Articles and Features

Out of the Ordinary:10 collections that do something different

Gisèle van Waterschoot van der Gracht
Gisèle van Waterschoot van der Gracht with her collection at Castrum Peregrini. Photo by Jordi Huisman, courtesy of Freunde von Freunden

Charles Saatchi once said: ‘There are no rules about investment. Sharks can be good. Artist’s dung can be good. Oil canvas can be good.’ For some collectors, art is first and foremost a financial investment, while for other collectors, amassing an art collection is about championing and nurturing new art movements. Gertrude Stein was one of those collectors who not only collected established artists during her time but also granted fledgling artists precious legitimacy by adding them to her collection, bringing artists together at her Sunday salons in Paris.

Regardless of the reasons for amassing an art collection — altruistic or otherwise  — we often think of it as the exclusive reserve of the wealthy and powerful. Standard collections with blue-chip art worth millions of dollars tend to come to mind, such as the Broad Collection (rivalling some of the best museums of modern and contemporary art) or the Steve Cohen Collection (who is perhaps most famous for owning Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living).

Read on to discover ten collections that go beyond the white cube gallery, doing something different with art collecting.

1. Castrum Peregrini Amsterdam

Castrum Peregrini is located in a typical Amsterdam canal house on the Herengracht, but comes with a special backstory. These days, it operates as a cultural centre, but it was originally the living quarters of Gisèle van Waterschoot van der Gracht, an artist who hid the German poet Wolfgang Frommel and two of his Jewish students in her home during WWII. They gave it the code name Castrum Peregrini, named after a pilgrims’ castle in the holy land that was never captured. Indeed, the inhabitants were never discovered by the Nazis and maintained strong ties to each other after the war. Many parts of the canal house remain unchanged since this period, and the combination of Gisèle’s vast art collection (art which she created in the seaside town Bergen, in her studio at Castrum Peregrini, and in her abandoned monastery on the Greek island Paros), the shelves filled with poetry books and the original furniture in the house create a fascinating sense of tangible history, where both interior and exterior take part in an art collection of living history.

2. Sammlung Boros

The Boros Collection is a private collection of contemporary art from 1990 to the present, collected by Christian and Karen Boros. The collection is housed in a former WWII bunker in Berlin which went on to become a techno club in the ‘90s. Different parts of the collection are shown on a rotating basis every four years, while the couple themselves live in an art-filled penthouse on top of the bunker. ‘We not only live with the art, we live with the guests,’ notes Karen Boros. The artists whose pieces are in the collection are deeply involved, choosing where their art will be shown in the bunker and installing it themselves. ‘We view the presentation as a collection of small one-person shows,’ says Christian Boros, since the bunker is divided into 80 small rooms. ‘Nobody would build a museum like that today. Yet that’s exactly what turned out to be so positive,’ adds Karen Boros. The bunker is a vessel of history, almost like a work of art itself carrying the traces of its past – a prison, a techno club, an exotic fruits warehouse, a darkroom, and today a contemporary art gallery.

3. The Joyner/Giuffrida Collection of Abstract Art

The Joyner/Giuffrida Collection is a collection which focuses on abstract art by post-war and contemporary African American artists. The collection begins with mid-20th century Abstract Expressionist Norman Lewis. At the heart of this collection are several things: telling an inclusive, comprehensive story about African American art from the 20th century onwards (and  expanding to include work from the African diaspora); the avant-garde with a focus on African American abstraction; and the reframing of art history by placing these works in the full context of the canon. Collector Pamela J. Joyner believes strongly in the power of collectors who tell stories through exhibitions and scholarship. As a result, she published the book Four Generations: The Joyner Giuffrida Collection of Abstract Art (2016), a catalogue of the collection including scholarly essays and dialogues between curators and artists, reflecting her commitment and contribution to telling the story of African American art as a part of a global narrative.

4. Kunsthistorisches Mausoleum Belgrade

In a nondescript residential area in Belgrade, those who know what they are looking for could come across a small paper label on a door which reads: Kunsthistorisches Mausoleum. Here, argues Serbian art historian and curator Branislav Dimitrijevic, one encounters something that might not be classified as an art exhibition, but definitely as an ‘experience of art’. The Kunsthistorisches Mausoleum challenges the very idea of an art collection. Behind the door is a small entryway leading to two rooms: the walls of the room on the left are covered with oriental rugs, and these rugs are packed with over 100 small paintings and drawings, each framed differently from the last. Each of these paintings are hand-painted reproductions of reproductions of famous works of art taken from H.W. Janson’s History of Art, which has been something of a bible for art students in Serbia for decades. Similarly, the room on the right is decorated with reproductions of reproductions, but in this instance it’s a selection of some of the greatest modern art, while the room itself is like a time capsule from the 1950s and 1960s. These reproductions are taken from the Serbian translation of Herbert Read’s Concise History of Modern Painting, which has been considered the fundamental source for modern art in Serbia for decades.

The only written statement issued by the Mausoleum is: ‘If history is the way we have chosen to remember the past, then this Mausoleum is the place where we could remember the remembering itself.’ A visit to the Mausoleum can only be arranged as a small tour with one of the keepers of the keys to the space, and usually includes discussions on the nature of the copy in art and the many questions that this space arouses (‘Is this a contemporary art display?’ / ‘Is this an exhibition of copies?’/ ‘Is this a critique of the Western art historical canon?’ / ‘Can we call this a collection?’). But why is it called ‘Mausoleum’? Branislav Dimitrijevic attempts to explain: a mausoleum is defined as a ‘magnificent tomb,’ and this is Belgrade’s tomb of art history which opens up the potential for understanding narratives of art history which have been taken for granted, and yet we do not treat the images and objects on display as actual works of art according to these narratives of art history.

Kunsthistorisches Mausoleum is part of an international movement of similar collections in different environments, such as the Salon de Fleurus, 21 Spring Street in New York and the Museum of American Art, Frankfurter Allee 91 in Berlin.

5. Feuerle Collection

The Feuerle Collection is a private art museum in Berlin’s Kreuzberg, dedicated to the collection of Désiré Feuerle, a German art collector who is fascinated by juxtapositions – he’s shown Yves Klein, Joseph Beuys, Georg Baselitz and Brice Marden with gothic and baroque furniture and tapestries, Gilbert and George with antique clocks, and Richard Deacon with silver tea and coffee pots. But the Feuerle Collection is his most ambitious project yet: here, he juxtaposes international contemporary art with Imperial Chinese furniture and Southeast Asian sculptures. Core to the concept behind The Feuerle Collection is the creation of an almost synaesthetic experience with the Sound Room, the Lake Room, and the Incense Room adding layer upon layer to the already dynamic collection. The contemporary artists featured in the collection –  Anish Kapoor, Nobuyoshi Araki, Adam Fuss, Cristina Iglesias, Zeng Fanzhi and James Lee Byars, to name but a few – are placed in dialogue with these ancient Asian sculptures and furniture pieces.

One of the most remarkable things about The Feuerle Collection is its layout, as the collection is housed in a 6350 m2 former telecommunications bunker from WWII. Starting from the basement, the visitor first enters the Sound Room, surrounded by minimalist tones and silences created by composer John Cage. Then, continuing throughout the spaces, Khmer sculptures from the 7th to 13th century rise up from the darkness as if out of nowhere. Elsewhere, one comes face to face with the Lake Room, a space that has been flooded with water, mirroring the columns in the water of this mysterious space. But Désiré Feuerle also thought about the olfactory: The Feuerle Collection is the first art museum to present the Chinese incense ceremony, reinterpreting the traditional incense ceremony as a contemporary artistic practice in dialogue with the surrounding contemporary and ancient art.

In the words of Désiré Feuerle: ‘The vision of The Feuerle Collection is to create a total artwork, a Gesamtkunstwerk. It breaks with the traditional way of showing art and removes barriers between cultures and ages, the importance of past and importance of today, It leads the spectator to a different way of experiencing art through the senses.’

6. Grazyna Kulczyk – Museum Susch

Grazyna Kulczyk is a passionate contemporary art collector, and also happens to be one of the wealthiest women in Poland. Over the years, she has adopted the role of ambassador for contemporary Polish and Central Eastern European art, which has often been overlooked by Western critics and collectors. Moreover, she is dedicated to putting contemporary female artists on the map and helping them receive the attention and space that they deserve. To further her mission, Kulczyk recently opened Museum Susch this past January, a museum set against the backdrop of the Alps in the Swiss valley of the river Inn, in a former brewery among the remnants of a medieval monastery. Museum Susch is defined by a series of permanent, site-specific installations which engage with the architecture and environment, and create an interesting interplay with the temporary artworks on display.

The first exhibition at Museum Susch is titled A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women (on until 30 June 2019), and explores the notion of the feminine in its various facets, social, political and cultural, including artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Joan Semmel, Marlene Dumas, Hannah Wilke, Magdalena Abakanowicz and Carolee Schneemann.

7. Menil Collection

The Menil Collection is an art museum in Houston, Texas, built to show art collected between the 1940s and 1990s by John and Dominique de Menil. One of the main goals for the Menils was making art accessible, and in keeping with this aim no admission is charged and all public programs are free. The Menil Collection does not put ‘didactics’ on the wall or media in the galleries, as the Menil philosophy is to invite each individual’s direct, personal encounter with works of art without telling anyone how to look at the art.

The Menils are perhaps best known for their collection of surrealist and other modern European painting and sculpture, as well as their collection of American post-war art – in particular, the Rothko Chapel they created for a series of his murals. In addition, the Menil collection boasts Byzantine and medieval art and artefacts; African, Pacific Islands, and Pacific Northwest Native art; art of the ancient Americas and the ancient Mediterranean; and art of the Near East. The activism and spiritual pursuits of John and Dominique de Menil have made their mark on the Menil Museum as well. From civil rights photography to the spirituality of Byzantine icons, the late John and Dominique de Menil’s commitment to ethical integrity and social responsibility lives on in the collection.

8. Museum Macura

Museum Macura sits overlooking the Danube in Novi Banovci, Serbia, 23 kilometres northeast of Belgrade. It was opened in May 2008 to house the extensive modern art collection amassed by Vladimir Macura, a Serbian art collector and dealer living in Vienna. Museum Macura is one of the largest private collections of modern art in South-Eastern Europe, and as such, the museum is filled with avant-garde art from former Yugoslavia, including movements like Zenithism, Yugo-dada, Belgrade Surrealism, EXAT 51, Gorgona, Vojvodinian neo avant-garde, and the Six Artist Group, as well as Russian and Polish Constructivism, Viennese Activism, and Central European avant-gardes. Serbian architects Ivan Kućina and Nenad Katić designed the museum together with Macura, and locals unsurprisingly call it ‘the grey cube,’ as it appears to be just that from afar. However, upon approach, its light-filled open spaces and large windows provide the perfect modernist setting to accompany the avant-garde collection. As the story goes, Kućina sat down with Macura and drew the shape of the building in situ following his request: ‘A meander, I want a meander!’ Macura had insisted. And a meander is what he got, as the building allows one to loop through the collection spread out across two levels, while being bathed in sunlight streaming in through the many windows.  

A few kilometres upstream from the Museum Macura is Warehouse Macura, formerly a place for grain storage. The warehouse is now a spot for experiencing and archiving various art practices, performances and happenings, and houses many works by important artists from the region such as Neša Paripović, Raša Todošijević, Braco Dimitrijević, Marina Abramović, as well as international artists like Joseph Beuys.

Both these spaces are almost as much a part of Macura’s collection as the artworks themselves. They are a testament to the avant-garde movements that shaped the cultural scene in South-Eastern Europe and beyond, as well as to the passion Vladimir Macura has for his art. He even named the addresses of these spaces after the Zenithism art movement: Museum Macura is located on Zenit 1, and Warehouse Macura on Zenit 4.

9. Noguchi Museum

The Noguchi Museum was founded and designed by American-Japanese artist Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) in order to display sculpture and design works self-selected to represent his life’s work. The museum features two floors of exhibition space and a serene sculpture garden. When  the museum opened in 1985, Long Island City, Queens was not yet the the art district it would later become – with the opening of MoMA’s PS1, SculptureCenter and the Museum of the Moving Image, among others. Noguchi deeply believed in the social significance of sculpture and the importance of the public space, which impelled him to design and create his own museum to share with the public, providing an intimate and reflective space to bask in the experience of his work. Here, visitors can experience some of his most awe-inspiring sculptures, as well as his famous Akari light sculptures. The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum in Mure-cho on the island of Shikoku in Japan fulfills Noguchi’s wish to share his former studio with the public as an extension of the New York museum. He worked in this studio in Mure-cho for about six months a year for the last two decades of his life. This collection includes 150 sculptures, many of which have been left unfinished since his death.

10. Moisés Cosío

‘What would you do if your taste as a collector doesn’t align at all with popular opinion?’ Mexican film producer Moisés Cosío has his answer ready. As he told Larry’s List: ‘If it would align I would be worried.’ Cosío was just 23 years old when he started collecting, and often speaks of feeling extremely alienated from the elegant gallery crowd then because of his youth and background. In fact, according to Cosío, once art is hung on the walls of a space it becomes, in a sense, exclusionary. His experiences incited him to start his own foundation, Alumnos47, aimed at creating an inclusive space for everyone to enjoy contemporary art. The Alumnos47 foundation promotes art education and research, and Cosío made a very conscious decision not to have any physical art in the foundation. Instead, there is a cultural space, a publications wing, and an oral archive called ‘Dispersion’ which has collected 135 interviews with young artists from different Mexican states. Cosío’s collection focuses heavily on emerging Mexican artists, though he also acquires pieces by established artists, such as Piero Manzoni and Julius Koller, to give context to the new generation. He owns pieces by contemporary artists like Gabriel Orcozo, Adrian Villar Rojas, Francis Alys and Pablo Helguera. Cosío doesn’t have a gallery space and doesn’t plan to open one. His art hangs in his home and his office, and he partners with museums from time to time to show his pieces. He calls himself a ‘weird’ kind of collector–, the main point is not to own a specific piece, but to have a conversation about art.