Marina and I started our contemporary art gallery Karma International in early 2009, during what felt like the beginning of an endless recession—in some ways comparable to the situation we’re in now. While art isn’t a luxury itself, buying it is an act of passion that might lose its flame when people get fearful. So we definitely started in a challenging moment. But looking back I see that this was actually a good time to get our gallery going because we provided a needed place for art and artists during an uncertain time.
When Marina and I met at university in Zurich, it was a time when the professors refused to even talk about anything that came after Die Brücke, the German Expressionist movement which formed in Dresden at the beginning of the 20th century. I clearly remember a professor once mentioning Jeff Koons and immediately becoming our punk idol—what a rebel for shattering the illusion and recognizing that contemporary art existed!
Meanwhile, many of our fellow art history students didn’t visit contemporary art galleries, they didn’t visit art fairs or go vernissage hopping on Friday nights—they studied the structure of renaissance gardens or Monet’s flowers in the library. But in meeting Marina I found a soulmate who was just as interested in what was happening in art of the moment, art from our generation. We quickly figured out our calling: over chicken wings on my balcony we came up with the plan to curate exhibitions with young international artists. At the time we didn’t think of selling, our aim was simply to curate; the idea had no concept or goal other than to work with artists we loved and to offer them a platform in our hometown Zurich.
When I told a professor about this plan he discouraged me, saying that I should rather focus on theory for now and start doing the practical once I finished university. I’ve seen so many women (about 90 percent of the art history students at the time were female) study hard only to get stuck in an unfulfilling job because they couldn’t get employed in fields they would have actually liked to work in by the time they left school with no real-world experience. Had I listened to that professor, I wouldn’t be where I am now.
Setting the Stage
At the time there were a handful of nonprofit art galleries in Zurich but they all focussed on local artists. The reason was clear: shipping is expensive and out of reach for spaces that do not have the commercial income. Instead of letting this obstacle stop us, we found creative ways around it. One of those ways was figuring out which artists that we liked were currently traveling in Europe and reached out to them. Most of the time they were happy to extend their stay and spend a week or two in Switzerland.
During this time I was living in a flatshare with seven people which had a big attic that we made into an exhibition space and a little guest room where we accommodate the artists. It is there that we mounted our very first show with LA-based artist Chris Lipomi. He worked in situ for two weeks, assembled a number of sculptures from material we gathered at flea markets and the city’s Brockis, big, cheap second-hand stores typical for Switzerland. Lipomi even painted the floor of the attic, creating an experiential installation that transformed the space—by no means a white cube—into his artistic universe.
All while this was happening, Marina and I were both still at university, writing our PhDs. We each had day jobs that gave us money to support our rather modest lives and kept the nonprofit going. For that first exhibition we invested 500 Swiss Francs each, with which we not only paid for Lipomi’s production but also created a small publication documenting the show and an artist edition that people could buy to support future projects. Since our first show took place in a private space we felt like we at least needed a website—and a name. Our artist friend Anne-Lise Coste came up with the perfect solution: Karma International, she texted us one day and we immediately loved it. Karma, a portmanteau of our names—Karolina Dankòw and Marina Olsen—it also had this hippie vibe to it that we liked. And working internationally was our aim, so we were going to merge the two, the local, family-sized operation with a global outreach.
We took down that first show after only three three days because we were newbies who didn’t know any better. But after that we just kept moving forward. We never spoke about it, it was just clear that this project had only just come alive.
In the Flow
Our next show was a video installation with Polish artist Agnieszka Kalinowska for which we were able to use the premises of an alternative video exhibition space in Zurich called Walcheturm. While we were preparing for this show we got an invitation to our first art fair: The Milwaukee International, an alternative fair organised by artists which took place in a former bowling alley in the middle of nowhere, Milwaukee. Marina and I booked a flight and went, bringing all our art in the suitcase and having some brought by artist friends in theirs, having no idea how to install a booth let alone prepare for an art fair. But because this fair wasn’t about sales, that was no problem and ended up taking all of our art home after the week.
However we did meet new friends. Ida Ekblad, an artist our age who ran a non for profit named Willy Wonka in Oslo was our neighbour at the fair. She knew as little as us about the art market and she was fun, bubbly, endlessly creative and became our new obsession. We later did a show in Zurich with her and her artist friends. The Norwegian organisation for cultural funding OCA paid for their flights. Sadly, when the Norwegians arrived, their luggage with all the art did not. And with no time to wait for the bags to arrive, we did another tour of Zurich’s Brockis. The artists camped out in the gallery, where they created new works and Nils Bech, a performer, sang and danced naked in the gallery space at nights with no public other than his friends.
Bringing' it All Back Home
There are endless stories from the early stages of Karma International. There’s the story of how Marina and I drove to Paris with a rented truck full of huge installations for FIAC, our first real art fair. Amidst the sea of professional art handlers that buzzed around the Grand Palais, we two Swiss women waited for our slot to unload and unpack our heavy crates.
There was that time we slept in Rosemarie Trockel’s studio in Cologne when we did the art fair there—Marina balanced on a low, slim bookshelf, and I slumbered atop two layers of bubble wrap. And that other time we slept in a chocolate factory, or at a distant friend’s guest bedroom in London where we had to sneak in late and sneak out early because he technically could only host one of us, never speaking in the flat and only flushing the toilet once in order to keep the appearance there was only one person there.
When Marina and I started Karma International we were about 26 years old and up for almost anything. What kept us going was all the amazing artists we met along the way, many of whom would later become part of the gallery program. There was always a new inspiration around the corner, even if getting there meant running in the rain with an armful of art. We had an endless appetite to climb that mountain, and savor each moment of the journey.
Over our eleven years the gallery has evolved a lot; Marina and I are no longer driving huge trucks and schlepping crates and our artists aren’t sleeping in an attic. But we know how to do those things and we know our artists were willing to do that in order to collaborate with us. We understand the amount of work each person on our team puts into this place, because we did it all ourselves before them. Even after all this time we know that there is still a lot to discover by running a gallery and maybe even more when being closely engaged in the daily business. We are lucky to still feed off each other and be inspired by all of our artists daily. In times when even the near future is very hard to predict it’s a good feeling to be able to remember that beginnings are the best part of each story.