Collector Tiqui Atencio in her London home

The Piece that Started My Collection: Tiqui Atencio

By Mariko Finch
In the first of a new series exploring the art that kicked off the world's most exciting collections, author and philanthropist Tiqui Atencio looks back over her collecting career, her active role in global museum acquisitions and the piece where it all began.

What first ignited your passion for art?

When I was 17 years old, my father gave me a work by Bernard Buffet as a wedding gift. I kept it for a long time and it started me looking. I was living in Venezuela at the time and on Sundays we would go to galleries. My uncle was a real collector so we would visit exhibitions and talk about art. When I was starting out, although enthusiastic, I wasn’t very informed so the early collection lacked coherence. I would jump from Pointillism to something naïve, and then a drawing; it was very eclectic, and the difference is now, in later years it is much more informed and intellectually thought out.

Collector Tiqui Atencio in her London home
Collector Tiqui Atencio with a work by Michelangelo Pistoletto. Photographed by Memo Vogeler, 2018.

In the 1980s I moved to New York and started looking at the artists that were based there. I also started going to Latin American and contemporary art auctions. The first major piece I bought, which was with my last penny at the time, was from Sotheby’s. It was an Armando Reverón who is very precious to the people of Venezuela. He preceded Jesús Rafael Soto and Carlos Cruz-Diez. I kept the Reverón – called Desnudo Detrás de la Mantilla – for as long as I could afford it. And then, when I started needing money to buy other things, I sold it.

How did that feel?

I try not to think about it. In retrospect, it hurts. But when it happened, it didn’t because I really try not to feel loss. It’s a mechanism of protection I had to master in order to be able to part with paintings that I love. The collection evolves, so I have to also. That particular was one of his masterpieces, but it wasn’t right for my vision anymore. I wanted something modern and new.

Armando Reverón, Desnudo Detrás de la Mantilla, 1946. Sold in Sotheby's Latin American Art sale in New York, 2012.

So it was incongruous to the evolving collection?

Precisely. It didn’t fit anymore. It was part of my past.

It’s interesting to hear you talk about this example with regards to the title of your book, Could Have, Would Have, Should Have. It sounds like you work very intuitively.

That phrase depicts what collectors feel when they miss out on something because they were too late; they arrived five minutes too late to the opening of a fair or because somebody else had put a hold on it or because you thought about it too much. The one common denominator that I kept hearing was this phrase because it happens to every single collector that I interviewed. I heard so many incredible stories and anecdotes the world over that I had to write a book.

Could Have, Would Have, Should Have: Inside the World of the Art Collector, by Tiqui Atencio. Published by ART/BOOKS.

Was there anything that surprised you during the course of writing the book?

The most important thing I witnessed when working on the book was the generosity that I see in collectors. They are always wanting to help a museum or create their own foundation, which is evidently giving and sharing it with the public. This unites the majority of collectors, and I think it’s a misconception to assume these works are behind closed doors forever. Yes, I live with these works and they are part of my home and life, but there are always works out on loan to museums and galleries to further the conversation. If I buy something I don’t want to go in storage – I want to see it on the wall, and share it. I’m not thinking about how much it’s going to sell for tomorrow – I just don’t think like that.

It’s nice to hear you talking about living with the work. Do you often rehang and re-evaluate as you discover new works?

It’s a work in progress. We are very fortunate to be able to fill our lives with art, but sometimes you run out of space. I recently saw a Mona Hatoum and a Zilia Sánchez at Frieze, so you just have to be clever about finding a space for these incredible objects.

Is there anything that you’ve ever seen that was love at first sight and you had to have it, or the thing you would save from a fire?

There have been so many. The work I would save from a fire? The smallest one – something I could carry!

Tunga performance of Xifópagas Capilares entre Nós (Capillary Xiphopagus among Us), July 2018, Tate Modern. © Tunga. Supported by Tate Patrons, Catherine Petitgas, and Tate Americas Foundation courtesy of the Latin American Acquisitions Committee, Estrellita Brodsky and Juan Yarur Torres.

What piece of advice that you would give to somebody who is starting a collection?

Join a group in a museum or a group that is involved in visiting art. There are people that specialise in taking people to museums and exhibitions and even in auction houses like Sotheby’s there are learning groups, talks and tours. My suggestion would be to learn as much as you can, and to educate your eye as much as you can, and of course, follow your heart and your intuition.

As well as your book, you are very active with your work on various boards and museum acquisition committees. How does this work alongside buying work for your own collection?

I am the chair of the Tate Latin American Acquisition that I started 15 years ago. I created it inspired by my experience at the Guggenheim, where I am Chair of the International Council — and which already had the first committee created to buy art in that way; by getting members to support the purchases twice a year. The idea was to build or increase their collections and fill any gaps by buying certain works from certain periods, artists and territories.

Art has the power to build bridges between people, between nations, between cultures and between countries. Being part of that world makes us better. It’s so enriching, and it is something you develop a love of — nobody is born with it. Art goes on forever and transforms constantly. My good friend Stephen Ames, who very sadly passed away when I was working on the book, said that for him art was so important that if he didn’t have art in the conversation, he wasn’t interested. He said: “well what am I going to talk about — golf?”

Sarah Crowner Totem The Guggenheim
Sarah Crowner, Totem, 2015. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Purchased with funds contributed by the International Director's Council, 2015. © Sarah Crowner.

Do you think that art can bring communities together? Apparently more people now visit galleries at the weekend than football matches, which a generation ago, was the activity of choice for families to attend together – after church perhaps.

There is a common desire to share among collectors. If you have a passion for something, there is nothing more rewarding than sharing it with others. My work with museums enables a group of engaged, like-minded people to open up art from around the world — that they might not otherwise be exposed to — to a wider audience who will gain from it. Education is at the heart of this.

In every museum I go to, I see parents bringing children and it really uplifting. My generation wouldn’t really take children to museums. They would stay at home with the grandparents, but now they are exposed to all of it and experiencing it from such a young age.

You must have very interesting discussions about the direction that you think the collection should be heading. Are there every disagreements in the process?

Yes! And then we learn so much because the curators are the ones that go out on the field and bring back the works that are of interest to the museum and this reminds us we are not buying for ourselves. We don’t buy for our personal tastes; we do it with the museum’s needs in mind. And there are serious discussions about why this and why not that, but it is always informed, lively and extremely vital to the outcome. What’s incredible is overwhelming generosity of each board member. People frequently put in their own money if there is a deficit to make sure we can secure something important for a museum. It becomes about providing for future generations and keeping the conversation alive. I consider artists to be the antennas of the world; picking up on the energy and transforming it in to their own vocabulary for us to appreciate, to see and to feel.

Tiqui Atencio and Julie Mehretu
Tiqui Atencio and Julie Mehretu. Courtesy Tiqui Atencio.

Is there a particular artist, school or period that is capturing your attention at the moment?

As well as Mona Hatoum , of particular interest recently have been work by Julie Mehretu and generation of younger artists; Sarah Crowner, David Rodríguez Caballero, Sarah Morris, Dash, Juan Garaizabal and Lenora Antunes. There are also some very exciting things happening with artists such as Tatiana Trouve, Alicja Kwade and Carol Bove. Keep an eye out for all of them.

So that begs the question; what is currently on your wish list?

I’ve gone from being very colourful, dynamic, gestural works to much more subdued and minimalist pieces. So anything by Agnes Martin, Manzoni, Ellsworth Kelly or Robert Ryman would currently be on my wish list. Of course, the price for these artists continues to rise and rise so it’s about balancing what you have already, what you really want and what you are happy to part with to get it.

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