TRY ART! : The Rotterdam Connection

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Chris Ofili “untitled” 1999. Line etching. Owned by the Collective

At the end of June The Guardian newspaper reported Christie’s New York Auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen as saying “There were 10 world records with only 34 works” “probably the most exciting sale I’ve taken in my career” . With Pablo Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger fetching $179.4 million and Alberto Giacometti’s L’Homme au doigt $141.3m, they were prices one can’t even comprehend, let alone visualise.

Hot on the tail of this record breaking event was the sale in Christie’s London auction house of living artist Chris Ofili’s Black Maddona for $4.6 million. This was significant – not just because he’s a living 21st century contemporary artist; not because the painting, when it reached the Brooklyn Museum in New York caused such a ruckus with the (then) Mayor of New York City, Rudolph Giuliani – calling it “sick” (in the worst possible sense) and offensive to the Catholic church.  But because Chris Ofili is familiar to our Collective.  His brightly coloured untitled etching was one of the first purchases by the Collective, one of a set of 20 mixed prints we acquired from the Cubitt Gallery, London,to get us started back in 2000.

It was a stark reminder of the divided and tiered art world – a million miles apart from one another and a million dollars apart. Philip Hoffman, CEO of the Fine Art Fund Group who specialises in art investment calls it “the most desirable market. It’s the most liquid market. It’s sexy, it’s easy to understand…”  No wonder that the principles of The Collective are sometimes met with scepticism and incredulity when the answer to “so you don’t collect art for investment?” is a simple “no“.  And “no” it remains, preferring to keep to those principles of buying art collectively, sharing and living with contemporary art and supporting emerging artists – just for the love of it.

The Collective is not alone as a group, but has expanded and helped other groups set up in the UK (Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge and in London). Just over a year ago another group started up in Rotterdam, led by Gallery Assistant, Jetty Keuning. Jetty met Collective members Tim Eastop and Bob Lee whilst on a trip to Art Rotterdam, in 2012 where they were giving a talk about the Collective to a small group of postgraduates.  It took Jetty another two years to get the group up and running, but having been suitably enthused by the idea, she didn’t let go. “you have to be a bit of an idealist – to believe in what you are doing“, says Jetty, but the reality is worth it.

I caught up with Jetty a couple of weeks ago to find out how the group was progressing one year on and learn about the hurdles she had gone through as well as the different cultural nuances within the Dutch art scene. I wasn’t disappointed!

The Rotterdam Collective, named TRY ART! operates under the umbrella of the RAM Foundation, an independent not-for-profit arts organisation that hosts a wide range of activities including exhibitions. TRY ART! doesn’t exist independently like our own Founding Collective but the RAM Foundation articulates clearly how TRY ART! is associated with the  model of The Collective and its principles. It also provides support and endorsement for the importance of collecting groups within the context of the Netherlands and Dutch culture.  This was an important bridge to cross and Jetty felt it was a more solid start for them.

One of the biggest hurdles for Jetty in setting up the Rotterdam group was The Collective’s constitution. “Anglo Saxon law is quite different to European Law” Jetty told me and she needed to find a willing lawyer to redraft it in a way that held credence to potential group members – and for nothing!  Free lawyer? An oxymoron surely? But find one she did, thanks to the policy of one Dutch law firm.  Jetty contacted the Rotterdam office of Loyens & Loeff an independent international law firm who believe that it is good for their lawyers who work daily with big companies to keep their feet firmly on the ground by working for local cultural not-for-profit organisations – for free!  It didn’t solve the need to get it translated in to Dutch, but it was an excellent start.  It fell to Jetty to complete the translation of their revised constitution and one of the reasons it took so long for the group to get started.   The differences were small but significant.  “Association” for example (used in our constitution) is not a word that is used in Dutch law and the word “Collective” has different connotations, so they had to be registered as a “society” to be established and recognised.

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Robin Kolleman, What Left Us (2015), wool, cotton, porcelain, 46 x 22 x 4 cm.  Owned by TRY ART!

Jetty meanwhile set about finding members for her group. She started talking to friends and family about the idea, slowly spreading an interest, and trying to gauge reactions.  It was in fact her reading group who showed the most interest.  Used as they were to gathering in each others’ homes and sharing a common interest they took to the concept easily.  They had a lot of “what-ifs” as Jetty put it, which fortunately were ironed out when the constitution was ready and available in their own language.  There are now five members (including Jetty) – two work for the City Council, one is a Financial Consultant and the the fifth works in the flower industry.  “they balance each other” says Jetty, when I asked about the professional diversity and “bring different skills to the group“.  One year on, they are firmly established and have three works to share.

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Karin Arink, Glitter Cut-Out (2015), glitter foil, 27 x 43 cm, edition: 6. Owned by TRY ART!

Not enough to go round?” – that was sorted out naturally as Jetty has her own private art collection so was happy to forgo having one of the first purchases, and another member was in the middle of a house refurbishment.   Like us, they have a purchasing panel – but the purchase has to be agreed by all the group before payment is exchanged.  A big contrast to our own group where the purchasing panel have full control of what they buy – provided they stay within budget. Jetty admitted that for her group “reading a book you didn’t like was one thing, but buying an art work one of the members didn’t like was a step too far!“.    Another contrast lay in the fact TRY ART!  was made up of five “individuals”, not “households”, like our Collective.  The significance of this only came about when Jetty mentioned one of the members partners had issue with one of the art works purchased and her membership of the group.  Not a concept we had ever had to confront as all our decisions are made as a household “unit”, not as individuals.  Whatever comes back to our house after an exchange – is jointly agreed.  Jetty admitted that there can be many psychological and sociological processes going on within any group which may have an impact on how they collaborate, but equally that can be resolved easily.

The excitement amongst members, when the group started in Rotterdam was noticeable “they wanted to go out and buy art immediately” says Jetty “they were very impatient”!  So her first task was to slow them down, encourage them to see lots of art and develop a taste for what they liked most.  In addition to that it was very important “who” they went to see as Dutch artists do not want to be part of collections where the artists have no reputation or standing. To begin a collection with an unrecognised artist could be a liability for the group within the Dutch art scene –   “Emerging artists are ambitious and want to be proud of the collection they belong to”, but clearly not so unknown as to be excluded!

Jetty has acted as mentor, teacher, chairperson, and organiser for her group but is insistent that members now take the initiative and treat her as an “equal member”, not the leader.  With the reputation of the RAM Foundation behind her, she has given talks about this new way to collect, share and live with art, and as more people come forward to express a wish to form groups in Rotterdam she is keen that each new group formed has an art’s mentor for at least the first year, “they love the art and they love the stories from members about the processes and the artists they visit in their studios, but they may lack the knowledge”

As Jetty mentioned to me at the beginning of our discussion “you need to believe in what you are doing”  The experience is worth a million dollars more than the price of a Picasso kept hidden in a high security vault.

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