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Interview. Nicolas Cattelain, Collector

IB: What is your collection about?   

NC: I have two very distinct collections; the first one focuses on French Decorative Arts from the Eighteenth Century and the second one includes more contemporary works of the 1960s and 1970s. That contemporary collection focuses on certain key movements of the period, including Minimalism, Conceptual Art, Group Zero, GRAV, New Objectivity, Hard Edge and New Topographics, and I also follow certain younger artists who work on the legacies of these movements in their current practices. As it’s very easy to get carried away and confused in the art world, it has been very important for me to structure the contemporary collection in a way that makes sense. So all the works in the collection have been acquired in relation to the four key themes, Forms and Objects, Architecture Space and Light, Spaces of Immateriality, and Mapping the Limits of Space, all of which can be seen as having taken as their starting point Josef Albers’ seminal work Homage to the Square.

IB: Do you find the approach to collecting different from one collection to the other?

NC: First of all, both collections, Eighteenth Century and Contemporary, exist together in our house, and for me they are part of one single ‘universe’ of beauty and meaning in which we live. And the approach to collecting is also very similar. In both cases, I am not collecting on my own but with a team of advisors for the Eighteenth Century and a team of curators and researchers for the contemporary art collection. I spend a lot of time creating connections within the eco-system of each of those worlds: connections with museum curators, restorers, other art collectors, and gallery owners. I also do a lot of due diligence work in both fields, whether through visits or documentation and research. But I rarely do this alone: I work with professional teams with whom we research, discuss and debate on topics or objects that we consider of interest.

IB: Your collecting methodology seems to be very close to the ones in place within museums?

NC: Yes, absolutely. In a way we have been trying to replicate this methodology, of course with more limited means and resources! For this reason the selection of my team was key and was based on the understanding they had of art history and the museum processes. Often, there is limited publication or scholarship available on the topics we look at, so we have to do our own research on artists, artworks or periods and we have to find the right people to talk to. For contemporary art, the best is of course getting to know the artists if they are still alive, or people who have worked closely with them. When collecting Eighteenth Century art, this is of course not possible but, the equivalent might be working with good restorers and art historians.

IB: How do you envisage the relationship between private collectors and public institutions in the art world? How can they collaborate? 

NC: Patronage can take different forms in contemporary art, as it did actually in the Eighteenth Century. In my view the most important responsibility of an art collector is to share his passion with others, first and foremost by showing the art works, either at home, or through loans in museum shows or other public exhibitions. The second role a collector can play is to help the artist himself, through residences, or supporting the production and display of new works, which I do quite regularly. Then obviously, there is the financial support of museums in the restoration, conservation and display of their collections, and of course, in the acquisition of new works. I have been very involved with Tate in this way, among other institutions. Lastly, there is another element that I find crucial: which is supporting efforts in research and publishing. The study of an old craft technique, a new conservation method, the publication of new research in art history, or the development of a new interpretation of recent contemporary movements are all critically important. Public institutions play a key role here because of their independence, and I have a lot of admiration for the important global collectors who can fund curatorial chairs in museums or who support independent curators in other ways. Because private collectors tend to have very specific interests, they can focus on areas that are otherwise overlooked or underdeveloped. I am currently sponsoring New Media in the Expanded Field, a research project initiated in collaboration with Alaska Editions and Montabonel & Partners on the intricacies and complexity of the relationship between art and technology in contemporary art practices. The project is reaching out to a wider audience of museum professionals (in both curatorial and conservation departments), art historians and other key individuals in relevant institutions, and the responses so far are very promising! In the field of Eighteenth Century decorative arts, research and publication are particularly underdeveloped, and this is another area where I want to dedicate more resources in the future.

IB: Do you collaborate with regional institutions, outside of the main art centres?

NC: Yes, it is important to do so but I have to admit that at the moment I don’t really have close relationships with regional museum directors or heads of collections. On the other hand, I often lend works to exhibitions held in regional museums and I also recently  supported the show of Dan Holdsworth, Spatial Objects at the Southampton City Art Gallery.

IB: What do you think future philanthropists can learn from the experience of these four international collections originating in countries with very different philanthropic systems?

NC: With the right vision and an open mind, everything is possible! Going Public is a fantastic initiative from the City of Sheffield that will hopefully set a precedent for other similar events. The main lesson for me is that good things can happen when public curators and private collectors start talking to each other and explore ways to cooperate. It won’t always work, but when it does, the effort is definitely worth it for all parties involved.

IB: What key elements are needed to build the foundations for a successful public/private relationship in the long term?

NC: I believe a philanthropist will be ready to support an institution or a show for a number of reasons. The first one is the vision. A collector will want to be affiliated with a collection or an exhibition that resonates with what they believe in, something that makes sense and they think is worth supporting. Another factor that is often underrated is the relationship created with museum staff and curators. Spending time together is key to creating trust and developing ideas. This in turn points to another factor, which is the longevity and stability of the institution in question.

IB: What could be a possible way to encourage philanthropists to support the art’s public sector?

NC: There is a financial aspect to this, and it is important here to consider the differences between Europe and the US. One can only admire the great achievements of art philanthropy in the US, that have given birth to the most amazing public collections not only in the big cities, but across the entire country.  That success is certainly due to the great tradition of philanthropy in that country, but also to another factor that might be a taboo in Europe: tax.  I am not a specialist in this field, but it seems that the tax breaks on charitable donations are often more generous in the US than in Europe, and this seems to have a significant impact on the role that private collectors and benefactors are prepared to play. Of course the lesser tax breaks are somehow compensated by the size of direct public spending on art production and museums in Europe, so this is really a matter of balance between public funding and private tax breaks. I think there is certainly a debate to be had in Europe on this issue, whether the balance is right or not. A slightly more generous tax system might have a much bigger impact than people expect, and this could make a big difference, especially given the current budget constraints in Europe. Certainly, under the current circumstances, US collectors have a very significant financial clout in the public art world, including in many European institutions.

Then of course, there are all the non-financial aspects, which are in many ways much more important. Speaking from my own experience, I can only say that building art collections as I have done is an incredibly fun and rewarding experience, aesthetically, intellectually and on a more personal level. Being surrounded by all this artwork at home is an incredible source of happiness, day after day, and I would encourage anyone who has the opportunity to give it a try, it is worth it! The interaction with public institutions is of course a key element of this experience, first and foremost because of the great collections they have, which indeed need our support. But also because of the individuals; I have met great people in museums, some of whom have become very good friends. To share in their knowledge and experience is invaluable for a private collector.

Interview by: Ines de Bordas