Highlights of Van Abbemuseum collection

The Van Abbemuseum in the Dutch city of Eindhoven is a museum which grew in parallel with the art it collected. It was established in 1936 on a donation by art collector Henri Van Abbe, and since then each of its directors have made a point of documenting the art of their time and only marginally of the past, thus prioritizing contemporaneity instead of retrospection. «Each directorship started to collect in order to open the museum’s doors to its contemporaries. This is a museum that has always been connected to an emerging situation each time; its directors have had completely different personalities but the binding factor is that they have all been in tune with their contemporaries,» Jan Debbaut, director of the museum since 1988, told Kathimerini English Edition. Back then, Debbaut – formerly director of the Brussels Palais des Beaux Arts and curator of the Van Abbemuseum for years before that — started out collecting works by artists such as Juan Munoz, Reinhard Mucha and Jan Vercruysse. Former director Rudi Fuchs had focused on minimalist and conceptual art, and in certain ways Debbaut maintained his vision by staying away from the ’80s postmodern craze with artworks that engaged in the media, commodity and popular culture, turning instead to works that were related to the concept of the object. A selection of these works that have been acquired over the past decade are now on view at «conversation? Recent acquisitions of the Van Abbemuseum,» a large exhibit which has just opened at the premises of the Athens School of Fine Arts and is organized jointly by the Van Abbemuseum, the AVRA association and the Bernier/Eliades Gallery (the gallery behind the Gilbert and George exhibit). The exhibit reflects Debbaut’s vision as director, but also marks a turning point in the museum’s history. Indeed, a vast renovation project which is currently under way will, by the end of the year, increase the museum’s existing premises fourfold, therefore allowing Van Abbe’s distinctive art collection to be put on permanent display for the first time since the museum’s foundation (besides new exhibition rooms there will be an updated number of museum facilities including a multimedia library, screening rooms, an auditorium, educational services and leisure areas). The museum is currently closed and the two-month exhibit in Greece is part of a touring project of the collection that anticipates the museum’s renewed identity. Recent acquisitions such as a video by French artist Pierre Huyghe (the work that was shown at the latest Venice Biennale) underline this new identity. As an acknowledgement of the art of the exhibit’s host country, Christiane Berndes, who is the exhibit’s curator (as well as curator of the museum’s permanent collection) has also included works by three Greek contemporary artists – Giorgos Hatzimichalis, Giorgos Lappas and Nikos Navridis – which, although not part of the museum’s permanent collection, are seen as fitting its underlying principles. The overall focus is on installations, sculpture and video, and the works that are particularly spacious or sizable are given the necessary breathing space to serve their purpose. An installation by Mike Kelley, for example, takes up an entire space and a sculpture by the late Juan Munoz (the artist to whom the exhibit is dedicated) stands alone in stark surroundings. Other works are displayed in combinations that help reveal common themes and classify artistic developments across content and style. A work by Allan McCollum, for instance, is placed next to a work by Thierry de Cordier. They are both seen as sharing a concern with redefining the idea of the object, art and the artist. Building the collection As a director, Debbaut was adamant in building a collection that emphasized depth rather than breadth. This is why he collected slowly, taking his time to familiarize himself with each artist and his work and keeping a narrow focus. For Debbaut, being both cautious and thorough reflects his views on the distinct role that a museum should play. «The essence of a museum is to create a residue for historical study. We are not a center for contemporary art, we are a museum. A museum may be less flexible than a gallery, but it creates a residue and gives works a place in history,» says Debbaut. «Today everything is very ephemeral. My feeling is that this is a time when museums get increasingly reduced by the media to their exhibition program, because this is what creates all the sensation and draws the crowds. Very few people pay attention to collecting, which I think is a museum’s most important and distinguishing feature.» A museum’s art collection may be there to stay – Debbaut never trades existing works for others – but the process of creating it is subject to flexibility and what Debbaut calls «a fairly organic growth,» in which relationships and acquaintances with artists are decisive. Chance and timing, such as coming across the right work by the right artist at the correct time but also having the necessary budget to rival the demand of other museums for the same work, are other vital factors behind the making of a collection. Debbaut recalls his luck after years of tracing down the three parts to a triptych by Reinhard Mucha (on display at the current exhibit). He also thinks back to how he had to fight competitors and overturn the museum’s budget when the opportunity for acquiring a work by El Lissitzky (one of the museum’s most costly buys) came up in the late ’90s. Before that, he had faced another financial challenge involving the acquisition of a work by minimalist artist Richard Serra (Fuchs had organized a show on him). Debbaut initiated a kind of private sponsor club to acquire it. Made up of private subsidizers, this «club» is still active and helps the museum both by providing a steady and fixed flow of subsidies but also contributing for exceptional buys (counted among them is a group of rare works by interwar Belgian expressionist painters, one of the museum’s forthcoming purchases). The main bulk of funding, of course, comes from the city of Eindhoven (it being a city-run museum), but also from forms of national government funding such as the one provided by the Mondrian foundation. But money is not always enough to ensure the acquisition of a work by a well-established artist. This is why the museum’s collection includes nontypical works by well-known artists. «Boltanski is an example of an artist whom the museum missed at the point that he should have been shown. Then he became far too expensive so that we bought an atypical work of his. We are not a wealthy museum so that when an artist becomes famous we usually cannot afford his work,» says Debbaut. But having atypical works of an artist is itself a specific statement, as it helps shed light on an artist’s lesser-known creative aspects. Temporary exhibits This is where temporary exhibits could be seen as a way of filling in the gaps. «There are two dynamics at the Van Abbemuseum, the temporary exhibition program and the collecting one and both fertilize each other. You get an idea for the next exhibition through the collection and vice versa. We try to have this cross over all the time,» says Debautt. But changing times demand more of a museum than just building a collection and organizing exhibitions. A museum that «co-produces» rather than «reproduces» art could, according to Debbaut, serve as a flexible, contemporary model. The museum has already co-produced «Kidnapping,» a work by Douglas Gordon. «We always try to find new formats for presenting art. We have already programmed a show on postwar European art with artist Mike Kelley as guest curator,» says Debbaut. But throughout this quest for flexibility and innovation, certain principles remain unchanged. «A museum always deals with three forces; the government, the art itself, and the public, and by extension the bureaucracy, the art market and the media,» says Debbaut. In an imagined diagram in which the museum lies at the center of these forces, Debbaut explains that a museum should be closer to the art and constantly challenging the other two forces. His commitment in art is probably what explains his ambivalence about high attendance figures. «Art and museums are becoming increasingly more about entertainment. The number of visitors is not the legitimization of what we do,» he says. At a time when museums and cultural events are proliferating all over the world, this is perhaps an unusual statement. But for Debbaut, it is one of the Van Abbemuseum’s fundamental and uncompromising principles.

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