Careers in the Arts: Contemporary Gallerist Olivier Cornet ahead of his time

French-born contemporary curator and gallerist on his introduction into the arts

Given the opportunity to interview French-born gallerist and curator Olivier Cornet, founder and director of the contemporary Olivier Cornet gallery in Great Denmark Street, I sat down in front of my laptop and oddly was not disconcerted; Zoom has become a daily occurrence. Cornet logs onto the zoom meeting and behind him sits a large watercolour portrait of the wondrous Greta Thunberg. I could not help but feel as though I were sitting down with a gallerist of the times.

Cornet leans in and tells me about how he discovered the world of art. “Hopeless at art” is how he describes his younger self it’s not something you would pre-empt from a Gallerist of one of the most popular contemporary galleries in Dublin, which represents over 17 diverse artists. He recalls being in awe of his late grandmother’s still life of poppies, especially of the mystery. Little did he know that later in his career, his younger experiences would shape his vision to set up a gallery of his own.

“In a French cultural centre in Malawi, Cornet organised thematic art exhibitions with African art whilst teaching French, thus introducing him to organising visual art for  the very first time.”

A linguist by training, Cornet came to Ireland in 1988 and, three years later, embarked on what was then mandatory military work in Africa. In a French cultural centre in Malawi, Cornet organised thematic art exhibitions with African art whilst teaching French, thus introducing him to organising visual art for the very first time. His experience certainly had a strong impact on his work, “I wanted to do something in the area”, he adds. Upon his return to Ireland in the mid 90’s,  “[he] started volunteering for an art gallery in Enniskerry, Wicklow as an associate director”, gathering knowledge and experience with Irish art primarily operating under the name of Olliart. Then at the “peak of the recession I started to open a gallery”, he said with a chuckle. “In a nutshell, that’s how I got into the arts”.

We discuss his time in Africa, comparing it to his work in Dublin. “The practice is very different”. Back then, he considered himself to be a “cultural animator”, curating various events, not just art exhibitions. “Finding the right space was obviously the challenge” when he moved into his first gallery space, the award-winning Wooden Building in Temple Bar, known as “one of the tiniest places and galleries in Ireland”. But once the space was chosen, “everything fell into place”, he adds. The gallerist started to gather artists from networks and relationships. 

“The working relationship between Petters and Cornet is certainly an example of a symbiotic and successful creative one, where the artist gains reputation through the gallerist and the gallerist through the work of the artist.”

One of the artists that has been with Cornet from the opening of OCG is Yanny Petters. Cornet met Petters in 2004 during his time working in Enniskerry. Not only is her work featured in buildings such as the Wicklow mountains national park headquarters and the Connemara national visiting centre, but also her Hand Fan for Habitats has recently been entered into the collection of the National Museum of Ireland, a massive milestone for both Petters and Cornet. What strikes me as most fascinating is the relationship between an artist and a gallerist. The working relationship between Petters and Cornet is certainly an example of a successful symbiotic and creative one wherein the artist gains reputation through the gallerist and the gallerist through the work of the artist. Cornet asserts that “it is in your interest to build the career of an artist…At the end of the day, your relationship with your artist is a working one, based upon mutual respect, expectations and commitment.”

We discussed some of his most impactful exhibitions, one of his shows exhibiting the works of Jordi Forniès. Magic Logic, organised in 2007, was a complete success. Impressively, the first year OCG opened, he was asked to participate in the VUE arts fair, Ireland’s national contemporary art fair at the Royal Hibernian academy a huge honour for any gallerist. In 2015, his themed art exhibition Hopscotch, depicting childhood memories and games, drew a lot of positive attention, including his first response from visual art critic and Irish times contributor, Aidan Dunne.

His exhibition, Two degrees Celsius was similarly a massive success. The climate change themed show created in 2017, in collaboration with Ireland’s Environment  Protection Agency, was later used by a professor of geography in Maynooth University. He mentions his inspiration for the theme of the show. Ironically, it was Donald Trump who sparked the idea. The year Trump was elected, one of the first things he did was remove the reference to climate change from the White House website. Clearly, the show had impacts beyond the sphere of curation, as Aidan Dunne commented in his review stating: “Olivier Cornet has a knack for curating good thematic shows” and it seemed a characteristically-Cornet type of exhibition was formed. Every year to this day, Cornet presents a thematic show.

“We stumbled upon the problematic word, curation. Cornet says that it’s “abused” in the current era”

We stumbled upon the problematic word: curation. Cornet says that it’s “abused” in the current era and that organisation is more fitting when referencing his solo exhibitions. “Your job is to display the work as well as possible”, he adds. He makes it sound deceivingly easy. The display and installation process so inaugural to a gallerist’s practice is one unique to Cornet’s gallery. He installs the pieces for the show with the artist “because you learn a lot about how the works were produced” and he considers it to be a “very privileged moment”.  Oftentimes “there’s no starting point” which he refers to as his own blank canvas. The systematic process of display is much less straightforward than most people think. Cornet deems it a “challenging moment”, the “hanging”, the “placing” of works, especially in the digital era where attention spans last the duration of a TikTok video. That is why Cornet’s virtual 3D space is so ahead of the times; he has created a way to take his gallery space into a world we live in today. You can currently view his Covid Eyes exhibition by Eoin Mac Lochlainn, who has extracted eyes from his previous pieces depicting the theme of homelessness.

His work is paired with constraints and pressure, but he focuses on the artists: “it has to be about the artist’s intent…with every exhibition the space becomes something different and to me nothing replaces the experience as a gallerist than to work in the same space”. Some advice he has for young budding gallerists and curators is that “it takes time to establish yourself”. Unfortunately for some, it can take up to 30 years to get one’s foot in the door. With the real-life issues that his exhibitions portray, and his ability to think ahead with his social media presence, The Olivier Cornet gallery is evidently engaging with the real world in less than normal times.

Elena McCrory

Elena Mc Crory is current Arts and Culture Editor alongside Oona Kauppi and a Senior Sophister in History of Art and Architecture. Elena previously served as Deputy Arts and Culture Editor before being appointed Editor.