Alberto Hugo Restrepo has been working in the Colombian art world for a quarter-century. He now runs two galleries in Medellín, an area of the country where he says it remains a challenge to sell art — but not like in the past.
“A good work of art by a good artist not only decorates your house, your office, or your apartment — it’s also an asset.” – Alberto Hugo Restrepo. (Photo credit: Loren Moss)
Corporations are still the leaders in terms of putting together large, impressive collections. But more and more private collectors are coming through his two galleries, Aleph Galeria de Arte and AH Fine Art. They are also becoming more discerning and sophisticated art buyers, now looking for not just certain artists but works from specific periods or stylistic eras of their careers.
Alberto also stresses that art has more than a cultural value — it’s a great investment. The corporate buyers, including Suramerica Seguros, which he says has the largest collection in Latin America, are very aware of this fact and Alberto thinks more Colombians should be, too.
From the famed works of Fernando Botero and Alejandro Obregón to the lesser-known artists pushing the boundaries today in various mediums, art is big business.
Finance Colombia Executive Editor Loren Moss recently sat down with Alberto Hugo Restrepo at the Aleph Galeria de Arte in Medellín to learn more about the highlights and trends in the Colombian art world. Anyone interested in Colombian art can learn more by visiting or contacting his Aleph gallery in Medellín.
Loren Moss: So I know two galleries of yours — or do you have more? To start off, can you tell me a bit of your story and your position in the Colombian art world here?
Alberto Hugo Restrepo: I’ve been in the art business for 25 years. I’ve done consulting on different subjects about art, not only about purchase and sale, but also about guardianship, organization of auctions, the organization of events, and both collective and individual expositions. That is to say, we are in the whole spectrum of the commercialization of art.
Right now, I have two galleries. There is the traditional gallery, which is in my house on 10th Street, a private gallery. And for the last 14 months, I’ve been in this shop in the San Fernando Plaza, a shop that had already been occupied by a gallery for nine years.
The Naranjo and Velilla Gallery operated from here, and now I’ve been here with my partners for the last 14 months. I’m in a partnership with Lina Maria Otero, Eugenia Betancourt, and Felipe Angel in this project, and we’re already having a lot of activity.
“There are a few companies that have been developing what we call ‘corporate collections,’ the main one being Suramericana de Seguros, a great insurance company. It has the biggest art collection in Latin America.”
An exposition of artists with the theme of landscapes will be starting on September 21. The exposition is called “The Classical and Contemporary Landscape.” Within the classical landscape we have all the great masters of what was called “The Savanna School,” which was a school based on landscapes that worked in the savanna of Bogotá. And in the contemporary landscape we have all the many artists from different parts of the country who have focused on landscapes with different techniques, using different means. So I think we’re going to have a very interesting contrast.
In this exposition, which is going to open on September 21, we have a special guest artist, our friend Mr. Carlos Aston, who is an Ecuadorian artist and sublime landscapist. He is the central guest at this exposition. For November, we have the retrospective exposition of maestro Nadin Ospina, another of our great friends and one of the most important conceptual artists in Latin America.
Loren Moss: Excellent. Colombia has a very rich history in the arts. Even from pre-Columbian times, they talk about the art in gold made by the Zenú and the groups that lived here. In more recent times, even in the United States and the rest of the world, all of us know the works by Fernando Botero, whose origin was here in Medellin. In the international world of fine art, what is the view of Colombian art and Colombian artists?
Alberto Hugo Restrepo: Well, Colombia is a country very rich in cultural experiences and in what culture has to offer. We have many artists. You already spoke about Fernando Botero, who is our signature artist. Maestro Bottero is already 85 years old, and he is still our benchmark. He was born here in Medellín.
As for the trends of Colombian art, I think it is following along the same lines as the universal trends. Now, the networks have become responsible for that cohesion, that communication, and art has been evolving from the figurative to the abstract, and a lot of avant-garde proposals, have opened up — some of them absurd, I would say. There are some really absurd proposals, but others are wonderful. They not only use different techniques — different methods — but you no longer need a canvas and some paintbrushes to express something.
Performance has taken on a great importance, photography has acquired acceptance, and we have, here in Medellín, a lot of artists that transcend the local ones. For Colombia, I can talk to you about artists that may be even better known overseas than in Colombia, and where they put on bigger and better events.
I’m talking about, for example, Nadín Ospina, who will, as I told you, have an exhibition here in November. But before that he has one in the Museum of Modern Art in Los Angeles in a homage made to him by the Getty Foundation. The Los Angeles Museum of Modern Art is paying tribute to Walt Disney, and the main guest artist is Nadín Ospina, who works on the pre-Columbian theme, basically.
Pre-Columbian is everything that existed in America before the arrival of Columbus. The word itself says it: “pre-Columbian.” And Nadin makes something of a blend between pre-Columbian art and the icons of American pop culture. He chooses a figure that is San Augustinian and on top of it he puts a Mickey Mouse or a Bart Simpson.
Loren Moss: Colombia is a now country with more and more business and trade. The economy is becoming modernized. You have been in this business for about 25 years. How has the market changed? Who is buying art? How have the buyers’ and the collectors’ markets changed, and what is the outlook for the future?
Alberto Hugo Restrepo: Well, for us — for who we call the “paisas” in this region of Colombia — we are people very keen on buying things from the region. We buy from companies that we know. It was impossible to sell an abstract work 15 or 20 years ago.
Now, people are more open-minded. They return figurative paintings to me at the gallery that people bought at another time, and I take them back as partial payment for abstract works or another kind of cultural reference, like photography, like engravings.
People in the past didn’t believe in engraving very much either. Now, it has taken on great acceptance. Engraving has become very respected as an artistic expression. Photography, too, and collections have begun to be created.
There were no personal collections here. There are a few companies that have been developing what we call “corporate collections,” the main one being Suramericana de Seguros, a great insurance company. It has the biggest art collection in Latin America. Other companies, like the Bancolombia, Argos cement — other very big companies — have been building up their collections.
“It isn’t only about the sale but also the portfolio collection and certification. We do all of that. That’s why we have these spaces, and in fact, a lot of artists are managing to live comfortably on their art.”
But there are very few collections by individual people. We are the ones in charge of promoting collections, and in fact we are achieving just that. I already have among my friends — because I don’t have clients but rather friends — we have trained some collectors who are really passionate and go around adding to their collections and maybe finding better pieces. There is a friend who says, “Look, I have this Alejandro Obregón, but I want something better. Find me something better, and I’ll give you this one as part payment.” Or just, “Find me something better.” People now ask for exactly what they need. “I want this.”
That wasn’t so before. And now they go to a specific artist, to a date, to a period of time. “I want an Obregón on the theme of Carnivorous Flowers or Birds Falling into the Sea.” They have learned, they have studied, they have come to know. And that is wonderful because people get to understand the value of art — which not only has a cultural value but also is an economical and financial investment.
A good work of art by a good artist not only decorates your house, your office, or your apartment — it’s also an asset. Let’s hope it’s worth more and more. If it was a good purchase, it will always cost more. Good art always costs more.
Loren Moss: Has it been a struggle for the artist, especially for the not-super-recognized artist, to commercialize his art, to look for markets, to look for buyers? I imagine that if the market has been smaller in the past, it would be difficult for the artist to show and commercialize his works and make a living from his talent.
Alberto Hugo Restrepo: Well, now they manage to do so. You can see the artist looking for his customers. Here, a lot of them avoid galleries. They want to get directly to the customer, which is not good either for them or for us.
But a lot of them trust us and in fact dedicate themselves to what they are doing — to producing, to creating, to being creative — and let others do the job of selling, which is not exactly easy. It isn’t only about the sale but also the portfolio collection and certification.
We do all of that. That’s why we have these spaces, and in fact, a lot of artists are managing to live comfortably on their art. Some of them are very talented, and as I told you, the communications media have opened a lot of doors to us. We put them on our internet websites, we look for expositions overseas, we sell overseas, we have connections with galleries in the United States and Europe. We interchange artists. We do quite an intense job of spreading the word.
Loren Moss: Who is the typical collector — the typical customer or new friend — who comes to a gallery? Is it a person who is just beginning to appreciate and collect or buy art, or are there people who are already sophisticated?
Alberto Hugo Restrepo: Well, we have two typical kinds of customer. There is the mature person, who is almost always the owner of a company and is already completely into this world. They might be about to retire and give the company over to someone else to manage it, and they treat this like a hobby — or, no, more like a passion. Then there are the high-level executives, who from a lot of companies start off shyly by purchasing novice artists. But they start growing and earning more and becoming more eager, and they start aiming at more costly and interesting artists.
Moreover, the artists that they have bought get more expensive, and people also play with that. “I bought this artist three years ago, but now I want this one that is more expensive. How much will you give me for this one in exchange?” So, this becomes a means of exchange, like a currency. And we do that here, of course.
Loren Moss: Colombia is a very fascinating country because it’s very regional. We’ve already talked about the “paisa” culture. What are the differences in the characteristics of the Colombian art market in, for example, Medellín, Bogotá, and the Caribbean? Are there any differences in the markets?
“We’re already having a lot of activity. An exposition of artists with the theme of landscapes will be starting on September 21. The exposition is called The Classical and Contemporary Landscape.”
Alberto Hugo Restrepo: Yes, a lot of differences. The big market is in Bogotá. Here, we say, “The money is in Bogotá.” The collector from Bogotá is a demanding collector who doesn’t ask for discounts or anything like that, but rather he knows what he wants and he pays for it.
The Caribbean is more relaxed. It’s very difficult to sell art on the Caribbean or Pacific coasts, and in the interior of the country too. In Bucaramanga, in Cali, in Villavicencio, it isn’t easy.
And as far as Medellin — which is what concerns me, which is my homeland and where I work and know a lot of customers — it is very hard to sell. Because as I told you, the paisas like to ask for discounts and credits and all that. I think it’s a paradigm that we should break because so many discounts and credits and things like that don’t look good. But we do it and it’s part of the business, and it’s true that I have fun sitting down to negotiate with a friend.
Loren Moss: If someone, whether local or a visitor, wants to know more about Colombian art and wants to visit here, how can they get in touch with the galleries? How can they visit galleries?
Alberto Hugo Restrepo: Well, I think the best thing is to come here in the San Fernando Plaza. Many who come are foreigners. We have seen that because a lot of foreigners pass by here asking for directions, and we tell them what they want to know.
If what they’re looking for isn’t here, we give them a list of galleries or museums. For some of them, we organize tours of the museums. We have a couple of people who are polyglots — who speak English, French, German — and they take them by car and show them the Museum of Antioquia, the Pedro Nel Gomez Museum, the Medellín Museum of Modern Art, the different museums. Sometimes we take them on tours of different galleries. We have even done it to private collections.
Some of our collectors feel very flattered that foreign visitors see their art collections, which is the best way to show them what is being consumed here in the country. And it’s not only local artists that are bought here. Our collectors have international artists. They have great artists: Danil, Miro, Matisse, Rodin, Claudio Bravo.