that can make a living? It is easier now with platforms like Instagram?
All the ones I represent are living from their art. It’s how you manage your money. Not all artists are good managers. If you don’t have a second job, you really have to hassle. It’s not an easy life. If you have a family, the other person has to have a full-time job. There are collectors that always buy a piece; they support their artist. But it’s still a new culture.
Let’s finish with your plans for 2020.
Last year I did 3 pop up exhibitions, and I am hoping to do another one in 2020. I have ongoing events and receptions for different groups that come almost weekly. We have visits to the studios of the artists if the buyers want to meet the artist. Which is quite an unusual thing I have to say. In most of the other countries, you are buying from the gallerist, and that’s it. Here people are more curious, and artists are open to it. Some of them even go into collectors’ homes. They have involvement with the person, it’s more than just a sale.
To learn more about Czech contemporary art, follow Louise and Prag Art Works on Instagram @pragartworksdotcom or visit the web page with the blog at https://www.pragartworks.com
images: sculptures by Jakub Flejšar (left), Pavel Roučka (right)