Blind gallery owner: Ideas are more important than what you see!
By Dr. Rainer Zitelmann
The coronavirus crisis has left many people facing massive problems, fears and financial difficulties. In challenging times, it makes a great deal of sense to focus on people who have defied the odds and taken their lives into their own hands. People who, despite severe disabilities, do not approach life as victims, but as shapers of their own destinies.
Johann König is one such person – the only gallerist in the world who was blind when he opened his first gallery. He is one of the most famous gallery owners in Germany and has enjoyed worldwide success, having also opened galleries in London and Tokyo.
Moreover, he is an ingenious self-marketer – in the most positive sense of the word. Too many artists fail because they believe that good art speaks for itself and have no understanding of the importance of marketing. This applies all the more to gallery owners. König has proved that he knows how to launch artists onto the global stage – and massively increase their market value. He profits from raising his artists’ profiles – and they profit from his fame in return.
Other disabled artists do not like to talk about their disabilities. Anyone who wants to interview the blind musician Andrea Bocelli, for example, is clearly informed by his press people beforehand that he doesn’t like to answer questions about his blindness. If you read biographies of successful disabled people, you will always find that they are annoyed whenever journalists turn to this topic because they have the impression that too much attention is devoted to their disability and too little to their achievements.
König is more pragmatic, he understands the rules of the media game. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t be anywhere near as successful. When he designed the logo for his first gallery, he chose one that was so blurry it was almost impossible to work out what the gallery’s name was: “That was my first experience of life as a visually impaired gallery owner.”
Johann König was born on July 22, 1981 in Cologne. He comes from a family of artists – his father Kasper König was a museum director and art professor. At the age of twelve, Johann had a serious accident. He was putting small balls of gunpowder from the cartridge of a starting pistol into a box and it exploded in his hands. The explosion almost completely destroyed his eyes and left him almost completely blind. From that moment on, he had no pupil, no lens and no iris in either eye. Over the next few years, he had more than 30 operations.
He went to a school for the blind in Marburg. Being around young people who had similar problems helped him to process the accident. Above all, he learned that there was no point asking himself certain questions: “What if I hadn’t been messing around with the explosive pellets? Why weren’t my parents stricter? Why didn’t it happen to the other boys who were playing with the starting pistols?” Questions like these, aimed at past events that cannot be changed anyway, are of course futile – they focus on the past, not the present or future.
His first exhibition ended up being a total flop: almost nobody came, there were no sales and no press coverage. Afterwards, he collapsed and cried – but he quickly got himself back on his feet. From the very beginning, he understood that marketing is all about being different, about refusing to do the same things as everybody else. This is called “positioning” and König is a positioning expert – he knows how to position artists, just as he also knows how to position himself.
Being almost completely blind, König decided, at least at first, not to exhibit paintings. His sight-impairment proved to be an advantage because it pushed him to be all the more creative. He decided to go for broke with the exhibition of a motorized wrecking ball that rolled around the gallery whenever someone opened the door. Once it was set in motion, it started rolling – until it smashed into one of the walls, wrecking the gallery. To realize such an idea, you don’t need to be able to see, you need imagination.
The exhibition was a massive success – and König made sure everyone knew. He acknowledges that this was when he developed a habit that “is essential if you want to get ahead in the art market. You need to be bold in communicating your successes and the successes of the artists you represent – you could even call it ‘bragging.’ It’s one of the central pillars of the business I’m in. And I have mastered the art of marketing and probably do it better than almost any other gallerist.”
König continued to have surgery after surgery. Then, in spring 2008, König’s blindness was miraculously reversed by a revolutionary corneal transplant – he can now see between 30 and 40 percent again. His improved vision allowed him to start working with artists whose work had a stronger visual focus, such as Katharina Grosse. His gallery was developing an ever-stronger international reputation and it had also become clear that Berlin was exactly the right location for him.
König has managed to turn a disadvantage – his visual impairment – into an advantage. “Paradoxically, my disability has probably been key to my success.” Because of his blindness, he found himself capable of an unusual degree of inner concentration and heightened perception, which helped him to “develop a distinctly personal idea of what makes good art.”
König’s story confirms that what really counts in life is not what you see, but what you cannot see, namely ideas. “Vision is the gift of seeing invisible things,” wrote the Irish essayist Jonathan Swift. And when König was asked in an interview how a blind person can possibly run a gallery, he answered: “As a gallery owner, you are not an art dealer; you represent the artists who create the works in the first place and you have to be there as a sparring partner, supporting them throughout the process of finding ideas. At the beginning there is nothing to see anyway.”
Rainer Zitelmann is author of the book The Power of Capitalism.