The art collectors turned creative collaborators

Leading collectors are taking their passion for art to a new level, becoming hands-on collaborators with like-minded artists to create works of agenda-setting impact and ambition. Emma Crichton-Miller meets them

The indigenous Amazonian Huni Kuin people inspired this project artist Ernesto Neto staged at collector-patron Francesca von Habsburg’s Vienna gallery, TBA21, in 2015
The indigenous Amazonian Huni Kuin people inspired this project artist Ernesto Neto staged at collector-patron Francesca von Habsburg’s Vienna gallery, TBA21, in 2015 | Image: Reto Guntli

Last summer, in her gallery in Vienna’s lush Augarten park, the collector and patron Francesca von Habsburg opened a landmark exhibition. Tidalectics, its title inspired by a play on words by the Barbadian poet-historian Kamau Brathwaite, included installations, videos, sound art and scientific presentations created by a group of cross-disciplinary artists and scientists who had joined von Habsburg on a voyage of exploration around the Pacific Ocean, the North Atlantic and the Caribbean. 

Artist Ernesto Neto and collector-patron Francesca von Habsburg
Artist Ernesto Neto and collector-patron Francesca von Habsburg | Image: Irina Gavrich, courtesy of TBA21
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Von Habsburg learnt to scuba dive aged 17 and the ocean has been a lifelong passion. In 2011, she launched the first of what has become a series of expeditions on an explorer vessel, Dardanella, to study the health of the oceans as an indicator of human impact on the planet. She herself takes part in these journeys, diving with the artists, curators, oceanographers and zoologists who make up the research team. Last November, she opened new headquarters for these operations, TBA21-Academy, in London.

Von Habsburg with the indigenous Amazonian Huni Kuin people
Von Habsburg with the indigenous Amazonian Huni Kuin people | Image: TBA21
Von Habsburg diving at the East Portland fish sanctuary
Von Habsburg diving at the East Portland fish sanctuary | Image: TBA21

Von Habsburg is one example of a new breed of collector for whom the acquiring of artworks has become secondary to ongoing collaborations with artists, supporting, encouraging and even taking part in their creative projects. The daughter of Baron Hans Heinrich von Thyssen-Bornemisza de Kászon (once one of the world’s wealthiest art collectors), von Habsburg racketed rebelliously through her 20s as an It girl, before switching tack dramatically to focus her efforts on conserving churches during the wars in former Yugoslavia. In 2002 she founded TBA21, a contemporary art foundation in Vienna. The way she tells it, this was a ruse to give herself the credibility to purchase a sound work by Canadian artist Janet Cardiff, with which she had fallen in love. Cardiff had made it clear that she wanted to sell to an institution rather than to a private individual, however wealthy. The nonprofit TBA21 Foundation not only gave von Habsburg the platform she needed to secure the piece, but also to pursue her new passion for working with artists at a deeper level

A drawing by Eduardo Navarro, from the Tidalectics show at von Habsburg’s TBA21 gallery
A drawing by Eduardo Navarro, from the Tidalectics show at von Habsburg’s TBA21 gallery | Image: Eduardo Navarro and Nara Roesler, 2017
Argentinian artist Tomás Saraceno
Argentinian artist Tomás Saraceno | Image: Christoph Neumann, 2017

The scale of her ambitions became clear in 2006 when she supported a grand and quixotic art project that saw an industrial container barge travel up the Danube from the Black Sea to Vienna, showcasing a work by Turner Prize nominee Kutlug Ataman. Von Habsburg first saw Ataman’s video project, Küba, in 2005 when it was shown at a disused postal sorting office in London. It featured 40 video monitors, each relaying the personal story of a resident of Küba, a shanty town inhabited by Kurdish refugees in Istanbul. “This work went so precisely into the Kurdish community, you identified with their humanity,” von Habsburg says. But Ataman, who was born in Turkey, wanted this work – which was so much about relationships between insiders and outsiders, about the borders we establish between Europe and not-Europe – to find an audience beyond the tiny, privileged art world it had hitherto inhabited. In von Habsburg, whose grandfather was a Hungarian baron and whose husband is the grandson of Austria’s last reigning emperor, he found the ideal collaborator. At every stop the barge made along the ancient waterway and cultural faultline, von Habsburg commissioned creative responses to Ataman’s enquiry. As she says, “This was huge personally. I learnt an incredible amount about where I come from, the issues and the people. And I learnt how an artist’s work can be a powerful tool in embracing a difficult topic. From then on, I wanted to do projects like that.” 

Caroline and Eric Freymond, who run Espace Muraille, a publicly accessible exhibition space in Geneva, share a concern for the environment with Argentinian artist Tomás Saraceno
Caroline and Eric Freymond, who run Espace Muraille, a publicly accessible exhibition space in Geneva, share a concern for the environment with Argentinian artist Tomás Saraceno | Image: Studio Harcourt
Tomás Saraceno's Aerocene balloons, on show at Paris’s Grand Palais in 2015, explore the theme of climate change
Tomás Saraceno's Aerocene balloons, on show at Paris’s Grand Palais in 2015, explore the theme of climate change | Image: Studio Tomas Saraceno, 2015

Since then, she has built TBA21 into a vehicle for the support of artists who share her concerns for human justice, the environment and, above all, the state of the oceans. These include international figures such as the Danish-Icelandic Olafur Eliasson, the Indian artist-filmmaker Amar Kanwar, and Ernesto Neto, who, in 2015, presented at TBA21 a project inspired by the ritual spaces of the indigenous Amazonian people, the Huni Kuin – von Habsburg herself travelled up the Amazon with Neto to meet them. “Artists can transform their epoch, as they did in the Renaissance,” she says. “I find it incredibly fulfilling to be an enabler.” 

Work by Charles Jencks at Jupiter Artland
Work by Charles Jencks at Jupiter Artland | Image: Allan Pollok-Morris
Jupiter Artland founders Robert and Nicky Wilson
Jupiter Artland founders Robert and Nicky Wilson | Image: Paul Vicente

Of course, there have always been patrons. And today there are many preeminent philanthropic collectors who amplify their collecting activities by establishing foundations or private museums or by providing loans, donations of work, prizes or bursaries. For an increasing number, however, it is this experience of walking alongside the artists to further their creative vision that is the primary reward and impetus. As French curator and art adviser Laurence Dreyfus observes, in her experience, leading collectors of contemporary art “are no longer satisfied with acquiring the objects. They also want to move on to the next level of patronage and co-production, and become more professional actors in the art world.” She cites Turin-based Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo and Eric and Caroline Freymond, for whom she has acted as adviser and latterly curator for their publicly accessible exhibition space in Geneva, Espace Muraille.

Work by Cornelia Parker at Jupiter Artland
Work by Cornelia Parker at Jupiter Artland | Image: PA Archive/PA Images
Rodney Graham performing at DRAF
Rodney Graham performing at DRAF | Image: Josh Redman

“It is very important for us to know the artist, to understand the source and quality of their creativity,” says Eric. “We don’t want to collect to have a collection, but because we love the artists – the skill and the spirit behind the work.” One key driver for the Freymonds is concern for the environment: “Italian sculptor Giuseppe Penone and Argentinian artist Tomás Saraceno are important for us because we love nature and the idea of the preservation of the ecosystem. This is our hope – that artists may see a way into the future.” Eric wants to support “ways of thinking and feeling that are new”. For him, it is a form of political action. “A collection can be a message for the future.” 

Art collectors David Roberts and Indre Serpytyte
Art collectors David Roberts and Indre Serpytyte | Image: DRAF
Leopold Weinberg, a real-estate developer, hotelier and restaurateur for whom collaborations with artists have become integral to his business
Leopold Weinberg, a real-estate developer, hotelier and restaurateur for whom collaborations with artists have become integral to his business | Image: Fabio Massimo Aceto, 2017

The couple supported the display of Saraceno’s Aerocene balloons at Paris’s Grand Palais in 2015 to make as loud a noise as possible about solar energy and climate change during the UN climate talks. In January, their gallery opened a solo exhibition of work by Eliasson. “We first met in his Berlin atelier,” Caroline remembers, “a former brasserie and chocolate factory transformed into a research laboratory effervescent with creativity, where a vast team of scientists, artists, film directors, architects, archivists – even gardeners and chefs – toil in the service of an experimental and innovative vision of the world.” Eliasson’s ability to transform viewers’ experience of space through his manipulation of light and colour also appeals to the Freymonds, whose contemporary art collection has a strong light theme. So impressed have they been by his thinking that they are going next summer to Iceland, a fundamental source of inspiration for Eliasson. “It will enable us,” Caroline remarks, “to further perceive – and with greater acuity – the importance that light, atmospheric time and raw nature play in the artist’s approach.”

Pages from the book Artist’s Recipes, commissioned by Weinberg, which features original works by numerous contemporary artists (Roger Ballen’s work shown here)
Pages from the book Artist’s Recipes, commissioned by Weinberg, which features original works by numerous contemporary artists (Roger Ballen’s work shown here) | Image: Studio Jahic / Roethlisberger
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Collectors’ involvement with their favoured artists is carried even further by Nicky Wilson, who, with her husband, Robert, has transformed their Jacobean home outside Edinburgh into a vibrant art centre, Jupiter Artland. Over the past 19 years they have commissioned a succession of now-renowned artists – Charles Jencks, Anish Kapoor, Cornelia Parker and Andy Goldsworthy among them – to create site-specific pieces in the wooded landscape surrounding the house, while mounting exhibitions in the converted ballroom and adjacent gallery. All of this is open to the public, alongside an extensive education programme. Friendships with artists have grown out of long-term commitment. “This is not a classic curator- or collector-artist relationship,” says Nicky, herself a trained artist. “When artists come here they collaborate with a team. It is an open dialogue.” She and Robert walk the artists through the landscape, explaining why things are placed as they are. “We really do understand the geomancy of the land; we are always here, walking the dogs, supervising the artists, knocking them onto another space. The artworks channel something unspoken in the landscape, but apparent to those of us who live here.” 

As well as working with the Jupiter Artland production teams, artists stay in the house for two or three weeks at a time, sharing it with the Wilsons’ seven dogs and four children. “Sometimes they reveal perhaps more than they intend – it is easier over five bottles of wine!” says Nicky. Some even use the Wilsons as their subject. For last year’s launch of the Glasgow-based Italian artist Marco Giordano’s temporary outdoor sculptural project, Self-Fulfilling-Ego, 20 members of the public were invited to join him in a drawing workshop in the house’s ballroom, painting parts of Nicky and Robert’s faces – eyes, nose, lips, ears, hair – using ink, collage, oil paint, enamel paint and pastel.

Besides the privilege of being plugged into a diverse and stimulating art scene, Wilson admits that the real pleasure for her “is sitting in my kitchen and having a coffee with an artist”. She adds, “Our entire family gets to meet remarkable people with a remarkable take on life, and to have remarkable conversations. It feeds our souls.” She is delighted that this summer her old teacher, Phyllida Barlow, who represented Britain at the Venice Biennale last year, has agreed to create a work outside.

While the Wilsons have pursued their own vision of sculpture in the landscape, David Roberts, one of Britain’s quietest but most active collector-patrons, has been enticed through his patronage into new and pioneering territory. He and his Lithuanian wife, Indre Serpytyte, a fine-art photographer, have amassed over 2,000 pieces by 600 artists, including such blue‑chip names as Damien Hirst, Louise Bourgeois, Andy Warhol, Anish Kapoor and Sarah Lucas. But it is for his support of performance art in the UK that Roberts has become renowned. As early as 2007, when he opened the not-for-profit David Roberts Art Foundation (DRAF) in Fitzrovia, video played a prominent part, and as the foundation grew in ambition under curator Vincent Honoré, performance became increasingly a central feature of its public programming. Roberts has explained that part of the appeal for him, as the husband of a Lithuanian, is his recognition that performance art developed primarily under repressive regimes, “places where painting and sculpting were censored but performance was a means of self-expression”. Even before Tate opened new performance spaces in its underground concrete oil storage Tanks at Tate Modern in 2012, DRAF had become a byword for this difficult-to-accommodate art form. Headliners over the past few years have included Canadian artist and musician Rodney Graham, YBA Sarah Lucas and 2008 Turner Prize nominee Goshka Macuga. DRAF’s 10th Anniversary Party at music venue KOKO in Camden was one of the hot tickets during last year’s Frieze Week, drawing over 1,000 fans. “We provided a space for artists and audiences,” says Roberts. “They felt welcomed and at home.” In turn, he and his wife have been led in directions Roberts had not imagined when he set up DRAF. “Besides the enjoyment, I am delighted to have helped allow performance art to flourish,” Roberts explains. He is now on the cusp of a new challenge. Fatoş Üstek has been appointed director and chief curator, while Honoré has taken up the post of senior curator at the newly reopened Hayward Gallery. DRAF has sold its London base, and plans are afoot to take projects to the regions. As Roberts says, “What we have done in the past has excited curators and artists alike. Now we can aim for the sky.”

For Leopold Weinberg, a young Zurich-based real-estate developer, hotelier and restaurateur, collaborations with artists have become a central part of the aesthetics of his business. Through his company We Are Content – which transforms hotels, restaurants and other public spaces through gastronomy, architecture and art – he has embarked on a series of artist-led projects with his friend, the gallerist Stefan von Bartha. In 2014 Weinberg invited Bob and Roberta Smith (the pseudonym of British artist Patrick Brill) into the Volkshaus brasserie in Basel, initially to paint two of its bars. The artist stayed on, created three panel pieces for the space and helped curate a week-long art party during Art Basel. The following year at the Volkshaus, Weinberg hosted the launch party for a book, Artist’s Recipes, by Swiss duo Admir Jahic and Comenius Roethlisberger. It included recipes and original artwork from 81 contemporary artists – including Marina Abramovic, Erwin Wurm, Ryan Gander and Anish Kapoor. At the charity fundraising auction of all the original artwork, attended by many of the artists, Weinberg bought the entire lot for about £19,000, inspiring another enthusiast to donate a similar amount. 

These pages are now framed and distributed among his properties and prints of them are tablemats in his restaurants. Weinberg acknowledges that “this is not conventional collecting”. But it is this cooperation and sense of shared purpose that animates him. As he puts it, “A crazy collaboration between 81 artists, a gallerist and a mad collector! Sometimes something magnificent happens.”

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