While museums exhibit more and more artworks by women, they are still underrepresented and underpaid in the art industry. In her late 20s, art historian Diandra Donecker was already head of the photography department at the Berlin art and auction house Grisebach. Now in her early thirties, she heads the German art institution and is one of the most significant forces in the German art market - and one of the few female ones. Our Woman with Purpose, Diandra Donecker, talks about inspiring encounters, the "Thomas-Principle," and why there is always something to discover in art.
In your early thirties, you are one of the most important leaders on the German art market. What was it like stepping into this role?
Funnily enough, it felt very natural right from the start. I think that's mainly because I feel so connected to Grisebach, the founder Bernd Schultz and my colleagues. With the strong backing and the trust of the team in me and the knowledge that we can rely on each other, I had a certain naive nonchalance, I was allowed to feel safe. Plus, of course, you grow into a role day by day, with decisions to make and challenges - especially during the two years of the pandemic - to overcome, including the mistakes you make. Some uncertainty fades, but a portion of healthy doubt & humility in the face of the task should remain.
What do you value about working in the art world?
The auction world offers so much variety - there are many new things every season: new clients, new artworks. It never gets monotonous, quite the opposite: you are richly gifted with new encounters and stories - about the art, but also about the people and collectors behind it.
What is a recent encounter that motivated you?
I just came back from PARIS PHOTO, the photography fair. Whenever I'm in Paris, I visit my friend, Georg Stefan Troller, who turns 101 this year on December 10. He is a writer, television journalist, documentary filmmaker. Born in Vienna, George survived the Holocaust and liberated Dachau concentration camp as a US soldier. His nature is of such refinement and inquisitiveness, he meets people without prejudice, full of kindness and appreciation. When I meet him, as I did most recently a few days ago, it always amazes me. George, who has the most beautiful mischievous eyes I know, is a citizen of the world and his way of living life after all he has been through is a role model and motivation. The fact that he grants me the closeness and bond of our friendship means an infinite amount to me.
In 2022, is it still difficult to be taken seriously as a woman in the art industry?
Yes and No. Again, it depends on how you handle the situation. I, for example, did not pay attention to who raised an eyebrow at me, then made CEO and shareholder in 2019 at age 29. Let them. The art industry is still heavily male-dominated, especially "at the top" in management positions.
Moreover, the art market is still quite traditional and conservative. This is the only way to explain why I am still one of the few women at the top of an auction house. The fact that I am there hopefully inspires many other young women to make their way. Men often choose men as their successors, the well-known "Thomas-Principle," as the AllBright Foundation calls it. The German CEO prefers to surround himself with mirror images of himself, and this is something that needs to be broken. And in my case, the now 80-year-old founder of Grisebach, Bernd Schultz, chose me and broke through this principle.
How do you think we can get more young people excited about art and auctions?
The key word here is probably "threshold fear." Many young people interested in art feel rather excluded. The system seems secretive or even elitist. It is important to break through this threshold. We have had a podcast with journalist Rebecca Casati since 2020, the only podcast from an auction house in the world. There we talk to authors, musicians, and curators about "THE SEEKING TO SEE" (DIE SUCHT ZU SEHEN). This is the title of the podcast, which describes what we want to achieve: Art wants to be looked at, it triggers something in you, moves you, touches you - be it the postcard we have wedged in the frame of our mirrors, the poster from an exhibition, or even the painting or photograph you eventually acquire. Art is about seeing and discovering - that has first and for a long time nothing to do with prices and a purchase. If we succeed in communicating this joy and enthusiasm, breaking down barriers and creating exciting access points - also via online only auctions with works under 3,000 euros as well as events such as readings, talks, and exhibitions - then we will also reach a young audience.
Do you have any advice for aspiring art collectors?
Visit museums and galleries often - which also present their changing exhibitions free of charge. Scroll through the auctions that can be viewed online with one click - worldwide. Read a lot and browse around as much as possible. If you want to buy slowly, a good place to start is with “Kunstvereine” (art associations), which also present their "Jahresgaben” (annual editions) now, towards the holidays. It is a good opportunity to discover and buy contemporary positions relatively cheaply.
The artist that moves you the most at the moment.
Recently I discovered the painter Gertrude Abercrombie - a surrealist. Her works are magical, like watching someone dream or slipping into someone else's dream. As a woman born in 1909, she also represents, beyond her work, a self-confidence and tenacity to follow this path as a painter in her time that I can only admire.
What role does courage play in your job as a (female) leader in the art world?
Whether male or female - in any case, you have to have courage - the courage to decide. A leadership role requires poise and conviction. Without courage, one can hardly meet the managerial challenges.
Fashion and courage. How bold can the wardrobe get in the art industry?
Absolutely. The art industry allows a mix of patterns, color explosions - unlike in other professions, you don't have to dress simple here. It's all about personal style and personality. In this respect, also the invitation to show it. Clothing is (also) a means of communication.
The best advice you have ever received in your profession.
Always be yourself, always be authentic. No matter who is standing in front of you, how much someone else knows or knows more about an artist or a work: be yourself. Art is so brutally close to you, you can't be artificial or pretend. Art is and demands: Truth.
For Grisebach, it's all about the further expanding internationalization and digitization. We want to constantly review ourselves, become better and more successful, naturally awake and simply reach and inspire even more people. Personally, I am very excited about a project with Philipp Keel, the Swiss artist and publisher (Diogenes). He will take over our gallery space in Fasanenstrasse, Berlin, for Gallery Weekend 2023 and move in with his Zurich studio - along with his art and objects - more or less entirely.