Curiosity and Even More Curiosity


Written by Gunnar B. Kvaran

INTERVIEW WITH ERLING KAGGE

GBK: What is a collector and what’s the drive to collect?

EK:  The answer to the second question is curiosity; I think that’s the deepest emotion, and the answer to the first question is that it’s someone who collects – there’s room for a really wide definition. I think you need an addictive personality. If you’re a great collector, you’d still keep on collecting even if someone hit you with something really hard to force you to stop.

GBK: Before collecting art, did you collect anything else?

EK: Not in a great way, but I had it in me. I liked to acquire things and to keep things. I tried to collect stamps for a very short period, but I didn’t find it very exciting.

GBK: When did you start collecting art and why did you decide to collect contemporary art?

EK: I’ve been curious about art, and interested in art and artists, since I was quite young. Obviously, I didn’t meet many artists, but a few. I didn’t see much art. I remember I went to Louisiana in Copenhagen when I was thirteen years old and I saw these grey rocks, just like those in my neighbourhood when I was a kid, lying on the floor in a circle. It was a piece by Richard Long. I’d never heard about him before and I thought it was absolutely pathetic that some rocks could be presented as art. But then I somehow slowly changed my mind. I think you have to believe in what you’re seeing. If you see a great Rembrandt, a great Picasso, you don’t have to decide to believe in what you see. With an installation by Richard Long, you need to believe in it. Slowly, I started to believe, and I bought my first piece when I was twenty, and after that a piece every now and then throughout my twenties and thirties. But I didn’t have time to collect, and nor did I have money. Then in the late 1990s, I started to earn good money. First, I bought a nice house for my family, and then I felt free to spend the rest of my cash on art. I also found some spare time and started to collect in a big way.

GBK: What can you tell me about your collection in terms of generations and geography?

EK: I started to collect artists who were slightly older than myself, like Raymond Pettibon, Richard Prince, Carroll Dunham and others. Then they got more expensive and I started to see younger art and bought artists from my own generation, then artists ten years younger than me, and now twenty years younger than myself. I think it’s much more fascinating to buy art before the artists are too respected. Of course, I don’t buy totally unestablished artists because I usually use galleries. But as soon as Prince and Pettibon got expensive, I stopped buying them. I like to be kind of – not very early, but fairly early. In the terms of territory, I buy mostly from the east and west coasts of the States, German-speaking countries, Europe, Scandinavia, a little bit from Mexico, Brazil, Japan. In the UK the art has been too celebrity-driven for me.

GBK: Was this geographic spread intentional?

EK: There isn’t a big plan, but you have to relate to what you want to buy. I think it’s easier to relate to people who’ve listened to the same music, read the same books and seen the same movies. I went to China early on to consider collecting Chinese art. I kind of liked what I saw,  but I felt I enjoyed it for the wrong reasons. I liked what reminded me of where I came from. I’m sure I made some big mistakes, not digging more into it, but there’s so much great art around that I just felt that the Chinese art at the time, around 2000, was too exotic for me.

GBK: Have you had any kind of strategy for collecting?

EK: I don’t think I have any particular strategy. I’m driven by curiosity, as I said, and in addition, I try to be informed and make decisions. I think many collectors are extremely slow in making up their minds. It’s important to just decide to buy or not to buy and then move on. I guess that’s my strategy. To follow a budget is something for museums, but not for me. As a collector you should not only be ahead of your own taste, but also spend money before you’ve earned it. It’s a love affair: you can’t be rational and trust a strategy.

GBK: But your collection does have a certain kind of structure or format, since you collect many works by a few artists. Is that conscious?  

EK: That’s very conscious. It’s nice to have a few great drawings by Raymond Pettibon, but it’s nicer to have twenty-five from the different decades – from the 80s, 90s and 2000s. I definitely like to collect in depth. Collecting is kind of an autobiographical thing to do. I find it very personal. That’s also why, until now, I haven’t been flashing my collection. Obviously it’s been seen in my house etc, but I haven’t talked about it in the media, because it’s a very personal thing what you collect – at least, what I collect.

GBK: Do you have a personal relationship with the artists you collect?

EK: I have personal relationship with many of the artists, but it’s never been an important thing for me, as such. Many collectors are very focused on the social thing and get to know the artists, but for me it’s a secondary thing. It is nice, but I’m much more interested in the art than the artists. For me, it’s not first of all a social thing; it’s more about building a collection. But then I also end up knowing many artists and that’s usually a great pleasure, both in social terms and in terms of understanding the art.

GBK: You’re a businessman, a publisher. Is your collecting also a form of investment?

EK: I wouldn’t say ‘investment’ in the proper sense of the word. I love a good deal, but a good deal is only good if it’s for a great piece at a fair price. If I was in it mainly for the money, I’d find plenty of better ways to earn money in Norway.

GBK: How do you organise and work on your collection? Do you take pleasure in working on your collection?

EK: I take pleasure in learning, understanding, buying and installing, but all the bureaucracy around it isn’t my thing.

GBK: Who are your best or most important consultants?

EK: When you collect, you collect with your eyes, but also with your nose and ears. It’s really important who you talk to and who you trust. I have some close people I discuss art with, a few in Norway but mostly abroad.

GBK: Are they more on the commercial side of the art world? 

EK: They’re from both sides: gallerists, collectors and curators.

GBK: So you listen to advice?

EK: I listen to advice all the time, but I don’t always follow it. I never pay for advice. I don’t use professional help.

GBK: What’s more important for you, the idea, the content or the form of the work of art?

EK: I don’t separate it, myself, but I can see when looking at my collection that it varies: some artists are into the ideas, some into the form. But I’m not too focused on that. I think with an artist like Klara Lidén it varies a lot within her art too, so I think it you have to go for it all.

GBK: Are you preoccupied by the notion of beauty when you collect?

EK: Many of the pieces I have are really beautiful. It’s beauty in the sense that it’s obviously pleasing to the eye, but also in the sense that it’s strange. It has to have a strangeness, because it’s hard to love what you understand.

GBK: It’s inventing a new kind of aesthetic?

EK: Yes.

GBK: Who are the artists in your collection with whom you have the most affinity?

EK: You may love your pet more than everything else throughout its life, but with art and artists, It changes. I’ve bought everything I have because I really wanted the piece and was deeply curious about the artist. Time passes by, you lose interest in some and maybe the interest picks up again later. At least, that’s what’s happening for me. So I can very well understand why I bought all the art I have.

GBK: Do you understand some of the artists in your collection better than others?

EK: Absolutely.

GBK: Can you mention one or two artists whose work you have a deep understanding of, and are some of them still some kind of enigma, even though you take pleasure in their work?

EK: In general, I don’t fully understand the art I collect. I’m fine with that because I think if it’s fully understandable for me, it’s not so fascinating anymore. An artist like Trisha Donnelly is really hard to understand. I understand some of it, but I still have a hard time grasping her project. But I’m certain it’s great art, and I’m a great collector of her work. The market doesn’t appreciate what she’s doing, which is a good situation to be in for me. I understand Pettibon, Lidén, Eliasson etc. a lot more, but far from entirely, and artists like those three have probably decades to go, so there will be many surprises down the road.

GBK: So it’s not important for you to understand the works of the artists you collect?

EK: I think it’s important to understand a lot of the art I collect, but sometimes my taste or my intellectual capacity is too slow, so I have to be kind of ahead of my own capacity. Sometimes I buy art I really don’t understand that well, and I try to live with it and understand it and after a while I start to grasp what the art is about.

GBK: Are there some artists whom you like very much but haven’t been able to buy?

EK: Yes, for sure. But I don’t worry about it. The reason is usually that it’s too expensive, or I was too slow to understand what they were up to. I also had to make my priorities and choose between that and other artists I wanted to buy. Actually, I think it’s healthy not to be able to buy whatever your eye or your soul desires, because when you look at collections where people have been able to buy everything right away, they’re usually very boring collections.

GBK: But there are also situations where the artists are not so expensive, but you can’t buy them because you don’t have access to the works, or the artist doesn’t want to sell the piece you want to buy.

EK: That’s something I experienced a little bit early on, but that was many years ago. I hear all the time that people don’t get access, but touch wood, I do. I don’t take it for granted. You have to behave properly, be in dialogue with the galleries at all times, and pay invoices on time. Quite often, you get close to the artists, too. I think if both the artist and the gallery would really like me to buy the piece, and if I’m willing to buy the piece, I get to buy it, and if I can’t afford it someone else buys it. The galleries I’m close to offer me great pieces. I never take advantage. I either buy it for myself and keep it, or I don’t buy it.

GBK: Do you buy works from artists who don’t have galleries?

EK: Sometimes, but there are so many galleries that most artists have a gallery. Sometimes I buy from lousy galleries, but you have to keep in mind that a lot of great artists have exhibited at lousy galleries.

GBK: In the exhibition, we have only a selection of your collection, but when looking at your collection in general, what does it tell us? Is there some kind of overall narrative that you can discern?

EK: Definitely: what I felt when I bought it. The only thing that all the pieces and all the artists have in common is me. Most of the artists I’ve been collecting have some kind of curiosity, like me. It’s also artists I deeply respect. It’s not only one thread. There are also quite a few oddballs in the collection, which somehow don’t fit in, but for me they do. And that’s how it should be, because often it’s the democracy of the dollar: people collect because it’s expensive or will become expensive – not only private collectors, but all the way down to MoMA, and ordinary people who try to make a profit. There’s nothing wrong with it; it’s is just a little bit boring.

GBK: Today, we have more voices telling different narratives in and about contemporary art than ever before. Many of these voices creating this polyphony are private collectors. What are your thoughts about the role of collecting between the private and the public?

EK: It’s definitely a truth that the definition of power has turned from public to private – kind of back to how it was in the old days. I guess the art world has always been pretty corrupt, but to me, it seems as if many private collectors are quite responsible. Of course, it’s good if great art belongs to the public. And like in the States, it probably ends up in the public anyway, either permanently or temporarily. In Norway, it is a problem of course. There’s a lot of money around, but there isn’t much good art to see, and when I travel, I see the same three, four, five people also travelling around the world to see art, and to collect.

GBK: Because of the overwhelming position of the private and corporate museums, do you think that the public museums are being forced to redefine their collecting strategies?

EK: Both in Norway and abroad they need to think about it because the private sector is so strong. I’m often disappointed when I see places like MoMA because they’re the most powerful institutions, and sometimes have fabulous shows that I really appreciate, but they’re total suckers for money, both in terms of adapting for their sponsors, and in terms of showing art that’s very expensive. They should be able to depend less on the forces of the market. There’s so much great and interesting art made outside the commercial world, so it would be a great idea to redefine their position. That’s why I liked Documenta under Roger Bruegel: because it was a different pitch. He went for artists who weren’t established and were outside the gallery system. He made up his own mind, and he has a qualified opinion about what’s interesting art and what’s not. That’s a good example of someone who redefined the field, and people could learn from the way he did the fair.

GBK: Do you think it would be possible for private collectors to make joint ventures with the public museums? Or is collecting always a one-man project?

EK: You have to be egocentric to collect; it’s not easy to cooperate with other collectors. But for several collectors to come together and collect with a public institution – that’s a good idea. But then the public institution would have to be the centre of the whole thing. In Norway we don’t have a culture for that. Maybe that will change.

GBK: Have you any idea what will become of your collection in the future?

EK: No I don’t. In general, when you look back at history, there are usually two options: that people die and it goes to auction, or it’s donated to an institution. But maybe there’s a third way. I believe there could be. 

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