What Collecting Means, by Luiza Teixeira de Freitas

23 May 2016, 10:41 am

The act of collecting contemporary art has developed and changed extremely in the last 15 years. This has happened in concurrence with the extreme speed in which the world itself has been transformed. Globalization has enabled many (if not too many) bridges that did not exist before between countries and cultures. It has become clearly impossible to keep up with the fast pace at which the art world drives itself these days.

Things (man made and not) have become increasingly desirable and easily acquired. Never has consumption been so fierce as today. It is also a fact that contemporary art collections tend to be true representations of what is happening in the world. It has, thus, become very hard to collect contemporary art in a serious, methodic and thought through way and also to define which kind of collector to become.

The increasing number of contemporary art collectors around the globe makes it interesting to consider the attitudes behind collecting and draw a profile of the different types of collector.

Collecting is “the urge to erect a permanent and complete system against the destructiveness of time”.1 It is the ultimate task of saving oneself from deep nostalgia, from being lost in one’s own non-infinity.

It is important to make a clear distinction between collecting and accumulating – between collectors and accumulators. The latter are seen as those that understand collecting as purely a financial investment and as an accumulation of goods. What will drive the collector in most cases is the obsession of owning and the emotional venture with the piece itself, “which is every bit as intense as investment in the ‘human’ passions. Indeed the everyday passion for private property is often stronger than all the others”.2

The collection often becomes part of the collector’s life in that it assumes a leading role in his decision-making in even the smallest of quotidian tasks. It becomes more than only a collection, but also part of the collector’s essence. The objects are converted into intellectual properties that are part of the collector’s individual meaning.

The collection grows to be a private totality of the collector and, “even when a collection transforms itself into a discourse addressed to others, it continues to be first and foremost a discourse addressed to oneself”.3 “As one becomes conscious of one’s self, one becomes a conscious collector of identity; projecting one’s being onto the objects one chooses to live with […] the collector’s taste, is a mirror of self”.4

Collecting originates essentially in the necessity of telling stories, although there are no structured classified narrative forms for this. Collecting becomes a story that goes along with its time. Anton and Annick Herbert, important collectors from Ghent, in Belgium, stated that they didn’t collect artworks; they collected a new way of thinking. They have always collected artworks that are expressions of what is happening in that time.5

What happens within a contemporary art collection and its collector is in many ways very different to what happens within a collection, let’s say, of stamps or rare books. Contemporary art has a high level of production, which is increasing at an enormous rate. It is this demand for art that is driving this rise in the market. The collectors become their worst enemies in a way.

Actually some of the most significant critiques and current debates in contemporary art suggest that the beginning of the 21st century has seen an over production of art. It has become an addictive circle of producing/selling/having that has followed, in many cases, the extreme demand for more, which has been in part spiked by gallerists and dealers, but mainly by the excessive demand from collectors or accumulators.

It is due to this excessive production that there is a growing need of a more organized system inside the collections. This is where the curators come in. Within the midst of the chaos that collecting can become, some collectors feel the need to hire professional help to develop their collections in a thoughtful and concerned way, to create a structured framework in the subconscious of the collection. Then again, collectors are also becoming, in many cases, progressively more enthusiastic about knowledgeably participating in their own collection’s acquisitions. So, when there is a curator, he is in many cases used as a private tutor for the collector or simply, due to lack of time from the collector, to take care of the collection. It becomes a kind of partnership. As a result, collections are more thought about, thus more museum-like. This can be seen in their conceptual structure of course, but also in the growing necessity to transform private collections into institutions and foundations.

Collecting helps us understand history, the present and the future, and develops a very pertinent argument underlining how public collections have grown to be quite universal. This is where the collector’s relationship to museums comes to the fore. The first, very passionate line of reasoning between a private collector and an institution comes from the collector wanting to share what he owns with others, thus making it visible through public institutions – contemporary art collectors seek validation through the display of their works in museums.6

The biggest difference between private collections and museums is that the museum has the responsibility to write art history; while private collections have a greater margin for freedom. But there is much more to it and it can get quite complicated. The truth is that it’s all part of a bigger game of give and take.

Private collectors have always played an extremely important role within the institutions. They have more and more earned a position of advisors and have earned a space to opinionate on the most diverse things of a museum’s structure and resolutions. Being a donor to a museum allows a closer access, an insider knowledge and privileged information.

This position has evolved in the last two decades into something bigger than ever before. Now, private collectors are not only the wealthy donors, who will facilitate with the museum’s collection and its exhibitions program; in many cases, they have also developed a critical view, a growing active and knowledgeable participation within the museums’ boards. The institutions are faced to deal with the increasing need and will of more active participation coming from their donors/collectors. In a way, this can explain the museum’s need and strategy of proliferating acquisition committees within the institutions’ structures. The collectors see these committees as ways of becoming more actively participative and to have more power inside the institutions’ decision making, however, this can be a deceitful impression. The institutions alternatively use these committees to develop relationships with as many collectors/donors as possible.

Within these relationships between institutions and patrons/donors/collectors, Robert Storr underlines some important risks that surround them. He states that the spaces within the world’s major museums are not and should not be the extensions of the donors’ taste and living rooms; they cannot become displays for likes or dislikes of any person that is in any form related to an acquisition (and this includes the museum’s curators).7

It has become extremely difficult to separate the contemporary art collector from the investor. Intentionally or not when one collects contemporary art, it automatically becomes an investment. But to think of art as an investment is where the big mistake is. There can be no price to art, because its value is far beyond the economic one; it’s value is social, political, aesthetical, anthropological and so much more.

Manuel Borja-Villel, director of Museo Reina Sofía, in Madrid, defines in a perfect way the true essence of a collector of his time: “For me collecting is a way of dealing with death, and is therefore intrinsically embedded in time. […] Such a collection is alive and as long as it lives it can never be completed, as there will always be something unfinished, outstanding or yet to be incorporated. […] To be passionate about works of art and collecting them means that one’s capacity to care is rooted in the past, but that – until the moment of death – it will always be subject to retroactive re-articulation. […] Collecting, then, is a form of memory; one which is free from the straitjacket of identity”.8


Luiza Teixeira de Freitas is an independent curator working between Lisbon and London. Recent exhibitions curated by her include: An Infinite Conversation (Museu Berardo, Lisbon 2014); Apestraction, by Damián Ortega (Freud Museum, London, 2013); Like Tears in Rain (Palácio das Artes, Porto, 2010); The Moon is an Arrant Thief (David Roberts Art Foundation, London, 2010). She is also actively involved with artists’ books and independent publishing projects, as well as being the curator for a number of private collections. Luiza was assistant curator for the Marrakech Biennial of 2009 and collaborated at Tate Modern in the exhibitions of Cildo Meireles and Cy Twombly (London, 2008). She is the curator of SP-Arte/2016’s Solo sector.



(1) BAUDRILLARD, Jean. A Marginal System: Collecting. In: ______ (Ed.). The System of Objects. London: Verso, 1996.
(2) Ibid.
(3) Ibid.
(4) ELSNER, John; CARDINAL, Roger. Introduction. In: ______ (Eds.). The Cultures of Collecting. Londres: Reaktion Books Ltd., 1994.
(5) BORJA-VILLEL, Manuel et al. On Collecting: Private and Public. A Round Table. In: Public Space / Two Audiences, works and documents from the Herbert Collection. Barcelona: Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 2006.
(6) ALTSHULER, Bruce. Collecting the New: A Historical Introduction. In: ______ (Ed.). Collecting the New. Oxfordshire: Princeton University Press, 2005.
(7) STORR, Robert. To Have and to Hold. In: ALTSHULER, Bruce (Ed.). Collecting the New. Oxfordshire: Princeton University Press, 2005.
(8) BORJA-VILLEL, Manuel et al. op. cit.