During Stockholm Art Week last month, I had the opportunity to sit down with Belgian art collectors Wilfried Cooreman and Yannicke De Smedt. At MARKET talks, Cooreman was invited to give a lecture about his and his wife’s collection, and their relationship to art. They started collecting art in the late 1970’s, and it has become a journey through art movements and artistic experiments, lasting up to the current day. Recurring themes in the works can be connected to architecture, music, politics, sociology and psychology, but the couple doesn’t feel restricted to specific themes or any explicit imagery. I wanted to dig deeper into how they think and reason around art and the expansion of their collection.
Alida Ivanov:How did you start collecting?
Wilfried Cooreman: Yannicke and I talked about art all the time. We started when we were young, by going to exhibitions in the neighborhood and to local art galleries. Afterwards, because Belgium is very centrally located, we visited other cities like Amsterdam, Düsseldorf, Cologne, Paris, and London. At the start of our collection, we mostly looked at local artists, but by traveling, we discovered and got in contact with international galleries and artists.
Both Yannicke and I liked art, but we also had an interest in literature and theater. So, collecting became something that was added on. It can be described as an intellectual need, which then developed into a passion.
Yannicke De Smedt: It became like an education that you wanted to develop, and as an extension of this, going to exhibitions and buying that first art piece.
WC: But actually, we got our first artwork from a friend of ours, at our wedding, which was a common landscape from a local painter. I would always talk at work about art, and about visiting exhibitions, and what show we would see on Thursday, so that everyone knew about our interest; and then this friend gave us a painting. That was the absolute first one.
YDS: We exchanged books with each other. We organized trips to exhibitions in Brussels, and also in Holland, for an exhibition of Hieronymus Bosch; and for exhibitions at the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven.
WC: So, we started looking a bit further and began crossing the border. We went to artists’ houses, like that of Pierre Caille, a Belgian ceramist and painter. We bought our first painting of his in 1972. Afterwards, we bought a sculpture from him, too. He was someone we liked very much, and that is how we started off.
Jeremy Chance, 2007. Rounding the edges of the living and the dead. 215 x 245 cm
AI:How did it feel to buy that first piece?
WC: It was quite something.
YDS nods and agrees.
WC: Back when we started buying art, we were 24- 25 years old, and that’s when you start earning your first salary. Do you spend that salary on things that you don’t actually need materially? One also needs essentials: an apartment, a fridge, and so on. But art was attractive to us. After the first purchase, other acquisitions followed, with art works from artists of our own generation, such as Thomas Schütte, Juan Muñoz (1953 – 2001, Spain), Jean-Marc Bustamante, Franz West, Reinhard Mucha (*1950, Germany), Harald Klingelholler (*1954, Germany), Tony Cragg (*1949, Liverpool), Alan Charlton, etc. We also collected works from Belgian artists such as Jan Vercruysse (*1948, Belgium), Raoul De Keyser, Jan van Oost, Lili Dujourie, etc. They were already quite important in the 1980s. Then we also looked at the younger generation, like Paulina Olowska (*1976, Poland), Lucy McKenzie (*1977, Scotland), Thomas Zipp (*1966, Germany), and the new generation of today, such as Simon Denny, Steven Claydon, Alex Dordoy, Josh Smith, Victor Man, Wade Guyton... We were always at the beginning of an artist’s career, sometimes even when they were still unknown. “Buying young” means that the work is still affordable, and that you support a young artist to help him start his career.
Steven Claydon , 2011. The vehicles of becoming (Paolozzi and Buckshot Bauxite). 160 x 90 x 90 cm
AI:I really liked that you described your collecting as “a reflection of life”in your lecture at MARKET Talks; could you tell me a bit more about that?
YDS: Well, people often ask us what the meaning of our collecting is. Why do you collect art? We are taking part of our time. You want to have a goal in your life, and for us, that is art and culture – as a whole. For other people, there are other interests, but for us – this is it. You can think and go much deeper into thinking about things that you can’t explain, or that are difficult to explain. It’s an intellectual necessity that can be alternately expressed as “food for the mind”.
WC: Well, if there is a reason… Probably, at the end of our lives, and I am speaking for both Yannicke and myself, we want to say that we have lived! We have met a lot of artists, we are surrounded by art; this means participating in art, we read a lot about art and we travel a lot… All in all, at least we tried to grasp the cultural spirit of the time in which we lived.
YDS: It’s also nice when you’re in this kind of relationship in which you are both affected by art, and you don’t really need too many words to explain to each other what you think about something. An exhibition starts when we are driving home. We always have a subject to discuss.
Jos De Gruyter & Harald Thys, 2012. Kity & Katy
AI:Have you ever had differing opinions that have, for instance, even clashed with each other? Has there ever been a situation in which one wanted to buy something, and the other one didn’t?
WC: Oh, yes.
YDS: Not clashed…
WC: There is a discussion around how we feel about the artwork, of course. We have made difficult decisions. It’s also about how the work will fit into the collection.
YDS: Sometimes we wait a bit too long...
WC: But the work has to be paid for as well, and as you know, I am an accountant. Yannicke has excellent taste and makes very good choices – “this is what we should have”. But, we have to look at the whole picture.
Elmgreen & Dragset, 2001. Powerless structures fig. 186 - 134 x 110 x 155 cm
AI: How many pieces do you have in you collection?
WC: We don’t know, exactly. We are getting older, and now we do take pictures of the works that we have, and keep track of where it has been shown and where we bought the work; so, we’re making an inventory.
We did have one before, too, but not in detail – for instance, in terms of where the piece had been shown. For example, when the collection was shown at Dhondt-Dhaenens in 1999, our children said: “Oh, is this your work as well?”
YDS: There were pieces in that show that we were seeing only for the second time.
WC: They have been lent to museums and then brought back. Before the exhibition, we made a list of works that we should show, and the museum was 90% okay with it, but they had to make a choice based on the pictures in my PC, because it’s not like we could just take out the works. So, we don’t know exactly, but it’s not important how much we have.
Richard Hughes, 2005. Pete Bog's last stand
AI: How do you present your collection? Is it in your house?
WC: No, our house isn’t big enough, but we do have parts of it at home. Then we have other parts of the collection in Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens, near Ghent; we also have works in the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven, and MAC’s Grand Hornu, like large installations, which we physically can’t put up at home.
We have a big sculpture on the floor, so when we have a family reunion or whatever, I have to ask people to be careful around the work. I have now asked a museum if they could take it in, but I think we will find another solution. In the place of the other sculpture, we will put a Franz West instead. We have two installations by Franz West, and now one is in the hall. Normally, the two should be next to each other, but right now they are on top of each other.
There are so many private spaces, foundations and museums… quite possibly, there will be more private museums than public museums in the future! We don’t know how they develop and how they manage a whole project, but we don’t have such financial means anyway, so we think it’s better to talk to museums. Museum professionals have the knowledge, the techniques, the hardware, etc., to take care of the work. Also, museums are important resources for researchers and educators. The public museums don’t have the budget to acquire certain pieces, so a long-term loan can guarantee the exposure of the work, and the public can still see the works.
AI: If I were to call you emotional collectors, would that be a correct way of looking at it? And is there a wrong way of collecting?
WC: We are emotional in the sense that we try to read the art piece, and we try to live with it, so that the work will stay fundamental in our mind. It becomes almost like a child. So, you have to respect it, at least. It’s not that you just buy something that you can put up on a wall. We’re trying to find solutions for it, and we want to give the artwork a place, of course. Our children have works at their homes, too. And why not create a museum of your own?
Collecting is so personal and individualistic, that I can’t speak for someone else and say that there is a right or wrong way of collecting.
Wilhelm Sasnal, 2002. Untitled (Portrait after Rodschenko). 30 x 27 cm
AI: Being in Sweden right now, do you feel that there are any major differences between your collection and Swedish collections?
WC: In Sweden, we’ve seen that many of the collections are very Swedish-oriented. Even with the opening of the European market, Swedish galleries still don’t show many international artists, and this reflects on the collections, too. The collectors are collecting very locally, but that's not necessarily something that has to be seen as being negative.
AI: You mostly buy from galleries…?
AI: And not so much from auctions?
WC: No, no. Absolutely not – then you’re too late.
AI: Are auctions a burial ground for art?
WC: Absolutely, auction houses are selling work dated 2010 – 2011 and even 2012, from artists aged 30 or younger; the paint is still wet, so to speak. The work isn’t finished yet. Works by young artists are sold for 120,000 or 150,000 GBP. What will happen to their careers? The gold rush still exists.
Artworks are becoming more and more expensive. Try to find a work for a reasonable price. Young artists without a CV, and who are just leaving the academy, are already selling their pieces for five, or even six figures (depending on your currency).
In February 2012, I tried to buy a work by a young American painter (°1983) at his NY gallery. There weren't any pieces available, and the price for one was $25,000 (US). A year later, there was a work of his in a group exhibition in Brussels, priced $40,000 (US). And now, from the same artist, there is a work up for auction in NY, on March 7, 2013, dated as 2010 and estimated to go for between $40,000 – $60,000 (US).
AI: So, do you prefer fairs or art shows?
WC: At fairs, whether you go to New York or Basel, you have all of these galleries in one place. We are linked with a few galleries that show artists that we like.
On the other hand, we like to visit art shows; there, an artist can show an overview of his/her work.
AI: Have you ever used art consultants?
WC: No, we consult each other (laughs).
AI:What is important in one's relationship with a gallerist?
WC: That the gallerist shows a certain amount of seriousness, and that this is reflected in his/her program. And in terms of how they work with their artists, they should be sparring partners with each other, and they should defend their artists. It’s also important that they have a crew of both young and established artists; like in any company, there should be a pyramid of age. Also, galleries should take the opportunity to show art that they themselves are convinced about.