Imagine 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 it! 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 day gets even brighter. So, another city, another pin. You now have a collection of two or three pins. You never remember about The Collection again.
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 the Lithuanian National Gallery of Art last year. And the stories behind them were no less tempting. The show 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.
How different are the art lovers from other collectors? Or maybe the process is quite common for every collector: you search for unusual items, gather them, do 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 issue 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 impressed when I saw the collection of 500 frogs belonging to one person recently.
People are fascinating 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 things are still needed; it’s just that person seeks for some conscious and purposeful hobby now. In the most extreme cases, a hobby is not enough, so sick fanatical behavior then moves the person; this is when serial killers appear.
Self-expression, satisfaction, status, feeling 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 different thing with its 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 prior 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 took 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 appreciated her decision not to land works for the exhibition.
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. 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 centers 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 exciting and hot topics; 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 different back in the days, of course. Nevertheless, Estonia lived in the same conditions, but collectors as Mart Lepp were publishing some catalogs, 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 for making a private museum. The least each collector can do – is 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 the 20th century in the Baltics. It was the way to bring some suddenness in the dull routine of the Soviet man. New artwork enters life, and so an alternative perspective comes along. Even a glimpse of 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 that 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 exciting 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 expensive as other Lithuanian private collections (you know, some collectors were fortunate to get all the significant pieces straight from the workshops at the time). Still, it’s no less exciting and vivid. Gražys home collection is full of the bohemian and creative soul of the collector. He always dared 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.
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 artists didn‘t need anymore. He claimed to peel one work straight from the door of the artist, and he also saved a work from 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 the 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.