Interview with art critic André Gali on his new book ‘On Collecting’ and the importance of art collecting

Art collecting is a subject that contains many myths. Basically, it is an important part of the infrastructure of the art world. Not only do museums and art collectors improve an artist’s financial situation by buying their work; just as important is the symbolic meaning of the collection. Collecting is a selective process, which has economic, social, political, and art historical implications and consequences for the artist, the art scene and the public. The newly released book ’On Collecting’ opens up this complex battleground of ideas and ideologies and sheds light on the way that art collecting has helped shape the Western identity. Publisher and art critic André Gali reveals his thoughts about the book behind the myth, the role of art collectors in society and the future of art collecting.

What is the motivation behind publishing a book about collecting art?
Obviously, art collecting is a subject that contains many myths, but basically it is an important part of the infrastructure of the art world, and thus in my opinion important to shed light on and discuss. Artists want their work to be bought, but being collected is even better. It is good for the artists’ finances, for their reputation, for their work being preserved and taken care of with the idea of conserving the work and the work’s idea. Collecting something is an expression of not just love and infatuation, but of care for the work. It is also good for the gallery that represents the artists in that through having dedicated collectors they may have a more secure economy to invest in new artists, be at art fairs and so on. However, the selections done by collectors affect not only the artists whose work is being collected, but it has social, political and aesthetical implications as well – so in the end it affects all of us. So understanding how and why people and institutions collect may be helpful in understanding something about what kind of art and artists are being valued in society. After all, the art world is a battleground of ideas and ideologies, and art collecting plays an important role in this.

How did you choose the contributors to be featured in the book?
This particular book took a seminar held in Oslo in October 2016 as starting point. And that seminar took as starting point a conversation between art historian Glenn Adamson, editor of Art in America, Lyndsay Pollock, and myself during a VIP-event in New York in May 2016. In my opinion, what marked that conversation, was the perspectives of private versus public collecting; how in Norway and most of Europe, public institutions are themselves in charge of collecting, while in the US, most institutions receive donations from private collectors. How do that affect what kind of art is shown and discussed and what may appear in a collection? Obviously, public institutions collect on behalf of the country or region or some abstract concept, and private collectors are relatively free to follow a narrow path, particular artists, or whatever, without taking into consideration whether the artists represent something in terms of art history or discourse. For the public collections, economy may also be a determining factor – or the lack of funds – and we see more and more in Norway and Europe that private collections or business collections (which seems to be a growing thing in Norway) lend out their works, deposit works, or donates works.

So, for the seminar in Oslo, we basically wanted to look further at these issues regarding public and private collecting, and we thought we would bring in the aspect of psychology too. The seminar was a collaboration between Public Art Norway (KORO) and Norwegian Crafts and had the title On Collecting: From a Public, Private and Personal Perspective. Margaret Wasz, Trude Schelderup Iversen, Knut Ljøgodt, Nanna Melland, Yuka Oyama, Petter Snare, and Liesbeth den Besten were all in the seminar, and the texts we publish here are more or less edited versions of their lectures. In addition, we invited Glenn Adamson to contribute, as he was part of the conversation in New York that kind of set this whole thing in motion. We felt that the perspective of the private collector was very intriguing and asked also Anthony Shaw and Paul Derrez to contribute with texts. I also got the permission from Gunnar Kvaran, director of Astrup Fearnley Museum in Oslo, to republish a text that sketch up a history of collecting. So that is the elements of the book. Now, why we chose the contributors, I think, we – I say we because I made some of these decisions with my colleagues at Norwegian Crafts and Public Art Norway (KORO) our collaborator for the seminar – wanted to investigate a diversity of approaches to collecting and to look at collecting contemporary art, contemporary crafts and public art. So Liesbeth den Besten writes about the rather narrow field of art jewellery collecting and museum practices in the US and the Netherlands where she is from. Knut Ljøgodt discusses what it means to have a strategy for a museum collection and discusses how Norwegian institutions relate to private collectors, showing some of the challenges of collecting on behalf of the public. Yuka Oyama presents an art project where she approaches different kinds of collectors – a collector of tea pots, a collector of typewriters, a collector of sewing machines etc – to understand and portray the act of collecting and how people and objects relates. Trude Schelderup Iversen gives us a view into how Public Art Norway has become aware of itself as a collector and sheds light on the Norwegian model of collecting through looking at an American collection she knows well. Margaret Wasz is a consultant psychological therapist and shares some of the psychological aspects of collecting with us. So to sum up, diversity was important for me when selecting the contributors for the book.    

Kristin Opem: Uten tittel (Untitled). Vase. Ceramics. 2016. In the collection of the National Museum

Who is the book’s target audience?
We always hope a lot of people will enjoy our books, but our prime audience is the academic world, art critics, curators, artists and people somehow working in the art field. The book is the fourth book in the series Documents on Contemporary Crafts that has the ambition of providing critical thinking about contemporary crafts, and so far, we know that the books are being used by students, artists, curators and critics. They are not very heavy, so I think most people who have some interest in art collecting, can read and enjoy this book.

What would you like the readers to take away from the book?
I want the readers to have some inside information about collecting, to get some knowledge from people who know the field, maybe to understand its complexity, and to remove any intimidation connected with collecting. There is a lot of myths about art collecting – some may be very critical to collecting because of the amount of money that are involved – some may think a collector is an investor who hopes to sell art works for great profit. I don’t say that collectors are not doing that, but at least in the book we are introduced to some collectors who love art, who support artists and who are also dedicated to share what they collect with others through shows, books etc. Then there are myths about museums. What is their responsibility? How does it work? Who are collecting, why and how? You get some answers in the book. And also, in Norway we are seeing an increase in private-public collaborations and have a government who is eager for private money to support art. I think the book addresses some pros and cons with private collections entering public museums and sheds light on some of the challenges connected with donations for instance. I think the latter part should be of interest to politicians and people who want to shape public opinion about art and culture politics.

What is a ‘collector’ in your eyes?
Well, the short version is that a collector is a person who buys art works with a kind of strategy or concept behind it. This is discussed in the book; when are you no longer a buyer of random art works but a collector? I think you need a kind of dedication, and that you need to look for some sort of coherence between artists or artworks you buy. You probably have more artworks than you can show in your apartment, so you have a storage facility of some sort. You start to think about the wellbeing of the artwork, you handle it well and store it well etc. You may start to care about how it came to be, about who the artist is, and about following his or her career. So, I think key words are dedication, knowledge, possibly a strategy or concept of what or who you collect and why, and of course you need a certain amount of money. But like any collector will tell you, you need a lot less money to collect than you think. Petter Snare reveals in the book that he started collecting contemporary ceramics before entering into more conceptual art works. You can get quite good ceramic works at accessible prices. Personally, I buy ceramics, but I don’t consider it a collection – at least not yet – but I also think prints is a good idea to collect. It may not increase in financial value, but it may have importance for you personally, which I guess still is the most important thing for most collectors. That and to be part of a social scene and an informed conversation.

Otto Künzli: Freund. Brooch. Metal, paint. 1998. Photo: Rob Bohle

Private art collecting is often seen as an elitist discipline. Do you intend to open up this field of interest to the wider public by publishing this book?
Absolutely. If the book can be a tool for people to spend money on art and start collecting, it would be most welcome. Also, I think people who read this book may open their eyes to how important art collecting is in society. In Norway, we tend to think that the government is responsible for providing funding and an infrastructure for the art and the artists, but if you read Gunnar Kvaran’s essay ‘The Art of Collecting’ – you may be intrigued by what role private collectors have in the establishing of an art world, not to think of how private collecting has shaped the identity of the Western society.

Did you select the art works represented in the book based on a particular set of criteria?
Well, to be honest, I selected the art works I personally felt were important. So to the degree that the essays – and the collections mentioned – allowed it, it is quite a statement of my own preferences. Obviously, I made a selection together with the writers and the designer, and what was available of photography, but I feel that the imagery gives a kind of map into my own interests in art: I love the idea of having a book where you find works by conceptual artists such as Marius Engh and Matias Faldbakken together with works by textile artists such as Franz Schmidt and Hanne Friis, ceramics works by Nao Matsunaga and Kristin Open together with public sculptures by Siri Aurdal. Not to mention jewellery by Otto Künzli. It symbolizes what I tried to do with the book, blur the boundaries between different fields of art – to insist that art collecting has similarities across disciplines – a bit like what Liesbeth den Besten mentions in her essay in the book about art jewellery being a small field for a few connoisseurs, but in relation to museum policies it may shed light on important issues that affect other kinds of museums and collectors.

I want the readers to have some inside information about collecting, to get some knowledge from people who know the field, maybe to understand its complexity, and to remove any intimidation connected with collecting.

Which aspect is given more attention, the text or the photos?
Well, the book is definitely a text-heavy book, but I do think the photos are very important. You couldn’t really have a book about art collecting and no pictures.

Art collectors have always played an important part in the arts and crafts infrastructure. In your opinion, how has art collecting changed in the light of changes in society and how is this expressed in the book?
I think that collecting as we see it today has been evolving since the 1960s and mirrors the development in contemporary art practices to a certain degree. One thing that has happened in the post-war era is that art has become a token for middle class people who want to show that they belong to high culture. You don’t have to be Pierre Bourdieu to see that art collecting plays an important role in a social game of status and social belonging. However, I don’t think that Pop Art in the 60s would have developed into what it became, and have that kind of importance as it had and has, if it was not for collectors who felt they could relate to this kind of art. Maybe they didn’t understand Jackson Pollock and the abstract expressionists, but they could relate to Andy Warhol and a soup can. If you read Noah Horowitz’s amazing book Art of the Deal: Contemporary Art in a Global Financial Market from 2011, you can learn a lot about how art production, art collecting and the overall society relates. Today, in my opinion, there is an obvious connection between the increase in material-based practices like textile and ceramic, art collectors and society at large. I think it is a symptom of the state of uncertainty that still dwell upon us after the financial crises in 2008, and all the political turmoil that we have seen around the world since. Whether or not his is well expressed in On Collecting I am not sure. In the end, we discuss collecting very much in terms of being within the system and wanting to reveal some of the structures. However, as Glenn Adamson points out in his essay, the studio crafts movement was in many ways built by collectors, so I think it is clear that collectors – and the market – have a strong influence on what is being made. 

What is your view on the future of collecting?
Well, as the discussions in the book deals with on different levels, I think we will see more interplay between private and public collections. Something that is not so much discussed in the book, but that I have experienced over the last few years, is that collectors may not be equally dedicated to a medium or a style as they used to. Both jewellery dealers and dealers of glass art have told me that the collectors who dedicated themselves to these mediums are growing old, and many of them will donate their collections to museums, but the new young collectors seem to be less occupied with the material discourse per se – if it is artistically interesting, it doesn’t matter if it’s glass art, jewellery art, ceramics, conceptual art, video art, or performance. This change has its pros and cons obviously. In terms of supporting an artist or a gallery, one can admire the dedicated collector who functions almost in terms of a patron. On the other hand, I think collectors should be bold and follow artists into the unknown – to collect art that doesn’t necessarily have an immediate recognition in the overall art world, or the society at large. In this respect, it may not be logical to follow just one type of medium or one kind of material-based practice. Collectors approach the act of collecting differently and will continue to do so in the future, and I think we will only see more people starting to collect. As Petter Snare points out in his essay, “the social and intellectual aspects of collecting should not be underestimated”. I don’t want to try to predict what collecting may be in the future – it will of course be dependent on what kind of art is being made and the relationship between artists and collectors – but I think it is safe to say that art as social marker will continue to have importance, and maybe have importance for more and more people. After all, art provides identity, intellectual challenges, and conversations.

Hanne Borchgrevink: Husdikt 5. Painting. 2010. Jan Groth: Tegn IV. Textile. 1989. From the apartment of Petter Snare and KD Christiansen. Photo: Elisabeth Aarhus
Nao Matsunaga. Unknown, Unnatural, Unreal I. Glazed ceramic, stone, acrylic paint. (18 x 23.5 x 13 cm) 2015. © Nao Matsunaga. The Anthony Shaw Collection/York Museums Trust