He does not collect, he shares. The man behind the ArtAids Foundation has devoted his life to art – he purchases it to transfer it to museums throughout the world (he currently owns a collection of 450 works which are travelling the world). A sponsor for a modern age.
By Vanessa Graell.
Han Nefkens thinks of himself as an art ‘activist’ – he does not come close to the strict definition of an art collector. Nor indeed does he fit the description of art dealer or even that of artist representative although he does, on occasion, act as a go-between for museums and artists. Nefkens is not a typical Dutch art sponsor (he was born in Rotterdam in 1954) and he has made art his life. Art, in his case, is a life and death issue. In the course of his long struggle against HIV – he was diagnosed with the AIDS virus in 1987 – Nefkens discovered a way of transcending this and of leaving his mark through helping artists of all nationalities and colours. ‘You think of a collector as someone who wants to possess and build up collections of works. I try to do quite the opposite. When there are works that speak to me, move me, ones that I appreciate, I send them out to share them with the world. When all is said and done, creativity is something by the world for the world. It is something that enriches you too. What would you do if you had an enormous chocolate cake? Obviously you could eat is all yourself, but it is more fun to share it.’ This is how Nefkens sums up his philosophy of life. This wandering Dutchman travelled half the world (he studied in France and the United States and lived in Mexico for more than 10 years) before settling in Barcelona. However, Nefkens was not happy merely to set up a standard foundation (he does have one, ArtAids, that he founded in 2001 to raise public consciousness of AIDS through art; ‘the aim was to attract attention, to say that HIV is still there and not to forget that we are living with it,’ he notes), but rather he uses all his economic resources to weave a whole international support network for artists, whether they are emerging talents or established names. Nefkens has been living in Barcelona for two years and has made the city one of his main operational bases. Alfabia, the publishers, have just commissioned translation of his autobiography, Borrowed Time, the Joan Miró Foundation is mounting an exhibition in June of 16 artists from his ArtAids Foundation (which has headquarters in Amsterdam, Bangkok and Barcelona), and discussions are already under way with the Macba about mounting an installation by Iranian artist, Natascha Sadr in La Capella. Not to mention the H+F Collection (H is for Han and F for Felipe, his partner) which already has 450 works by artists such as Tony Oursler, Bill Viola and Olafur Eliasson. That collection is distributed among different museums throughout the world, either on loan or as a donation. The blame for all this lies with Pipilotti Rist, a Swiss artist who changed her name to be more like Pippi Langstrump and whose work is an explosion of colourful pop music, a psychedelic world in which it is easy to lose oneself. And that is what happened to Han Nefkens in Paris, at the Remake of a Weekend exhibition, way back in 1999, at a time when he did not even imagine himself having a collection. ‘Rist aroused my curiosity. I was absorbed by her work. I said to myself “I want to do something in this world.” And I started to make contacts with people in galleries, with museum directors and artists,’ he recalls. Barely months later, Nefkens was already making a contribution to the Centraal Museum in Utrecht, specifically a work by Pipilotti. When she received an award from the Joan Miró Foundation last year, Nefkens also donated a work of his, Double Light, to the museum in Barcelona. ‘Barcelona has a very interesting art circuit but the trouble is that there is no culture of collecting or of active sponsorship.’ But then he came and filled this gap. Dutchman Han Nefkens, a sponsor for a modern age, has settled in Barcelona. Works by ArtAids artists: Elmgreen & Dragse, Shirana Shabazi, Otto Berchem and David Goldblatt. ‘Borrowed’ literature ‘I always feel an uncomfortable lump in my throat when my little sister tells me that I didn’t recognise her whenever she visited me in hospital (…) I know how special it is to be one of the few who have returned from that long journey into savage and unknown territory.’ Han Nefkens is also a writer. And Alfabia has just published his most personal work, Borrowed Time, in which he recounts his long battle with HIV and how he overcame aphasia (he had to re-learn how to read, write and walk). While several of his books have been published in Holland, Borrowed Time is the first to come out in Spain. In it he writes with brutal and understated sincerity, verging on the poetic. Courtesy of Alfabia, Nefkens now moves into literary sponsorship by ‘loaning time’ to a writer with grant that funds a year in which to write a book.