Jan Winkelmann in conversation with lawyer and consultant Dr. Martin Heller
Photo: Gregor Hohenberg, Berlin
Jan Winkelmann: For years your Berlin-based law firm, Heller & Partner, maintained a practice that was largely focused on the art establishment. That was something quite unusual at the time, a law office dedicated almost exclusively to artists and their legal needs. Can you describe a little bit how you got started and what kind of work your firm was doing?
Martin Heller: I had already founded a law firm in Berlin in 1994. Representing and advising arts clients was a focus that started slowly at first, but then really developed around the time of the first Berlin Biennale (1998). Berlin was gaining significance as an art capital, and perhaps more importantly, also a reputation as a center of art production. I became especially interested in this area and Berlin offered me the opportunity to gather both experience and contacts. There weren’t many offices of our kind to model ourselves after; the majority of lawyers working in the field—in a broader sense—either worked exclusively in copyright law or represented larger government institutions. I had to find my own way to adapt my specialized skills to suit artists, art production, and galleries. That means it was a learn-as-you-go process. From the requests for representation and consultations on an increasing number of commissioned works, to the continued growth of artists’ studios and all the questions of business law that came with that, the challenges kept getting bigger. These were all small businesses with very individual products and a very personal approach to their economic ventures. The combination of so many international commissions and artists from all over the world resulted in an exciting mix, but brought distinct challenges. And as you said: it was the interests of artists that excited me, and the fact that, to a large extent, legal work also extended into the human and the strategic. I liked it, I noticed, that consulting and developing solutions suited me.
In 2013, you specialized even further and founded HELLER Consulting and Arts Management, again with a tight focus on the art establishment and its players. To what extent has your practice changed between now and then and why, from your point of view, was this the most sensible or perhaps even necessary course of action?
It was a personal and an objective decision; as a lawyer, you find that your occupation is defined by clear boundaries. In my day-to-day experience, taking cases to court was rare and most figures in the art world would do as much as possible to avoid it. Negotiation, mediation, free action, and solution development were, in any case, something I considered preferable to procedural maneuvers within the prescribed frame of the law. That is also intellectually limited and limiting. I had already thought years before about what it would be like to found a legally modeled business consultancy combined with a kind of practical coaching for artists and galleries, one that could be dedicated to the interests of the clients and be solution-oriented. In doing so, I’m helping to make a bit more space for the most important thing: the art. And I try very personally to establish and improve lines of communication. But, that’s a topic all its own.
Do you have ‘role models’ and/or know of other law firms working in similar ways, for example in the USA?
No, there is little comparable in my field. There are firms that offer similar services. There are individuals who work as freelance consultants to artists and galleries. But, often these are collectors who got close with this or that artist. That is sometimes very valuable. Sometimes there are law firms in the USA that—and also through the possibility of working on contingency, and in that way also acting as artist’s agents—are much freer in this respect. Art consultants have a different focus altogether. For me it’s all about offering a service that is as independent, professional, and still as personal as possible. Artists and galleries should be able to have me as an independent advisor, a coach, and—if you will—a professional friend on the side, someone who has no other interest than advising them and helping them to advance.
Your job is different from that of art advisors, who, especially in the American market, are very powerful in the building and expansion of institutional and private collections. Do you work occasionally for art advisors, or are there points where your jobs intersect and/or meet?
I (still) don’t work with art advisors, but I do occasionally have something to do with them. Our approaches are just too different. Art advisors facilitate the acquisition of art, with more or less of a curatorial element to their work. They earn a commission from the sales. We don’t do that—it would obviously put our integrity and independence into question. Art advisors would often be glad for me to put them in touch with this or that artist, and sometimes want to know things about the behind-the-scenes art business in order to align their strategies. But, we can’t help with any of this. As with any advisor, discretion is the bedrock of your reputation. I was recently approached to help build a collection, but I turned down the offer. To be involved with that would have mixed too many interests, and I want to keep our profile as clean and clear as possible.
Do you see your job as a reaction to the changes in the art market that have happened in the last five to ten years? What I mean by that is the commercialization of artists happening at much earlier points in their careers and therefore as a consequence, a necessity? Or perhaps better said: the need for artists to professionalize very early on?
I see it as the expression of a development that no longer conceives of the artist as a romantic existence that is kissed by the muse, but rather as one who creates, takes it seriously, and doesn’t want to stay in a near feudal state of dependence. That has nothing to do with the commercialization of artists’ careers, but rather with a healthy professionalism. I guest lecture master classes, for example at the Sandberg-Institut in Amsterdam, with a course “Professional Instructions”. Very practically speaking, what I’m doing there is leveling the playing field between the artist and the gallerist, the institution, the curator, or the collector. To do that, you have to first define the roles and interests of each party.
As part of a somewhat perverted romantic notion, artists were excluded from certain existential questions; the conventions of the art market, the basic legal and factual circumstances, were rarely if ever communicated to art students. Part of freedom is knowing what is possible in a negotiation and if what is offered is appropriate, and not being directed by the hearsay of others. This fixation on the commercialization—which means, yes, also exploitation—of individual artists is only an especially dramatic aspect. 95% of artists are all about organizing themselves, their world, and their existence so that they can work in peace—making clever decisions in a completely pragmatic way (e.g. “How do I create a realistic budget for an art project?” or “What do I negotiate or discuss with my gallery?”, etc.) and, in this way, gaining freedom and headspace, is really an important thing to do. Often it’s the galleries that help with these things; unfortunately, that also often exceeds their capacity and sometimes it’s just really good to hear an independent opinion. At the end of the day, it’s best when artists realize as quickly as possible that they are business people and they—of course, always depending on the kind of art—can decide how they will arrange their way of working, whether alone, with assistants, or with a whole workshop.
In addition to the private business pursuits we’ve just discussed, you’re also committed to strengthening the art market in Berlin. For example, you supported the initiators of Gallery Weekend Berlin and were there at the very beginning to advise on abc berlin contemporary. How did all that start?
We already had contact with most of Gallery Weekend’s initiators or had worked for them in other matters. They came to us with the idea for Gallery Weekend in order to give it structure and a framework. You have to keep in mind that for the founding gallerists, this was years of extra, pioneering work that in terms of quality, quantity, and intensity was a gigantic load that they needed to keep away from their respective galleries’ daily business.
So, we helped to guide the organization and the structure and to implement some of the decisions while also supporting communication between all of the parties involved. Since it was the same galleries that also had the idea for abc, which was initially conceived as an attempt to fill the fall season with a typically Berlin caliber event, it was very natural that we would also advise on this. That was an effective approach given limited funds and the need for coordination. Today I’m very happy that Christiane Rhein and Maike Cruse exist as the professional team behind Gallery Weekend and abc; both events are creatively and competently arranged and managed.
Recently you also joined Julia Stoschek and Olafur Eliasson on the board of KW Institute for Contemporary Art. What exactly are your duties?
Since the legendary early days of the KW, the city and the art scene have changed dramatically. An institution must be constantly developing, always asking itself questions about its own identity. The board of trustees recognized that, and with our appointment, handed over the task of making structural reforms and putting the innovations in place that would not only make the KW sustainable, but also to a large degree establish it as a vibrant and liberal center for contemporary art with an international presence. The potential it has acquired in the last ten years is enormous. Our task is to develop structures and implement new ideas. The important thing here is keeping art itself in the foreground as well as the artists, those who create the art and make the exhibitions. And as far as the board is concerned, it’s most effective for us to step further and further into the background as these processes develop and to support the institution in the way of making things possible, things that perhaps wouldn’t be so easy to realize without us. Julia, Olafur, and I are working here in close, direct agreement with the KW and its director Gaby Horn. The motivation and the support on the side of the Berlin Senate is huge, and I am sure that the KW will fulfill those expectations by remaining a dynamic location and shining on the international scene.
Translation: Melissa Frost