Q&A: Art dealer Eddy Rogo on entering the studios of emerging artists—and leaving his comfort zone

We chatted with Montreal art dealer Eddy Rogo about his new web series and what it was like getting to know up-and-coming artists.
Artist Maskull Lasserre and art dealer Eddy Rogo in Lasserre's Montreal studio

For over two decades, Montreal art dealer Eddy Rogo has bought and sold antiques and fine art. He's handled work by masters such as Picasso and Chagall — but for him the world of emerging artists is unfamiliar territory. That's precisely where he finds himself in the new CBC Arts web series, The Re-education of Eddy Rogo, visiting the studios of up-and-coming artists, and learning what it takes to make it in the contemporary art world.

On the show, you're presented as a guy who appreciates art, but who never got into new art. How did that happen?
Most emerging artists need someone to promote them and spend a lot of time with them. A new artist is kind of like a baby. They need to be treated well so that the market accepts them in a certain way and looks at their art in a certain way. I'm in the resale market. I take a painting and I market it and sell it. I don't market the artist.

But how do you feel about new art from a personal perspective?
Sometimes I'll see a painting from an emerging artist that I like and I'll buy it for my home. If I see art from an artist who is not well known and I want to buy it for decorative purposes… I'll want to pay decorative prices.

I have more respect for the artists now. Some of them work much harder trying to be an artist than if they worked a nine-to-five.

There seems to be a perception out there that new art is inaccessible or even pretentious.
When you speak with the artists, you realize each piece is a part of the artist. They put a part of themselves into their art. There is so much feeling and thought that goes into each piece. And if you don't know that, it's hard to grasp it.

What was it like getting familiar with art that isn't classically beautiful?
Well, I do deal in abstract art — it's not only 19th century landscapes! But it was the new artists' forms and materials that really interested me: cardboard, coffee, metal, clay, tissue. These artists are really out there. They are innovative. There are many, many, many mediums for art, and in these episodes you see that.

I imagine you gained some insight into what it means to be an artist in Canada these days.
It's a real struggle. Most of them, almost all of them, have to do something to supplement their income. It's a real sacrifice to make it, and very few actually make it. Some people dedicate their whole lives to their art and they know they're never going to have certain luxuries because of what they're doing. I have more respect for the artists now. Some of them work much harder trying to be an artist than if they worked a nine-to-five. Much harder.

Maskull transforms ordinary things into the extraordinary. He is a sculptor who has been known to divert meaning by carving, repurposing or transforming utilitarian objects such as musical instruments, firearms, books, brooms and chairs into completely new things. He makes both formal and social statements with his works, questioning our relationship to things and their purpose; but most of all, his works arrest the viewer with their sheer unbelievability. Every new piece brings with it an in-depth learning experience for Maskull; when he wants to create a work with a piano, he learns how to build a piano. When he wants a guillotine, he builds a working guillotine. He’s a technician with incredible attention to detail (just look at the carvings he makes out of wood), but he also makes ultra large-scale pieces, like his full-sized piano crushed by a giant boulder. He is represented by Pierre-François Ouellette, and despite being considered an emerging artist, has sold pieces to institutions including the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. 4:15

What do you make of the recent record-breaking sales taking place at auction houses like Sotheby's and Christie's?
Those art pieces — like a Picasso, for example — are a part of world history. You know, they're saying that the market for super-yachts is going crazy, but the market for regular yachts is very bad. The art market is the same way. Super paintings are doing very well, but your average painting is down a lot of money.

What's the craziest thing you've ever gotten your hands on?
We once sold a full tiger skeleton. We sold a rhino cup from the 17th century, and at the time — and people still believe this today — people thought drinking from it would cure anything. We sold it for over a million dollars. We sold a Picasso, a Renoir, a Chagall. We had an island in the auction once. Someone actually put an island up for auction!

Last question: do you actually feel like you've been re-educated?
Absolutely. I learned something from each artist. I learned that some artists really know what they're doing, and some have a long, long way to go. I am trying to buy two or three works from some of the artists, because I think they'll make it.