To try to situate the beginnings of your interest and career in the art world, could you tell me the role art played when you were growing up?
There were no artists in my family, but I did have a very culturally dominated upbringing, with music and to a lesser degree art playing an important part, although only from a spectator point of view. I didn’t paint or play any instruments, but what I saw and heard left a deep impression on me.
And what would you say art has become for you now?
It’s a complete addiction and the museum is a total obsession. These are two rather medical descriptions, but I say “addiction” as it is all about creativity and my motivating factor in life is to move things forward, which means creating something and making a new bigger or different space. Art is generated from a manufacturing process and I’m just surprised at how many people in the commercial and business worlds are just not interested in art, and how they don’t see the germs of creativity that are there.
Do you participate actively in public art life, then, such as being a member of an advisory board or in Friends networks?
I’m a ‘Friend’ of lots of institutions, I sit on the Court of a London University, I am on the advisory board of a wonderful quarterly magazine, and am a member of the Art Scholars Livery Company. However, I am not currently very active in any of these institutions, as Ben Uri is my principle responsibility.
I think it’s clear that your great passion is Art and Museums given your position as Chair and CEO of a museum that is a registered charity and receives no government funding – How and why?
Well first of course, I don’t take a salary, so yes it is a passion. The museum sector fascinates me as does the overall arts scene. The dynamics between the commercial and the not for profit / museum sector is rapidly changing as major private galleries today are significant money-making machines and re-invest partly by curating and hosting museum quality exhibitions of a very high caliber. For example, in London, now Pace Gallery with the Calder exhibition – where else could you walk in and see 8 or ten Calder mobiles in one room? Or Gagosian in New York last month exhibited a breath-taking show of Basquiat which looked just as busy as the Abstraction show at MoMA…The whole market place is changing now, with the top commercial galleries having established themselves as serious providers of an artist’s oeuvre. This is great as the public gets to see works for free, whereas in public museums they often have to pay for it, so it is definitely in the public’s best interest. There are problems, however, for museums to compete with that new dynamic – that’s why a lot of priority importance, as I ensure at Ben Uri, is placed on education. Commercial galleries put on great exhibitions to sell works so museums have to add dimensions the commercial galleries can’t for public education and wide engagement. This is why the Ben Uri ethos is to put on great temporary shows and now at last from April 13 offer free entry to all exhibitions as well as our education programs.
I think Ben Uri should be all the more celebrated for this. Turning more to your own personal collection now, though, how did you start out?
I bought my first picture when I was sixteen… it’s a bit of an odd story actually. Our family dog died and my mother was desperately upset, so when I saw a painting of a dog of the same breed in an antiques shop, I went in and bought it for her. I bought this piece for £5, which used my pocket money and all my savings. After a month or so my mum was too upset to look at it, so I tried to take it back, and was told by the dealer to “jump off a bridge”. They say “what goes round comes round”, and ten years later I exchanged the watercolor for a beautiful oil study by Solomon Alexander Hart, which remains a personal favorite.
Does that mean your collecting process is based on acquiring individual works with sentimental value?
No. I have collected by medium, period and theme over the past forty plus years. After I amass a collection, I sell most of it and move on to the next. The previously mentioned picture of the dog was a watercolor, so I started buying watercolors. I then I moved on to Victorian oils, then modern British, then European abstract, although this didn’t really work for me as it never really sang to me- it looked good, but I never really got into it. From there I moved on to twentieth century, principally –but not only –by Jewish artists, as this is an easy theme around which to build a narrative. It is interesting to see artists from Russia who ended up in America painting in one fashion, and others from the same background who ended up in Britain painting in another.
Your tastes really have changed! As such, how do you decide which artworks to purchase at the end of the day?
Always, always quality and distinctiveness. I concentrated mainly, although not solely, on Jewish artists simply because I needed a theme; some thirty years ago I was told by a very wise art dealer, Meir Stern who founded Stern Galleries in London and Tel Aviv, that he would happily sell me one or two works a month, but then I would just end up with a warehouse, not a collection. I still have select examples from all the areas I have collected but I’m very eclectic in my taste so I needed a broadly based theme to follow Meir Stern’s advice. Creating a core collection of artworks by artists of Jewish descent was a perfect solution for me as it built a theme but did not restrict my interest across a century of art movements and countries of origin – so examples, from Russian Constructivism to Victorian Romanticism to American social realism to Modern British to Contemporary are all still on my radar screen.
How many artworks would you say you own now?
Large enough to have it housed professionally away from home. I usually re-hang in my house about every two years due to my commitments to Ben Uri, but would like to every six months or so. When I need some quiet I go to my picture store and have a look at them- it’s like getting reacquainted with old friends!
That’s a lovely way of putting it, I’ve heard other people say that their paintings are like their children and so they could never part with them after putting so much into acquiring them. What is your collecting philosophy or motivation?
My motivation is the need to collect – to own, to discover. People think you need a lot of money to collect and think of it only as an investment. There’s a great deal of misrepresentation in the art market today with regard to this. You can say, “I’m going to collect” then head down any street in the West End, negotiate 15% off a work and think you’ve made an investment; it may indeed prove to be so, but you don’t know and it is wrong to view it as such, just as if something is in the wrong sale and on the wrong market, you might be underpaying by 30% on what it would otherwise be valued at, and so that’s surely an investment, but is not collecting art. Equally it’s not collecting if you are bothered only what something is, and not about what you and others think when looking at it.
So do you not agree with the concept of art being an alternative investment?
My big gripe is with buying paintings as an investment. A dealer is entitled to make what he can on a work, and I would never deny him that, but things move in cycles and I think the next five years will be very difficult, as at the top of the market, where all the excess funds are, tastes change and sentiments can change even faster. It’s all a virtuous circle on the surface – people buy something for whatever reason, and when they want it valued, it’s almost inevitable that they will go back to the dealer they bought it from, and of course that dealer will say it is worth more than what they sold it to the client for. One can only value an investment on the proceeds of sale rather than a valuation. Value is purely subjective until the point of sale. It can be precarious as other examples may be put up for sale at the same time and as luck would have it your artwork is not sold – so in banking terms your piece’s starting point value is zero pointing upwards. Whatever a piece may eventually be resold for, you have to take into account the whole business which most people looking at art as an investment don’t: the net cost of purchase being the hammer price + 29% commission + VAT if bought at auction, plus holding costs (conservation, storage and shipping), plus financing costs (you could have that money earning interest), all to be deducted from a hammer price less commissions and VAT if sold at auction, plus selling costs. My guess is a painting has to be sold at c.a.50% more than bought for at the hammer price to start to generate a profit. You need to question how many years this will span over, and divide totals to see if this makes an annual return. Overall then, art is not such a great investment, but like fisherman most will only tell you about their successes. There was a time when you didn’t buy or expect to make a profit on art, as everything was based around the pleasure and exhilaration of owning art, and for me, that’s still it. In the museums sector, people will ask me what Ben Uri’s collection is worth, but it is not important –why not ask who the artists are and what is their influence on society? I apply the same questions to my own collection and why I have it. But then the commercialization of the art market is probably inevitable: if a Louis Vuitton suitcase can become an investment, then so can art!
I will be sure to ask you then who the artists are in your collection –or, given the apparent numbers, who are the star artists?
I tend to really have as good examples as possible by middle-ranking artists rather than mediocre art by major artists. I have good examples by Gertler, Adler, Herman, David Roberts, Bomberg, Signac, Gonzalez, Meninsky and Wolmark.
Obviously many of these artists are strongly associated with the Ben Uri Collection also, so was it your collection and knowledge that got you involved with the museum, or Ben Uri that inspired you in this personal collection?
I got involved with Ben Uri because I was already collecting these artists and so could help them and devise a new strategy. The Board then resigned to hand it all over to the new guys on the block. I’m actually the Chairman of the Board and also a Director de facto, without remuneration, so it is the cheapest route for the museum to go down.
Has this detracted from the time and attention you are able to pay to your own collection?
Definitely; my collecting policy almost doesn’t exist anymore. The museum comes first, with the Chagall [“Apocalypse in Lilac, Capriccio”, ca 1945, acquired by Ben Uri in 2010] a classic example. My daughter Sarah asked me why I didn’t consider buying the work for the family collection and I had to explain the thought never entered into my head.
What are the main decisions that drive you to own rather than simply view an artwork in a museum (if not including Ben Uri, as you spend so much time with these works anyway)?
The concept of acquisition and ownership is certainly powerful, whether it is enriching or destructive. If you ask a psychiatrist what drives a person to collect, then I am sure one aspect will certainly be an addictive personality. There is also an incremental cultural value for having it. For one painting I might also have the oil study and drawing for it, which is certainly a sign of a compulsive addiction, in that you want to put together the pieces of a work’s life. As for changing collections, owning one set of things, then another, is, I suspect, just another feature of the same compulsion.
Interview From Larry's List