Public and Private Collections in Dialogue
A discussion with Gábor Ébli
As a sample of many years of research, Gábor Ébli published in 2020 an English-language book intended for an international audience. The multifaceted suggestions of the volume shed light on the possible personal motivations behind collecting art and the dialogue with collection strategies at national and regional levels. A shorter version of this interview appeared in the 6th print issue of Új Művészet in Hungarian. This extended discussion aims to provide insight into some of the key issues covered by the author.
Patrick Tayler: In the first unit of your book, National Museums and Civic Patrons: Practices of Cultural Accumulation in Central and Eastern Europe, you start with delineating the notion of the 19th-century museum investigating the national and more universal tendencies of the period, analysing the interaction of private responsibility and public involvement. What lessons can this outstanding period provide in re-conceptualising contemporary cultural policy initiatives?
Gábor Ébli: It is, in fact, contemporary issues that the book focuses on. But as I aimed it at an international group of readers, I thought it necessary to give an outline concerning the historical background of the discussed questions. It is hard to interpret Hungarian museology without the momentum of the 19th-century Reform Era or the race between the two capitals of the dualistic Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. Similarly, in the chapters discussing the Eastern European sphere, for instance the Polish scene, it is only possible to present a wide range of institutions in cities like Warsaw, Poznan, or Gdansk – still known as „Muzeum Narodowe”, or national museums – if the foreign reader understands that it was due to the former fragmentation of the country that museum development began in several places simultaneously. Therefore, the volume has to span two centuries, even though the focus is on the present. Another major editorial decision – also in connection with the foreign target audience – was that it is worth discussing public institutions and private collections simultaneously. We believed that the book can gain thus an independent profile in the broad English-language literature on issues of museology and the art market. The significance of private founders and donors was decisive in nation-states of our region, which were in formation throughout the 19th century. Without private collections and their ambition to grow into institutions, many museums would not have even been established. It may also come as a surprise to a foreign reader that the role of the private sector remained very important a century later, even in the midst of the communist era. Although only tolerated – due to ideological dogmatism – private collections played a key role in the acceptance of cultural heritage and progressive contemporary art. Actually, the balance of private and public actors is still essential today in the local and global canonization of Eastern European art. The dynamic contemporary museums of the ex-Yugoslav region – such as institutions in Ljubljana, Zagreb, or Belgrade – or the private museum of Grazyna Kulczyk, which has recently moved to Switzerland, as well as large companies collecting contemporary art in the region – Erste Bank in Vienna or Deutsche Telekom in Bonn – each provide an important section of the Eastern European ‘art world’, just as much as the various private collectors who depict the choices of civil society.
PT: You approach the museum as a place where different identities are staged. Ten years ago, in 2011, you wrote about the anomalies of the presentation of the artefacts of non-European civilizations in Parisian museums. Given the discourse surrounding the new definition proposed by ICOM1, urging institutions to meet higher standards of diversity and social justice, how should we establish a museum2 today?
GÉ: This wordplay has been haunting me for more than a decade. It became the title of an earlier book of mine as the book also touched upon the experimental contemporary art museum in the former East German city of Leipzig, which was established as an initiative of, among others, the private collector Arend Oetker; by the way, this is the institution led currently by Franciska Zólyom. Whilst the gesture of a family – famous for its sweets – fits into our previous line of thought concerning the role of private collections, you are right that today there are other issues (also) that have come to the centre of attention. Your reference to the discourse concerning the integration of non-European perspectives into the permanently exhibited material of the Louvre and the dilemmas surrounding, for example, Musée de quai Branly are more relevant than ever! Today, one can only establish a museum authentically with the involvement of those who are concerned. This could entail crossing the shadow cast by the colonial past. For a museum focused on today’s culture, it should be essential to build its programme and collection in cooperation with those who it wants to represent and address. A good example of this would be the process of how the Museum of World Culture in Gothenburg, Sweden, found a path towards a new institutional identity through collaboration a few years ago. During this process, the students of MOME also participated, as well as master students of three other European universities in the context of a group Erasmus scholarship.
PT: You included a painting of Júlia Végh’s 2015 series Fiction of Reality on the cover of your book, and you also refer several times in the volume to the importance of buying works from young artists. What role do collectors play in starting the career of newcomers in the art scene?
GÉ: The cover image is, in fact, part of Júlia Végh’s diploma series. We consciously chose from an artist who has not ‘made it’ yet. I first saw this painting in 2015 as a jury member of the Austrian-based Essl Art Award Central and Eastern Europe, which has since ceased to exist because of the bankruptcy of the supporting company, and thus, can be linked to the book through a regional perspective on art patronage. We were planning originally to use another work from the series for the cover, based on a historical, ’contemporary archaeological’ visual reference; finally, we cast our vote for the current picture because of the bright red colour and the imbedded political irony. Among the theses of the book, this ‘story’ might highlight the exact space that privately funded awards, collections, and other forms of canonization can fill if the official cultural value system is not open enough. The private sector in our region pursues a cultural policy on an independent, almost personal basis.
PT: Besides the most important historical changes in the practices of collecting of art, you also analyse the various factors that motivate art collectors. This is nuanced by 25 case studies, enriched by descriptions of the professional careers and interviews conducted with the respective actors. What are the common threads that bind these professionals around the world?
GÉ: Besides the historical arch, the regional comparison and the integrated presentation of public and private actors, the fourth, decisive editorial principle was indeed an intensive focus on the individual. The volume advocates an idea of history that the individual is not a passive sufferer, but also an active shaper of processes on their own scale. That is why there is a separate chapter dedicated to Tamás Henrik’s Budapest-based gallery in the interwar period, Pál Kövesdy’s art dealership in New York half a century later, or about active collectors, such as László Gerő. My aim was to let these Eastern European actors appear credibly, on a micro-level, as human beings for the foreign reader. This supports the aforementioned research experience that, no matter how different and often contradictory, the motivations of individuals are – spanning from self-realization to visual education to material investment – their activities are essential to the healthy diversity of the art scene.
PT: What impact do the purchases of foreign collectors have on the contemporary market in Eastern Europe?
GÉ: There was a radical change in this area. Around the change of regime, we could talk about a handful of serious customers. We know accurately who bought Hungarian art systematically at the time, for example, the real estate specialist in Stuttgart, Thomas Lützenburger, or the Austrian entrepreneur Gaudens Pedit, or the senator of northern Italy, Roland Riz. The first representative album about a foreign, private collection was published in London titled Shashoua Collection, with analytical texts written by the excellent art historian Ágnes Berecz, who was already working in New York at the time. This was, of course, a relatively narrow circle. This process started similarly in other Eastern European countries, say the largest contemporary selection in Bulgaria was in the hands of the Belgian, since then deceased collector Hugo Voeten: his private museum has been on view in Belgium ever since. Alongside him, Swiss diplomat Gaudenz [sic] Ruf was the most active participant in the contemporary scene in Sofia, and the art award he founded became as defining a measure of value as the Strabag prize was in the Hungarian cultural environment of the 1990s, which was established by the Austrian road construction group Strabag, owned by Hans Peter Haselsteiner, who himself has a huge private collection. In short, most of the impact was initially concentrated in the circle of a few foreign collectors, art sponsors, and investors. This has become since then a diverse fabric, segmented into different areas. Many people buy Eastern European works on the international stage and this also has a spectacular multiplying effect. Going back to the previous Essl Award-winning story, it was a defining experience for me when Diana Keller’s videos won the Essl Award one year, and already at the opening of the winners’ exhibition in Austria one edition was bought by a private collection in Berlin and one by Istanbul’s most important institutional private collection, Arter.
PT: In your book, you examine the situation of public and private collections within a regional context. What are the characteristics of the various collaborations and canonization processes in the area?
GÉ: Looking at a current example, the 30-year jubilee exhibition of the First Hungarian Vision Foundation established at the time of the change of regime by Ákos Vörösváry – a collector since the 1970s – was installed just a while ago in Diszel, near Tapolca, in a creatively renovated mill. In Veszprém, there are two permanent exhibitions of first-class private collections from Budapest: the international, constructive material of László Vass and the Irokéz Collection owned by Gábor Pados, which comprises artworks from the Neo-Avant-Garde of the 1970s to today’s media art installations. A short drive from there, a selection from the international geometric collection of the couple András Szöllősi-Nagy and Judit Nemes will open in Balatonfüred on the 20th of August. The permanent home of this collection will be completed by next spring in two distinctive villas connected by a glass corridor so that the collection will be permanently on view by the onset of the 2023 programmes of the European Capital of Culture. Thus, four private museums will be available for the public on the northern shore of Lake Balaton. This realization – that private collectors and local governments can work together in such complex ways – opens up new perspectives, as it proves that it is not only the flagship institutions such as Ludwig Museum in Budapest, MOCAK in Krakow, or the Hermitage 20/21 programme in St. Petersburg that canonize contemporary art but there is also room for other actors to participate. Equally prominent is the role of specifically private institutions. Lauba in Zagreb, DOX in Prague, Danubiana near Bratislava, or MARE in Bucharest are all privately established museums. The physical location is not necessarily the most essential aspect: the Croatian collector Marinko Sudac has become the owner of one of the most extensive collections in the region, ranging in time from the classical avant-garde to the fall of the Berlin Wall. He showcases his collection on the internet, and by participating in regular guest exhibitions; In Budapest, three different selections from this collection have already been on view on the A38 ship, in the Ludwig Museum and in the Kassák Museum.
PT: This volume is a document of countless discussions. What are the new perspectives that have emerged while working on the book?
GÉ: According to research, the fundamental shift – since the change of regime in 1989 – is the increase in the role of the mediating sphere. Collectors initially purchased artworks predominantly directly from the artist’s studio, and while this personal connection is still important for many today, galleries have become unavoidable, with more and more buyers recognizing the added value they provide into the equation. The question really is to what extent the strengthening Eastern European galleries can hold on to their artists and buyers! Another development is the development of art fairs. The art fair is a relatively new phenomenon globally, not only in our region: its career began in Cologne in 1968, and then in Basel, which has now become the dominant space for the art market. Apart from two limiting circumstances – the economic crisis of 2008 and the recent global pandemic – the range of Eastern European collectors who go to, and even try to shop at, fairs abroad has been growing since the accession of Eastern European countries to the EU and the expansion of the Schengen-zone. Their choices are fundamentally influenced by the fact that they see contemporary art not in the relatively narrow perspective of their own nation-state, but in the broad horizon of global relations. As a result, they think about the status, material, and aesthetic value of Eastern European works in this context. Compared to this, we can speak as yet about fewer collectors who recognise that the art fair as such is a market-driven platform with inevitable distortions and that it is worth supplementing it with a similarly deep knowledge concerning the value judgment of public collections and other professional forums. Really strong private collections, that are valuable in the long-term, are formed by those who actively follow the acquisitions of museums, the shifts of emphasis in permanent exhibitions, and the various professional publications. This process is facilitated to a great extent by the information explosion. A lot of information can be accessed, only this requires conscious research work from the collector’s side. One of the enormous challenges for Eastern European collectors is not to passively rely on the “colourful-attractive” information tsunami flowing to them, as this generates the same consumer attitude in the art sphere as in an average mall. Instead, a collector should try to map out how the “art world” works and make decisions for themselves, based on the sources they choose to rely on. As public visual education in the region is still very poor, it is crucial for an adult collector to understand that art canonization is not an arbitrary process but a learnable one, learned by museum directors and curators, too. No one is born into it. It is not the privilege of a narrow elite. Today, the “mysterious” medium of contemporary art is potentially much more democratic than ever before, as much of the information is readily available. By learning, you can also figure out where and how you can access this.
Pixy Liao: Start your day with a good breakfast together ╱ 2009 ╱ c-print, edition of 1 ╱ 150 × 200 cm ╱ Judit Reszegi Collection ╱ Photo: Blindspot Gallery
1 ICOM (International Council of Museums) established in 1946 defines the general missions of museums. ICOM in certain cases – according to the social shifts and expectations of the time – changes this definition, which delineates the common aims as an ethical codex of sorts.
2 A reference to Gábor Ébli’s 2011 book titled: Hogyan alapítsunk múzeumot? (How should we establish a museum?).