IB: You have been collecting art sinthe 1960s, how did it all begin?
EM: It all started in the 1960s. I was living in Düsseldorf then and started buying works from my friend and gallerist, Konrad Fischer. Later, in the 1970s I started my own publishing house and focused on 20th Century avant-garde and modern art. At the time, I was doing all the research myself for each publication and began accumulating a great deal of material on or by artists, on specific movements and periods. For example, I did a lot of work on the Bauhaus and photography. When I closed the company in the 1990s, I realised that I had a lot of material and that it formed a sort of archive on 20th Century art. I carried on collecting artworks but also archival documents like postcards, letters, exhibition catalogues and so on.
I am Italian but my activities are mainly based in Germany. I have a very personal sculpture project in Verzegnis in Italy. For nearly forty years now, I have been inviting artists to make interventions in the landscape or within the houses. It resulted in a large sculpture park, opened to visitors every day, all year long. It is also possible for people who are conducting specific research to come and look at some of the works in the houses upon request. Verzegnis is a very personal but rather large project and I hope that my children will continue it. Now many of my friends are old or dead, so we have to look at the new generation of artists.
IB: The exhibition Going Public is about the relationship between public and private collecting practices, and what it means to be a collector today. You are one of the four Europeans private collectors that have been invited to show works from their collections in Sheffield. The notion of philanthropy varies in the countries represented in the exhibition and the different possibilities of philanthropic models will be discussed during the summit in October 2015. In your view, what is the role of philanthropy?
EM: I gave my collection to the National Gallery and the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin. As a collector, I think I have a responsibility towards society. I grew up in a social-democratic ideology. I was never part of a party but I think as a collector we do have a social responsibility. It is also a responsibility towards the artists. Life is short and of course one can have fun with or take pride in one’s collection but eventually it has to end in an official place. The problem of museums today is that they are facing a highly speculative art world and market. It is the cause of many issues in public institutions. The model of the museum in the United States is very different as it is largely based on private funding. In Europe, I think we should try to change our way of thinking. We have now reached a breaking point where we have to reconsider the current model and open up to collaborations between the public and the private sectors.
IB: In cities like Berlin or London, it already seems to be the case; leading institutions collaborate with private individuals or companies. Unfortunately, it is concentrated in capitals and regional museums are suffering from the divide between their financial situation and rocketing prices.
EM: In France, I remember thirty years ago, everyone focused on Paris and on the French state’s cultural policy. At that time, there were very few French private collectors. Things changed a lot with the creation of the FRACs and decentralization. It became a much better system. It created a sort of cultural ‘competition’ between cities like Lyon, Bordeaux etc…
IB: It is fascinating to see the impact that art and culture can have on a city’s regeneration. Do you think this should be more emphasized?
EM: Yes, absolutely. Art can transform a city’s or an entire region’s economy. Cultural tourism is a very important factor of regeneration and sometimes the most important.
IB: How is the situation in Germany?
EM: In Germany, it is the absolute opposite! In terms of the market, it is mainly concentrated on Berlin. However, museum collections are stronger in places like Düsseldorf, Munich or Hamburg.
IB: What are you working on in Germany now?
EM: I am currently working on an archival project that will become a study centre in Berlin. It will be a bit like the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. The thing is that working on an archive is a never-ending task. I once got a letter from Richard Long. A few weeks before, I had been driving with him from Switzerland to my place in Italy (Verzegnis), and we had a long discussion about the archive. He then sent me a letter that said at the end “an archive will never be complete”.
IB: This is a beautiful way of describing the process of building an archive. Is it your approach too? Do you constantly keep finding and adding elements?
EM: Yes, in a way it is a bit like a Don Quixote project! It is an archive on the avant-garde of the 20th Century, from the Viennese Geometrical Liberty to Futurism, Expressionism, and all the other –isms, as well as Dada. I think that today there must be around 1 million entries in my archive.
IB: Have you decided how the archive will be activated for the public?
EM: Yes, this is very important to me. First of all, I would like to open the archive to a large public and not to a restricted audience. And secondly, I would like it to remain whole, so that people are given access to each part of the archive. Like other research centres like the Getty, it includes letters, manuscripts, publications but it is special in that it also includes actual works like drawings, paintings or objects. If a visitor comes in, he should be able so see letters or archival material but also original artworks within the same context. There is so much to learn from an object and its materiality. To me this archive is coherent as a whole, and I don’t want to separate things. The problem in museums is that things are separated and organised in specific, categories: books are sent to the library, drawings and prints to the print room, and paintings or sculptures to the museum rooms. I would like this specific archive to remain whole as in my view everything in it is strongly connected. On this wall for example [a wall covered with small drawings, sketches and paintings], you can see works by Rodchenko, Picasso, Giacometti, Lissitzky, Ad Reinhardt, De Kooning, Duchamp etc… These are examples or prototypes let’s say, and I like the idea that a student could handle this Duchamp drawing in its original frame as it can tell him so much about the story and life of the work and its provenance. This would be impossible to achieve in a museum, but it should be possible in an archive like the one I am willing to set up.
Interview by: Ines de Bordas