Gallerist Gerd Harry Lybke: “Startups Have a Lot to Learn from Artists”

Sitting in the window of EIGEN + ART on Auguststraße with Judy – Gerd Harry Lybke, one of Germany’s most famous gallerists – is a peopled experience. Passersby wave to acknowledge him, artists drop in to talk about upcoming exhibitions, and the staff call over with questions and chat, clearly enjoying the company of their boss.

gerd_harry_lybke_herlinde_koelblAnd I understand why. The man clad in a three-piece tweed suit is very easy company. He didn’t even bat an eyelid when I temporarily lost all composure at the sight of snow.

EIGEN + ART was originally founded in Leipzig, the gallery there now housed in the Spinnerei, an old cotton factory turned arts hub. But there were humble beginnings for the man who would play a key role in the New Leipzig School – the success of which he attributes to the fact that girls in Leipzig found painters sexy – and in the careers of world-renowned artists such as Neo Rauch.

How Losers Win

He was a life model for seven years while the artists that drew him were fervently applying to art academies. Without that stamp of prestige on their portfolios, they wouldn’t sell much work so after several years of rejection, they decided to open their own gallery. The gallery started in Judy’s apartment on Körnerplatz, Leipzig in 1983.

“All the losers went with me. […] I was also a loser – I was only modelling. You must create your own position in the world. And this group of losers had a lot of energy after three years [of rejection]. Then you have such power! We [decided to] do it by ourselves and we opened up a gallery for us. And that was the energy.

The gallery was used purely as a means of communication. When the wall fell in ‘89, the potential to earn money came with it, and it complicated things. Before then, nobody could care about money because nobody had any. All you had to give was yourself. And that rooting in a moneyless situation grounded him throughout his career. He prized people above all else and success followed.

What Startups Can Learn From Artists

That approach he feels could benefit anyone in any career. Startups in particular he thinks have a lot to learn from artists. To this end, an accelerator, SpinLab was set up in the Spinnerei, traditionally the stomping ground of artists and creatives rather than aspiring entrepreneurs.

There aspirants will learn not just about winning, but that it’s important to lose. German entrepreneurs are lacking the same spirit that exists in America, where people are encouraged to try open businesses, and failure is accepted as part of the journey. Previous failures don’t lessen the perceived potential of the person.

“That’s not the ideal for the German business guy. He [has to] organise all, to have a plan for what he’ll do. But also when a German guy goes on the toilet, he has a plan! And probably an idea of what he’ll do after that.”

Artists, he says, have to face the likelihood of failure everyday. You might spend a whole day working on a piece, only to come to the studio the next day and realise that it’s terrible and have to start again, to find a new way to convey what you want to say.

“That’s what an artist has done from the first moment. That’s part of life and that’s what the startup people don’t know and don’t do, and also what’s not kosher for these people and you have to learn that’s part of life. It’s normal.”

Don’t Wait for an Opportunity

If you have an idea you have to be fearless and go after it. “Please don’t wait on the line. Open up your own idea. Open up your own startup.” And you should do it on your own.

“It’s much better to have lower expectations. Start without money. That’s the perfect [way]. With money, everybody wants to have only your best: your money. Without money, everybody can have your energy and your personality. And this will help you rise … And you can steal or take the money from other people.”

When you come from a wealthy background you feel safe and you don’t equate the price of something to its value. With a normal background, you know that money is only an enhancement but it doesn’t really have anything to with your core happiness. To really do good work, you must focus on love. “In the beginning, it’s only to have a love affair [whether with a person or with] work.”

Create A Platform for Your Own Individuality

Your Eigenart, your individuality is all you really have, whether you’re an artist, or a businessman. And Judy’s core thesis all throughout our conversation is that being true to yourself, your personality and your passions are what will bring success.

“You [have to] concentrate and see the attitude that nobody has: your Alleinstellungsmerkmal (Unique Selling Point). What’s different to other people’s ideas? You as a person, your personality. You must have this also in business.

OK, to learn is good, you go to Google and work there for five years? That’s OK. If you like only money, do it forever. But, I mean, [when] you think about [that] you live only once? You must find your own platform. That means you must create a job for you that doesn’t exist! It’s for you! It must be totally special.”

Creating that platform for yourself, and elevating yourself through being the individual that you are gives you the strength that you’ll need to work hard and for others to see your work. The true core of that is in people. Specifically in loving or hating them but you must do it in a whole way.

If you hate people you can do very well from weapons, armaments and facilitating wars. But remember he says, “history is written by the winners. Don’t believe in history. Do your own thing… Love your friends and kill everybody else.”

Featured Image: “SketchCC (via Flickr) by RL Johnson