The Silver Carnation
The Silver Carnation was instituted in 1950 by His Royal Highness Prince Bernhard and the Prince Bernhard Fund. Her Majesty Queen Beatrix is presenting the Silver Carnations today to Han Nefkens, Countess Isabelle zu Ortenburg - Countess van Aldenburg Bentinck (De Steeg, 1925) for her commitment to conserving Middachten Castle, and to Joke Sickmann (Amsterdam, 1932) for her activities in the field of history in her hometown of Amersfoort.
INTERVIEW HAN NEFKENS, PATRON
People really do not have to give as much money as he did to artists, says Han Nefkens. ‘You can also commission a work or provide a grant.’
By Jonathan Witteman
Han Nefkens (1954) did not find coming out as a gay man and later as an HIV patient as tough as his latest coming-out as a patron. ‘I never had a problem coming out as a gay man and also not as being seropositive for HIV. I’ve always seen both as facts of life, not as something to be ashamed of. But being open about my patronage was more difficult because it meant I had to reveal that I have money. I was most afraid of how people would react and that they would say: Who does he think he is?’ Han Nefkens has been one of the world’s most ambitious patrons of contemporary visual arts for over a decade. While he served as an anonymous benefactor for the first few years, in 2005 he began the process of timidly coming out into the open about his patronage activities. A ‛De Medici for the twenty-first century’ is what Spanish newspaper El Mundo called him. He has now placed almost his entire collection, which currently comprises more than four hundred works by artists such as Jeff Wall, Bill Viola, Pipilotti Rist, Robert Zandvliet, on permanent loan to museums including Boijmans Van Beuningen, Museum de Pont, Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona and FRAC Nord-Pas de Calais in Dunkirk. He set up the H+F Curatorial Grant for talented curators, ArtAids for the fight against HIV, H+F Fashion on the Edge for artistic fashion designers, and the Han Nefkens Scholarship for promising Spanish-language writers. Nefkens has left his boisterous hometown of Barcelona, which is in the grip of protests against the Spanish government, to spend a few days in the Netherlands. He is here because the Boijmans Van Beuningen museum will be opening a special exhibition on Saturday that pays tribute to Han Nefkens’ first decade as a patron. And today Her Majesty Queen Beatrix will pin the 2011 Silver Carnation on his lapel at a ceremony to be held at the Royal Palace on Dam Square in Amsterdam. Nefkens is being presented with this distinction by the Prince Bernhard Culture Fund for his ‛important role in achieving the ambitions of cultural institutions’. ‘I will tell Her Majesty how tremendously honoured I am with this recognition,’ Nefkens says in the lounge of Hotel de l’Europe in Amsterdam as he prepares to attend the event. ‘But I will also say to her that I see it above all as an accolade to all the people I have worked with over the past ten years.’ Has he always been so altruistic? ‘The word altruism implies I have to give up something in order to give to others. But I don’t feel that I am losing anything, but instead experience giving as something that enriches me.’
Nefkens comes from a wealthy entrepreneurial family. His father, who is now a 92-year-old architect, made his fortune as a property developer. While collecting art is not an irregular hobby for the wealthy, Nefkens is anything but a regular collector. Almost the only time he ever sees any of the hundreds of artworks in his collection is in museums. Nefkens’ adage is: Those who share are not alone. His life as patron of the arts began in 1999 with an experience Nefkens describes in almost religious terms. ‘In the spring of 1999, I was in Paris and visited an exhibition by Pipilotti Rist. Her exhibitions are an immersion – sensual, you feel the water, you smell the moss. That’s when I thought: I have got to play some part in this world. But I did not know how. One thing was clear to me though: I want to share what I believe is beautiful. So hanging art on my walls at home was not an option. Nefkens was diagnosed as being HIV positive in 1987. Until then he had been a radio correspondent in Mexico for Dutch broadcasting companies including VARA and VPRO. After his diagnosis, Nefkens bid farewell to the journalist’s life and started on what would ultimately be his debut autobiographical novel Bloedverwanten (Blood Brothers) that was published in 1995. In late 2001, it looked like HIV would claim his life after all. Nefkens caught encephalitis, a common condition among HIV-infected persons. He was practically senile during the first months of his illness. But unlike so many of his fellow sufferers, Nefkens returned, as he puts is, from the wilderness. Nefkens says his cognitive abilities have been restored completely. He does not, however, have clear recollections of everything that happened before 2001, but instead has memories of only the ‛greatest hits’. De gevlogen vogel (The Bird Has Flown) was published in 2008 and is Nefkens’ account of his recovery that took years. The future looks bright for Nefkens. His illness left him with a lasting sense of urgency. He does not think in five-year plans – it has to happen now. ‘I have come so close to death that it has fuelled a massive motor inside of me.’
Nefkens prefers to call himself an ‘art activist’ rather than a patron or collector. He commissions works and organises competitions. A good example is the ArtAids Video Awards, which is an award for talented video artists. Of the 45 contenders for the award, Nefkens selected the 28-year-old Brazilian video artist Gabriel Mascaro as the winner. ‘The wonderful thing about this award is that it gives us the opportunity to see art that we would be unlikely to see otherwise. Mascaro is someone who needs just that added boost to break through in Europe as well.’ If Dutch State Secretary for Culture Zijlstra graces the Silver Carnation presentation ceremony with his presence today, what would Nefkens like to say to him? ‘I would ask him whether he likes art. Because his measures do not reflect a love of art. I would also tell him that I applaud having patrons more involved in the arts. But patronage must exist in addition to government support, not without it.’ His most important advice is: ‘We need to dispel the myth in the Netherlands that you can only be a patron if you are wealthy. You can achieve a huge amount by contributing 2,000 euros a year as part of a group of fifteen people. This will give you enough to commission work, give an artist a grant and finance a publication. In this way you can make people shareholders of the cultural sector. I am certain that there are thousands of people in the Netherlands who would like to contribute, but don’t know where to start.’ ‘I did not know what my role should be. But I did know that I wanted to share what I believe is beautiful. So hanging art on my walls at home was not an option.’