Articles and Features

How to add social value to a private collection?

The Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in his Painting Gallery in Brussels

Sylvain Levy
by Sylvain Levy

Sylvain Levy is a collector and, along with his wife Dominique, is one of the principals of the dslcollection, a major collection of Chinese contemporary art. Founded in 2005, the dslcollection promotes the discovery and study of Chinese contemporary artistic production. It embraces innovative technologies in order to foster greater visibility and to provide the means to share the experience of contemporary culture. Openness, the nomadic and sharing are core concepts of the dslcollection.

The purpose of this article is to challenge the common perception of a private collection, and how it can proactively address the social and environmental threats to our individual and collective well-being, outside the realm of collecting art. In order to embrace this challenge, it requires true vision and a strong commitment to serious public engagement. Contrary to conventional wisdom, public engagement goes far beyond increasing audience and generating revenue. I believe that a private collection, through the very human story of its founders, makes it more accessible and empathic than public institutions. It can be a key intellectual resource during times of profound socio-environmental change. To achieve this goal, a collection has to be built in a totally different way. The focus should not only be about having the mission of just ‘amassing something’ but also about ‘being for somebody’.

Firstly it is crucial to put the collection in the context of its time. More than ever, the problems and uncertainties people face are unprecedented, yet the possibilities and opportunities for change and renewal have also never been greater. The word for “crisis” in the Chinese language is “wei ji”, where “wei” means danger and “ji” refers to opportunity. To face this situation we need to adopt a new mindset based on agility and to connect the dots differently.

I am not saying that a private collection could resolve any of our global problems, but it is in a position to at least help to invent a new, desirable future for itself and its communities.

In considering what a collection might actually do to become an agent of change, there are several defining characteristics that make private collections better suited for taking action.

Firstly, a collection of artworks by definition should embody diversity – different artists working with a variety of media and genre. Globalization, sadly, is creating a stultifying degree of sameness.

Secondly, today’s collection should foster online and offline communities. Wendell Berry, the American poet noted that “the real work of planet-saving will be small, humble and humbling”, and that problem solving will require individuals, families and communities.

Thirdly, art collections could be the perfect bridge between the so-called two sub-cultures of sciences and humanities. The magazine Quartz has defined what they call “the core obsessions that drive their newsroom, i.e. defining topics of seismic importance:

– Global economic disruptions
– The ageing effect
– The future of mobility
– The new luxury
– Being human
– The new propaganda
– Machine with a brain
– Developments in China
– The big tech

A collection should constantly be infused by all these topics and mirror them through the art works that are collected, and by the channels of discussion that they can open on social networks.

There are very few other workplaces that offer more opportunities for thinking and acting in ways that could blend personal satisfaction and a social responsibility.

Act on your values and beliefs; rock the boat; fly under the radar, do what you need to do if you feel that something is important and needs to be addressed.

The question facing private collections is this: Can they finally subordinate themselves to concerns that are larger than their own? If they do, they will become more “reality-based”, and by this I mean becoming more involved in the wider world, embracing a sense of urgency, and seeing things as they really are in terms of the challenges to our society.

I am hoping that these suggestions will help expand and challenge conventional perceptions of a private collection.

Relevant sources to learn more

About Artland x dslcollection collaboration
dslcollection column by Sylvain Levy: The New Collectors
dslcollection column by Sylvain Levy: The Virtual Museum
dslcollection column by Sylvain Levy: The challenges facing the art world today
dslcollection profile
Visit the dslcollection