Issue #42, 2012

History, Art And Money: On Constructing A Corporate Art Collection In Central And Eastern Europe.
A Discussion between Walter Seidl & Vlad Morariu

Article published in the follow-up of the dossier on contemporary art and capital from IDEA arts +society,#41, 2012


Walter Seidlworks as curator, writer, and artist and is based in Vienna, Austria. Since 2004, he has been curator of Kontakt: The Art Collection
of ERSTE Group and ERSTE Foundation, which focuses on conceptual art tendencies in the region of former Eastern Europe. Seidl has curated numerous exhibitions throughout Europe, North America, Japan, South Africa and Hong Kong. His writings include various catalog essays for artist monographs, exhibition reviews and criticism. Since 2011, he has been adjunct professor for curatorial studies at Webster University, Vienna.


Vlad MorariuπM. Walter, when did you join the team of the
Kontakt collection?

Walter Seidl∫I came in 2004, right at the beginning, when ERSTE Bank decided to have a new collection policy focusing on Central and Eastern Europe. Before that, the bank had purchased different works over more than a century, but there hadn’t been any collection policy.

πBy policy you mean a rationale for collecting?

∫Yes, before that works had been bought, but not on a permanent basis. There was no concept or schedule in terms of constructing a collection: sometimes people from different departments bought works for offices, but there was no structural content behind. In 2000 ERSTE Bank started to purchase banks from Eastern European countries, first eská sporitelna and Slovenská sporitel’nˇa, and then continued advancing to the Southeast. That was also a time when the theme of sponsoring culture emerged – today you call it corporate social responsibility – and since ERSTE Bank made most of its money in Central and Eastern Europe, the thought was to reinvest part of it in these countries and rețect this in a cultural program.

πERSTE Foundation, however, has social programs as well...

∫Yes, but at the beginning, before ERSTE Foundation came into existence, it was the sponsoring department of the bank which
started this specific approach to culture. Back then it was the CEO, Andreas Treichl and the head of sponsoring, Boris Marte, who noticed that ERSTE Bank was growing into a huge bank group and that an adequate cultural policy is needed.

πYou mean, the CEO of the Bank? I ask this because I found it quite disconcerting to navigate in ERSTE Group’s institutional strata. For example, I was surprised to find out that ERSTE Foundation partly owns ERSTE Group – meaning that it has over twenty percent of its shares – and not the bank owning the foundation.

∫Yes, ERSTE Foundation is the main shareholder of ERSTE Group and is obliged to invest its dividends into the common good. This goes back to the beginnings of the bank in the early 19th century, when it started as a social business, an association savings bank.
The foundation is the legal successor of this association. But the art collection is not part of ERSTE Foundation, it is an independent association. Institutionally we are associated with the Foundation, but legally not part of it. Again a similar twist: the foundation is member of our association. Christine Böhler, who is director of the programme Culture of ERSTE Foundation, is also chairwoman of the board of the collection, which is now officially called Kontakt: The Art Collection of ERSTE Group and ERSTE Foundation. The collection itself works with membership fees from the subsidiary banks as well as ERSTE Foundation, which means that ERSTE Group in Austria gives a certain annual amount of money, and so do Ceská sporitelna, Slovenská sporitel’na; ERSTE Bank Hungary and Croatia or BCR in Romania and, of course, ERSTE Foundation. From all these different members of the association Kontakt we construct an annual budget with which the collection operates.

πYou are saying that there’s money coming from all these countries, including Romania, and țowing into the budget.

∫Yes, BCR pays an annual fee to the collection as well. We thought that we build something which is taken care of Vienna, as we work from here, but which is a collection for all, at the same time.

πYou mentioned that art had been purchased even before 2004, what kind of art are we talking about?

∫Initial purchases followed the trend of the late 80s beginning
of the 90s, a tendency to buy American Minimalism, works by Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, etc. But this lasted only for four years, and this policy was related to the CEO of the time, as there were ties to galleries and what they were selling. During the term of the next CEO (we are still talking about the 90s), nothing really had been bought. Then finally Mr. Treichl came at the end of the decade, and as he initiated the Eastern European development of the group, he proposed to do something in the arts as well, thinking that each international bank has its art collection. Just look at other big corporate art collections such as that of Deutsche Bank for instance.

πThen one can say that there is also a sense of struggle for prestige, in comparison to other banks?

∫Not really a struggle, I would say. Because what we thought of doing was quite unique. Boris Marte, back then head of sponsoring, came up with the idea of focusing on the East in the cultural sector
as well. At that time I was working as a freelance consultant for the bank, and worked on the concept of the collection together with Rainer Fuchs, chief curator at MUMOK Vienna, and also with Vít Havránek from Prague and Vladimír Beskid from Bratislava. The bank asked about our ideas and we automatically proposed a concept focusing on Central and Eastern Europe. However, unlike what many other banks were doing, we decided to focus not only on current art production. For example, if you look at how Deutsche Bank operates, they go to art fairs and buy something that they like, but there is no historical structure or strict thematic concept in many corporate art collections. Or better said, it varies in degree, and I can say that because the Kontakt Art Collection is also member of an association of corporate art collections based in Paris (IACCCA). There are a great number of corporate art collections, some focusing on photography, for example, or specializing on a certain medium, but it is very rare that you have a collection with such a strict focus. Another element was the attempt to articulate a historical dimension within the collection, and we decided to start at the end of the 50s, beginning of 60s, the period with all the major changes in art: the emergence of public art, of performance art, the attention to gender, etc. We asked ourselves what could we find in Central-Eastern Europe that is in line with what was going on internationally – the feminist movement, activism, political art – and thus decided to focus on
the very conceptual side of art and mirror its developments in the region.

πIn the case of Romania, the history of recent art, that of the last 50 years, hasn’t been written yet, and for various reasons. But thus
it seems that what ERSTE Group and ERSTE Foundation are doing, through buying, collecting, and supporting all sorts o
f investigations and discourses, is to write history: you are producing the history
of Eastern European art.

∫We agreed that it is important that the collection contributes to the rewriting and redefinition of the European canon of art history, because if you look at most of the art historical books – take Art since 1900edited by Rosalind Krauss, Hal Foster, Yve-Alain Bois and Benjamin H. D. Buchloh – you hardly find anything about Eastern Europe. Things have changed over the last five years maybe, especially with documenta 12 (2007), which had about twenty artists from Eastern Europe. Subsequently the last Istanbul Biennial had Geta Brătescu, or take Ion Grigorescu as an example as well; Kathrin Rhomberg has been working with him for many years. Examples could continue just to show that all of a sudden people started to be interested. Slowly these artists are getting household names within the canon of art, but this has taken quite some time. At least when we started in 2004/2005 and visited Ion Grigorescu in Bucharest and selected some works, at that time nobody knew him inside the mainstream art historical canon.

πSo then, would you say that your approach is comparative?

∫This is what we’re trying to do, to see what kind of political actions or art performances, practices, artists, these countries had. The interesting part is that although there was this common thing called socialism, artists were not necessarily so much in contact with each other, and more or less looking towards the West. It depended a lot on the different socialist climates, for example Yugoslavia was
a bit more easy-going with Tito.

πI remember talking with Mladen Stilinovic’ some years ago about the reasonable access to what was going on in Western Europe at the time.

∫Yes, people could travel, there were special relations to West Germany, for instance. Take also the case of Graz, Austria, where Sanja Ivekovic’ had her first exhibition participation outside of Yugoslavia in 1971. Austria has always been in contact with artists from neighboring countries, but I think it depended on the country. From Czechoslovakia, for example, in the 1970s it was nearly impossible to get out, whereas in Poland it was easier, people having strong connections with France (Edward Krasin’ski’s case). And comparisons can go on. I would suggest that you hardly could say “this or that is Eastern European art“, we are rather trying to discern
a certain conceptual practice, and here’s where you could find parallels in all the countries, but also differences.

πThen this thesis of aligning what was happening in Western Europe with what was happening in Eastern Europe, do you think
it still holds?

∫Context-wise or conceptually speaking, there were certain similarities. But then the realization of certain art practices was rather marginal, as nobody in these countries in the 1970s cared about the conservation of the work done, for example. We are mainly talking about ephemera pieces, sometimes backed up by photographs. There were no professional sites, galleries or presentation spaces, museums of contemporary art – the only one was in Belgrade, which opened in 1965. So along with this problem of the similarities, one has to introduce the question of representation. You had the official socialist realism on the one hand, and on the other hand, so called radical art practices were officially forbidden. All these phenomena like after art, apartment art, private meetings of those on the radical art scene point to the question of representation, as there were no exhibition spaces. Not that there was a hidden agenda, but I think that the way in which production went along hand in hand with the non-existence of representation sites is what constitutes the specific difference. Nevertheless, conceptually speaking you could find similarities. We are talking sometimes about anti-reactions – take Július Koller’s example and his anti-happenings, as a reaction to the West. Ion Grigorescu’s chamber studies films and actions were, of course, close to similar experiments that were going on in the West, but
in this case the political environment creates a difference. All these artists were reacting within a communist or socialist system in a manner which was unfamiliar in the West. If you look at Stilinovic’’s work dealing with the history of Yugoslavia, it always includes a rețection on the threshold between East and West. He was well aware of what was going on and he reacted on the Westernized culture coming into Yugoslavia in the 70s. Each country has a different history and a different system to react on.

πIn this process of forging, exploring and writing art history are you collaborating with research institutes, or academies, or universities? This is one of the problems in Eastern Europe, I think. You have Piotr Piotrowski (whose In the Shadow of Yaltawas, by the way, translated into English with the financial support of the ERSTE Foundation), on the one hand, proposing a non-hierarchial, pluralistic, “horizontal“ way of writing art history, but then, on the other hand, when you insist and ask further what all these presuppose, and you arrive at the question of resources for research, we’re stuck in
a dead end...

∫This is something we also wanted to engage in, in a more intense publication series. But if you look at the programs of ERSTE Foundation you will see that they do a lot of work in connection with institutions, in conferences, symposiums, etc. My job at the collection is more or less concerned with buying and restoring works and making sure to have loans and exhibitions. Until now it’s been the foundation which mostly took care of collaborations with universities or researchers, making plans for books or publications, for instance initiating and organizing the Igor Zabel Award for Culture and Theory. This combines our work for whatever is needed on a structural level. ERSTE Foundation takes care of collaborations, funding, and also the Pattern Lectures series.

πWhat’s the amount of the works in the collection?

∫We have about 90 artists at the moment, and about 1,000 individual pieces.

πAnd you have a budget to purchase new works each year?


πI guess you won’t tell me how big the budget is...

∫Not really, because it varies from year to year, depending on the performance of the bank. In times of crisis, you get less. But more or less, it always stays within the same parameters.

πWhere do you buy the works from? Do you buy them at art fairs, from galleries or directly from the studios?

∫It depends on how they are available. At the beginning we mostly bought from artists directly because they didn’t have a gallery representation. But in the meantime – throughout the past eight years of the existence of the collection – a lot of artists got a gallery representation, and we usually talk to the artists about how they want to sell the work, if they want to sell it to us directly or if we need to buy it from a certain gallery. It depends as well on how well artists are established. For example, in Sanja Ivekovic’’s case, we bought from her directly but also from galleries. In Roman Ondák’s case, we only deal with galleries. It also depends on the kind of contract artists have.

πI was active in Romania within the association which organized the Periferic Biennial, and I would say that the scene nowadays is very much different than what it used to be eight-nine years ago. Currently there is a wave of commercial galleries, some of them relatively successful and in expansion, others smaller, but still pretty much active, which reconfigured a scene that used to rely more
or less on public funds. How do you think that your policy ințuences this scenery? What would you say about the case of the Kontakt Art
Collection, buying works from Eastern European artists and thereby ințuencing the market?

∫It definitely raises the prices and I can say that we created market value. At the beginning we hardly bought from galleries, as artists were not represented. Nevertheless, we wanted to pay a decent amount to the artists – so it wasn’t the case that we paid just a little because no one bought this art anyway. Now you can clearly see that the prices are growing and the galleries are also active.
For example, we started to buy Ion Grigorescu’s work directly from him at the beginning, and then later through Andreiana Mihail.
The same with Geta Brătescu and Marian Ivan. It depends a lot on what is available, and where. At the beginning we bought nearly 80% directly from the artists and 20% from galleries, now it is almost the opposite. Not quite the same scale, but the proportions have changed in any case.

πWhen you buy new work, who takes the decision of what is supposed to be bought?

∫The decision is taken by a jury, we have an art advisory committee and we meet twice a year and decide together, each one proposes works, and then we decide together what fits into the structure
of the collection.

πAre its members related to the foundation?

∫Not really, the advisory board of the collection currently consists of Silvia Eiblmayr (art historian and curator, commissioner of the Austrian contribution to the 53rd Venice Biennale), Georg Schöllhammer (editor of springerin, Hefte für Gegenwartskunst and documenta 12publications), Jirˇí Ševc’ík (curator, professor at the Academy of Fine Arts, Prague), Branka Stipancˇic’ (art historian and curator, Zagreb) and Adam Szymzyck (director, Kunsthalle Basel).

πYou practically don’t have a space to exhibit, though the collection is pretty impressive. Is this intentional?

∫Right from the beginning we thought that though money țows from the regional banks, we don’t want to centralize everything in Vienna. We equally wish to exhibit works in the region, in different contexts. That’s what we did in 2007 in Belgrade: after 10–15 years of an intense history after the breaking of the Yugoslavian federation and amongst all these nationalist tendencies, we brought together art works from the whole of former Yugoslavia. We constantly have loans, as we decided that our collection should be more like a research collection, and works should be available as loans for exhibitions. We loaned a series of Jirˇí Kovanda’s works to the last São Paulo Biennial, while Sanja Ivekovic’’s works travel constantly, she has just recently opened a show at the South London Gallery and Calvert 22 in London. There are a lot of international curators who try to research certain artists and who contact us, asking for loans for different exhibitions. At the moment we have between 10–20 works traveling all around the globe, and it is something quite interesting to be part of international exhibitions: in 2012 there was the São Paulo Biennial, the Triennial that Okwui Enwezor curated at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, and examples could go on.

πDo you imagine having a building, which would house the collection, at some point?

∫We have been talking about it, but we still need to discuss this through.

πI know that Generali Foundation has a similar collection, or with similar interests. When you have these sort of big players on the market, what is your relation to each other? Are you in a competition?

∫Yes and no. Generali Foundation started much earlier, in the late 80s, and has a similar approach to conceptual tendencies, but began focusing on Western Europe and the Americas. Later they bought some Eastern European artists as well, but by that time Kontakt had already come into existence, so we were a little ahead of them.
At the time when we started there was no competition apart from the fact that both us and Generali Foundation were oriented towards conceptual art practices. Now, of course, some artists that we have in the collection are also part of the Generali Foundation’s collection, they have Koller or Ivekovic’, for example. But this is something that fits into their collection’s concept as well.

πI happened to be here in Vienna in 2011, during the Vienna art fair – a particular edition, I recall, as a lot of familiar faces from the Eastern European art scene were present. I remember as well
the entrance of the fairground and the image of ERSTE Group’s slogan with its funny spelling “Kunst ist
MehrWert“ (Art is Surplus/ More Value). ERSTE Group is sponsoring the fair every year, right?

∫Yes, ERSTE Group has been the main sponsor since the art fair opened at the current location (Vienna Messe), and the idea was that East European galleries get some money to pay the fee for the booth.

πIn this way ERSTE Group is sponsoring their participation.

∫Yes, the idea was to sponsor the fees for stands for galleries from Eastern Europe. Every year about 16 galleries are supported by ERSTE Group.

πIs this, then, contradictory? I mean, what reason would there be for a private enterprise to sponsor other private enterprises?

∫We see it as a help for those galleries that wouldn’t come here because it would be too expensive for them, with all the travelling and the fees involved. Most gallerists in Eastern Europe have to think twice about participating in an art fair. On the other hand, it is also difficult to bring big collectors to Vienna, thinking that you have a lot of important art fairs in Europe. Why would you, as a collector,
be interested in coming to Vienna? We thought that sponsoring all these galleries from Eastern Europe would add in attractiveness,
as big international collectors might then decide to come to Vienna because there is a special focus on Eastern Europe. Since I am in the board of IACCCA, the association of corporate art collections based in Paris, we invited their curators over to Vienna in 2012. Thus, 20 people from all over Europe connected with collections came here, people who in other circumstances would have ignored us, because Basel, London, Paris or Brussels are the easier option.

πHas the art fair itself become a space where you understand what is happening in Eastern Europe, in what amounts to new trends and tendencies?

∫At least this should be the goal, but then it depends a lot on collectors, on what they buy.

πLast round of questions: how did you personally start to work
in the corporate sector? You said you were freelance before.

∫I worked freelance before, and I just happened to curate a couple of exhibitions in which I included artists from Eastern Europe.

πThis was back in the 1990s.

∫Yes. When the bank contacted Rainer Fuchs from MUMOK to come with a new concept for the collection, he also recommended that I join as a young curator working on Eastern Europe. The bank decided to build the collection, and asked me to curate it – all of
a sudden I was working for a bank, something I would have never imagined before. It happened by accident in a way.

πSo having experienced both worlds, what is your take on the progressive corporatization of art and culture?

∫I think that this is a process one needs to acknowledge and get accustomed to...

πIn Austria like in any other place...

∫In Austria the first large scale corporate collection was Generali in the late 1980s. The model was invented as they went along, and soon the EVN collection appeared. ERSTE Group started at the same time as the Verbund collection, the latter having an interest mostly in American conceptual art. And it’s interesting that you have these four major corporate collections, Generali, EVN, Kontakt and Verbund, in Vienna, which is quite a large number for a small country like this.

πFor sure, which means that there is a lot of money here!

∫It’s also because these corporations are located here...

πIf the forefront is taken, then, by corporate collections and their relations with commercial galleries, what space and what visibility is left for critical approaches and for marginal phenomena of the art world?

∫This is the question. Because on the one hand you have the leftist criticism, which is against the dominant role of banks in society; but then, on the other hand the banks are buying radical or formerly marginalized artistic positions and try to offer an understanding for something that has previously been invisible, making it visible. This is the good thing about it – in all these four cases of collections, there are people from the art world who decide what has to be integrated in the collection and no CEO sitting in the board, at least not in a way that would determine what should be purchased. There are always people coming from the art realm, doing research about what they are proposing; and this serves the corporations as well, as normally the rationale is “let’s take someone from the art world who we trust and who brings some expertise, and can work for us, and do a good job“. That’s quite an open way of structuring things I think.

πWhat about the art scene in Vienna, it seems to be very much institutionalized, with a vast array of galleries, museums and collections on display, do you have contacts with the non-institutionalized?

∫Of course, as a curator who has been working in off-spaces before, I know everyone; but this is more of a personal issue than an institutional relation. As a representative of the bank’s collection, the story is different.

πThe traditional critique is that once you get critical art in a collection you tame it and neutralize it. Do you think that this is the case
or not?

∫I don’t think so... When it comes to the understanding of the collection by the thousands of employees of the bank, there is still
za lot to be done education-wise, that’s for sure. The interesting point is that not only Kontakt but also Verbund’s and Generali’s collections are more visible in an artistic context than in the context
of the corporation. And the other positive aspect is that these collections buy art which is not so easily bought by other collectors.

πWalter, thanks a lot for the time and the discussion!