He is one of Europe’s foremost collectors, he collaborates with the Museum Boijmans in Rotterdam in the production of new works, and he was recently honoured with two major Spanish art collecting prizes, the ARCO and GAC Catalan galleries’ awards. For Han Nefkens, patronage is equivalent to commitment.
He has not purchased a single artwork since 2006, but he is nonetheless one of Europe’s most committed collectors. Han Nefkens was born in Rotterdam in 1954, but lived and worked all over the world before arriving in Spain, more specifically in Barcelona. Invited by Foto Colectania Foundation to show his work in the Catalan capital, Nefkens ended up making the city his home. His collection has continued to increase substantially in the years that followed, but only through specific works that he himself finances. Nefkens has gone one step further in private art collecting.
From the outset, Nefkens’ modus operandi differed from that of other art collectors. One day, as he was visiting a Pipilotti Rist exhibition during a 1999 trip to Paris, he decided. “I want to be part of this world of art,” he told himself. But he did not want his role to be that of a buyer who wants to decorate his living room, and he was even less interested in buying works and keeping them in storage. Nefkens wanted to share the art. “I mulled over how to do it for a year, until I met the then-director of the Centraal Museum at Utrecht, Sjarel Ex. I shared my concerns with him and we came to an agreement that my purchases would go directly into this museum in The Netherlands as long-term loans. And from there, similar collaborations developed with other art centres.” So that’s exactly what happened with his first purchases: Bill Viola, Tony Oursler and, of course, Pipilotti Rist.
BUYING FOR MUSEUMS
Is this approach to buying reflected in the H+F Collection?
Yes, of course. I own 450 works by 87 artists, and I’ve bought more than one work by almost all of them, sometimes from different periods to show the way they evolve, sometimes whole series of photographs. Right from the start I wanted to buy artworks without worrying about their size. I bought sculptures and installations, huge pieces, always with the museum in mind.
But Nefkens, who is incidentally also a writer, could not stop there. His restless and committed nature led him to the next level. “Once I’d spent some time collaborating with museums, I realised that one of the challenges that artists face is the lack of funding to produce their works. Over the past five years, I’ve commissioned and produced specific works, sometimes at the suggestion of a museum, other times in collaboration with one.” And this has also given rise to the pieces that belong to his two foundations, ArtAids and H+F.
“The aim of the ArtAids Foundation is to raise public awareness of AIDS and to destigmatise it. I am HIV positive, and it’s important to me. These artworks are inspired by HIV, but almost always metaphorically. They’re related to big ideas such as isolation, for example, but they’re also about the joy of living,” he explains.
So he soon began to prioritise this way of working with artists and museums. “I like commissioning as a working method – it’s a vote of confidence in the artist. It leads to a whole new work being created for a particular space, a museum. The artist is happy to have produced a new piece, the museum is happy to have a new, specific work, and I’m happy because I’ve been able to accompany the whole creative process. I feel like a midwife, assisting at the birth.”
Did you always realise that your collection was more than just a private matter?
A collection is a private passion that benefits the public. Art is a reflection of the world, made for the world. And the more people who see it, the better.
Have you ever considered running your own exhibition space?
Never. I like working with different institutions. I collaborate with the Museum Boijmans in The Netherlands, and in Barcelona I work with the Miró Foundation – I produced one of the works for its Pipilotti Rist exhibition – and with MACBA, where we’ve just set up this new 50,000 prize for the production of a new work by a non-Western artist.
MUCH MORE THAN EUROPE
And this leads us to another of Nefkens’ interests: so-called “peripheral” art makes up a significant part of his collection. Some of his favourites include works by Zwelethu Mthethwa, Rinko Kawauchi and Manit Sriwanichpoom, artists from South Africa, Japan and Thailand, respectively. “The world is much more than Europe and the USA, there are some very interesting artists in places that I had never heard of. I go out of my way to get to know these artists, I’ve lived in many countries and I travel a lot, I’m cosmopolitan, and this has shaped my understanding of art” says Nefkens, who has lived in London, the United States, France and Mexico and spent long periods in Thailand. He settled in Barcelona because he loves the Mediterranean lifestyle, “the people on the streets, the long Sunday lunches, the blue sky. Barcelona’s art scene is quite active, and they’ve welcomed me with open arms.”
Even so, Carmela García and Prudencio Irazábal are the only two Spanish artists in your collection. Does this mean you aren’t interested in Spanish art?
It actually reflects the lack of Spanish artists on the international scene. Between 2001 and 2006 I was buying art at the big fairs in Basel, London and New York, and at the major galleries, and there are not many Spanish artists there. But this doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in Spanish art. In fact, we collaborated with several Spanish artists for the first ArtAids exhibition in Barcelona in 2009.
Your collection suggests that you are very loyal to a relatively small group of artists.
It’s important to follow artists. Commissioning a work means making a commitment to the artist and to his or her work. And this endures in time, there’s no reason why it should only happen once.
What makes a good collection?
A good collection should be a reflection of the collector. Seeing the works should give you a sense of the buyer’s personality, of the person who is behind it. A series of 100 works by 100 different artists is a dispersed collection, and the same goes for generic collections that bring many fashionable artists together but don’t say anything about the collector.
Has art changed you?
Absolutely. Art isn’t just a way of seeing the world; it’s also a way of showing the world who I am. Thanks to art, I actively form part of the world.