Housed in a renovated war-time building at Oud Vliegveld in Ostend (Belgium) is one of the finest collections in the world dedicated to post-conceptualist European and American art. Started in 1998, Mark Vanmoerkerke, a private equity and real-estate investor, has accumulated and reselected an impressive collection of over 1,000 pieces in less than 15 years. Before the re-selection, his collection was estimated to have 2,000 pieces. Let’s not judging it by numbers, Mark stresses that quality is far more important than quantity while admitting that he is an obsessive maniac… of good art, of course.
Since the opening of the art space in 2008, Mark invites a curator to put up a show every six months and opens the space for public visit. “It’s semi-private, semi-public. If you ring the bell, we open the door”, says Mark with a warm smile on his face. However, the place remains very low key, very personal, just like Mark’s style in collecting art, “it’s a personal pleasure. I buy it because I like it”.
“When you open a private art space, you learn to do everything yourself”, says Mark while operating the whole structure in the space – alarm system, lighting system, power system (for kinetic works), reserve system, and finally, the cafetière system. “I am better at buying art than making coffee though,” he laughs at the two cups of black coffee in front of us which are obviously too “long”. Comparing himself to a museum guard with the exception that he allows you to touch the work, Mark makes it clear that there is no hierarchy in the private art space. “If you ring the bell, I open the door for you”.
Mark does not only open the doors for us but also the reserve – two big halls of crates piled up according to the region where they belong, and an entire floor of compact track shelves with paintings and photographs hanging onto them. Contemplating the nightmare of every collector, I ask, “Mark, how do you feel now looking at this?”
“Sometimes I feel satisfied.”
“And the other time?”
“The other time I am worried… Sometimes scared, too”.
08 March 2011, Paris
Private Collection VS Private Museum
Selina Ting [ST] : We are now in the building where you work and show your art collection. You emphasize that this is a private art space and not a private museum. What are the differences for you between a private space and a private museum?
Mark Vanmoerkerke [MVM]: I think a museum has an obligation to be historic, encyclopedic and documentaristic. It must have a definition, say an X-art, be it Flemish Art, Oriental Art, etc. Once it’s defined, it has to be encyclopedic. It’s no longer what the museum director likes but what the museum has to show and keep.
In a private space, this is My-art, the art that I like. I have no obligation to be historic, encyclopedic or documentaristic. Good collection has to have a focus. My collection has a focus, it’s what it is.
ST: When we look at history, before museums came into being, the private collections held in the hands of princes and great savants did have a strong historic value and they can be very comprehensive as well.
MVM: Yes, but to be historic and complete, you need to have everything. I don’t need to be complete, I buy what I want. A museum has a historic value in the sense that it’s there when the director is gone. By my collection will probably end when I die. I have children, but they have the choice to continue or to end the collection. Let’s try not to think that Mark Vanmoerkerke is an historic collector of art. I am an individual person. I am doing this for my own pleasure. I enjoy it a lot. It gives me a lot of fun and quality of life.
ST: No matter how personal a collection is, it’s still important to maintain the coherence. How can a collector avoid random or arbitrary decisions?
MVM: Good collectors make choices; excellent collectors make a lot of choices and say “no” to a lot of things. That’s what I am trying to do, to know what I really like and what this represents. Over the years, the collection builds up a focus which is on post-conceptual European and American Art. This is a very well-defined line of my collection. For example, I like artists that are influenced by minimalism, conceptualism, etc. But that’s not enough. The object is not the art; you have to add another dimension into the work, be it humor, representation, appropriation, etc. And that’s what I collect.
Good collectors make choices; excellent collectors make a lot of choices and say “no” to a lot of things.– Mark Vanmoerkerke
ST: Are they related to life or to history?
MVM: I think they are more related to life… Ok, there is the classical abstraction, portraits, landscape, still life, etc., but I think it’s actually more linked to the French poststructuralist theory in the 1970s and 1980s, some of the post-conceptual artists like Dominique Gonzalez-Forester, Liam Gillick, Philippe Parreno, etc., form the core of the collection as the European group. Then, there is the American group that wasn’t aware of the evolution of the French theory but indirectly works in the same mode, the same system, the same line of thinking, such as Cindy Sherman, Jack Goldstein, Steven Parrino, Robert Longo, etc. These are the artists that I collect.
ST: I read from the internet that your collection has a timeframe, i.e. starting from the 1980s. What’s 1980s? Why 1980s?
MVM: Nothing, it’s just a date. I started collecting in 1998. I was relatively a late bloomer in collecting art because I started at 45. It’s a very intuitive activity. I prefer to have works from living artists, people who are still developing, still working. Again, I am not interested in the historic. I am interested in the progressive, not the regressive. 1980s is not to pin down the collection in temporal sense. It’s a general idea, not a definite line. The main theme of this collection is “art bought by Mark Vanmoerkerke”. If people want to glue labels on it, I would say, “I collect artists from America and Europe that I like”. I think this would be the best description of my collection. Then it’s for you to judge, to decide if you like it or not.
On 15 Years of collecting
ST: What bought you to art at the age of 45?
MVM: A decorative problem. Somebody said that my office needed some colors…
ST: But then you bought very minimalist black and white works!
MVM: How did you know?! That’s exactly what happened! We went to Patrick De Brock Gallery and we left in thirty seconds with a black and white photograph by Axel Hütte and a monochrome blue abstract painting by Zebedee Jones. I still have the painting.
ST: Did you know the artists at all?
MVM: No! That was how I bought at the very beginning. But later on, I became friend with Patrick De Brock and he gave me some advices and took me to a higher level of quality. I am not going to buy bad things. But if it’s good, and I don’t like it, then I don’t buy it.
ST: How many pieces do you buy per year, in average?
MVM: Too many!
ST: You don’t have a ceiling budget?
MVM: The point is: you buy the best art when you don’t have the money! Because you take the risk. You said, God, I really like it, let’s go for it! Then you start searching for money, one Euro here, one Euro there…
ST: Collectors are always looking for money!
MVM: Yes, always! Always!
ST: At which point did you become conscious that you are building up a collection?
MVM: Maybe when I have 50 to 70 pieces. There are different criteria, but at the end, it’s about what you like. I had many more pieces in the collection before, but now I try to keep the focus very tight and increase the quality of the collection. Because that’s what you do at the end as a collector. When you collect stamps, you would trade 20 stamps for 1 important stamp that you like. It’s not the quantity but the quality of the collection.
ST: How do you judge that one single stamp is worth more than the 20 stamps together? From research?
MVM: From knowledge. If you are serious about buying art, you would talk to people, build up information, visit galleries and museums, read magazines and information from internet. You build up a database, and this database has to be organized and rearranged. That’s how I build up my knowledge. I am very good at gathering information and making conclusions.
ST: You had a big cleaning of the collection in 2008 when you sold 88 pieces in an auction. Was it because of the new space?
MVM: No, it’s coincidence. It’s the tipping point, a moment when you decided that you need a change. It was almost ten years after I started collecting. Then, there was the need for re-focusing and I had to make intelligent choices. For example, I love classical photography but they wouldn’t fit in the contemporary collection. I had very interesting pieces by South American artists and Indian artists, but I can’t collect everything. I am not a billionaire. But again, money doesn’t matter. You have to have ideas. When you have the idea, you will find the money. Believe me, it’s more difficult for somebody who buys trophy to have a nice collection than a collection like mine, because I work on it. I am involved.
ST: Does the collection reflect back to you something about you that might be previously unknown to you?
MVM: Yes, I discovered very early that I don’t like ugly art. I don’t like hard things. Once I said to myself, “this is actually a Disneyland collection”. It’s all about happy art. It’s a positive image. I am now 58 years old, my life has been full of happy periods and unhappy periods, and I like the happy periods best.
ST: What do you expect from a piece of art?
MVM: It makes me happy! It’s a positive vibration, it’s not existential. I don’t want to look at a piece of art which poses me questions, “the world is in problem”, etc.
ST: Do they give you certain kind of comfort?
MVM: No! Positive reinforcement! I have an iPod with 30 playlists. I called them Happy Songs 1, Happy Songs 2, etc. etc. These are all the songs that make me happy. Are they good music? I hope so. Because you know, you come a point of life that you say you want to be happy. It’s the same as the collection, they make me happy, and they make my visitors happy too! That’s a good feeling to share. I know it sounds very simplistic, but it’s in fact not simple. We are all human beings, and human beings are not simple.
ST: Before turning to art, what in your life was doing the same job as the art?
MVM: I was very much into sports. I played basketball, and professionally squash and golf, etc. I think I discovered art at the right moment of my life, when all these sports became too difficult to do! I am also an obsessive maniac. When I do something, I go for 1000%, and I want to improve myself. When I played squash, I wanted to improve myself; when I started collecting art, I bought several pieces, and suddenly I have over a hundred pieces. Oops, I made mistakes, so I needed to move, I needed to change.
ST: That’s what you mean by re-focusing. Are you buying from young artists?
MVM: Yes. There is an interesting statistics: of all the artists that had a gallery show in New York during the 1980s, how many are still artists today? What’s the percentage?
MVM: 8%! Imagine in 1980s you were buying young artists!
ST: Can we say 92% of the collection would be gone?!
MVM: More than that. I think today, 25 years from now, say, if you bought young artists in 2000 – 2010, maybe 2% to 3% would still be practicing artists. It’s very difficult to buy young artists. I don’t know how to do it. But I am trying.
ST: That’s why cleansing is necessary?
MVM: Absolutely. That’s a nice word you used, I don’t use it because the galleries would be very upset hearing that you are cleansing their collection.
ST: I can say it because I am not a collector! Can you tell us your best buy?
MVM: The biggest cake?
ST: Or the most delicious cake?
MVM: There are two kinds of biggest cake: the one that you really want and you finally got it; the other is when you bid in an auction and you win. Because you really like it and there is another guy who wants it as much as you do. The biggest joy is to be able to add in the collection a piece that you think is worthwhile. It’s the chase!
ST: Which piece gives you such joy?
MVM: The piece from Donald Judd. From the very beginning, I said I wanted a stack from Judd. But I didn’t have the money, so I had to wait for eight years. I bought it in 2007 when the price went down because of the crisis. The advantage of Judd’s stack is that it doesn’t matter which year it’s made. But this is one of the pieces that he made the year before he died, that’s why it’s black. Someone told me that artists started making things in black at their last years. For me, it’s nice to know this, but the most important thing is that I like the piece.
ST: What about the Mandi lll (2003) by Kris Martin? What doesn’t it mean to you? Why did you buy it?
MVM: Because it’s the story of my life. My family was in the travel business. Early in the 1990s I signed a contract with my father that I was able to continue the business. I used to travel a lot for business. One day, he came to me and told me that he sold it. So when I walked into the airport one day, it was all black, there was nowhere to go. He sold the company and I was very sad. But this is a fantastic piece, the idea of where the world starts and where the world ends, that there is no start and there is no ending. You stand there, and it’s the emptiness of the world. For me, it’s a very personal story. When I stood there, in my mind, it was the emptiness of the future. That’s why I bought it.
The Caretaker of a Collection
ST: And what’s your business now?
MVM: Today, I am an investor. I invest in companies. Before, I was a very good marketing guy. I am a very good deal maker, and I can allow better people to work around me. Today, 5 out of the 54 public companies in Belgium have a CEO who has worked with me. That’s a little compliment that I give to myself. I am very good at inviting people to work with me.
ST: That’s why you invite curators to put up shows from your collection?
MVM: You know what the advertising genius David Ogilvy said? “If you hire people that are smaller than yourself, you end up in the company of dwarfs. If you hire people that are bigger than yourself, you walk in the company of giants.” That’s one of the things that I really like. I like giants, I don’t like dwarfs.
ST: You trust people.
MVM: Yes, I trust people. I trust their judgment. But I buy the art, not their art. It’s a constant dialogue, but I make my decisions.
ST: When you work with your curators, you give them complete freedom?
MVM: I gave them carte blanche. The curator of the new show Noli Me Tangere (Don’t Touch Me), Jan Hoet, is a genius. When you invite a curator like him, you walk around when he’s hanging the show, you discuss with him, you ask him questions, and that’s how I learn. I walk around, I listen and I learn. They influence me, they motivate me, and they make me better.
ST: How did you choose your curators?
MVM: The first show was by Patrick De Brock, the first gallery owner who sold me the painting. The second is Peter Doroshenko, a friend of mine, now he’s the Director of the Dallas Contemporary. Then I ask the previous one to recommend the next curator. So, Jan Hoet is recommending the next curator for me.
ST: Back to the idea that a collection is very personal and the fact that someone from outside is deciding what to hang on the walls, is there any tension in between?
MVM: They may not hang the show the way I wished, but it’s a positive experience. For example, there is a piece by Jack Pierson that I like a lot. I don’t know why no nobody picks it. But it’s a very enjoyable right. It’s absolutely no trouble for me.
ST: What are your obligations as a collector?
MVM: My obligations as a collector are to pay for them, to conserve them, to show them, to share them. That’s why I do the public shows and I always have around 50 pieces on loan. We also try to set up a yearly scholarship for researchers on conservation and collection.
ST: What about your family?
MVM: They love it. I have two children, they are 28 and 30. They think their dad is crazy. It’s nice to have a crazy dad, no?
ST: Haha… Are they interested in collecting?
MVM: I don’t think that collecting is something to start young. Maybe you should buy one piece every year.
ST: Do you think about the posterity? What would happen to the collection when you die, for example?
MVM: Again, the collection has no intention to be historic. There is no body waiting to see if I will still be collecting in 30 years from now. There would be somebody else, another collector will do it. I don’t want to burden my children. They can do what they want, to keep it together, to split it or to sell it. It’s their life. It’s not very nice for people to impose their will after their death. It’s a personal decision.
ST: Pleasure is personal and ephemeral.
MVM: Exactly! I like your sentence!
ST: Thank you!