Alison and Peter Klein do not keep their collection private, because it is important to the collectors to display and impart art. For many years Peter Klein had exhibited art in the halls of his company and made new works of the collection accessible to employees to hang in their offices. The construction of Kunstwerk was the next logical step: contemporary art should be available in a non-urban location for all to enjoy and study.
Since the sale of the company, the collectors devote themselves increasingly to social and cultural interests. The Alison and Peter Klein Stiftung (Foundation), provided with five million Euros, supports education and sports as well as social and cultural causes in Nussdorf and the surrounding area since 2008. One of the many activities of the foundation is the 10,000 Euro “Stiftungspreis für Fotokunst” (prize for photography). The prize supports young artists and is awarded yearly.
Interview with Peter W. Klein
Publishers Ulrike Geist and Claudia Fenkart-N’jie presented 17 private art collections in the newly released publication “Private Art Collections BW – Kunstsammlungen in Baden-Württemberg im Portrait”. Here, read an excerpt from the interview with Peter W. Klein.
Mr Klein, together with your wife, you have been collecting contemporary art for 30 years and you have around 1500 pieces in your portfolio. What inspired you to collect art?
My wife and I encountered contemporary art for the first time during the construction of an extension for my company. Our architect encouraged us to buy pictures to hang in the new building. Consequently, we started buying small works by regional artists. Having made the initial contacts with artists and galleries, we wanted to get to know this scene, which was previously foreign to us and yet also fascinating. Particularly for me as a businessman dealing only with competition, cost maximisation and benchmarking every day, a whole new world opened up. From this point onwards, we began to spontaneously and intuitively buy artworks. We never thought about forming a “proper” collection then. Over the years and with increasing experience, it transpired that it would not remain only artworks for the premises in the business.
How did you integrate the artworks into your company?
I always wanted to share the artworks with my employees. In my company, art was therefore omnipresent: visible and accessible for everyone. We displayed the widest variety of items in almost all offices, corridors, communal areas and even in the workshops. For many of my staff, contemporary art was previously uncharted territory but many started to understand it and even to visit exhibitions outside of the company. I think the direct contact with the artworks had a big impact among the people.
You collect only contemporary art.
Yes, we collect only contemporary since the 1980s. Of the 1400 works in our collection, we have bought around half in the last eight years and most of these were also created in this period. Of course, we could also by painters of the modern classics but works by Picasso can be found everywhere. We find it more exciting to collect unknown items, which our visitors also appreciate. Naturally, the attraction of contemporary art also lies in being able talk directly to the artists and to be involved in the market development.
By which criteria are you guided in your choice of works?
Unlike public museums, private collectors are much freer and more flexible in their purchase decisions. We have to account to nobody and do not have to wait until an artist has a permanent place in art history. If we like something, we buy it. Having this freedom is, of course, a privilege but as the art market is huge, you have to set yourself a limit. We opted for an open concept with the focuses of the collection on photography, painting and Aborigine art. Here, we are guided only by our personal preferences. An artwork has to move, inspire and enthral us. If artistic quality is there and a dialogue develops then we are convinced. This also means that my wife and I do not allow ourselves to be influenced by trends or the market value of an artist. For example, we discovered contemporary Aborigine art and new Chinese painting long before they were established on the art market. In our collection, we have works by internationally renowned artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Anselm Kiefer and Sigmar Polke – not for prestige or investment purposes but rather because of our personal enthusiasm for the artworks. As a result, some artists are represented in our collection only in isolated works. Others though, we have consistently collected for a number of years, such as Jane Hammond, Max Neumann and Izima Kaoru, for example.
An open collection concept provides an opportunity particularly for young artists.
Yes, our collection includes many pieces by young artists. On the one hand, this is due to the fact that art does not figure as an asset for us, as I mentioned. If we are inspired by an artwork, it is of no consequence to us whether or not the artist is known. On the other hand, we particularly want to discover young artists and give them a platform. It is exciting to watch and oversee the development and career of an artist who is just starting out. This also means that we have move outside of the mainstream. In practice, we also encourage young artists with the “foundation award for photographic art”, which we have awarded annually since 2009.
The focus in both photography and painting seems to be on figurative representations.
When we started collecting, we acquired many abstract items. Figurative narrative works now predominate both in painting and photography, whether in portraits, landscapes or architecture. We have a great soft spot for large-format, staged photographs, for example such as those by Rosemary Laing or Shirin Neshat. The works of the Aborigines occupy a fascinating intermediate position. In the collection, we have around 250 paintings and exhibits from all over Australia. Admittedly, the visual language of Aborigine art is abstract but the dappled lines and shapes conceal millennia-old myths. The mystic and mysterious is generally something that runs through many works in our collection as an aesthetic expression and motif. It was not a conscious decision to collect “dark” or mysterious pictures; rather, we are intuitively inspired by a photograph by Gregory Crewdson or a painting by Eva Wagner. An artwork that seems to conceal something, which only drops hints, is always challenging and never becomes tired. Such pieces are complete stories; you always discover something new and you are reflected in them differently every time.
In autumn 2007, you opened your own museum: Kunstwerk. What led you to open your collection to the public?
The construction of Kunstwerk was a need for us and could almost be said to be the logical consequence of the activity of collecting. After over 25 years, we felt the desire to display everything we had compiled – not only for the public but also for ourselves. We had 1000 artworks stored in the warehouse, which we ourselves were unable to look at and enjoy. When we decided to open our collection to the public, it was always clear that we would build Kunstwerk in Nussdorf. We wanted to give something back to the town and the region; thanks to my staff, I have finally achieved this.
Furthermore, for us, art and culture are closely linked to the concept of education and we therefore see a museum as a place of communication, for tackling the broadest range of topics, and for learning. Exhibitions of contemporary art are often the preserve of cities. With our collection, we bring artistic items to a small town and invite the people to share it and to enter into dialogue both with the art and with other visitors. We consider it to be very important to give children and young people the opportunity to discover art. By offering special art communication programmes for schools from the area, we are able to close a “supply gap” here.
Do you collect differently since your collection has been public?
A private collector who opens his collection to the public reveals a great deal about himself. Naturally, there are critical voices but we collect primarily for ourselves and are accountable to nobody. The exhibitions are an offer that can be taken or left. Of course we hope that the visitors are happy but that does not mean that we are guided by public taste. That would mean giving up our personal way of collecting and therefore the authenticity of the collection.
How would you describe the architecture of Kunstwerk?
Our architect Folker Rockel has successfully designed a building that caters for the diversity and needs of our collection. It is a very expressive and dynamic building with many architectural details. Structurally, Kunstwerk is directly connected to my former company and forms one entity with it in terms of façade design. Inside, we have elements from industrial construction and exposed concrete walls as well as generously glazed fronts, which allow a wonderful view of the surrounding landscape. It was important to us to connect inside and out, nature and art. The four exhibition floors are linked together by repeating design elements. The museum premises are designed to be well lit and open. This allows the viewer to experience the artworks and the architecture from different perspectives.
On which exhibition concept is your museum based?
The previous exhibitions, hanging #1 to hanging #7, could be described as “summary exhibitions”. They simply show which artistic pieces we have. On the respective topic, we look for a representative cross section of works that illustrates the range of the area. The exhibitions are not academic and do not follow art theory paradigms. Essentially, they reflect the way we collect.
How do you define success for your establishment?
The objective was always for Kunstwerk to be accepted by the people in Nussdorf and we have achieved that. This is our most important and biggest success. The people are proud to have an art museum in the town and they pass that on. We have many visitors from the region, who very rarely visit exhibitions. We have taken away the fear of entering from these people. One reason for this is certainly also that we talk to our visitors a lot and look for contact with them. Many visitors now come from further afield and our visitor numbers have risen sharply in the last year and a half, which naturally gives us great pleasure.
What future plans do you have for your exhibition building?
We are currently building a café next door, which we will let out. In addition, we are gaining a new warehouse, part of which will be used as a show warehouse. We are also planning to extend our opening times and possibly also to enter co-operations with other establishments. In the area of art promotion, we want to do more and introduce young people to contemporary art.
Ulrike Geist and Claudia Fenkart-N’jie (publisher): Private Art Collections BW – Kunstsammlungen in Baden-Württemberg im Portrait, Stuttgart 2011. ISBN 978-3-00-035835-7, clothbound with dust jacket, 160 pages, 39 Euro.