“Collecting is a passion you can’t get rid of.” (Frieder Burda)

Whether Old Masters or contemporary artists—art is enjoying a boom. In 2013 more than 110 million visitors attended German museums alone—a number that also casts a spotlight on the significance of the approximately 660 art museums. The art market is climbing to increasingly greater heights, and spectacularly high prices are often paid at auctions. Often, in eras of small budgets for both state and city museums, the most desirable contemporary works are acquired by private collectors. Hence, art treasures are often hidden away in private homes.

It’s an international phenomenon: an increasing number of art enthusiasts are building their own collections, many of them based on contemporary art. Backed by greater financial means and free of institutional regulations, they can purchase top-quality art, which they have begun to share with the public over the past thirty years. Unlike “traditional private collectors,” as Walter Grasskamp calls them, who collect only for their own private pleasure, the “public/private collector” founds sites for art that are open to the public. And, like the collections themselves, these frequently unique exhibition spaces are financed exclusively with private, not public, monies.

In earlier days, private collectors donated their collections to public museums as loans, gifts, or in public/private partnerships. To this day, private collections still form the foundation for many important museums. In the United States, for example, outstanding museums such as the Frick Collection in New York City or the National Gallery in Washington can be traced back to early twentieth-century millionaire art collectors.

Magnanimous endowments of this kind have become more rare, however. Internationally, too, private collectors now make their collections public in their own spaces or museums; some prominent examples are François Pinault in France, Charles Saatchi in Great Britain, and Viktor Pinchuk in the Ukraine.

Private collecting began during the Renaissance—the de Medici family was the most prominent among collectors at the time—but the early twentieth century in particular marked a surge in collecting done by private parties. The first German collector to open a private museum with a view to providing access to art and education was Karl Ernst Osthaus, the founder of the Museum Folkwang in Hagen. He was followed by such outstanding collectors as Josef Haubrich, whose art collection laid the foundation for the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Margot and Bernhard Sprengel, whose art treasures became the heart of the Sprengel Museums in Hannover, or Eske and Henri Nannen, the founders of the Kunsthalle Emden. Private museums of note have been founded by Knud W. Jensen, who opened the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art near Copenhagen, and Marguerite and Aimé Maeght, who opened a small paradise near Saint-Paul-de-Vence for their art collection.

In German-speaking countries the marriage between private collecting and the founding of publically accessible exhibition spaces began in the 1990s: since 1991 the entrepreneur Reinhold Würth has shared his passion for art with the public; around sixteen thousand works of art, including attractions such as the so-called Virgin of Mercy by Hans Holbein the Younger, are on display in Künzelsau and Schwäbisch Hall. Visitors have responded very positively to Ingvild Goetz’s public art space in Munich (1993), the Grässlin family’s space in St. Georgen, (1995), the Daimler Art Collection in Berlin (1999), Frieder Burda’s collection in Baden-Baden (2004), Siegfried Weishaupt’s in Ulm (2007), Josef Froehlich’s in Leinfelden-Echterdingen (2009) and Peter Schaufler’s in Sindelfingen (2010). These collections also illustrate the unique collecting culture in Baden-Württemberg and the great quantity of high-quality private collections.

Besides these private museums that are open to the public, a semi-public variation has also been established: collectors such as Christian Boros or Erika Hoffmann in Berlin, and Julia Stoschek in Düsseldorf live with their art and also exhibit their collections in their private spheres. Smaller private art initiatives continue to develop the concept of the museum; collectors such as Thomas Ulbricht or Arthur de Ganay in Berlin present their art in private show rooms: “chamber concerts instead of stadium performances,” as Wilhelm Schürmann calls them.

Particularly when public money is tight, private collectors’ exhibition spaces become the places for contemporary art reception. Yet, their tremendous presence and widespread influence doesn’t always evoke positive responses. Art critics object to the “apotheosis of private collectors” (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) and their “political power in the art world.” Despite all of the speculation about private collectors striving for social renown and pecuniary success, the beneficiaries of this broader array of art are the art audience, which doesn’t care if the institution is public or private, as long as there is variety and quality.

Are the driving forces behind private collecting and exhibiting really prestige and proprietorship? What motivation do the collectors themselves mention? If you ask them, you’ll hear about a large number of diverse motivations and strategies for collecting. Besides their own passion and curiosity for art, many collectors, for example, say that they are interested in sharing knowledge and take pleasure in art: “We’d like . . . to create a lively forum for the exploration of contemporary art,” stated Bärbel and Sabine Grässlin, as well as Karola Kraus, who exhibit their collections in St. Georgen in around twenty external art spaces. Alison and Peter W. Klein, who’ve been showing their collection since 2007 in Eberdingen-Nussdorf, want to “share their enthusiasm for art with other people. That’s why we built the KUNSTWERK.”
Cultural engagement, coupled with entrepreneurial and social responsibility, also plays a role: “I think it’s important to give something back to society. I’ve been fortunate in life. The goal of my foundation is to support art, culture, and science,” said the collector Frieder Burda, whose museum in Baden-Baden has become an audience magnet since it opened in 2004. Renate Wiehager also emphasizes the aspect of supporting artists, because the works acquired for the Daimler Art Collection are shown in exhibitions around the world and published in catalogues. Christian Boros, whose private collection of contemporary art has been on display in a remodeled bunker in Berlin since 2008, also takes this aspect to heart: “Artists don’t make their work in order to have it slumber in boxes.” The desire “to leave behind a lasting life’s work” appeals to Frieder Burda—and also identifies the standard for any kind of good art: the ability to endure beyond the current moment.

As much as some private collectors want to share their collections with the public, there is an increasing number of passionate collectors who keep their acquisitions to themselves in private spaces. Yet, even if a work of art has been purchased by a private person, that person still has a responsibility to the art, the artist, and the general public. If, for instance, the example set by the Japanese collector Ryōei Saitō caught on, it would be a great loss for everyone who is interested in art. He acquired Vincent van Gogh’s famous Portrait of Dr. Gachet at an auction for a spectacular 82.5 million dollars and ordered it to be burned with him after his death. The collector died in 1996, and the work of art has not been seen in public since then.

Fortunately, these kinds of asocial desires are rare. In the meantime, more and more exclusive collectors’ clubs are forming, such as the Young Collectors Circle in Munich, the Art Banking Club in Zurich, La peau de l’ours in Paris, and Outset in London. The clubs offer their (often carefully selected) members a base from which they can come into contact with like-minded people; they organize art fair previews, art tours, visits to artists’ studios, and lectures. They also “want to counteract the false image of art collectors as speculators, which has arisen recently,” says Kuno Fischer, the president of the Young Collectors Club, summarizing the reasons for why the club was founded.
The largest community is composed of collectors from the Internet group Independent Collectors, who present their collections on line: “by art lovers for art lovers.” Currently, the Independent Collectors were releasing the third edition of the BMW Art Guide, featuring nearly 250 international private collections in book form—a treasure trove for art lovers or anyone who is curious about art. As Max J. Friedländer said: “Owning art is apparently the only decent way to display wealth while maintaining good taste."

06.08.2015 Stefanie Gommel

Veröffentlicht am: 06.08.2005