“An art fair is not so different from Fashion Week. The multiplication of art fairs has made it even closer, almost like seasonal collections. Collecting is now a lifestyle, and the art world needs to feed this need and adapt to its demand.”
Emmanuel Barbault is a lawyer and gallerist based in New York City. As a lawyer, Barbault specializes in intellectual property for the luxury industry. His career began in France as a trademark attorney at Chanel and Louis Vuitton. Barbault moved to New York to head the anti-counterfeiting department of LVMH Fashion Division for the United States and Canada for six years. Then, he led Marc Jacobs’ International Business and Legal Affairs Department for four years before joining Cahill Partners LLP in 2013. In 2018, he opened Emmanuel Barbault Gallery in the Lower East Side, which has been operating virtually since the Covid-19 pandemic started.
In this interview, Emmanuel Barbault opens up about why he became a lawyer, the connection between luxury and contemporary art and how he opened his own gallery.
TGL: How was your childhood?
EB: I grew up between Provence and Paris in the suburbs. I had a very flamboyant inner life, spending most of my time with books and music.
TGL: Did you want to be a lawyer as a child?
EB: At first, I wanted to be an Egyptologist but then I discovered fashion, and I wanted to be a fashion designer. Growing up in a conservative family, this was not possible, so I had to find a way to be in that field. I went to study law and knew that intellectual property was going to be my thing early on. Most of us tend to think of law as a dusty, boring field, but it is a social science that regulates human activity and creativity is my favorite human activity. This is how I ended up working with designers and artists.
TGL: You are based in New York. What are your favorite places?
EB: New York is a gigantic place with so many identities. It is also a place where you learn impermanence quickly. What you liked yesterday does not exist next time you want to look at it, forcing you to reframe what you like constantly. It pushes you to be in that moment or be disappointed continuously, a crucial take from the pandemic. I love the village, crossing 10th street West to East. It is such a beautiful street, especially during the springtime when the trees are blooming. I enjoy a small Luso Taiwanese tea place called Te Company there. The Morgan Library is one of my favorite spots merging books, art, and music. I like Ditmas Park, my neighborhood in Brooklyn and its Victorian houses. SoHo, early in the morning when there are no shoppers. ChikaLicious is a Japanese bakery that offers amazing desserts. I love to go to Smoke Jazz Club on Wednesday to listen to Lezlie Harrison in the Upper West Side.
TGL: You specialize in intellectual property. How has your field evolved throughout your career?
EB: My legal career was always centered around creative activities and creative people, whether in fashion or art. I focused on copyright and trademarks, intellectual property, and various art and fashion business transactions. It’s been interesting to see artificial intelligence rising and transforming the legal field. It has created some new legal concepts to adapt to technology but is forcing us to look at the core of human activity, differentiating us from the machine at the highest level.
TGL: You worked for luxury houses such as LVMH. What is the essence of luxury for you?
EB: The essence of luxury is to always have a choice in life. In terms of luxury products, experience, and services, I believe the pandemics have shifted this concept to even more exclusivity but with a sense of intimacy and proximity.
EB: Luxury and Contemporary Art have become closer in the last few years. How do you explain this phenomenon?
EB: Fashion and art always go hand in hand but never quite at that level. I think that the Louis Vuitton Murakami collaboration started it. It was genius for Marc Jacobs to fuse the two together. Then social media helped bring contemporary art to the front of the scene at a moment when not only artists but also museum curators, auctioneers, art advisors, gallerists, and even collectors became celebrities or are aspiring to become one. Art strategies are similar to the power fashion houses' marketing-based approaches to image and lifestyle. An art fair is not so different from Fashion Week. The multiplication of art fairs has made it even closer, almost like seasonal collections. Collecting is now a lifestyle, and the art world needs to feed this need and adapt to its demand. It will be fascinating to see how blue chip galleries find a way to expand by either becoming bigger or diversifying their offer in terms of art and the market tier: emerging artists, mid-career artists, and recognized artists. This is what happened in the fashion industry 20 years ago with groups such as LVMH or Kering.
TGL: You opened an art gallery in the Lower East Side in artist Keith Haring’s former studio. How did this transition happen?
EB: It was an organic process. The art world has been my circle for a long time. I was thrilled to be part of it as a collector and as a lawyer in a more administrative role. When a friend asked me if I knew anyone who would be interested in taking over his space in the Lower East Side, I first thought I was going to discuss it with some clients until I thought, wait a minute, this is the possibility of a career change. I was always fascinated by the creative force of artists and designers. After practicing law for so long, I thought I could have a more creative part in this process. Shortly after this discussion, I met artist Trevor King, who was looking for a space for a show she wanted to do in New York City. The whole thing took four weeks, and I opened a gallery, et voila! It is interesting to have this side-project that is very hands-on while I am practicing law.
TGL: What art exhibitions influenced you the most as a spectator, collector, and gallerist?
EB: The Joan Mitchell exhibition at the Jeu de paume in Paris in 1994 and the 2000 Biennale de Lyon curated by Jean-Hubert Martin. More importantly, it is the personality of the Parisian Auctioneer Pierre Cornette de Saint Cyr that changed my vision of art forever. He requested that I see every single show everywhere so I could get an eye. Coming to New York was so important because the art scene here is part of New York's cultural identity. New Yorkers are going to galleries and museums regularly as a way of life. Contemporary art is genuinely embedded in New York’s cultural life. To me, contemporary art is what should help you to understand or question what you are living.
TGL: What do you think makes a collector good?
EB: A good collector is curious, genuinely looking at something, understanding the link between the artists shown at the gallery. A collector is engaged with art, not a shopper. Someone who understands that art doesn’t need to be big, bold, and glossy. You tend to collect artists from the same gallery because you share the view of the gallerist. You can also be a collector at so many levels, but if what you collect changes something in your life, brings a new perspective, or a conversation, then you are a good collector.
TGL: What will the next exhibition at the gallery be?
EB: I closed my physical space early in the pandemic. I am now operating on a project basis and will present shows for pop-ups. I am thinking from a radical curatorial point of view and on longer presentations. I am not a believer in presenting art online. Physical contact is essential. Despite this, it is tough to sell online if you are not a gallery of recognized status. What is truly interesting in opening my space is the community-building of the project.
TGL: Who would you like to have dinner with that you don't know?
EB: There are not enough days in the year to complete that list. I would have loved to have had dinner with Lygia Pape and Agnes Martin. I’d like to have lunch with Mark Epstein, the psychotherapist with a Buddhist approach whose book on trauma changed my vision of life.
TGL: What advice would you like to give to The Genius List’s readers?
EB: I just remembered one of Karl Lagerfeld’s motos from my early years at Chanel: "No risk, no fun."