There are places in Belgium that you have never heard of as a tourist. Yet, at the middle of nowhere, someone opens you the door and shows you a mine of diamonds. Puurs is such a place; Yannicke and Wilfried Cooreman are the door keepers.
She is a former school teacher, he an accountant. They got married 44 years ago and today, they are both retired… Sounds like your neighbors next door? “In fact, we were considered to be a bit odd in our neighborhood,” Mr. Cooreman said. 35 years ago, when contemporary art was still unfamiliar to most people, the couple started collecting art with their salaries. Today, they have one of the most splendid and well-preserved collections of contemporary art.
Known for their audacious habit of buying young, the couple has been witnessing and supporting the start of many artists’ career. In the 1980s, they collected works by Thomas Schütte(*1954, Germany), Franz West (1947 – 2012, Vienna), Jean-Marc Bustamante (*1952, Toulouse), Jan Van Oost (*1961, Belgium), Lili Dujourie (*1941, Belgium), Narcisse Tordoir(*1954, Belgium)… when most of them were still unknown.
Visiting the Cooreman Collection is like constantly travelling back and forth through a time machine… A broken fusil of Marcel Broodthaers (1924 – 1976) sits neatly
under a painting by Josh Smith (*1976, USA) and another painting on found rugs by a young German painter named Benjamin Saurer (*1977); a mirror work with two umbrellas that calls to mind Magritte and Broodthaers by the Belgian artist Jan van Oost; a box of building material by Gregor Schneider (*1969, Germany) paired with a limited edition newspaper reproduction by Daan van Golden (*1936, Rotterdam); a wall of collage by John Bock (*1965, Germany), a painting of Martin Kippenberger (1953 Germany – 1997 Vienna), and an early handmade collage piece by Franz West.
The naturally-lit dining room gives a view over the garden where old stones from a church paved the ground. Lying on the floor next to the dining table is a layered marble sculpture by Lili Dujourie that reflects light with changing colors. In the hallway, due to lack of space, part of a chair-installation by Franz West is surrounded by wooden boxes and crates with works returned from exhibition loans. On the walls are works by Simon Denny (*1982, Auckland), Richard Hughes (*1974, Birmingham), Alex Dordoy (*1985, Newcastle), Michael Krebber (*1954, Cologne), Mark Dion (*1961, USA), etc. Finally, the favorite piece of the couple’s grandson – a note from Lawrence Weiner (*1942, New York) greeting their guests: “My house is your house, your house is my house, if you shit on the floor it gets on your feet” (Chambres d’amis – Ghent, 1986, curated by Jan Hoet).
Selina Ting, 05 Sept 2012, Brussels
Collecting Young and Eclectic
Selina Ting [ST] : I like the contrast of putting an Alan Charlton’s (*1948, Britain) minimalist grey painting next to a colorful, lousy, bad painting style work of the young Andreas Golder (*1979, Russia). The whole collection is very eclectic in all aspects…
Wilfried Cooreman [WC]: We are not looking for nice beautifully designed work, or any particular style or medium. We have works from different generations of artists – paintings, sculptures, installations, drawings, photographs, videos, etc. When we buy an art work, we want to feel it and see how it responds to us. Life is just like that. You don’t have two days exactly the same. I was an accountant and Yannicke was a teacher, which means we were quite strict at work. But life can be completely different, and we have different choices. There are people who stick to one movement or one style in art, but we prefer to have different possibilities. That’s our personal choice.
ST: You have been collecting art for more than 30 years, with a focus on young artists. Is it possible to see the strata represented by different generations in your collection?
WC: We started buying art works in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Since we were in our early 30s, so we started with artists of our own generation, such as Thomas Schütte, Juan Muñoz (1953 – 2001, Spain), Jean-Marc Bustamante, Franz West, Reinhard Mucha (*1950, Germany), Harald Klingelholler (*1954, Germany), Tony Cragg (*1949, Liverpool), Alan Charlton, etc. We also collected works from Belgian artists such as Jan Vercruysse (*1948, Belgium), Raoul De Keyser, Jan van Oost, Lili Dujourie, etc. They were already quite important in the 1980s. Then we also looked at the younger generation like Paulina Olowska (*1976, Poland), Lucy McKenzie (*1977, Scotland), Thomas Zipp (*1966, Germany), and the new generation today such as Simon Denny, Steven Claydon (*1969, UK), Alex Dordoy, Josh Smith, Victor Man (*1974, Romania), Wade Guyton (*1972, Indiana)… We are always at the beginning of an artist’s career, sometimes even when they were still unknown. “Buying young” means that the work is still affordable and that you support a young artist to start his career.
We experienced, that each generation of artists, was and is reacting differently to the changing economic and social situation. Even today there is a young generation of artists who are making completely different work, with different materials. There is a constant search and evolution in the way artists try to catch the time-spirit.
ST: The challenge of buying young is of course the risk. We know that 85% of the artists today will disappear in history. Are you concerned that 85% of your artists won’t stay in history?
WC: Even museums – and here we are talking about professionals – are acquiring works which disappear in time in their basement. We are private collectors, we can take risks. We know that some works would not develop because the artists stop their career or for many other possible reasons. If you look at a catalogue of the 1970s, you would see that there are only a few left. Every generation would produce five to six artists who would survive. All the rest will disappear in time. I am fully aware of that. But we don’t have any public function; we buy for ourselves, so we try not to be concerned with the issue. The artworks which we acquire have at least to survive during our lifetime. As we all know time determines collections. The artwork gives a collection its importance and quality. By introducing a new work, something will happen to the collection as a whole.
At the same time, there are artists forgotten in history and finally come back to our vision because we had ignored and now re-discover their work. A few months ago, for example, we went to see a retrospective of the Dutch artist, René Daniëls [*1950, Edinhoven], in Museo Reina Sofia. We knew Daniëls in the 1980s when he was still unknown. He suffered a brain stroke at the age of 37, but what he had produced during the eleven years of his career would make him survive. He is such an incredible artist but so little known. Other examples would be those artists hidden in the iron curtain who had a real force but we had never seen their work. Now, they are probably coming out through researches, exhibitions, fairs, galleries… It’s very difficult to live as an artist. You have to work at least for 40 years or more, and many artists have difficulties to keep going.
ST: Do you often ask yourself what the artist’s work would be like in 40 years when you see the work of a young artist?
WC: More often, I would say to myself “that’s ok, but s/he still needs to work for 40 years to see if s/he’s really good”. And I am saying this from my own experience as an accountant. I remember my chief accountant at my first job. He always had a solution for everything! When I got back home, I asked myself, “I don’t know anything, how am I going to survive?” Of course, with time, you developed yourself; with experience, you managed it. But it was the moment when you realized that you still have to work for 40 years, and you tried to do your work each and every time better and simpler, then at the end, you don’t need to do anything! [Laughs] There is a Chinese proverb saying that, at the age of 30, you need eighty lines to draw a fish; at 60, you need eighteen lines; and at 80, you need only one line to draw a fish! That’s how life develops, and it’s the same for artists!
ST: How do you compare the earlier work that you have in the collection to the more matured but high-priced pieces in the later stage of an artist’s career?
WC: I think it’s important to have this kind of early work, which is really the start of an artist’s career. If it’s of good quality, I believe it can be compared to the mid-career works. It’s important and it’s true as well that sometimes early work can be very fresh in ideas, innovative in conception, and very challenging.
ST: There is boldness and determination in the work if s/he’s a really good artist…
WC: Sometimes it can be even more interesting than the later work. But of course, the choice of the collection is also dictated by the budget. For example, we have a piece of Miroslaw Balka (*1958, Warsaw) which we bought in 1991, very early in his career, before he made his international breakthrough. Then he was invited to show in Venice Biennale and picked up by a New York gallery. His price went up so fast that at that time, we couldn’t afford a second work. We don’t have an unlimited budget, so buying young and early becomes our way of collecting. If we have to buy a piece of Thomas Schütte today, for example, we wouldn’t be able to do so.
ST: How do you feel? How do you react to this emotionally?
WC: Sometimes positive jealousy! [Laughs] Sometimes we know the collector and we know that he would keep the piece very well… We are happy for him. At the end, as I’ve said earlier, the budget is also determining your collection.
ST: Isn’t it also a compliment for your discerning eyes when the price goes up?
WC: It’s more important that the artist is developing his work in a mature way. The maturing process of an artist’s work is more fulfilling for us than the augmentation of the value of his work in our possession. But we don’t wait for the price to go up to make the first purchase, that’s for sure.
ST: It must be a pleasure but isn’t it also an exhausting task to be always in the hunt of young artists?
WC: At a certain moment of time, your choice is more focused. I like the work of some of the new generation artists, but it’s the moment for us to go more in-depth with some artists that we already have in our collection. These artists are no longer emerging but they are not yet in their mid-career either, such as Lucy McKenzie, she’s absolutely an important artist for us. We are also looking at Simon Denny, Michael E. Smith (*1977, Detroit), Steven Claydon. They are not the hot stars in the art scene, but they are maturing in the art and getting more and more attention. On the other hand, from time to time, we have a small list of other artists that we would like to have, but you need to make the choice! [Laughs]
ST: What has triggered such a change of focus?
WC: Age is one of the reasons. And the interruptions in some of the artists’ career –change of galleries, taking a few years’ break – that we can’t find more works of some of the artists. So we started to think that it’s time and it is better for us to focus on some of the artists in the collection.
ST: Looking back, why are you collecting art?
WC: Well, if there is a reason… Probably, at the end of our life, and I am speaking for both Yannicke and myself, we want to say that we have lived! We have met a lot of artists, we are surrounded by art which means participating in art, we read a lot about art and we travel a lot… All in all, at least we tried to grasp the cultural spirit of the time we are living.
ST: When you were young, you didn’t have such an idea in mind about collecting art…
WC: No! That’s why, you see, there is an evolution within us as well… The house would have looked totally different if we hadn’t collected art! But we are so hooked to this place. The house is forty years old. We built the house when we were 24, before we started collecting art.
ST: How did you first start buying art?
WC: In fact, at that time, all our friends and colleagues knew that we were obsessed with art because we couldn’t stop talking about art. So when we got married, they offered us a small landscape painting as a gift. Then we started looking at local artists, such as Pierre Caille (1911 – 1996, Belgium) who became a very good friend. Pierre Caille knew Paul Delvaux (1897 –1994), the Belgian surrealist painter. Under these circumstances, we met Andy Warhol in 1982 when he was doing an exhibition of portraits of Paul Delvaux in Belgium. That was a nice memory for us at the beginning of our life as collectors! [Laughs] At that time, we were considered to be a bit odd in the neighborhood because contemporary art wasn’t so known. When we were in Franz West’s first exhibition in Belgium [1989, Bruges], we were only five! Nowadays, a museum opening is full of people, very crowded!
The Art Hypermarket
ST: Let’s talk about the art world today. You have commented in an earlier interview that the art world has become a hyper-market full of business people…
WC: We came from a time where there was telex. Today everything is about internet. We would probably travel to the moon very soon! What I wanted to say is that the world has changed a lot, so is art. It’s going too fast, too exaggerated. A fresh graduate, with no CV, is already asking for twenty-five thousand euros! Young collectors can’t afford several works per year! The young Jacob Kassay (*1984, USA), for example, his work is very hip! But probably he’s not very happy; the market is ruining his career! The market is now American, Indian, Russian, etc., and over there, the big spenders are buying big works for economic returns. Speculation is disturbing the intercourse with art. Buying and selling, finally what remains is a financial transaction.
The Dutch artist Henk Visch (*1950) stated: Because money has the ability to represent quality, expensive art is good art. The gold fever still exists.
Investors want to chase very popular artists and big names, just for investment. The market is more important these days than the art itself! Look at the magazines, if an artist is trumpeted by magazines and galleries, investors are there to acquire his works. Probably these big spenders don’t have a clue of what the artists wanted to say in their works. The only thing that they are interested is the economical value… They are speculators! Art is now an economic investment! Even in the Art Newspapers, you see only figures, no intellectual approach to the work but figures, who’s buying what at which price… In Venice, there are more arty parties than art events and they resemble an Oscar ceremony! I don’t know how long it would go on… Everything is moving too fast. We don’t even allow time for the paint to dry before taking the canvases to the sales room! Gallery shows of an artist are sold out before the opening, to decrease their waiting lists. Why should one visit the gallery?
ST: We are in the economy of stardom and branding… Sometimes, just the name of a big gallery would guarantee the sales of a young artist.
WC: Also because people want to have a piece by this or that artist, no matter what they produced, just a piece with their signature would do. Just like what Marcel Broodthaers said ironically, “Once I put my signature ‘MB’ on a work, it has a value”, and it’s true! Art galleries should not promote art talk, categorization and consumption; this influences artists to make unflawed, more consumable, less genuine work.
ST: Today, is it still possible for a salary man to start a collection of contemporary art?
WC: As I said earlier, it’s becomingmore and more difficult; you have to earn a decent salary in order to start a collection, taking into account that you have to live and probably to raise a family as well.
Look at the structure of some galleries, the staff employed and on top the participation at so many fairs, which logistically costs a fortune, all this has to be paid by the collector. Of course prices of 30 years ago are not applicable these days, but excessive prices have to be avoided.
ST: Do you agree with the saying that there are too many artists?
WC: When we started collecting, there were still some movements. Now, artists don’t work in group anymore. They are very individual and they do their own work, ours is a time of the individual. But I agree that there is a problem of over-production. Artists are not factory workers. They can’t supply for all their galleries who participate in all the same big fairs! The art world is getting too big and too crowded. In the 1970s and 1980s there were only a few galleries but they were very good, very interesting, such as Durand-Dessert (closed in 2004) in Paris, Wide White Space (closed in 1976) in Antwerp, Art & Projects (closed in 2001) in Amsterdam, Konrad Fisher in Düsseldorf, etc. In London at that time, you probably had forty galleries; today you have over eight hundred galleries. Of course, there are also more art investors! The landscape has completely changed. When we say we have been collecting since thirty-five years, we still have works that we bought thirty-five years ago! That’s very different from today.
ST: Is there any effect of all these changes on your collecting habit?
WC: We are individuals, nobody’s telling us what to buy. We determine ourselves what we want to have, and we keep our principles. We prefer to work with gallery owners who are still able to discuss with their artists the content of the work, who treat every individual work as a unique piece. However, all this requires from the part of the artists other qualities and conceptions than just a technical mastery.
ST: How would you describe your relationship with the artists in your collection?
WC: Most of the artists that we collect, we know them personally. Some of the artists, especially those we started with in the 1980s, are good friend of ours. I think that direct contact with the artists help us to understand the intellectual aspect of the work. Through discussions and casual conversations, we know better what they are searching for and expressing through their art that sometimes we possess.
ST: You showed your collection in Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens (Deurle, Belgium) in 2009. Can you tell us about this exhibition which you gave it a beautiful title “When the mood strikes…”?
WC: The Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens has a programme of showing a private collection every two years. They invited us in 2009. At the very beginning, we hesitated because we had never shown our collection in public, and it’s like exposing your bank account! [Laughs] But finally, we said, “Yes, we are doing it!” We showed 130 pieces, and the exhibition was set up in a kind of circuit that allowed visitors to see how the collection was built in different stage. The difficulty was that, the selection of art works was made by looking at the computer screen! [Laughs] Fortunately, it turned out that the pieces are very well connected to each other and the whole exhibition was very well conceived. On the opening day, we had 950 visitors… It was good for ourselves that we had done it. We were very glad to go back to the museum from time to time to see the work, and as the title of the exhibition stated, it was all about the mood, the feelings that the works evoked on us…
ST: How would you sum up the style of your collection?
WC: It’s a mixture of everything – architecture, philosophy, literature, music, poetry, religion – and it’s in constant evolution. They constitute a private collection which is personal, chosen from the mood. There is also a touch of humor, like in the work of Peter Piller (*1968, Germany), Elmgreen & Dragset (*1961, Denmark; *1969, Norway), or again, in the work of Marcel Broodthaers!
ST: Lending works in the long-term to museums, is it a common practice?
WC: As you can see, we don’t have much space, and we have works that no wall or space in the house is big enough to hold them. For example, in 1998, we were seduced by a huge installation (7m long x 6m wide x 3m high) of a then 24 year-old German artist called Bjorn Dahlem (*1974). It’s not possible to install it at home, and since the artist was young and unknown, no museum wanted to show it in permanent. Finally, we changed for another work with his gallery. There are so many private spaces, foundations and museums… probably there would be more private museums than public museums in the future! We don’t know how they develop and how they manage the whole project, but we don’t have such financial means, so we think it’s better to talk to museums, because all private art would become public by time. Museums professionals have the knowledge, the techniques, the hardware, etc., to take care of the work. Also, museums are important resources for researchers and educators. The public museums don’t have the budget to acquire certain pieces, so a long-term loan can guarantee the exposure of the work and the public can still see the works.
ST: How was it arranged? Did you first propose the idea to the museums?
WC: In the 1980s, Jan Debbaut was the director of the Van Abbemuseum. His predecessor Rudi Fuchs, was collecting work of his generation for the museum, such as Bastilz, Penck, etc. But the museum didn’t have the work of the artists in our collection, so we proposed to lend them part of our collection. We would like to have more in the museums because we don’t have the space… Even those collectors with two thousand or three thousand pieces of work, they can’t see all of their collection. Today we have works in long-term loans in Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, Contemporary Art Museum in Grand-Hornu, Museum Dhondt-Dhanens.
ST: Talking about public museums, a related question is that subsidies for the cultural sector are under pressure, is this a bad sign for the arts?
WC: It seems that the cultural sector is the 6th biggest economic sector in Europe. Think about the employment of the artists, the galleries, fairs, transport, packing, printing, insurance business. On top we have to take into account as well, theatres and music business with the booking offices, museum with retail shops, etc. Hotels and pubs are indirectly involved. Intangible proceeds are immeasurable, but the attention for a city or a region is an incredible added value.
Art and culture are mostly considered as a leisure activity for a small “elite” group of people who have some attention, interest and concern for culture. Can this statement only be claimed for the cultural sector?
In times of economic recession, the subsidies for the cultural sector are questioned. The thinking behind this is: “What is the surplus value for the average citizen”? The political elites have to realize as well that, they are living on the subsidies of the population! We are paying their salaries. Can we cut down the staff of politicians? Is only sport what makes a nation great? Sport events are having the biggest power of attention by politicians. In history, only great artists will be remembered!
ST: Thank you very much!