Art Collecting is Something Like Refrigerator Magnet Collecting, but Better

A sunny August day in Vienna ten or eleven years ago, tourists all around, and you are no better than them – a tourist yourself, spinning the made-in-China souvenir roulette, buying some magnets your aunt will hang on her refrigerator. And then you suddenly get a mind-notification – Having a Hobby is Cool. But I don’t want to play volleyball, I want to collect! Few more seconds staring at the souvenir roulette and that little pin symbolizing the city or god-knows-what is in your pocket. You are now Pins Collector! You will bring them from all around the world, and you’ll get some as presents. The sunny a fday gets even sunnier. So, another city, another pin. You now have a collection of two or three pins. You never remember about The Collection again. 

27 March, 2019

by RINGAILE PAPARTYTE

Collecting is about things you love. It’s not about stuffing your drawer. Or garage. If you love pins, go for it. I didn’t. But I’m a bit (well to be honest, extremely) jealous of people collecting art. At least, I can sometimes check out some pieces from their collections. There were plenty of interesting ones in the exhibition of ‘Silent Collections’ in Lithuanian National Gallery of Art last year. And the stories behind them were no less tempting. The exhibition was curated by Eglė Juocevičiūtė, Kadri Asmer, Raivo Kelomees and Jolanta Marcišauskytė-Jurašienė. Jolanta helped me to understand collecting art better. Cause you know, you can stuff your drawer or a garage with artworks too. And it’s not about love anymore.

A shot from the exhibition  Silent Collections. Privately Owned Lithuanian and Estonian Art from the Second Half of the 20th Century  by Vadim Šamkov.

A shot from the exhibition Silent Collections. Privately Owned Lithuanian and Estonian Art from the Second Half of the 20th Century by Vadim Šamkov.

 

How different are the art lovers from other collectors? Or maybe the process is quite common for every collector: you search for interesting items, gather them, make research?

It’s a good question. We made a research on different collecting theories when we started preparing the ‘Silent Collections’ exhibition. And we had the same question too. There are practical attributes that are common to every collector: desire to have as many things of the same kind as possible – car models, stamps, postcards, autographs, souvenir magnets, you name it. I was really impressed when I saw the collection of 500 frogs belonging to one person recently.

People are interesting creatures. Sigmund Freud, who was fond of his antique collection, by the way, mentioned the link between this hobby and childhood, when separating from the dummy might seem like the biggest challenge to the baby. Items like these are ‘transit’ objects that you love, feel comfortable with and get attached to. Later in life, such items are still needed; it’s just that person seeks for some conscious and purposeful hobby now. In the most extreme cases hobby is not enough, so sick fanatical behaviour then moves the person, this is when serial killers appear. 

Self-expression, satisfaction, status, felling of belonging, and being a part of the group come first in collecting. And there is still that sense from childhood that encourages you to connect with the world through things, putting yourself in some kind of little ruler position. However, art collecting is a totally different thing with its own particularities. The art collector is like a second profession, showing high status, and often it becomes even more important than the main job person does. Nobody cares if you buy art with money you earned selling expensive medical equipment or driving a taxi. Being an art collector is a prestige that follows one’s name even after death.

 

So, is it possible to collect art with no former knowledge or bigger research? What’s the worth of some scattered collection with no direction – I think I can smell some danger of ‘polluting’ and useless hoarding here.

I think, the initial impulse of collecting comes from a simple admiration and happiness, not from the pile of books you read. Often it can be a pleasant meeting with some artist or a gallerist, accidental finding or a present you got from a friend. It is very interesting to observe how the collection evolves from some random set, as it usually happens, and later grows in quality and quantity. My personal experience shows that collectors are usually very well-educated people, often knowing about the field more than art critics. They grow in their profession. 

And even if there are some second-rate pieces in the collection, I wouldn’t call it ‘pollution’. They reflect the life of the collector, his network and hobbies. One collector, a doctor and acquaintance of mine, Laima Šveistytė randomly started her collection from artworks her patients brought her as gifts. She once said, if you would take down a single picture from my walls, I would die. And she wasn’t joking. These paintings are the continuation of her existence, so we really appreciated her decision not to land works for the exhibition.

A shot from the exhibition  Silent Collections. Privately Owned Lithuanian and Estonian Art from the Second Half of the 20th Century  by Vadim Šamkov.

A shot from the exhibition Silent Collections. Privately Owned Lithuanian and Estonian Art from the Second Half of the 20th Century by Vadim Šamkov.

 

How to bring life to the collection so it could be interesting and relevant after it leaves the collector?

Artworks usually outlive their owners, they travel abroad, come to other collections, at best they become a part of museum collections. This always was quite a tendency in the world. But only in the past decade, more mega-collections emerged in Lithuania. Representing and spreading art is the goal of these collections. Private art museums and centres are opening, like Tarte, MO Museum, and corporate collections like Lewben Art Foundation or BTA art are developing too. Modern art collectors want to make art interesting and hot topic, they are making exhibitions, publications. It’s a big difference from the pioneers who were silently collecting art in the 70s or 90s. Political conditions were totally different back in the days of course. Nevertheless, Estonia lived in the same conditions, but collectors as Mart Lepp were publishing some catalogues, and well, Mart had a collection of 25 thousand artworks, partly inherited from his mother. 

If collection outlives the collector, the further life of it depends more on the pieces, not the former owner. Estonian Matti Milius was a real legend in the whole Soviet Union while he was collecting, but after his death in 2015 the collection was separated and sunken in the unknown. Despite it had huge potential and even some plans of making a private museum. The least each collector can do – to lend pieces from his collection to museums and exhibitions – so that more people could see them. Not everybody can open a private museum dedicated to their collection. 

There are different types of collecting art: one can be interested in a specific period or the artist, somebody chooses to collect art based on geography. What trends are the most common in the collections from Baltics?

The tendency of collecting art pieces from your time and also made by the artists you know is quite conspicuous in the collections of the second half of 20th century in the Baltics. This was the way to bring some suddenness in the dull routine of Soviet man. New artwork enters life and so alternative perspective comes along. Even a glimpse to faraway countries is possible if pieces come from abroad. Friendship, mentality, interests and sometimes a need for mutual advantage were the things connecting collectors and the artists. 

 

I remember a few stories about the collectors you told on the exhibition tour. Remind me of some of these, so everybody could hear.

Every collection is a reflection of its owner – I think me and other co-curators of the exhibition could agree on that. The ability to know the owner and his family closer opens new interesting angles of the collection. But it’s important not to get caught up with the charms of the collector. Objectivity is significant for us too. 

For example, the collection of Lithuanian actor Bronius Gražys, may not be as expensiveas other Lithuanian private collections (you know, some collectors were really lucky to get all the major pieces straight from the workshops at the time), but it’s no less interesting and vivid. Gražys home collection is full of bohemian and creative soul of the collector. He always had the courage to be different and had a fanatic ability to be interested not only in art but also in watches, postcards, labels of food and beverages or wine corks. Or the case of Estonian Matti Milius, I’ve previously mentioned, his collection grew merely from the artworks he got as presents or sometimes even secretly sniffed. Every measure in collecting can be justified when the collector is a performer hungry for life. 

Exposition of Bronius Gražys collection at the exhibition  Silent Collections. Privately Owned Lithuanian and Estonian Art from the Second Half of the 20th Century.  Photo   by Tomas Kapočius.

Exposition of Bronius Gražys collection at the exhibition Silent Collections. Privately Owned Lithuanian and Estonian Art from the Second Half of the 20th Century. Photo by Tomas Kapočius.

Exposition of Valdas Neniškis collection at the exhibition  Silent Collections. Privately Owned Lithuanian and Estonian Art from the Second Half of the 20th Century.  Photo   by Tomas Kapočius.

Exposition of Valdas Neniškis collection at the exhibition Silent Collections. Privately Owned Lithuanian and Estonian Art from the Second Half of the 20th Century. Photo by Tomas Kapočius.

Exposition of Pranas Morkus collection at the exhibition  Silent Collections. Privately Owned Lithuanian and Estonian Art from the Second Half of the 20th Century.  Photo   by Tomas Kapočius.

Exposition of Pranas Morkus collection at the exhibition Silent Collections. Privately Owned Lithuanian and Estonian Art from the Second Half of the 20th Century. Photo by Tomas Kapočius.

Exposition of Mart Erik collection at the exhibition  Silent Collections. Privately Owned Lithuanian and Estonian Art from the Second Half of the 20th Century.  Photo   by Tomas Kapočius.

Exposition of Mart Erik collection at the exhibition Silent Collections. Privately Owned Lithuanian and Estonian Art from the Second Half of the 20th Century. Photo by Tomas Kapočius.

There are more unusual stories, of course, for example, one Lithuanian collector, better known as cinema scenarist Pranas Morkus was dragging home all the forgotten pieces artist didn‘t need anymore. He claimed peeling one work straight from the door of the artist, and he also saved a work from total destruction when the artist was about to start making shoe insoles out of it. That was a piece not by some random, but one of the most prominent interwar period Lithuanian painters Vytautas Kairiūkštis. There are also some works artists get so attached to they refuse to sell it. One acquaintance of mine was negotiating with Lithuanian painter Vygantas Paukštė for 17 years before Jonas Žiburkus could buy the painting. 

Bibliography professor Vladas Žukas had some adventures while gathering his collection too. He was brave enough to write letters to Lithuanians who emigrated and were creating abroad. He wrote to USA, France, Australia. Shortly the works came as gifts. Try to imagine such a strategy of friendly requests today. It wouldn‘t work. The way of how the collections are born tells us about the era, mentality and human relationships.