Mr. Walter Vanhaerents started collecting art in the mid 1970s. Over the years, the collection has grown vast, multi-layered and cross-generational which allows confrontations between works of emerging artists with those of more established artists by whom they were inspired.
When Walter sat down in front of his library for the interview, he gave me the impression of a university professor. “I am a constructor”, he corrected me. But I could hardly imagine him with a safety helmet inspecting a construction site. “I can easily gauge the proportion of a sculpture within an exhibition space or a painting on a wall before the works are installed.” For this, he reassured me, that he did not even need a measuring tape. Convincing enough!
Then I figured him a student in Engineering or Architecture or Business Management in college, and once again, I was wrong. “I had a degree in Sophrology and a Master’s degree in Spanish”. What is Sophrology? Walter briefly defined it as the harmony between the body and the spirit, or between the ratio and the sensibility. Walter practiced Sorphology in his corporate management and his art collecting activities. Art for Walter is all about feeling; it allows him to stay in touch with the feminine aspect in his life and allows him to live a “double life”.
“I also studied film aesthetics and I wrote film critiques when I was young.” Another surprising discovery… Indeed, it was through experimental cinema that Walter discovered Andy Warhol and Pop Art, and developed a particular attention to the form of a piece of artwork.
Walter insists that there is no democracy in art collecting, it’s a very intimate and solitary engagement with oneself. “Before, I used to walk alone in fairs. People didn’t know who I am, what I do. It was a great time!” Today, Walter is listed among the top 200 collectors in the world by the Art News magazine; he can hardly pass through the crowd without being identified.
Housed in a former industrial building in the heart of Brussels, with a total surface of 3 500 m² consisted of three separate floors and a mezzanine, the Vanhaerents Art Collection offers a different art experience to the public, as Mr. Vanhaerents points out in the interview that 90% of the artists are not represented in the public museums in Belgium. The group exhibition from the collection will be changed every three years while the project room where solo shows are held will be re-installed yearly.
26 April 2011, Paris
Selina Ting [ST] : You have been collecting art for 40 years, so you started very young…
Walter Vanhaerents [WV]: 35 years, not yet 40, it was in the mid 1970s. But when I started, I was more looking at the local Belgian art scene. At that time I had an accountant who collected local paintings. I started with him. But after 5 years, I changed the whole collection and he thought that his boss had gone crazy. [Laughs]
ST: What was the trigger of such change?
WV: I am a constructor and I am very interested in architecture. So I went to see the new German museums when they opened in the 1980s, such as in Mönchengladbach and Cologne. There I discovered an art that I didn’t know, such as the early work of Gerard Richter and Joseph Beuys and I realized that I was on the wrong way. I said to my wife Bernise that I would sell everything and start again. I had about 30 to 40 pieces that I could exchange with the dealers, and I started collecting more value-sure pieces, like Lucio Fontana, Paul Delvaux, etc.
ST: Can we say the change is from local to international and from young artists to established artists?
WV: Yes, but there is another level. When I was a student, I was very interested in films. I wrote film critiques as well. It was through film that I discovered Andy Warhol in the late 1970s. I saw his films like Lonesome Cowboys (1968), Sleep (1963), etc. Not many people know that, but Warhol put every penny he made from his portraits in his film productions. Though they are not very famous, a lot of artists like Douglas Gordon and Bill Viola were inspired by his films. That was how I became interested in Pop Art in the 1980s. This is the second change. But I didn’t buy Warhol’s films, only his late paintings.
ST: Why? Is it important for a collector to buy the influential piece, especially when it means something personal?
WV: For me, it’s a principle not to go back in time! I can do that but it’s not my goal. I oblige myself to look at the future not the past!
ST: It’s a general attitude that applies to other aspects in your life or just in art collecting?
WV: It’s a general attitude in my life. It’s also part of me because I am not really connected with things. When people told me things in the past, I forgot a bit, like it’s ripped away from my conscience once it’s over. There is a sort of clean in the past and a freshness to look to new things. That’s something that I like.
ST: You have Andy Warhol and Bruce Nauman as core artists in your collection. Personally, how do you link up their work?
WV: For me, it’s more the confrontation then the connection. Well, you can say that the link is that Andy Warhol is a great film maker, particularly his idea of slow films; while Bruce Nauman is a great video artist. There are pioneers such as Vito Acconci and Nam June Paik who first used neon and video art, but Nauman did it much better. Bill Viola took video art or video installations to another stage. So, these artists are very crucial in art history and they are influential to the younger generations. I also bought early large edition prints of Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kurger. I even had a name for them – the post-Warholians. They were young artists and inspired by Warhol. Takashi Murakami is another point of interest. When he just began in the end of 1990s, I bought Miss ko2 (1997), Hiropon (1997) and My Lonesome Cowboy (1998), and the 3 parts transformation piece. A piece like My Lonesome Cowboy is very iconic as it refers to many major pop artists. But my collection is not only about Warhol. I also bought Cindy Sherman, Allan McCollum, Sherrie Levine, etc. They were not so appreciated at that time but now they are the big names. So, there are many different aspects in the collection, such as works inspired by architecture and experimental cinema.
ST: How do you feel when deciding a purchase? How does your emotion react during the art purchase?
WV: It’s just a feeling inside me that I developed over the years. But I buy slowly because there are lots of hesitations when you try to make a good choice. I had a big chance because I had a hard business in construction in 40 years and I was not very known as a collector. I needed to be on my own and make my own decisions, sometimes to step back and not to be in the crowd. Before I could walk alone in the fairs and didn’t have to explain too much about what I did. It was a very interesting time. Now, it’s becoming very difficult for me.
ST: So, you don’t advise young collectors to work with art advisers?
WV: You can start with an art adviser but if you are serious with your collecting activity, you have to make your own decisions after 3 to 5 years. Otherwise, the collection would be cold, without feelings. Sometimes young collectors tend to buy very early in an artist’s career because they don’t have enough funds. But it can be a shame because the quality is not there. I think it’s better to buy less, wait a couple of years, and then spend a bit more on a good selection. I am now focusing on fewer artists but more important pieces of the core artists.
ST: I think you need to pass an obsessive stage at the very beginning…
WV: Yes, and I was on the wrong track from the very beginning! I am not ashamed of it! [Laughs] It’s normal to make mistake. But it’s true that as a collector, it’s very important to make choices and not be overwhelmed by what is in offer.
ST: But what are the major factors that you consider when buying a work? Do you do research and have references?
WV: I read a lot of art historical material and I always need to see the evolution of an artist, what he made when he was younger, and how he develops into maturity which is the point that I would buy from an artist. It’s not always in the early stage, but I don’t wait to be the last one neither.
Another factor is how the artists choose the medium to express themselves. There are many artists who want to work on different media but they don’t sound all the time. That’s why an artist like Ugo Rondinone is important, because he’s really good in feeling the form that he needs to express his ideas. It’s the result that counts.
ST: Is it from your experience in experimental films that they are more about the form and the expression?
WV: Exactly, it was in the 1960s and I had this amazing teacher in Film Aesthetics who said that the content is complimentary to the form. You don’t need to explain the form but just express it. It’s also the same idea from Beuys.
ST: Did you buy from the art fairs even in the 70s and 80s?
WV: In the 1980s, there were not so many art fairs. Art Cologne was the most conceptual and experimental one. I visited a lot of galleries in Brussels, Paris, London, Cologne, etc. When I was in business, I made a lot of effort to spend at least one day per week on art. I drove to Paris with my wife on Saturdays to see galleries, sometimes on Sundays to Dusseldorf to see a museum. I did it for years! It was a very interesting time and I had a special energy for that! But going for art was like having another life…
ST: How would you describe your relationship with the artists?
WV: I prefer to keep a distance with the artists. It’s not necessary for me to meet them or to know them personally. If an artist is my best friend, I don’t buy work from him except when it is a very good piece.
ST: But for a solo show like David Altmejd’s Colossi, you needed to work closely with the artist…
WV: I am happy to work with them on the installation but after that, I prefer each to concentrate on his own work. I think it’s good for the artists as well because then they can really concentrate on the creative work.
ST: You keep a very personal, intimate relationship with the work but not with the artists?
WV: I liked what David said, “once the work is complete, it has its own life.” Then he lets it go. I think it is also important to judge an artist by his work and not by who he is. I know it’s not a pleasant thing, but you have to do that. It’s very difficult to keep the friendship and make your own choices at the same time.
ST: When did the idea of opening an art space start?
WV: It was my dream as a collector and a builder. When you collect for years and you can no longer see the work except when you lend them to museums, you become frustrated. So I said to myself, perhaps one day I could have my own space to show my collection. I am privileged because I am a constructor. So, I started looking for a space in 1999 when I moved to Brussels. I started the plan in 2004, the construction work took two years and the space finally opened in March 2007.
ST: Did you decide to open the space to the public from the very beginning?
WV: Not from the beginning. It was an idea to show the works to myself and privately to friends. Later on, we decided to open two Saturdays a month to the public by appointment and with guided visits. Now we’ll open each Satursday and have booklets for the visitors to follow. It’s a lot of energy and management to open a space. Not many collectors want to do this.
ST: What kind of role do you want the space to play in the Belgian art scene?
WV: It’s like a contribution to the art scene because the works are not supposed to be hidden. It’s also like a commitment to the artists to show their work. Another important aspect is that what we are showing here is very different from what is shown in the Belgian museums. Let’s say 90% of the artists I am showing here are not represented in the Belgian museums. Takashi Murakami, Tom Sachs, Jack Pierson, Urs Fischer, Mariko Mori, Jason Rhoades, Yoshitomo Nara, Mark Handforth, Tom Friedman… you won’t find them in the public museums here. That’s why people are very impressed when they come here because they see a totally different atmosphere.
ST: Is your collection more contemporary than the museum collections?
WV: No. The existing contemporary art museums in Belgium are buying and showing the same things, their scope is not wide enough. Besides, they have a very low acquisition budget. What can you buy with 200K Euros per year? A collector might spend that sum in a visit to Art Basel. Also, it’s a personal collection here, while in the museums, it’s the collection of many directors. In the old times, you could see the influence and personal style of some directors when they had more power. You don’t see it now because they have all these committees.
ST: Now you are curating your own shows here.
WV: Yes, I like to install the shows. When I visit a museum or a private collection, I always pay attention to the way they install the show, how the interaction between the pieces and the space is created. Sometimes the confrontation between works can be very interesting as well. I would be very pleased to do a show in a museum as a collector if I would be asked to. Collectors know their collection best and over the years, they know how to install the work as well. I curated the first show of my collection here myself. But the second show, Sympathy for the Devil, which will open in late April this year, is co-curated by Pierre-Olivier Rollin and me. And then the third show will be curated by someone from outside.
ST: Do you put up a new show every two years?
WV: The idea is to change the major show every 2.5 years, and the project room will be reinstalled every year. The David Altmejd show, Colossi, will end in next March and there will be another project show.
ST: Does the form, which is so important for you when making a purchase, affect the way you install the show?
WV: Yes. The first show was entitled Disorder in the House. Disorder is not something I am used to because I am very professional and structured. But chaos is simply unavoidable in life, and it is important to go from the chaotic to the expression. By confronting them, you create a new order, and finally you manage the chaos. That was the idea of the last show. The energy came from the disorder, and the expression stood out.
ST: As a curator, do you approach your collection differently? Say to find a line or a theoretical framework to present and understand your collection?
WV: When I need a piece to fill up a line, I borrow it from artists or other collectors. But it doesn’t change my buying habit. The rationalization process doesn’t apply to art. It is for my profession but not for art. With art, I deal with feelings. For example in the second show, Sympathy for the Devil, we try to look at different aspects of evil but not all the aspects of evil. We don’t need to have all the works on evil or to give a complete discourse on the subject.
ST: For the collection, you call it a “family collection”. Is contemporary art now a collective family passion?
WV: My children complained when they were young because art took a lot of time and energy from their parents. But now they are very happy. They are very interested in art and are getting more and more involved in art. My daughter and my daughter-in-law are also helping me with the collection. I am happy to have them representing the family as well.
ST: Thank you!
Vanhaerents Art Collection
29, rue Anneessens, 1000 Brussels
Guided tours – every Saturday at 11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. (in English, Dutch and French)