Why collect art? What’s the point? The long list of answers to those two questions ranges across a spectrum from the most self-interested and cynical (investment, status) to the more noble (civic-mindedness, philanthropy), passing through the emotional centre (sheer passion). If assembling a collection is essentially individualistic, perhaps even narcissistic, it’s worth remembering that this is no bad thing: the strength of some of the greatest collections is personality.
But what happens next, after the collector is no longer around? One German museum and the family behind it seem to offer a model of public/private co-operation in how art might be acquired and preserved for the world – but, it has to be said, under a set of almost ideal conditions.
It is the Berggruen Museum in Berlin, which reopened on Friday after extension work that carries on the dream of its founder, Paris-based dealer Heinz Berggruen, who died in 2007 at the age of 93. Over a lifetime of passionate devotion to art, Berggruen amassed a collection centred on just four artists – Matisse, Klee, Giacometti and, above all, Picasso – which, even after generous gifts to important institutions in Paris, London and New York, was still extraordinarily rich.
“My father grew up in Berlin,” Heinz’s son Nicolas tells me, “and although he had left in the 1930s, towards the end of his life he wanted the collection that he loved to return there.” The artists he had collected were – for obvious historical reasons – hardly well represented in Berlin’s museums, and Berggruen saw his art collection as what Nicolas calls “a sort of cultural-emotional bridge between the wounded Germany and the new Germany”.
The building chosen for the founding of the museum in 1996 was a pavilion of the Charlottenburg Palace, made available by the city. At first, the collection was on extended loan but – and this is where the ideal conditions come in – funds from the German government and the state of Berlin allowed it to be acquired in 2000 for the Nationalgalerie, so that the museum and its permanent collection are now fully state-owned.
The family – Berggruen’s widow and four children – also lend works of their own and act as a support committee. As individuals they can offer, as Nicolas Berggruen puts it, “a degree of freedom, as well as dynamism and budget” – and the third of these is obviously significant, since family members are still adding works by the founder’s chosen artists to the permanent collection.
During his lifetime, Heinz Berggruen had his eye on the potential of expanding into a second neighbouring building, which has now been acquired. The two linked pavilions combine into a museum that is, according to Nicolas, still “human size, quite personal”, but after work by architects Kuehn Malvezzi there is now space for the core collection to spread its wings, for family loans and for a programme of temporary shows.
Friday’s opening of such a project must seem like a distant dream to most cash-strapped arts institutions around the rest of the world. And a dream, too, to the many collectors who are running their own single-collection spaces: Heinz Berggruen has achieved his aim of keeping his collection together and opening it to the public, all beautifully cared for by the state. Indeed, the public-private co-operation that Nicolas describes as an “excellent formula” may not even be possible outside Germany, with its magnificent commitment to public culture. It also depends on the continuing input of very substantial private wealth.
For the story of the Berggruen collections is far from over. In the newly made garden space between the two buildings stand two works by contemporary German artist Thomas Schütte, as if a symbol of a new generation. Nicolas himself, an immensely successful financier and founder of Berggruen Holdings, has become a collector as focused, and as civic-minded, as his father.
“It’s a simple idea,” comes his reply in answer to my question about the focus of his own collecting. “I made a commitment to one place, which is Lacma [Los Angeles County Museum of Art]. Why? I live in New York, I love New York, but LA is a young city, a city that is broken up. It has wonderful collectors, but all individual, narcissistic.”
Compared with the federalising civic mood of a city such as Dallas, LA’s geography and ethos, in his view, make it “culturally dysfunctional”. Nicolas feels – although he puts it modestly – that he can help.
“I grew up in Paris but Paris doesn’t need me. Berlin doesn’t need me.” (I long to tell him that London does, but I refrain.) He chose Lacma as a growing place that he admires for its vision and determination under director Michael Govan, whom Berggruen describes as “a builder – dynamic, with a very good eye, and” – that word again – “civic-minded”.
As an encyclopaedic museum that aims to span the centuries and move well beyond western art, it needs, he says, both funds and art.
So how, I ask, does this commitment work? Like his father’s, his acquisitions focus on a small number of contemporary artists of very high quality: one group “happens to be German”; the others from the West Coast. And indeed, the roll-call is as magnificent as his father’s, the aristocracy of today’s art scene: the Europeans are Schütte, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter and Joseph Beuys, while the American artists number Bruce Nauman (“I consider him one of the greatest living artists”), Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari and – much less well-known in Europe but still, Berggruen feels, “a genius” – Chris Burden.
His father would have been proud. “Well,” Berggruen laughs, “he didn’t think much of the artists I collect. It’s a new generation, a new eye. We can’t always see the next thing. It happens – it’s going to happen to me too.”
A second generation of collecting, a new generation of art,and a new model of philanthropy. Some of Berggruen’s pieces are already on loan to Lacma, others are in store: “I’m not into living in a grand way,” he declares. But with such a rich array of contemporary work, and much more to come, does he not want to follow the prevalent trend and set up a private museum? Absolutely not, apparently.
“Private museums – they are a great idea in theory, a way for collectors to share what they have with the public. But what happens? Several things: frankly, the money may run out. The world changes, the way people look at art changes. Those institutions will be” – he pauses diplomatically – “at a disadvantage in the future.”
Berggruen is voicing the concerns of many arts professionals about the future of private museums, once their founders are no longer around – but his decision seems to go further than such practical considerations. This brilliant financier, whose philanthropic work extends into international relations, governmental reform and other spheres, is obviously also a committed idealist.
“Art belongs to the world,” he declares. “I am just a temporary custodian. I’ll be gone. But the art will always be there.”