Emilio Martínez Conde
Born in Rotterdam in 1954, Han Nefkens is one of the most atypical collectors on the international art scene. A journalist and a writer, he won the GAC Award for Best Collector in 2012. Some years ago he settled in Barcelona, the city from which he manages various projects through his foundations. Very few of the artworks he owns can be found hanging on his walls at home: they are in museums around Europe.
- What does being a collector mean to you?
It means sharing experiences. It’s not about amassing things, but about going into the world to show what moves me. It’s about enriching my life and the lives of others.
- Your father has a significant collection of antiques and Pre-Columbian art. Did you inherit this artistic sensibility from him?
My father is an architect, and architects obviously have an aesthetic sensibility. I think I inherited that from him. I grew up in a house with art, with beautiful things, and I could identify with them.
- Aside from being a collector, you are also a patron. You actually work with the artists in the production of their work. What does this process consist of?
ArtAids is a foundation that fights against the stigma of HIV through art. We commission international artists to produce works that reflect the problems related to the virus. They usually do so metaphorically, by revealing the way those of us who are HIV positive live, for example. At the moment, a sculpture-bench that we commissioned from US artist Lawrence Weiner can be seen at Mercat de Santa Caterina in Barcelona. We select the most appropriate artists to make a piece, for ArtAids, for a museum in the Netherlands or for MACBA in Barcelona, for example. Then we talk to the chosen artist about what are looking for. Weiner asked us a series of questions such as: What is an emblematic place in Barcelona? Where do people go on a daily basis? It seems pretty clear that church is not the answer... It's the market! He sent us a proposal and we helped him with the production process, because he wanted to make the whole thing in Catalonia. The idea of the sculpture-bench is that people who go to the market can sit down to rest, smoke a cigarette or read Weiner’s text, which is quite poetic, quite enigmatic... I've been working in this way for the past five or six years. I no longer buy art; I always commission work from the artists because it gives me more pleasure, the pleasure of being there as the work is created or when it is conceived. It is like being the midwife from beginning to end. I like to be able to work with the artists and strike up a dialogue with them. I find this to be a much richer experience of art than buying a pre-existing work.
- So there is a clear difference between what the ArtAids Foundation does, based around the issue of HIV, and the production of works through the Han Nefkens Foundation?
That’s right. The Han Nefkens Foundation has no specific theme, it’s up to the artists; although the aim in both cases is the same: for the works to end up in a museum or a public space.
- For the past twenty-six years you have been living with HIV, and you’ve gone through some tough times during your illness. On several occasions, you've said that you want to “catch time”.
I think that we all want to catch time. We have the illusion that we can live forever, that time will stop, but time is a fleeting thing. Capturing it is precisely what interests me. The first exhibition of works from my collection was called The Suspended Moment. The curator chose the title when she saw the works, and until then I hadn’t realised that this was the thread running through all of them. I started to think about it and yes, it is the thread that runs through my life: I live with this very poignant sense of the passing of time because I live with HIV. Now the situation is much more under control than it was twenty-six years ago. Before it was “you’re going to die”: The idea that I did not have many years left to live heightened my need to find ways to catch time: through art, by sharing art, and also through writing.
- As a promoter of art, don’t you feel that you’ve participated in the process, and that you form part of the work in some sense?
The artist is obviously the most important person. There can be no comparison. But I do feel some satisfaction and pleasure at having enabled the creation of a work of art.
- The economic crisis has reduced public funding for culture, at least in Spain. Are foundations like yours more necessary now?
Yes of course, but I started producing with artists much earlier (in 2006). I still believe that the best approach is a combination of the two. The state plays a very important role: it must promote and protect culture. Culture is vital to our civilisation. When we fail to recognise culture, we fail to recognise who we are. Art allows us to understand who we are and to understand the world. Every artwork talks about the artist and about the world around us. Imagine a world without art… Imagine if there were no paintings, no books, no photography, nothing that reflected our society. It would be horrible, unliveable. This is why the governments of civilised countries must play an important role in culture. I also think that it is important for people to feel that they are part of it, to have the opportunity to share and to be personally enriched. If you talk about patrons, people think about somebody with a lot of money, but that’s not the case. If you join forces with twenty friends and contribute 1,000 euros each, you will have a pool of 20,000 euros a year. With that much you can commission a work, help to publish a book or a catalogue, invite a foreign artist to come to Spain, or, instead, buy an artwork that would then move from home to home. You can be a patron with a thousand euros a year. It’s just a matter of getting organised.
- And individually, is it possible to do things with a very limited budget?
Of course it is. It is a very interesting challenge. With small amounts you can start looking around for artists who you think are good and who show promise. If you have a lot of money, it’s very easy to buy the work of an acclaimed artist. If you don’t have much, start with young artists. You will learn to pick those who are good and are going to keep evolving, and those who won’t. The challenge is greater, but so is the pleasure.
- Why is it important to have a Patronage Act?
For two reasons. Most importantly, because it recognises the need for patrons and the work that they do. In is an official acknowledgement of their existence and importance. Secondly, for practical reasons. If you make a donation, you shouldn’t have to pay tax on it. It is already going into the community! In the Netherlands, if you make a donation to a museum or a theatre company, you can deduct 125% of that donation. This doesn’t mean you end up better off, because it still costs you money. It isn’t a tax dodge, but it certainly allows you to do more. The Spanish Treasury says “no” because it thinks it will lose revenue, but the long-term return on this investment is enormous. There is a lack of vision.
- How do you finance yourself?
I finance ArtAids myself, 70 or 75%. We have sponsors for our exhibitions and in Barcelona we’ve collaborated with Fundació Banc Sabadell a number of times. For my other projects I don’t seek external funding.
- Are you interested in the “art market”? Do you feel any kind of interest when you read about the big art auctions?
Generally speaking, those works are bought by investors. They invest in timber in Brazil, in oil, or they buy Citibank shares. They try to buy things that retain their value so that they can sell them at a profit later. People are free to do whatever they like, but I think that’s not good for the art market. They suddenly overvalue artists who haven’t had time to develop. If a young artist is paid millions of dollars for his work, he is denied the experience he needs in order to mature. It distorts the art market because it makes it seem as if some artists are better than others, while in reality selling your work for 200,000 euros does not automatically make you much better than somebody who sells theirs for 15,000 or 20,000. Frankly, when I hear those figures… I think it’s obscene.
- What are your latest projects?
The most recent production is the Lawrence Weiner work at Mercat de Santa Caterina. In the Netherlands I produced a series of photographs with Rob Nypels, and I’m currently working on a new project with the designers Victor&Rolf. I also award a series of prizes to artists who are producing work: a Chinese artist in Bangkok, an Egyptian in Barcelona...
- Is there anything that you feel you still haven’t done?
I feel as if I’ve just begun. There are still hundreds of artists to unearth all over the world. I’m working with my awards and grants, and with a team of “scouts” – art critics, curators and museum directors – who are constantly on the lookout for new artists all over the world. I realise that there is still so much to discover, and I would like to work with them and bring them to Spain. It’s important to ensure that there is a platform of some kind, a bridge between what is happening in Spain and in the rest of the world.
- If you had to choose a single experience from everything you’ve done since you embarked on life in the art world, what would it be?
The thing that brings me most joy is the chance to meet so many people who share the same passion, and to start to create something with all of them. To be able to do something that brings me satisfaction and is useful to the world at the same time, that’s the most important thing.