Han Nefkens (Rotterdam, 1954), writer, art collector and patron, studied journalism in France and the USA and currently lives in Barcelona. He grew up in a family of philanthropists and art lovers. His father, an architect and property developer, owns an exquisite collection of antiques and pre-Columbian art.
After studying journalism, Nefkens worked for 11 years as a radio correspondent in Mexico. In 1987, after finding out he was HIV positive, he realised the importance of time, and for him, the most important moment is the present. In 2006 he set up the ArtAids Foundation which uses art to increase awareness of the problem of AIDS, to combat stigmatisation and to improve the lives of people living with the disease. The Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona is showing the exhibition You are not alone featuring works from the ArtAids collection until 18 September. The exhibition Han Nefkens, 10 Years of Patronage is also open this summer in the Netherlands celebrating the collector’s first ten years as a patron of the arts. Nefkens has recently been presented with the prestigious Silver Carnation by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, an award set up by the Prince Bernhard Culture Fund to honour the work of people who make an altruistic and extraordinary contribution to Dutch culture. Jeff Wall, Sam Taylor-Wood, Bill Viola, Félix González-Torres and Shirin Neshat are just some of the artists represented in Nefkens’ collection which, rather than selfishly amassing in his home, he donates directly to galleries.
You are Dutch, so what brings you to Barcelona?
I am Dutch, but a roaming Dutchman, because from the age of 19 I’ve lived outside the Netherlands; first in France, then in the USA, Mexico, London and now in Barcelona. Before coming to live here, I’d spent long periods of time in the city, and in 2006, I put on an exhibition in Foto Colectania. I was completely seduced by Barcelona and in 2008 I came to live here for good. I love the dynamism of the city, the Mediterranean character and the lifestyle.
Tell us about your artistic activities.
I’m very privileged because I’m able to dedicate myself to what I like – to writing and to various art projects, which are numerous and very diverse. First of all there’s collecting, which involves buying or commissioning works and you can see these on my website [www.hfcollection.org]; there’s the collection in the Boijmans Van Beuningen museum in Rotterdam, which commissions work specifically for the museum; the Fashion on the Edge project where we look for designers and artists who work across fashion and art and commission them to produce works that can be exhibited in the museum; and I have the ArtAids Foundation with centres in the Netherlands, Barcelona and Bangkok, which also commissions works of art. Another thing is the curatorial project, H+F Curatorial Grant, in collaboration with FRAC Nord-Pas de Calais. We choose a young curator to organise an exhibition and work on specific projects which will give them practical experience, like the exhibition at The Fundació Joan Miró, You are not alone.
What is the objective of the ArtAids Foundation?
To raise awareness among people that there’s no need to exclude people who have HIV, to remind them that the virus exists and that they should take precautions. In Spain we have the Han Nefkens Foundation and the idea is to carry out projects with different museums. We’ve just started collaborating with the MACBA and on this occasion, an Iranian artist, Natascha Sadr, will exhibit in La Capella…art needs to be shared, it reflects the world…working with museums is the best thing because they already have their own infrastructures, and for them, it’s great to have people who can help financially with their projects.
Do you choose the works you collect or do you consult advisors?
I’ve been collecting for ten years and I don’t have advisors. For the first five years I bought from galleries and fairs. When I started collecting, I never stopped to think about whether the piece would fit in my house; I always imagined it hanging on the wall of a museum. It was around that time when I realised that a lot of artists lack the resources to work on their projects. That’s what made me decide to start funding art production…
So, it’s also about patronage…
Well, not ‘also’; that’s the main thing!
What was the first piece you bought?
It was in 1999 during a visit to New York. While I was going around galleries I was thinking about how much I’d like to buy works to share them. But, before buying anything, for a year I tried to find out more about the artists and galleries and I spoke to the director of a museum in the Netherlands. The first thing I bought was a video installation by Pipilotti Rist, who I would afterwards commission to create a piece for The Fundació Joan Miró. I usually work with a number of museums: four in the Netherlands, one in Germany, another one in France, and now I’ve started collaborating with the MACBA and The Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona.
Have you thought about opening your own museum?
No, I don’t want my own museum…the world isn’t waiting for another museum. I can have more influence helping existing institutions. Besides, it’s more practical because a museum already has its own infrastructure and network of contacts. I save time and money that way.
How do you choose the artists?
The first thing is that you like their work. It’s an intuitive thing. If it draws me in, then I also look to see if I’m interested in the artist’s career.
When you commission a piece, does the artist have freedom to choose the subject?
Yes, unless it’s for ArtAids, in which case the theme should be HIV, even if the reference is metaphorical. We work with artists from Morocco, Lithuania, the Netherlands, the United States, Thailand, Denmark, Vietnam, Chile, Argentina, South Africa and Spain. Each one has their own personality and, in fact, you can see the cultural differences. I’ve been working in Thailand for years and we have a project there with experts from different countries who send us information about artists from those places, which helps us develop an international network.
The works that you commission from artists for museums, are they long-term loans or donations?
Some works are long-term loans, others are donations, with the condition that, when I die, they stay in the museums.
Does it worry you that people know you’re HIV positive?
No. For me it’s just like any other illness. It’s extremely important that people aren’t scared and don’t reject people with HIV. If the aim of my projects is to contribute to erasing the stigma of HIV, then I can’t hide away myself.
Has it changed your outlook on life?
Before I found out, 24 years ago, I imagined that life had no end. Now I realise that we live on borrowed time and that what we do each day is important. The biggest change I’ve experienced is that I value time, and that gives me the energy to do what I want to do and I’m not frightened.
Are there any pieces you’ve not given away?
I give everything away…they’re all in museums. I have very few pieces at home: I have Thomas Ruff, Bernard Frize, Prudencio Irazábal, Shirin Neshat, Roni Horn…
Being a patron of the arts, you must have had lots of experiences. Can you tell us about any of them?
Pipilotti Rist was the first artist whose work I bought. Before I was a collector, I was in Paris at her exhibition Remake of the weekend, which had a massive impact on me. Her work draws you in completely; it’s a total immersion. When I left I said to myself ‘I want to be a part of this world’. It was completely by accident that hers was the first work I bought. Later, when she came to Barcelona, we were setting up a project in La Mina [a neighbourhood of Barcelona] about HIV that was going to be shown in the library of The Fundació Joan Miró and I invited her to take part. It seemed strange to me that this artist, whose work had sparked my interest in art, was now interested in what I was doing…it was like a circle closing…I remember another story, almost like an adventure. We were putting on an exhibition in Thailand featuring artists from there as well as some Europeans and, because of political problems, they closed Bangkok airport and there was no way to leave the country. We were stuck there for five days before we managed to get a flight. The stay was incredible because we felt almost like a family. That experience forged a very strong bond between us.
When commissioning works, have you ever been surprised by the end result…?
Yes, but nearly always in a positive way. Before starting a piece, the artist presents a proposal and we can always be sure that through the course of the creative process, the final result will be different from the initial proposal.
And what about the budget?
The piece has to be created with the budget in mind. If the artist thinks that it could be more expensive, that’s discussed during the process, never at the end. The artist has freedom, but sometimes it’s not what we think. Being in contact with other people and sharing a passion for art with artists from different cultures helps you learn about different ways of thinking; I’m always struck by that.
What books do you read?
I read a lot. I’m an avid reader: fiction, art, economics, neuroscience, books that help you understand the world better…