By Frits de Coninck
Photograph Jeannine Govaers
You could call him a collector without a collection. This description fits because he almost always immediately contributes any works of art he acquires to the Utrecht Central Museum, Boijmans Museum, Huis Marseille, De Pont, multiple museums in Dunkirk and Reykjavik and the Fondació Joan Miró in Barcelona. He either donates the artworks or places them with the museums on loan, which is actually the same as a promised gift. How would you define collecting? ‘To me it means bringing together objects that resemble and interrelate with each other and then transforming them into one unified entity. While I’m a collector, I prefer to see myself as an art activist, a facilitator. I get an idea, organise the required finances and engage the right artists, curators and museum professionals. This creates something new that I subsequently send into the world.’ Nefkens does not like the term patron because he thinks it sounds old-fashioned and pretentious.
Pipilotti Rist is the connecting thread within the H + F Collection. ‘I first saw an exhibition of her work in Paris back in 1999. It was my first introduction to her work and I was extremely impressed by what I saw. So that’s when I started looking around for Rist artworks and came into contact with Sjarel Ex, the former director of the Central Museum. We attended Art Basel together in 2001 and each made a shortlist of the works we thought were extraordinary. My choice was Rist’s video entitled Cinquante Fifty. I was able to buy it and immediately gave it to the Central Museum on loan. I also facilitated the production of two video pieces: Let Your Hair Down that can be seen in Boijmans Museum and Double Light that I donated to Fundació Joan Miró.’ He is also captivated by the work of Jeff Wall, Sam Taylor Wood, Tony Oursler, Roni Horn and Bill Viola. ‘My collection forms an entity; it is an image of who I am. You can’t remove any of the parts without damaging the whole.’ Virtually everything in the collection is on public view. Nefkens and his partner Filipe live in their apartment surrounded by works of artists including Thomas Ruff, Roni Horn and Shirin Neshat. ‘What draws me to art is the restrained power it embodies that is both subtle and poetic. It’s a force you can feel without having to give it a name straightaway. That’s what counts when you’re making a purchase. First there is the “coup de foudre” and then the question of whether I want to buy the related work of art. I’m not interested in buying one good piece from an artist who for the rest produces only mediocre work. My objective is always to enter into a relationship with the artist.’ Nefkens’ collection is extremely up to date. He has never purchased older works; he is a man of his times. ‘I’ve now stopped buying existing pieces and am focussing fully on commissioning the production of works. As a result I am always ahead of the times. I help pay for something that does not already exist. So it’s always surprising. I recently entered into an agreement with the Boijmans Museum to extend the “Fashion on the Edge” project until 2015. The museum consequently knows what they can count on.’
One of Nefken’s most striking qualities as a collector is his openness. He displays his collection of 440 works online. The way he presents himself as a collector is also rather atypically Dutch. He says it was easier for him to tell people he is HIV positive than it was to say that he is a collector. ‘It took me five years to come out as a collector. Like most Calvinists, I was afraid to present myself as a wealthy man. It’s completely ridiculous of course. If I were to leave my money to a museum after my death, no one would say a word. So why can’t I give it away while I’m still alive? I’ve now overcome my embarrassment. People actually have to know so that they can do the same. And… I share. People can see and enjoy the works at a museum. Art enriches my life. That’s what it is all about – working together with others to create something that would not have been here otherwise.’