Dealer Achim Hagemeier on What He’s Learned After 40 Years in the Business and Why Rediscovering Forgotten Artists Is His Greatest Passion

Achim Hagemeier stands at his gallery's entrance. © Kunsthandel Hagemeier, Photo by Katharina Dubno.

As he looks back on the 40 years since he founded his gallery Kunsthandel Hagemeier in Frankfurt, Achim Hagemeier’s attitude is more like a scholar turning over art history’s mossy rocks than a dealer hunting down sales. 

Since he set out in 1980, Hagemeier has honed a particular knack for cultivating the careers of artists who history might otherwise have forgotten. In the early years, 19th-century artists from the Munich and Dusseldorf Schools were the gallery’s mainstays, while German Expressionists became a focus in the 1990s. In the past few years, Hagemeier has taken one more focus: German artists who emigrated to Italy during World War II. 

On the occasion of his gallery’s anniversary, we spoke with the perennially optimistic dealer about this unexpected year, which included the opening of his new Frankfurt space, the lost generation of German artists he still wants everyone to know, and which artworks he wishes he could have kept for himself.

Happy 40th anniversary! When you founded the gallery in 1980, it was focused on the Munich and Dusseldorf School and the Kronberg painters’ colony—artists following the great German Romantic tradition. What inspired you to start your gallery and what drew you to the artists you showed?

On the one hand, my parents first introduced me to art and they always supported my interest in this field; on the other hand, it was always my desire to work independently. The father of a friend of mine asked me whether I could help with the sale of a collection of paintings from the Munich school with works by artists such as Franz von Defregger, Gabriel von Max, Christian Mali, and others. That was the start.

Looking back on the past 40 years, are there any exhibitions that were particularly memorable for you and why?
Two exhibitions I remember in particular. The first was with a painter of regional importance in Frankfurt at the time whose show almost sold out on the first day, which was a great feeling. And the other was my first exhibition of paintings by Josef Scharl in 1987. Since this exhibition, his paintings have been a constant companion. Over the decades, I have helped build a few collections focused on his work and placed his work in several museum collections.

In addition to showing works by German Expressionists, the gallery also focuses on the “Lost Generation” of artists, who are not quite as popularly known. Can you tell me about the artists and that period? Which should the public know?
These are artists like Hans Feibusch, Ulrich Leman, Josef Scharl, and Werner Scholz, among many others. These painters, almost all born in the 1890s, grew up in the Wilhelmine Era and fought in World War I in their youth. They survived, but were traumatized. Then, a few years later, when these artists were first receiving recognition for their work, they were ostracized by the Third Reich and banned from exhibiting and painting. These artists never had the chance to establish themselves. After World War II, they were left with nothing again. It has always been important to me to make these artists known to an audience that may not yet have had the chance to see their work.

Throughout your career as a dealer, is there any work that was especially hard to part with?
Not just one! There were several works I would still like to call my own: a wonderful little landscape by Renoir, at least three important works by Josef Scharl, a great painting by Karl Hofer from his first trip to India, and so many more. That’s the inherent challenge of being an art dealer, you’re making a living by selling art that you love and that, in another career, would be the focus of your own collection.

What have been the biggest changes in the gallery market since you started?
The gallery business is just as difficult today as it was 40 years ago. The main problem was and is getting people to visit your gallery. You always have to actively encourage visitors, so you can’t simply sit in the gallery waiting for something to happen. Due to the cancellation of so many art fairs this year, however, more and more people seem to be starting to appreciate the intimacy of visiting galleries in person.

If you could go back in time to when you were starting your gallery, what advice would you give yourself?
Rather than giving specific advice, I believe dealing with art requires a certain mindset and optimism. In the beginning, when I had just founded the gallery, dealing with art was not easy, but I was always confident in myself and I was always sure that I could do it. I trusted that the best is yet to come and that belief still guides me today.

The gallery just moved to a new space in Frankfurt that’s allowed you to expand programming to include contemporary artists. Can you tell me about the new space and what impact that is having on your programming?
One of the advantages of the new space is that the gallery is on the ground level and has three large shop windows, which is an invaluable benefit compared to a gallery on an upper floor. The larger rooms also make it possible to realize exhibitions with large-format paintings. In addition, the layout of the space allows me to show curated exhibitions in the front rooms and to display individual works from the gallery program in the back rooms. I planned to have a grand opening celebrating the 40th anniversary—but then the coronavirus pandemic hit and I haven’t had the chance to host a proper celebration. Next year, I hope to be able to do it.

What do you most enjoy about working in the art world?
Traveling and meeting interesting people in the most beautiful places in the world.

If you were not an art dealer, what would you be doing?
I would probably work in the fashion industry.

If you could own any work of art (no restrictions) what would it be?
It would be Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights from the collection of the Prado in Madrid. It’s such an exciting, incredibly detailed work, painted with unlimited imagination. A visual puzzle that can never be solved!

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