The art collector and culture patron is back in Dutch art. It reflects a worldwide shift from governmental to private support for art, in an international art market that is bursting at the seams. A tour of some European examples of private support for art illustrate the dilemmas of this change.
Collecting Today: Private Passions, Public Benefits was the title of a symposium held in Amsterdam on March 13, 2008, by W139, De Appel and Kunst & Zaken. The symposium highlighted the contagiously enthusiastic reports from New York art collector Alvin Hall, Italian collector Valeria Napoleone and the Dutch collectors Han Nefkens and Martijn Sanders.
Sanders and Nefkens both presented themselves as proponents of a more open climate in the Netherlands for private support for art. Han Nefkens: ‘It took more time to come out of the closet as a collector than it did as a homosexual.’ Martijn Sanders added, ‘I would be happy to give money to the visual arts, but you have to come up with the idea yourself before somebody asks you. No one has ever asked me!’
In the Netherlands, Nefkens has become the perfect example of the new-style collector (see interview in METROPOLIS M, Nr. 1, 2008). He is someone who consciously seeks out collaborations with museums, but whose enthusiasm and personal approach have also helped him build a reputation for his H+F Collection. At the symposium, Kunst & Zaken presented their Culture Patron Programme, a programme developed for the Netherlands’ Ministry of Education, Culture and Science to stimulate and develop broad social support for cultural patronage in the Netherlands.
The fact that their indirect political message was obvious during an evening organized by W139 and De Appel, traditionally independent, experimental art institutions, is an indication that more and more players in the Dutch art world are convinced of the importance of strong cultural patronage. The Ministry, however, sees patronage as part of a broader programme that is wholly aimed at increasing the influence of market forces (under the lofty term of ‘cultural entrepreneurship’) in the arts. The consequences of this are by no means clear.
At the 2005 Venice Biennial, Honoré d’O presented his project the Quest. The Belgian pavilion was transformed into a veritable labyrinth, filled with monitors, videos, PVC conduits and an array of styrofoam sculptures. The central element in the Quest was a monumental ‘blue key’ space. In it, visitors could record themselves and briefly experience the illusion of being somewhere else. The movable floor of the space was made of upside-down Duvel beer bottles. In collaboration with the RAUW design studio, futuristic cubes had been produced, inside of which people could take pictures of themselves, with the pictures subsequently rolling out of the machine in the form of blue Duvel labels.
Honoré d’O had made the sponsoring of his project a part of his quest – his journey to discover his own position as an artist in today's art world. According to the German art critic Isabelle Graw recently in Artforum, ‘If there used to be clearly defined ideological camps in the art world, we now all make up part of a network capitalism, in which everyone is forced to work together.’ D’O’s contribution to the Venice Biennial is a poignant example of this so-called network capitalism. The sponsor is happy with the media attention and the positive connotations of ‘creative and innovative’ that the project sheds on their company and the artist uses the sponsor as part of his own creative strategy.
Michel Moortgat is an art collector and CEO of Duvel Moortgat. Since he has headed the company, it has expanded into one of Belgium's most important sponsors of contemporary art. Duvel is a partner with such art institutions as MuHKA in Antwerp, Wiels in Brussels, Mac’s Musée des Arts Contemporains in Hornu and the Strombeek Cultural Centre.
In addition, Duvel sponsors countless exhibitions and art projects, both large and small. At the brewery, during the conversation I had with Michel Moortgat, he showed me a new beer, Vedett. The marketing concept behind it is an extension of the presentation of the Duvel at the Venice Biennial. On the Vedett website, inspired by Andy Warhol’s 15 Minutes of Fame, people can download photographs to be printed on beer bottle labels. New Duvel glasses and bottles have also been designed by designer and architect Arne Quinze, and were recently presented in Milan.
Duvel is part of a growing trend amongst companies and marketing agencies of borrowing strategies from art as a form of public relations. This is even carried to the extent that international corporations are opening private museums, which in turn can have a positive influence on the company's image and lend them an aura of being young, experimental and pioneering. For their part, art institutions are embracing design and marketing strategies to reach audiences.
I asked Michel Moortgat what he thought of these developments. ‘We did not start sponsoring art because it was trendy. I am convinced that good sponsorship policy can only exist with genuine interest for contemporary art or design. If you just do it out of commercial or communications considerations, it will be short-lived. For our company, we chose sponsoring that suits us, but the exchange runs from a very practical level – in the sense of mutual interests on the parts of the artists, the institutions and the enterprise – to an abstract level. Art is about emotion and reflection. It is a finger on the pulse of how the world is evolving. This is also what it is about for me.’
Moortgat considers this support as something of an extension of his own activities as an art collector. ‘My art collection is a private collection. The intention of supporting art by way of the brewery is in addition to this. For the exhibition How to Paint a Horse, for example, with work by Walter Swennen, I lent a work by Swennen from my own collection, but we did not support the exhibition because it included work from my collection. It is about a relationship of trust and positive collaboration.
If I really do not believe in a project, which has only happened on one occasion, we will not support it.’ One could say that Michel Moortgat is one of the ‘old style’ art collectors. His working method is based on personal contact, mutual trust and very short lines of connection within a relatively transparent art scene. It must be noted, however, that in Belgium there has always been a strong tradition of private support for the arts. The sponsoring policies of Duvel are consistent with this, and it is for this reason that it functions well. Both the sponsor and the institution or artist know exactly what the other can mean for them.
High Net Worth
The ambitious scale and the internationalization of the art world has also produced a new style of art collector, one automatically operating in the international art market. Art historian Thomas Crow is sceptical about the high-net-worth, or HNW collectors. If it used to be an issue of status to be part of a network of classical art aficionados, what implies status today is participation in the right networks, networks that give entry to the exclusive dinners of the global art fair circuit.
Guy Ullens is a very wealthy art collector and entrepreneur (he amassed a fortune with Tiense Sugar and Artal foods) who fully understands the concept of high net worth. One of the most conspicuous newcomers in the area of private museums is ‘his’ Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing, which opened late last November with the exhibition ’85 New Wave: The Birth of Chinese Contemporary Art. For the opening, a dinner was held for 800 guests, invited from around the world.
Ullens initially began his collection of contemporary Chinese art for his own personal pleasure. While on business trips, he would purchase what he liked. The plan for the museum evolved from his search for a space to house his meanwhile extensive Chinese art collection, but it grew into an ambition to build a museum on a global scale, the first in China to present Chinese contemporary art alongside Western art. According to Ullens, ‘When I was negotiating with 798 Art District for a museum space, it turned out that the Guggenheim was already doing the same. I no longer expected it to work out, but after two months, we had succeeded.’
Major steps followed. After its mid-flight start, with ’85 New Wave: The Birth of Chinese Contemporary Art (curated by the artistic director at the time, Fei Dawei), a new course was quickly set. A new artistic director has been appointed, with a sonorous international profile. Jérôme Sans is expected to make the UCCA a ‘dynamic place, aimed at contemporary art in the broadest sense, as well as internationally conspicuous.’ Young, new, dynamic and up-to-date: such are the familiar marketing terms that Ullens relies on.
Although the UCCA promotes itself everywhere as China’s first non-profit, independent museum for contemporary art, Ullens is nonetheless very occupied with setting up a solid commercial cornerstone, intended to make the museum self-supporting in five years. ‘The restaurant has to become the best in all of Beijing and the shop will sell hip design by the young generation of Chinese and Western designers. The shop and the restaurant must become the future.’ When I asked if there wasn’t a danger of too much attention going to the international profile of the UCCA, without energy being invested in a consistent programme to deepen the context of contemporary Chinese art, he carefully evaded the question.
Arts Patron or Businessman
There certainly is the requisite criticism of the fact that so many new museums are being opened around the world. I asked Guy Ullens if he had considered the possibilities of working together with an existing museum in China. His view was, ‘The time is not yet right for such a collaboration. Where that is concerned, the Chinese art world still has to go through a number of phases. There are going to be more private museums. We now have the phase of rapid development, and no doubt there will then be a phase of consolidation. The fact that the UCCA is a private initiative gives us the possibility of developing everything under our own management and taking risks. It has the benefit that we can take advantage of what is happening in the 789 Art District. The political world sees no win-win situation and the established museum world is still extremely static, conservative and regionally focused.’ In the international art market, Ullens sees no tension between public museums and the increasing numbers of private initiatives. ‘What we look forward to is more competition. Where that is concerned, my wife and I are real entrepreneurs.’
After my conversation with Guy Ullens, I wondered if China really is so keen to have a new ‘Palais de Tokyo’, a well-oiled museum that connects nicely to international tastes, fashions and trends. Is this serving Chinese contemporary art, as it cries out for honest, more profound reflection? In cases such as this, how do patronage (the actual support of a public interest, or in other words, the public artistic heritage of a country) and business enterprise (interested in marketing for target groups, popularization and image profiling) relate to one another?
With this at the back of my mind, visiting the Ursula Blickle Foundation was a breath of fresh air. The contrast to the UCCA could hardly be greater. This is a locally situated, private exhibition space, with no restaurant or shop. Owner and founder Ursula Blickle produces exceptional exhibitions in collaboration with guest curators. Artists can experiment without the pressure of having to attract hordes of visitors, although the projects are often also shown at the institutions with which the curators are associated, thus reaching a more diversified audience. During my visit, the foundation was showing Syberberg. Aus der Wagnerbox, by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, organized together with the Vienna Kunsthalle, which was also showing the work of this self-willed German filmmaker. It is no easy exhibition. Syberberg produces extremely long films that he sees as Gesamtkunstwerk, a cross between film, theatre and opera. From every visitor, it demands all you have.
It is such a difficult project that it would probably have been impossible to achieve without support. The Ursula Blickle Foundation, together with Nicolaus Schafhausen, director of Witte de With in Rotterdam, also developed an exhibition with the young artist Jesper Just, which proved an important step in his career (in addition to the Witte de With presentation, it is now also at S.M.A.K. in Ghent). It is a beautiful example of how a small-scale co-production can add something important to what existing museums are able to offer.
Ursula Blickle explains, ‘My aim in establishing this foundation was to live in the midst of art. Not starting a collection was an intentional decision. What advantage does the public have in a personal preference or indulgence? I have the impression that collectors increasingly want everything to revolve around them. My background is in theatre. For me, it is self-evident that it all centres on the art. I see every exhibition as a new stage. Every curator approaches it differently. It can be from a theoretical or psychological angle, or it can start from the art itself, or from another disciple, such as dance or film. I do not have an art history background, but my big advantage is that I am open to everything and I have a nose for quality.’
To my asking if she thinks more collectors should follow her example, she replies, ‘No, I think there are enough private museums. It seems more important that more money be invested in art education, because so many young art students cannot find real depth. There is a difference between verständnis and verstehen, and it is increasingly important. I am pessimistic about this period, when everything has become so commercialized. That has become a power that we no longer know what to do with, and I ask myself how a foundation such as this one should relate to all this commercialism. In any case, I do not want to adapt or change the foundation.’
Pioneering with Public/Private Constructs
Melanie Bono, artistic director of the Neuer Aachener Kunstverein (NAK), is also concerned about the commercialization of the art world. ‘It is becoming more and more difficult for small, non-profit organizations to present themselves. The power of art collectors and commercial galleries has increased enormously. They have become the opinion makers in contemporary art. More and more private museums are being opened, including one opened recently in Hamburg by the collector Harald Falckenberg. In the meantime, involvement in art by ordinary people, which was traditionally always fairly strong, has dropped considerably.’
In 1999, the NAK establish its Twodo Collection, a construct meant to actively involve a group of collectors with the Kunstverein, in order to provide a secure financial basis with their support. Each collector pays an annual amount to support the NAK and signs a three-year membership contract. Each year, a special exhibition is organized in collaboration with the collectors’ club. When the exhibition is over, each can purchase a work of art, under the condition that the Kunstverein has access to the work for exhibitions.
Melanie Bono: ‘It functions very well. In the last few years, more and more young collectors, in their 30s, have expressed interest in participating. They are interested in the exchange with the art institute and other collectors. The Twodo Collection makes us more flexible and more financially independent from pressure to produce programmes aimed at the wider public, and this has proved increasingly more important today.’
The NAK’s Twodo Collection is a striking example of how private and public funds can be combined and applied on a small scale and in a flexible fashion. Sjarel Ex, director of Rotterdam’s Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum, hopes to apply this principle for the first time on a larger scale in the Netherlands, with the Collection Building. The Collection Building, designed by MVRDV, is a modular structure conceived to replace the museum’s old depots, but it also wants to give private individuals opportunities to hire the facilities and the expertise of the museum, or a ‘new model of public and private collaboration that is the only one of its kind in the world,’ as the press release claims.
Sjarel Ex himself calls it a new ‘model of thought’. ‘It is necessary to operate strategically within the changing relationships between public and private interests on the international art market, so that the museum allows itself to be more flexible in its relationship to the differences between guardianship and ownership. Each museum has a core collection that is an inalienable part of the identity of the institute. Right now, 10% of our collection is already owned by third parties, most of them private. With the use of the Collection Building we can raise this amount to 40%. In a few years’ time this will make the museum’s lending position much stronger than we could ever have achieved through our own investments and facilities alone. We are aiming for a high-standard, professionally equipped building, one which is not only for the museum to house its collection, but which can offer its facilities and additional expertise and support for other national and international collections.
This sharing of expertise and facilities has two important benefits. At the international level, it makes it possible to focus on the tasks of management, conservation and research, of the kind taking place at the Getty Research Centre. In addition, it is a model with which the traditionally strong bonds between the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum and collectors can be expanded.’ It remains to be seen if the new model being introduced by Sjarel Ex will be successful, serving as an example in and beyond the Netherlands, but the pioneering role that he is assuming in the Netherlands is certainly laudable.
What these several examples together make clear is that the shift between public and private financing in the arts is a complex issue. The desire for stronger cultural patronage in the Netherlands – which one can only support – goes hand in hand with more businesslike thinking about art and culture, which is also in part seen as a guarantee for a broader, society-wide support base for the arts and culture as a whole. The Culture Profit Committee, established at the request of Minister Plasterk, wrote in its recent advisory memorandum, ‘The cultural entrepreneur operates from his own artistic ambition, but at the same time takes saleability, accessibility and public preferences into account.’
This is an attractive notion, but the vital questions are not being asked, such as what this social relevance of art actually today entails: where the borders lie between ‘operating from one's own artistic ambition’ and ‘saleability, accessibility and public preferences’ and how one can use this to guarantee the relevance of art for a society. Might the Netherlands’ museums perhaps not already be more enterprising or businesslike than is good for them? What, for example, are we to think of the initiatives of the Rijksmuseum to reach a wider public with its glossy OOG magazine, or its partnership with HEMA stores? There will soon be a new commercial romp with a print by Adriaan Collaert and a makeup case with a painting by Cornelis Springer on it. Cultural heritage is design is consumer object. It is evident here that self-financing and masses of visitors are anything but a guarantee for social relevance, which further makes it clear how important it is to continue the critical debate about the relationship between private and public financing.
Ingrid Commandeur is final editor of METROPOLIS M
- In ‘Art and Its Markets: A Roundtable Discussion’, Artforum International, April 2008.
- Op.cit., note 1
- From the recommendations of the Culture Profit Committee, in www.cultuurprofijt.nl>Meer draagvlak voor cultuur, p. 14, . See also www.kunstsubsidiedebat.nl>‘Kunst van leven. Hoofdlijnen cultuurbeleid’, Netherlands Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, June 2007.