How Pauline Foessel creates spaces for the arts
Happyplaces Stories (video)
After we met briefly a day earlier at the talk in MAAT with Solimàn López Cortez, we met again at International Contemporary Art in Lisbon to walk and talk about space.
How Solimàn López Cortez creates new thinking space through art
Happyplaces stories (video)
Pauline is the curator and entrepreneur behind Artpool, whose extensive work as a director at art institutions, galleries, and studios has shaped her worldwide understanding of the art landscape. Formerly known as Art Curator Grid, Artpool is the first curator-driven NFT platform powered by a vetted global network of art professionals to further Pauline’s mission of connecting artists, art organisations and collectors. In addition, Artpool simplifies fundraising by harnessing blockchain technology and a playful and inclusive user experience.
Beyond shaping the art tech space, Pauline’s work as co-director at Underdogs Gallery and her previous directorship of Alexandre Farto’s Vhils Studio placed Lisbon on the global map of contemporary public art, promoting a generation of urban artists.
In addition to her work in Lisbon, Foessel, a native of Grenoble, France, has held management and development positions at Galerie Magda Danysz in Paris and Shanghai and the Hong Kong Contemporary Art (HOCA) Foundation.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
I’m Pauline. I come from France originally; that was my hometown space. I had the chance to start in the art world when I was young. I was 21 when I went to Shanghai. Interestingly, my whole life was around spaces. When you work in the arts, space is incredibly important. It is something I am specifically very sensitive to. I started in Shanghai, working in a gallery. We invited Chinese and international artists to residences there. Our location was super important for discovering artists from a culture I didn’t know. But also investing artists that didn’t know that culture would want to create their own space there.
There is where I met, a few years after I arrived, the Portuguese artist Vhils. He knows how to do amazing work with spaces, specifically urban spaces. Vhils came there for a residency and an exhibition. His work fascinated me. I worked on the residency with him, organising all the materials and studio spaces and looking after his team. He did seven big murals in the city, carving faces onto walls. It was beautiful and poetic. His process is to get to know the city and the people who live there. Vhils is known for carving big portraits. He went into the streets to learn stories, talking to people to get to the DNA of the city. That is why I got into his work. I organised all of that for him. The outcome was an amazing exhibition in a new space we found. First, we were in a posh area of Shanghai, around the Bund, the main avenue near the Huangpu river. With the gallery, we decided to look for another type of space further into the city. We found a very big factory, which was challenging for the artists. But it was close to a small street with street food, very lively and animated. I loved working there. I knew where to go to eat, people knew me, and I used to speak Mandarin enough to navigate. I worked with Vhils on this project and stayed in China for one more year. Then I talked with him about me directing his studio and moving to Portugal. That’s what I did, and that is how we started working together.
We had this idea to start a new project and a new space in Lisbon. It was 2012, so Portugal was still in a deep economic crisis. There were a lot of emerging artists that didn’t have a space in the city to show their work. Mainly the generation of artists from the urban movement, design or animation. The galleries did not see them. We were only 24, but thought we had a chance to look for a physical and philosophical space to address that need. We had a good relationship with the urban art department of the municipality. We wanted to do a lot of public art. We also wanted something else, to build a wide range of additions. The idea behind this project named ‘Underdogs’ was to create three different spaces. One for unique pieces to sell and to talk to collectors — a gallery. Then there was the public art programme, which is very deeply rooted in the city of Lisbon. Public art is for everyone, not only those interested in art. It was very important to us to get the word out, to be seen, to get reactions. And the last one was the additions, which opened the art space and the art world to collectors. We didn’t have the means to collect the more expensive work. So we did this, this triangle of spaces.
Space to exist
I had a very specific idea in mind for the gallery space. I have always been fascinated with where we settle and what you can find in specific buildings. I was visiting places with one of his assistants; I didn’t know Lisbon very well back then. We were scouting. I knew that you had the old port with amazing industrial buildings not far away from the airport. We found one that was just right. Not too big, not too small. It was one room, and it was a complete ruin. I looked through the window and knew that was the one we needed. We eventually figured out who the owner was and if we could rent it. It has been ten years now. When I look back at all these years, and I have done many things in-between, we succeeded in creating a space with these artists. To exist, to live from their work. Many of them were not living from their art, and today they are.
Alex, Vhils, the artist with who I did this, is pretty well-known. That’s why we also had the traction of the people who love his work. They would also look at what he put into the light. When I think about it, it is extremely generous from his side to invest in this. I invested my time; he invested his time and his money. It is not about a lot of money, but it is extremely rewarding to your soul. Because you discover talent, you help them produce works that go into other spaces. That was and still is the project that we have together.
In the meantime, I went to another space, Hong Kong. Very different from Shanghai, very different from Lisbon. I decided to live in the most populated area in Hong Kong, Causeway Bay. I ended up in a very small apartment, which I liked but also got fed up with eventually. There I worked for another very interesting space, a non-profit institution that was completely new. I arrived just five months after it started. My role was to raise money to finance the art programming.
We often don’t realise it, but the lack of space impacts the art, the emerging artists and emerging art.
What was interesting there was that we didn’t have a physical space. There is a massive problem with physical spaces in Hong Kong, which are extremely expensive. It has a very big impact on art. The local artist is unable to produce what they would want because they don’t have the workspace to make art. They only produce small works because they create them in their small private spaces. There is another problem. You can’t have young galleries representing young artists because it is really expensive. We often don’t realise it, but the lack of space impacts the art and something dear to my heart, the emerging artists and emerging art. I’m always on the lookout for new talent, for what is new and fresh, the next generation, and in that type of city, you don’t have that grassroots creation. I found that really sad. Art is not just the art market. Hong Kong is brilliant for the art market, but that is not what art is only about. My work there was to come up with all possible ideas to raise money to finance the art. After that, I went into something completely different: the digital art space.
Digital art space
I was always fascinated by the digital. What fascinates me is the access to the world; it creates the possibility to reach everyone across the world. That’s why I started to work in the art world. I am not an artist, but I have always wanted to pass on artists’ messages to as broad an audience as possible. Public art is also about that, just like the other projects we initiated. I thought the digital space could be somewhat similar to the public space. We could create an open space, build a broader reach and build something global.
The first idea, which was also the start of Artpool, is that we wanted to create a digital space for the art world. It took shape as a social network. I was and still am tired of social media. The art world uses Instagram as a space of expression only. But I don’t think that it doesn’t represent the artists properly. I think words are just as important. I was always frustrated that you can only share photos and not enough words. So we built a social network that respects the art world’s rules and looked for curators. It has been a fascinating adventure to build a network for four years with people with physical spaces and create a narrative that opens the doors to the artists’ work to the people.
We selected art curators. We approached some of them ourselves, we also had some peer-to-peer recommendations, we had people who applied. We reviewed their CVs to make sure that they were professional curators. Now we have over 900 curators worldwide, working with thousands of artists. One thing that came up often was how we could help them to find money to do new projects. That was no surprise to me; it was what I also did in Hong Kong. Projects could be books, exhibitions and so on. That’s how we stumbled into the world of NTFs.
In January last year, Alex sent me something I should look into. He said that it was interesting. So I did. I was pretty sceptical. I said that art was something physical, that I didn’t get it. I asked questions like how we would do that with artists that make paintings. Then he told me something that changed my whole perspective because he was right. He said: ‘My work is seen much more on the internet than in a gallery or a museum. Why would I not get any revenues from that? I put in all this effort in putting my work out into the world, and I don’t get rewarded for it. I think getting some returns for my work like this is fair.’ Valid argument. So I started thinking about how this tool could be useful for our community and how we could open up that NFT space to them. It didn’t take me too long. Because it was such a core problem, I immediately saw an opportunity. I thought: ‘Maybe we should build a tool for the community where they could sell NFTs to finance their exhibition, public art or project.’
I contacted about 30 artists from the network and received really good feedback. Because the way we were expressing it and envisioned it made sense. People were sceptical at the time. But they thought our idea made sense and could be useful. When we had the validation from our community, we decided to develop it, and at the end of last year, we launched our first project. We financed a performance this way and a small photo exhibition. This is how we started. It is about a lot of physical space, about space for the artists, and finding a new space in the digital space. What is happening now in the NFT space compared to what we go for is slightly different. But I think all these spaces can go well together. I think there is room for everyone.
Now is everything you have. Being aware of this helps me find some space for myself, some mental space to look at things.
How do I create space for myself? You can imagine that it is not easy with all of this. I am passionate about what I am doing today and about this mission. But I have been thinking about it a lot in the past two months, about how I can create space for myself. I tend to get overwhelmed completely, and in the end, that is not healthy. You can’t do any good if you build something and are not the best version of yourself. Life is good; it always shows you wrong. It will eventually backfire back into your face. I have been trying to create space for myself by thinking about the present. Four years ago, something happened in my life that put a lot of things in perspective. I lost my dad. I was with him three hours before he passed away, and three hours later, he was gone while he was all good when I left. It has put everything into perspective. It made me understand that now is everything you have. Being aware of this helps me find some space for myself, some mental space to look at things. When you can look at small things, that is what is beautiful. That helps me to regenerate myself.
So when I don’t have any space for myself, and I’m talking about the space in my head, I try to go to the sea. To build all the things I described, to stay healthy, and keep my space psychologically, I need to be grounded.
I’m also someone who is deeply rooted in nature. I did some yoga, but I am not a yogi. I smoke like crazy; I’m not eating vegetarian. But I love, no, I need nature. I grew up in the mountains of France. Until I was nine, I was in a ski resort in France, always surrounded by nature. There was a beautiful vacation house near Brittany from my grandmother at sea. The only thing that can calm me down is the ocean. So when I don’t have any space for myself, and I’m talking about the space in my head, I try to go to the sea. I put my feet in the sand, looking at the waves and the infinite horizon. That eventually calms me down. That helps me. It is not easy for me to let go. To build all the things I described, to stay healthy, and keep my space psychologically, I need to be grounded. I’m lucky enough to know when I approach my limits, so I always stop way before. I can analyse it and I feel it; my body will tell me. Then I know that it is going to be too much very soon, and I need to find a way to unwind. And I have an amazing family that supports me. That is how I do it, personally.