The collector, from passion to reason
Interview with Alex Reding
Loïc Millot: It is common knowledge that the emotion felt in front of artworks can trigger an acquisition. As a gallery owner, what do you think is the determinant element of building a collection?
Alex Reding: I would distinguish two approaches, two very different moments in building a collection. On the one hand, the very instant emotion that an amateur, a collector or a gallery owner can feel in front of a work of art. And on the other hand, the sensitive dimension of a collection, its conceptualization, one might say, extends and is forged in time. These are two distinct phenomena: the first moment is impulsive; the second is much more reasonable and built in the long term.
LM: The aesthetic emotion one may experience in front of an artwork is subjective, with a highly personal dimension and, therefore, sometimes arbitrary. But the constitution of a collection can also pass through more objective criteria – and probably more reassuring – such as the rating of an artist, for example. How important are these criteria to your work as a gallery owner?
AR: You cannot become a collector overnight. It takes time. We must begin by asking ourselves about the motivation that leads to wanting to acquire this or that piece, about the cause of the emotion it causes in us: do we react with our heart or brain? Then comes the justification for this choice – on a more societal level. Hanging artwork on its walls says a lot about ourselves, our passions, commitments, and character, but also regarding how we want to be perceived. And our collection testifies to a way of being, of living, which translates into fundamental choices. One day, I bought an artwork by Gregor Hildebrandt, first because of my connection to the Berlin scene of the 2000s and then because this piece consists of pocketbooks with great texts from German literature – the famous Reclam editions with their characteristic yellow. My parents had been high school teachers, and my report to this work was immediate. And then, of course, there are the more rational factors you mention: a reasonable financial investment, which can be a source of added value; an acquisition of a work of historical stature, the elaboration of a very refine line as to the subject, Back then, the supports, originally. In the end, I would say that there are very heterogeneous profiles of collectors and that a form of circularity between who we are and what we eventually acquire arise.
LM: Do you buy a work based on your habitat, your place of life or, conversely, do you adapt it to the works you buy?
AR: Very often, the acquisition of work is motivated by two external factors: the budget and the space available. Someone rarely buys a piece he does not want to show at home. If the spatial choice represents, at least at the beginning of the process, a decisive condition, very quickly, if the collection grows, it becomes a secondary element. An art collection very quickly escapes the walls. This passion knows no limits; it often reflects a whole life and a range of sensibilities.
LM: How do you think artworks of a collection should be displayed, and how do you value the work for which you have a crush? How do you maintain your original appeal?
AR: This is a sensitive topic for many collectors. A real dilemma arises between the accumulation of works and their valorization. When hanging too many artworks on the walls, the risk is that they suffocate each other. It is up to each one to find the solution that suits him best: either expose everything to report in one go all the finds, an aesthetic journey, a history of gaze, Or prefer a rotating system to display only one piece temporarily while keeping the rest of the collection stored and therefore invisible. Once the space of his home is no longer enough, nothing prevents the collector from pursuing his passion by acquiring other locations to accommodate the works: storage spaces and houses. It means you can share your tastes with as many people as possible, whether you are looking for warehouses or a donation to museums.
LM: The art market is a complex ecosystem. Where does the collector fit in, and what other actors do they have to deal with?
AR: As a consumer located at the end of a production line, it is he, the collector, who guarantees the recipes. The function of the collector is therefore crucial, because its financial support is immediate, and this is in relatively high proportions: the artist generally receives at least 50% of the amount committed to the acquisition if the acquisition goes through a gallery owner – a percentage infrequently found in a production chain! The collector also plays a crucial role in the development of an artist's career path. Acknowledged collectors, including François Pinault, have recently built their museums and foundations. By merely showing artists, collectors give them value, added value. Generally speaking, collectors share their passion with their relatives by hanging artworks, defending artists in which they believe, and creating infatuation. However, this global ecosystem tremendously relies on intermediaries responsible for promoting the artists, such as gallery owners and institutions. Forty years ago, collectors were much closer to artists, including geographically. Even if still today in Luxembourg, we note a persistence of such a privileged link between collectors and artists. Because of the increasing importance of intermediaries, events such as fairs play a crucial role, while museums, especially large-scale national museums, participate in the recognition and rating of artists. Fairs and exhibitions are also fantastic opportunities to discover artists, meet them again, and thus arouse desires for acquisition while keeping the idea of exchange in the foreground. The gallery owner, while at first glance intimidating, loves to interact with the public. Making a work or new positions known remains its primary vocation. But the situation has evolved in recent years. If the gallery owner remains decisive in connecting the collector with an artist, the power of the Internet should not be underestimated.
LM: Collecting is a gesture of transmission, a bridge between the present and the future. How important is the desire to offer a legacy to posterity in the collector’s approach?
AR: It is a source of problems (laughs)! Heirs, unfortunately, rarely share collectors' passion and tastes. And as for transmitting one’s collection to society, through a museum, for example, this is not an obvious step: indeed, the personal criteria according to which one has constituted one’s collection do not necessarily correspond to those of the institution or its priorities. The situation becomes much easier when a collector has concentrated on only a few artists and has been able to build up a large-scale monograph collection more likely to be hosted by a museum. Or when the collector has given himself the task of acquiring only major pieces with a museum dimension.
LM: How does the sale of artwork happen?
AR: It is indeed a choice that the collector can make. We can To lose a part of his collection because we opted for a change of aesthetics or period, but also a single piece that stands out thanks to the extraordinary gain in the fame of the artist – which often implies an extraordinary plus-value of work in the collection – the resale of which will often be used to refinance its collection activity for years to come. We can also separate from certain pieces because, at some point, we run out of space; we then dispose of the artwork that we consider to be the least interesting. It is not always obvious: not only does the value of a piece not necessarily increase, but sometimes it takes time for a piece to find a buyer.
LM: Who exactly resells the part?
AR: Gallery owners or auction houses deal with resales. Collecting is a passion, and the choices of collectors become refined over time. If a piece is carefully selected, its recovery will be easier. It is, therefore, necessary to be well-informed about market trends, the value of the acquired art piece, and its intrinsic quality. The role of the gallery owner is also to help the collector and inform him about intermediaries and career paths.
LM: Can you go into a collection if you have a small budget and little knowledge? What advice would you give a novice?
AR: First of all, I see a definite advantage in having a small budget, If there is a willingness to learn, explore, to discover. It is the only way to move forward. First, you need some leads from museums and flagship artistic events like the Venice Biennale, especially in dialogue with other collectors and gallery owners. It does not exempt from the basis of culture! A good starting point will be to read elemental works of art history and aesthetics – or at least popular books on the subject to acquire some essential milestones and landmarks. And to place art at the crossroads of society, history, economy, politics, a.o. Or from a whole context – exciting – from which it is inseparable.