The Piece that Started My Collection: Walter Vanhaerents

By Sotheby's
Walter Vanhaerents began collecting art in the 1970s. Now in 2019 he and his children have amassed a significant and comprehensive collection of contemporary art. Ahead of a major exhibition at the Venice Biennale, Sotheby's spoke to him about his love of collecting and the piece that started his collection.

Sothebys: What began your interest in collecting art?

Walter Vanhaerents: My interest in art started with my interest in architecture, and visiting the new museums built in Germany in the 1980’s by renowned architects such as Hans Hollein and James Stirling. That’s where I discovered that not just the architecture blew me away, but art did too, like it did in Mönchengladbach: Beuys’ blocks of fat, Richter’s series of grey paintings, and many other internationally celebrated artists whose work I was introduced to.

Walter Vanhaerents and The Death of James Lee Byars Installation

S: What was the first piece of art you bought?

WV: After first collecting local art from the area for a period of five years, I was able to trade everything for a sculpture by Jacques Lipchitz, the French-Jewish artist who moved to the United States. I have a cast of the first sculpture he made after arriving in the US. To get the certificate, the dealer had to travel to Marlborough Gallery in New York. The sculpture is called “The Arrival”; for me, too, it was like arriving in a new world and starting a journey full of discoveries.

S: Your collection dates back to the 1970s, and the early pieces you collected were considered extremely radical at the time. What was it that drew you to these pieces?

WV: In my first years as a collector, I was always intrigued by radical works of art. I wanted to put together a collection that was different from what you could see in classic museums. That’s why the Vanhaerents Art Collection complements what the classical museums have to offer. I had the feeling that, mainly in Belgium, private collectors mostly purchased works by the same artist.

Ugo Rondinone, Cry Me A River, Neon, acrylic glass, translucent foil, aluminium. 1997

S: Have any pieces in your collection been love at first sight?

WV: Of course every collector, including myself, buys works that capture and overwhelm you at first sight. In the past, galleries gave you more time and space to make your decision, which made regrettable purchases a rare thing. Nowadays, we have the pressure and ambiance of fairs, for example, that push collectors into making hasty decisions that they regret afterwards. Or they only buy names, instead of good works of art, and they forget to look at the actual quality of the work.

How do you decide if a piece is right for the collection or not? Are there particular criteria you follow?

WV: I let my feelings and my heart decide, not my reason. When I purchase a work, I don’t always directly know if it will fit well in the collection. I trust my instinct and usually it all falls into place. At the same time I think art works profit from having some friction with each other; they don’t always have to follow up on each other’s atmosphere. I suppose there is a common thread running through my collection, but I hope it is well hidden and remains out of sight.

S: How do you go about discovering emerging artists, and what do you look for when choosing an artist to include in your collection?

WV: I mostly visit galleries and biennales, and every once in a while I visit an artist’s studio. I do prefer to see an ensemble of works of the same artist in an exhibition at a gallery. Usually you had a lot of options here, but nowadays the gallery owner usually decides for you. This is not something I work well with. If I do not get the choice to purchase works that speak to me, I prefer to wait for the next opportunity. Unfortunately, that opportunity does not come often… but no need for tears!

S: Tell us about the ‘viewing depot’ format for the collection, what led to this format of presentation?

WV: After having the same exhibition policy for 10 years, we needed a new formula that emphasized front office as much as back office - restoration, conservation, inspection, cataloguing and more. We decided to transport about 80% of the collection to our building in Brussels, and present freestanding artworks and works in cases amidst crates, with a focus on sufficient visibility. In addition to that, we started using a brand new depot for two-dimensional works, so we have direct access to all our paintings, drawings and photography. By doing so, we are creating a new format for a collection or museum of the 21st century. We are like a small-scale version of the collection building that is being established right now in Rotterdam. From what I hear, our project will have a great following.

Walter Vanhaerents and The Death of James Lee Byars Installation

S: The collection’s Venice Biennale exhibition this year will be “The Death of James Lee Byars”, tell us more about this and what made you choose it as the focus.

WV: The location of the exhibition is the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Visitazione, at the Zattere stop and right at the water. In the church, Byars’ golden cenotaph, one of the most important works of the collection, will be built with a height of 6 meters. The Lebanese musician and composer Zad Moultaka will interact with Byars’ work by creating the sound installation “Vocal Shadows”, a work where twelve vocalists will whisper scripts from Ancient Egypt. The work will be set up visually by two lines of speakers that go down to the chancel. My five month stay in Venice in 2015 allowed me to discover this beautiful location, and silently work as a curator to develop the concept of this presentation, which was selected by the Biennale committee as “collateral event”.

S: What’s the most important thing to keep in mind when collecting art, and what advice would you give to a new collector?

WV: I would advise new collectors to be patient, to look well and extensively and make sure they develop their visual knowledge and capacities well. It is important not to get frustrated if you miss out on a sale. Be sure to take your time and don’t be dependent on others. Do not go along with what the media says; that will only blur your ability to make a decision. Trust yourself and do not let others decide for you.

S: Which particular artist or period is of most interest to you currently?

WV: I am very much interested in artists who are already represented in the collection and whose presence I wish to broaden, if prices allow me to. I also keep a close watch on the young, international scene and artists that are inspired by established values and manage to add something new, although I do not think that is a necessity as they are just as much able to shine in their own originality. Bruce Nauman is my absolute number 1, Ugo Rondinone and Urs Fischer are artists that are very talented and whose work I adore. David Hockney on the other hand has been a revelation for me, by creating iPad paintings at a later age and thus, as unlikely as it is, is open to the newest techniques. Wonderful!

The Death of James Lee Byars’, will be on view at the church of the Santa Maria della Visitazione in Venice from May 11 to November 24, 2019.

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