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Julien Robson tries Tezi Gabunia’s interactive installation “Put Your Head into Gallery”, at viennacontemporary

What is sexier – to have your name on a building, or having a church in a restaurant? 0

Curator and adviser Julien Robson: collectors are opening their own spaces, but public museums have to find a new business model

Agnese Čivle

We caught up with curator Julien Robson in September, in Vienna, at the viennacontemporary international contemporary art fair. At the fair’s Collectors Forum, Robson led a discussion on the art-world phenomenon of the private museum and its role in the development of contemporary art. Issues touched upon included the collector’s motivation to present his or her collection to the public at large, supporting the creation of artworks, and how to bring about a broader discussion of contemporary art in society.

Robson himself has had much experience with these subjects throughout his career. From 2000 to 2008 he was the curator of contemporary art exhibits at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky (USA), and currently he works at the Great Meadows Foundation, which was founded in 2016 by art collector Al Shands with the goal of supporting and strengthening the development of visual art in Kentucky. In addition to being the Founding Director of the foundation, for many years Robson has also been involved in the growth and development of the unique contemporary art collection assembled by Al Shands and his late wife Mary.

A view of the front of the house at Great Meadows with works by Jaume Plans, Zaha Hadid, Alice Aycock, and Alyson Schotz. Photo: Edward A. Winters

Behind the collection is a story about an unusual Episcopalian pastor who, in the 1960s, held his congregation’s services in, of all places, a Washington seafood restaurant. At this restaurant-cum-church, a kitchen mixing bowl was used as a baptismal font, the sacramental wine came from the bar, and the sacramental bread was taken from the breadbaskets on the tables (of which one also served as an impromptu altar). The church’s pastor, Al Shands, would later meet the wealthy heiress Mary Norton, who in the 1980s headed the Kentucky Art and Craft Foundation (now, the KMAC Museum). After marrying, the couple began to collect regional ceramic artworks, graduating over time to renowned American ceramic artists such as Betty Woodman, Peter Voulkos, and Ken Price. Eventually, they began to collect works by international artists as well. In 1988, in the picturesque town of Crestwood, KY, they built their rural home, Great Meadows (architect – David Morton), to accommodate their growing contemporary art collection, which by now was dominated by sculpture and site-specific sculpture installations.

Sol LeWitt (USA, 1928–2007). Wall Drawing #714: Irregular Form With Color Ink Wash Bands (1993). Color ink wash. Photo: Edward A. Winters

Much like back in the days of the church services being held in a seafood restaurant – when the congregants would matter-of-factly use and integrate aspects of daily regular life into their spiritual practice – the artworks at Great Meadows were living a regular, matter-of-fact life. Instead of being ensconced in some kind of sacred position and placed on a “museum-altar”, they were present during their owners’ everyday activities – of which a large part was devoted to the coming together of friends and family. Some of the most well-known artists represented in this collection are: Sol LeWitt, Richard Long, Anish Kapoor, Olafur Eliasson, Elizabeth Murray, Tony Cragg, Maya Lin, Ernesto Neto, Alfredo Jaar, Jaume Plensa, Siah Armajani, Ursula Von Rydingsvard, Zaha Hadid, Scott Burton, and Ian Hamilton Finlay, among others.

Sol LeWitt (USA, 1928-2007). Wall Drawing #1082: Bars of Color (room), 2003. Acrylic paint. Photo: Edward A. Winters

Mary Shands passed away seven years ago, and once Al Shands joins her, their collection will be going to Louisville’s Speed Art Museum, as they have bequeathed. An issue that this raises is decontextualization of the collection, because upon transfer to the institutional and public context of the museum, it will have to be adapted from its current state, which is an informal and intimate environment. Similarities can be drawn between the situation when Al Shands’ restaurant-church finally moved to a permanent location, and was assigned institutional status… along with which came with the new side-effect of having to deal with financial issues. The simple act of coming together and sharing thoughts was no longer primary – member head-counts and the paying of bills had taken its place. Something from the original idea had been lost…

Al Shands is philosophical about this decontextualization, acknowledging that he is just a temporary caretaker of the art. Like everything, he understands that it is subject to the inevitable change that comes with the passage of time, and that it will be “reshuffled and used in different ways by the museum.” Instead of micromanaging the viewer's experience of the works, he is willing to let the collection go - joking that he won’t be around to know or be bothered by its new life anyway. For the museum’s part, the institution sees this as a game changing gift that will not only fill out gaps in the collection but also create new dialogs and contexts for existing holdings. While the museum can narrate the story of the Shands collection, more importantly the gift allows a greater audience to directly experience these important works of art.

Mary Carothers (USA, born 1967). Beneath the Surface, 2016. Porcelain and steel. Photo: Edward A. Winters

In the following interview, Julien Robson: illustrates examples of how European private collectors have handed their collections over to the public sphere; informs us on what is going in the US in this context; and describes the paradigm shift that is currently being experienced by public museums throughout the world.

At this year’s viennacontemporary, you organized the Collectors Forum at which the central theme was “Going Public”. Several owners of private collections spoke at the event; could you tell us about these examples of private collections “going public”, and what some of their similarities and differences are?

In recent years there has been massive growth in collectors opening their own spaces. It’s been led by a kind of big model, called “Miami-effect”, in which people like the Rubells [the Rubell Family Collection is one of the biggest private contemporary art collections in North America – ed.] have opened up big museum-type spaces - with curators and so on - for their large collections. On many other levels collectors have created spaces for showing their collections, welcoming visitors to specially built art barns, repurposed warehouses, art hotels, and even simply gallery-type spaces attached to their homes.

At viennacontemporary, I was interested in creating a series of talks to look at and discuss the growth of collectors creating their own spaces, and to explore the diversity of these spaces. To start, I invited two directors of foundations based on private collections. The first one, the Fondazione Sambuca, was established as a result of the need - or desire - to regenerate and amplify artistic activity in Palermo, and Sicily in general. As curator Paolo Falcone described, the foundation has its own space, but it does things around the city and around the island, and then it reaches out to projects in other places. And while these projects often involve commissioning new works, they have their conceptual grounding in the collection of the foundation. Fondazione Sambuca is very active in the community in Palermo, trying to generate really exciting art projects there and, in a way, they act to replace the loss of financial support that has been affecting public museums. 

The second subject of this panel was Fundação Leal Rios in Lisbon, which has been organized in a very different way from the Fondazione Sambuca. Fundação Leal Rios is a private collection that the brothers Manuel and Miguel Rios have created over the last twelve years. They founded the space in order to display their collection. The space is near the airport of Lisbon; off the tourist track, making it not so simple to get there. The building, which has a very beautiful interior, was converted from an automobile repair shop. Miguel Leal Rios is the curator as well as the director of the foundation, and he works together with his brother - who finances the project - to develop the collection. In this space, Miguel organizes projects and invites curators from elsewhere to come and create the textual framework that informs the shows. He’s especially interested in Portuguese artists who are underrepresented and, using the collection as the basis for these projects, he wants to create a structure where Portuguese artists can be seen within an international context. The shows last about six months. The foundation advertises that it is open only two afternoons a week and its location means that the audience is made up of people who really want to go and see it. It is not like a public-type museum or space and he is not really interested in a “general public;” that is to say, he doesn’t want people to go there just for cultural-touristic reasons. These are two very different models - where one goes out into the city and region, and the other is more of a destination - and it was really interesting to compare and contrast them.

Jaume Plensa (Spain, born 1955). White Shadow, 2009. Painted stainless steel. Photo: Edward A. Winters

You also featured Finnish art collector Timo Miettinen, who founded Berlin’s Salon Dahlmann, and the art collector Alain Servais from Belgium…

Yes, Timo Miettinen is from Finland, and he has a space in Berlin. He and his wife started collecting about 15 or 16 years ago; they began by focusing on Finnish artists, but they wanted to create an international context for those artists whom they really liked. So, they have now been collecting internationally as well.

Alain Servais is a Belgian collector who is collecting internationally, and even though he does have very well known artists in his collection (like Frank Stella or Barbara Kruger, for example), he is also very interested in emerging artists.

What I wanted to do with this panel was to talk about two differing types of exhibition spaces. Alain Servais’ space is an old garage building (900m2) that he refers to as the Loft. It is a space he formerly lived in, and when he moved out he turned it into a place to display works from his collection. Its a fairly raw space and he has avoided the temptation to turn it into a “finished” museum space. Working with a curator he rotates works from his collection, displaying them in thematic exhibitions that address his own thoughts about contemporaneity. I would add that he also supports residencies for young artists in the same building.

Timo also employs a living space for his project, albeit somewhat different. He and his family, bought a building in Berlin that has a number of apartments in it. He took one of these apartments and turned one half of it into galleries. The other half is still kept as a living space, decorated with works from the Miettinen collection. Calling his project Salon Dahlmann, he wanted to create an exhibition space where other cultural activities, as well as exhibitions, can take place. It’s a concept that revisits the tradition of Salons that were part of Berlin society up until 1914.

Read in the Archive: An interview with Belgian art collector Alain Servais

What is the difference between Timo’s approach and Alain’s approach? Alain, like Miguel Leal Rios, wants to know who is going there and doesn’t want this to be a cultural tourism stop; also, he does not advertise it as a museum (even though he does bring school groups to see exhibitions and the collection). By contrast, Timo’s Salon Dalhmann is open to the public on Saturdays, so that a general, art-interested audience can visit at will. When I was there a short while ago, Timo had organized a “gentlemen’s dinner” – he had invited about 40-50 guys from different walks of life. We were all sitting and having dinner at a big long table inside the gallery space, amongst the art, within the exhibition. So, this space becomes a vehicle through which – by way of hospitality or other cultural activities – Timo brings people together with art. What he is hoping to do is to use these other kinds of activities to generate an enthusiasm for art. Alain, on the other hand, is obviously addressing an already-knowledgeable art public that is especially interested in seeing his collection. Again, two very different ways of collectors “going public”. I would add that these are also very intimate collections, each in an intimate environment.

Richard Long (UK, born 1940). Slate Atlantic, 2002. Delabole slate. Photo: Verena Gerlach

How, if it’s even possible, can these private collection spaces influence the future of public museums?

There is a funny overlap happening now; a strange “hybridity” is taking shape where the former boundaries dividing public museums, private collections, and commercial galleries are being blurred. You have models like the Rubell Family Collection creating a museum that appears to map directly onto the model of an American public museum. It has all of the structures – it has curators, it has educators, etc. They do everything the same way, except that the collectors themselves primarily choose what goes into the collection. What it doesn’t have is the scientific aspect of curatorship (and I know this is an oversimplification) found in a public institution. In their case, the curatorship is based in their own subjectivity. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing; they really have an amazing enthusiasm for art, and are very knowledgeable, and the model they have forged adds a great deal to the art world.

In contrast to the more public role that private collectors are adopting, public museums, particularly in the USA, are being pressed to run like businesses – with a very strong focus on the numbers of people coming in through the door and the amount of revenue they can raise. In Europe, cuts in public funding for culture are creating similar pressures, and in Britain we are currently witnessing the threat of public money being removed completely from some institutions, such as the New Art Gallery in Walsall. A model for the museum that is driven by “for profit” business principles - or that has to be totally self-sustaining - naturally puts enormous pressure on aesthetic criterion; it pressures programming to become popular and diminishes the critical engagement of museums.

And then there is a third model starting to appear – commercial galleries that are making museum-type shows - often shows that public museums would not have the resources to create. These are exhibitions where the works may not even be for sale. For instance, in the opening show of Hauser Wirth & Schimmel in Los Angeles, you could see that a huge number of works were from museum collections. It was an ambitious museum-like exhibition in a commercial gallery space that director Paul Schimmel has described as an “art center”. Incidentally the gallery is bigger than the New Museum in New York, in terms of square footage and, of course, they have Schimmel, a really talented director, who was previously a wonderful curator at MOCA.

We are in a strange moment, and it raises the question “Is the commercial aspect of art corrupting the “scholarship side”.” Of course these two aspects - scholarship and commerce - are always going to be interlocked, but one cannot help but ask “does one start to dominate the other? ” Is it possible to keep the tension between them – so that they have a certain distance from each other despite being intimately connected? This is the problematic nature of what is happening at this level. To take a more positive view, one could argue that, in the current economy, the public museum has to change its role as the will for public funding is no longer there, and that the private museum and commercial gallery “art center” are necessary to the survival and growth of contemporary art.

Sol LeWitt (USA, 1928-2007). Progression, 1997. Concrete blocks. Photo: Ross Gordon

What is your opinion on private collectors involving themselves in the process of art education? At times, their approach to introducing their collections is deeply rooted in emotional investments, such as in the case of Argentinian collector Patricia Vergez...

My conversation with Patricia Vergez’s was quite different from the previous talks. She and her husband have a space in Buenos Aires; they are real art lovers. They kicked off buying art in the early 90s, and it became a real passion, almost a kind of addiction. They just put the works in containers because they couldn’t put any more works in their home. Eventually, they found a big factory building they could use, and, as with other collectors I have spoken about here, they wanted their visitors to be people who really want to be there. There is no website or public face to this project, and Patricia Vergez is not willing to entertain someone who just wants to come there for five minutes to look around and see what they’ve got. She involves herself very directly in taking people around – almost like an educator. She is very, very passionate about the work, and also about wanting people to respond. She is not under any pretension that the space is like a museum; it is kept in a raw state. Rather, she wants to share the excitement that she herself, subjectively gets from art. That’s quite different in terms of what museums do, and I think what she does is... she complements the museum model.

They both are able to do their thing – the museums can continue to be spaces of scholarship, whereas what she gives is the gift of her enjoyment to other individuals. Having shared her enjoyment, it will help the visitor in, perhaps, having a different point of view when he or she visits the next museum.

Alex Hartley (UK, born 1963). A Gentle Collapsing, 2016. Galvanized steel and concrete. Photo: Julien Robson

What are your observations – what are the primary motivators that make a collector want to open up their collections and make them publicly accessible?

Well, I think it’s useful to go back to the question that can be posed to collectors – whom does art belong to? And many of them would say that, actually, art is something that you can never own. You can only be the custodian of it.

The collector for whom I work in USA, Al Shands, continues to say – I can sell and buy the object, but the art part only exists in the relationship between the object and the people who are looking at it. And this cannot be bought and sold, because it is about one’s response and engagement, an interaction and dialog with the artwork. So, I think the main motivation is a desire to share, because they have this privilege to be able to acquire these things and to live with them, and to enhance their lives with them. They want to share for a number of reasons. One clear reason is pleasure, but also, very often it is in support of the artist – a person that they want people to know about; the person who has a vision, who makes the stuff; is somebody they want recognized in the public’s eye.

What are museums doing in this case?

Because of the shrinkage in national economies, museums have been under pressure to change their role in the way they operate. I’m not saying whether this is good or bad – changes always happen. And, perhaps, now we are at a moment when we’re seeing a kind of ground-level change in what museums really are. One of the problems I see with museums is their investment in location and property. There has been a building boom in the last 15 years, and museums are building enormous buildings. Then they acquire more things, then they have to store them, and then they need more buildings. And patrons are putting enormous amounts of money into buildings because it is very sexy to have your name on a building.

Eva Rothschild (Republic of Ireland, 1971). Culture and Nature, 2014. Painted aluminum. Photo: Edward A. Winters

But why acquire more things if there’s no guarantee that people will want to come and see them?

I think the drive to measure success by numbers of visitors is a problem that has been happening in the museums. For instance, here in Austria. Museums have been under pressure to start developing business models; they are gradually heading towards the American model. They are given state funding, but then they have increasingly to find sponsorship; they have to then show the state (and their sponsors) that more and more people are visiting the museum. You can look at this in two ways – it is good that a lot of people are visiting the museums, but personally I miss the days when you could go to a museum, look at a piece of work in peace and quiet, and not have a crowd of people around. The collector for whom I work in the USA, who is actually on the international council of MoMA, says that he is not happy to go there so often, because of the crowds. You go in the door and cannot see anything because all of these people are milling around - some spending three minutes reading a label, and just five seconds looking at a picture.This is the cultural tourism industry at work, and the museum is not providing them an internal, spiritual experience. They are just consuming.

In answer to your question, one of the collectors in Vienna proposed that perhaps museums should stop collecting and, instead, just borrow from private collectors. This way they would take the pressure off building exhibition and storage space as well as the struggle to find public funding for buildings and collections. The other side of the story, however - and this was raised by another collector - is the question of what collectors themselves are going to do at the end with their collections - when they run out of space or die?

Julien Robson. Photo from personal archive

The next question is more related to consumerism, and the viennacontemporary. As we know, this fair is not a fair of “big stars” – it is relatively young and regional. But in truth, there are an increasing number of people, including collectors, who have been avoiding the mega-fairs for quite a while. They’re looking for something else...

They have a hangover now, because when you go to Art Basel Miami Beach – it really is mainly a party! You can spend all day going to fair after fair, and spend evening doing the social rounds. Maybe you could take the art away – because all you need is a row of parties. But, more seriously, its almost as if art is produced as a commodity specifically for the many fairs in Miami - and there were 23 when I last counted - feeding a frenzied marketplace with trophies and status symbols. It may well be that authenticity is giving way to marketability in this environment. Maybe we are getting tired of commodity art – of a kind of “Koons syndrome,” and maybe things are changing. I think we want and need different experiences.

Read in the Archive: A look back at Vienna’s viennacontemporary art fair

Its encouraging that there is growth in smaller, more focused, regional fairs around the world. Here, at viennacontemporary, you can encounter a really serious work that’s not going to cost a vast amount of money. This fair also brings you into contact with works that come from places that are really productive and interesting, but that just do not have visibility at those mega-fairs. The programs are geared to help collectors and potential collectors understand and engage with art from a region that is underrepresented in the art world. Viennacontemporaryis regional in the most positive and authentic sense of the word, and I think it represents an area of real artistic growth. Who knows; maybe the mega-fairs will die, exhausted, and maybe the smaller fairs will survive. In my eyes they certainly offer a more personalized experience.