Henny de Lange interview with Han Nefkens
He was spoon-fed art as a child and his family has never had to worry about money. Even so, it was not self-evident that Han Nefkens would become a patron of the arts. Millionaires who plough their money into art are rare in the Netherlands. But Nefkens gladly spends the family fortune on art. ‘It is satisfying when others can enjoy art that you value.’
Han Nefkens is sitting in the lobby of a 5-star hotel in the centre of Amsterdam. Relaxed, as if he is in his own living room. The staff treat him more like a member of the family than a guest. That’s not so surprising given that he has been staying here for twelve years. Almost every month he leaves his hometown of Barcelona to visit the Netherlands for a few days. He prefers to stay in a hotel. ‘In an apartment you have to go to the shops. Here I have everything. They know me and the people are very kind. I consider this my home in the Netherlands.’ And he can afford it.
Han Nefkens (1954, Rotterdam) is a wealthy man, thanks to the capital amassed by his 92-year-old father. Nefkens Sr. did good business as a property developer and architect during Rotterdam’s post-war reconstruction. Every year Han Nefkens spends hundreds of thousands of euros on contemporary art, which he gives on long-term loan to museums. Ownership of the works will pass to the museums upon his death. He also supports artists by awarding commissions.
Nefkens is therefore a true patron of the arts, even if he doesn’t like the stuffy term. For many years he kept his patronage a secret. Art activist is a description that suits him better because he not only buys art but also initiates projects and develops works together with museums and artists. With his contemporary cultural patronage, Nefkens occupies a unique position in the Dutch art world, which is kept afloat for the most part by government subsidies. But given the cuts awaiting the cultural sector, art institutions will need to rely increasingly upon private sources of income, including patrons.
Should the arts become less reliant upon the government?
‘I applaud private support of the arts sector, because it leads to greater social commitment to art. But it must not be either-or. The government must continue to support the arts. When there are cuts, art is quickly seen as just a frill. But in that respect the sector itself is also to blame. Why is it incapable of making it clear to others that art is of great importance to society, that art is necessary to remain a civilised country?’
As an eight-year-old boy, Han Nefkens loved to spend his Wednesday afternoons at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, where he would spend hours looking at a painting by Kees van Dongen. His parents also took him to museums and auction houses. In short: he was spoon-fed art as a child.
For you it is clear that art makes a positive contribution to society. But perhaps you could explain that to people who have little or nothing to do with art and absolutely no affinity with difficult contemporary art and experimental theatre.
‘It’s easy for me to empathise with such people precisely because for many years I too understood nothing of contemporary art. Until twelve years ago I considered it an elitist activity for a small self-supporting clique. I was very sceptical about it and considered it to be the emperor’s new clothes.’
And now you are one of the biggest patrons of contemporary art in the Netherlands. How did you turn from a confirmed hater to a lover and even sponsor?
‘Out of curiosity. I had seen an intriguing video by the artist Pipilotti Rist in Paris in 1999. The work was entitled Remake of a Weekend. Images of a naked woman in the rain were projected onto kitchen cabinets; pink-red clouds floating across lampshades. I was curious to know more. I started to do research and to look very consciously at art. I constantly asked myself: what am I looking at? What is the artist trying to tell us? I talked to people about it and gradually trained my intuition to distinguish between good and bad. And all under my own steam, because as a visitor in many museums and galleries you are left to work things out for yourself. There is still too little education. Museums should explain much more about what is on show and why it is so special. As long as they don’t do that, it should come as no surprise that the outside world views contemporary art as the emperor’s new clothes.’
And when did you decide to start buying contemporary art?
‘I have always bought art to hang at home. But as I began to take a greater interest in contemporary art, I wanted to share that with others and not keep it to myself. Through an encounter with Sjarel Ex, then the director of the Centraal Museum in Utrecht, I arrived at the idea of buying art that his museum was unable to afford. We developed the idea together. The works of art remain my property during my lifetime and the museum is obliged to exhibit them once every five years, because I don’t buy art for the cellar. I decide myself what I buy. If Sjarel doesn’t want it, it goes to another museum. We went to the art fair in Basel and realised that we are often interested by the same things. I bought works there by Pipilotti Rist, Tony Oursler and Bill Viola. When Sjarel became director of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen I set up H + F Patronage with him because he is capable of turning a museum into an open and exciting institution that people want to visit.’
What do the letters H + F stand for?
‘Han and Felipe. Felipe has been my partner for 32 years. He is Mexican. I met him when I was 24 after moving to Mexico, where I worked for many years as a journalist. It was love at first sight.’
Why only the initials? To remain anonymous?
Yes, because I consider it not done to advertise your charitable work. I remained behind the scenes for the first five years.
Why did you finally ‘come out’ as a patron in 2005?
‘That was when I donated an installation by the artist Olafur Eliasson to Boijmans. At that point I agreed that I would support Boijmans for five years with an annual budget of 200,000 euros per year for purchasing contemporary art. [For Boijmans that was more than double their acquisitions budget, ed.] For me that was the moment to break with anonymity, because I realised that I could function as an example to others. People usually leave their art collections to museums upon their death. I want to show that it gives you much greater satisfaction to donate works to museums during your own lifetime.’
Where does this satisfaction come from?
‘From sharing with others. I always compare it with reading a good book and then wanting to pass it on to someone else. It is satisfying when others can enjoy art that you value. And you also help the museums, whose budgets are becoming tighter. I also commission artists to make works specially for a specific museum. When it is ready I give it on long-term loan to the museum.’
It is obviously easier to give if you are rich.
‘I have financial means, but I also have a budget with limits. When it’s gone, it’s gone. But I am enormously privileged, even if there are disadvantages to being wealthy.’
‘If you have lots of money, you have to make choices about what to spend it on. Sometimes I experience that need to make choices as a disadvantage. If you support one cause, you cannot help another. Another downside to wealth is the begging. People can be utterly shameless.’
You want to inspire other people to sponsor art. But surely most people don’t have money to do that?
‘It is a misunderstanding that only the rich can be patrons. People who have far smaller means can also do something. If each of a group of twenty friends puts aside
2000 euros per year, then you have 40,000 euros. With that money you can buy a work of art and lend or donate it to a museum. Or you could circulate it among the twenty partners. For that amount you could pay for a residency for a foreign artist. Or you could fund a beautiful catalogue; there’s never money for that. There is so much that you can do, but people are not aware of it.’
There are very few Dutch millionaires apart from the theatre producer, Joop van den Ende, and the founder of TomTom, Pieter Geelen, who put their money into art.
‘That’s because everything in our society is conceived of in terms of money. And lack of familiarity also plays a part. Like all respectable people, I too initially invested in stocks and shares without realising that you can do other things with your money that give you more satisfaction and which is also good for the world.’
Does art contribute to a better world?
‘Definitely. Art is important because it holds a mirror up in front of us. We need to reflect upon ourselves in order to remain civilised. Art teaches us to look with new eyes at ourselves and the world. A good example is the installation by Olafur Eliasson, which consists entirely of water, light and wood. The visitor walks across a wooden platform that activates ripples in the water on the gallery floors, creating fantastic lighting effects. When you come outside you look very differently at the fountain in the garden of Museum Boijmans.’
In addition to installations, your collection also includes photographs, paintings and condom dresses. What is the common thread in your purchases?
‘I like tranquil art best: art with a modest power. And it shouldn’t be finite; it should leave something open that sets you thinking, which you can complete yourself.’
Nefkens’ collection now contains 440 works all of which are housed in museums. In the Netherlands these are Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, the Centraal Museum in Utrecht, De Pont in Tilburg and Huis Marseille in Amsterdam. He also supports museums in France, Germany and Spain. Nefkens has a structural partnership with Boijmans. Over the next five years the museum will receive a total of 750,000 euros to acquire fashion that borders on the visual arts.
‘I am interested in fashion, above all in designers who wish to make clothing that couldn’t normally be made because there is no market for it. My first purchase in this area was seven condom dresses during an Aids conference in Bangkok.’
Can you say something about your involvement in Aids projects?
‘In addition to my art patronage I have also founded ArtAids, which is active in Thailand and Spain. I sponsor artists who want to make art about Aids and stigma. Art can function as a vehicle for opening up discussion. This is really necessary in countries like Thailand. Schoolchildren come to look at the exhibitions and are therefore encouraged to talk about this subject. In the West everyone thinks that the HIV virus can be kept in check with medication, but it is extremely expensive. In Thailand ArtAids provides children and their families with medication that they otherwise would not receive. And we support scientific research in Spain.’
You seem to speak from experience.
‘Yes, I am HIV positive and take nine pills at set times every day, which help me even if they have horrible side effects. But my health has been good for years.’
When did you discover that you are HIV positive?
‘I was diagnosed in 1987 and I was utterly astonished. I was living in Mexico and went to a doctor because I had had chest problems for some time. I frequently had bronchitis, which I blamed on the air pollution. The doctor wanted to test me for HIV because I’m gay. I was angry that he made that connection, but he was right.’
Three years later you discovered that your brother was also HIV positive.
‘Yes, and gay, which I didn’t know. I had come out at an early age. And it wasn’t a taboo at home, but my brother never told us until he got a lung infection and was diagnosed HIV positive. He died fifteen months later because his resistance was already low when the illness was diagnosed. He was also less disciplined about taking his medication. Although I had known for a few years that I was HIV positive, my brother’s death brought about a change in my thinking. It was suddenly a reality that I too could die. I thought: and now I’m going to do all the things I want to do, such as travelling and doing fun things with my friends. And I also finally wrote a book, which I had been putting off.’
That book was a more-or-less autobiographical novel about two brothers who are both HIV positive and gay. In Bloedverwanten (Blood Brothers) Nefkens describes the differences between the two brothers, mixing facts with fantasy. His second and third books were also based on his own life. In his last book, De Gevlogen Vogel (The Bird Has Flown) he describes the HIV-related encephalitis which struck him in 2001. He was hospitalised for three months at the AMC in Amsterdam. He was completely incapacitated. There were days when he couldn’t even say his own name. It was two years before he was his old self again. In the meantime there were new drugs, which were of great benefit to him.
Has your illness contributed to your decision to spend your money on art?
‘I am very much aware of the fleeting nature of life. And that’s why I now want to share everything that enriches my life.’
And which painting by Kees van Dongen in Boijmans did you look at on your Wednesday afternoons as a boy?
Coincidentally the painting is now being used on posters to promote the Kees van Dongen exhibition at Boijmans. Its title is Finger on the Cheek. I couldn’t get enough of it as a child. The painting intrigued me enormously because of the beautiful colours and the woman’s huge eyes. I wondered if she was a dancer, whether she had a husband, or perhaps she came from Spain; I wove entire stories around her. I bought a postcard of the painting with my pocket money and pinned it above my bed.’
And now the painting is being used to promote the exhibition. Is that also a gesture to Boijmans’ patron?
‘No, I knew nothing about that. And I have never talked to Sjarel about this painting. Although, now that I think about it, I did once write about my childhood memories of this work.’