“A collection is alive”

Anna Iltnere

Anna Iltnere spoke with Spanish art collector Joaquín Diez-Cascón in Barcelona


Swab is not just the only contemporary art fair in Barcelona at the moment; it is the only such fair in the world that is organised by an art collector. Joaquín Diez-Cascón, a Spanish architect and art lover, founded Swab in 2006 together with two other architects: his daughter Marina Díez-Cascón and his colleague Fernando Rial (of Díez-Cascón Arquitectos). The first Swab art fair took place in 2007 with the goal of creating a Spanish equivalent to Basel's Volta or New York City's Pulse art fairs. In addition, Swab returned an art fair to Barcelona, because the former Artexpo had ceased to operate in 2003 after eight years of existence.

Diez-Cascón's vision as a collector is embodied in the concept of the Swab art fair, whose focus is on emerging artists and new galleries, thereby diversifying what art fairs around the world have to offer. As a regular attendee of art fairs, Diez-Cascón found it boring to always encounter one and the same big names on gallery stands, and therefore he decided to organise something different. In other words, one passion grew into another, and that's why it's impossible to talk about Diez-Cascón the collector without mentioning Swab. With a faith in the artwork – not so much the artist's name or how long and illustrious his or her career – Diez-Cascón collects work by new artists and, through Swab, has for the past seven years (the only year Swab did not take place was 2009) given lesser known galleries access to the art market, which is not always so easy, given its endogamic tendencies. In 2011 a new initiative was included in the art fair – the MYFAF (My First Art Fair) contest, which gives galleries that have never taken part in an art fair the chance to participate, with all expenses covered by Swab.

Another of Swab's goals is to popularise accessibility to art. By showcasing talented but emerging artists whose work sells for a few hundred euros, it encourages interest from new, mainly Spanish, collectors. “These new art collectors are fundamental in order for the Spanish art market to survive and to guarantee its continuity,” says  Diez-Cascón, who as both a collector and the director of an art fair does not chase after trophies but, like Italian collector Luciano Benetton's passion for mapping world art, proves that good art can also be found outside the citadels and at considerably lower prices.

Like the meaning of the word in English, Swab is likened to a cotton swab that soaks up examples of contemporary art from around the world and attempts to discover something as yet unseen. For this purpose, a council was formed that consists of Kristian Jarmuschek (director of the Preview Berlin art fair), Fred Mann (director of the New Art Projects gallery in London), Nestor Zonana (director and curator of the Pabellón 4 Contemporary Art gallery in Buenos Aires) and Christian Ehrentraut (director of the eponymous Galerie Christian Ehrentraut in Berlin). The council not only evaluates applications but also chooses several new galleries to invite to the fair every year.

42 galleries from 13 countries took part in the first Swab art fair, which attracted 6000 visitors. By 2013, which was the first time the art fair was moved from May to October, 52 galleries from 18 countries took part, attracting 15,000 visitors, which is the highest number yet. In 2014, Swab will take place from October 2 – 5.

Diez-Cascón modestly calls his collection, registered as the Diezy7 foundation, as small but does not wish to say the exact number of works he owns. In the beginning, he gravitated towards Catalonian artists; later he turned his attention to Spanish contemporary art. And then he sold the entire collection in order to start building a new, multinational collection and acquire artwork made by young artists, mainly those born in the 1970s and 1980s. It must also be noted that every year Swab organises a graphic arts competition called Swab Drawing Award, and works by the winners of this award are bought for the Diezy7 private collection, thereby again confirming the close ties between the art fair and Diez-Cascón's collection. After all, the foundation is named as Swab's founder, and the art fair is often the place where Diez-Cascón seeks out his next purchases. Among the best known artists in his collection Diez-Cascón mentions Tal R, Pauline Fondevila, Inka Essenhigh, Matthew Ritchie and Mark Tickner.

“A collection is alive,” says Diez-Cascón, because it changes along with the collector and reflects the various stages in his or her life. Art has accompanied Diez-Cascón since childhood, when he saved up his allowance to go to Barcelona's largest flea market, Mercat dels Encants, and bought a catalogue of a well known artist of the time because he couldn't afford anything more. But that was enough to set the young Diez-Cascón on a dream of owning a collection. When it came time to enter university,  Diez-Cascón encountered a dilemma – he wanted to study both art and architecture. He chose the first, but after a year of study realised that he was no good at painting, so he changed direction and became an architect. But his enthusiasm for art has never waned.

Swab 2013 art fair in Barcelona. Publicity photo

When we met in Barcelona, I asked Diez-Cascón how his private collection reflects him as a personality. He in turn asks one of his three daughters, Marina Diez-Cascón (a co-founder of Swab), to answer for him: “It is kind of methodic in some subjects but has some randomness and the chaos typical of an artist's soul. Some works are very architectural and abstract, with geometric and mathematic rules, but others are very surrealist and evocative. I believe that in every architect there is an artistic part fighting with the reality and materiality of the work he faces every day. I think the most evocative and strange artworks in my father's collection are an expression of his ideals of beauty. My father is also a fighter, but in a silent way, and so is the art he collects. Some pieces he has have a very strong message, something that slowly affects you, makes you think, tortures you; sometimes they are disturbing. I think he is always looking for evolution, change, perfection; he wants to be awake and aware of the world. The art he collects moves something inside him. Sometimes I don’t get why he likes a piece, but then he tells you his reason and suddenly you are in love with the artwork.”

Swab and its offices are located in the so-called Italian Pavilion at the foot of Montjuïc in Barcelona. The building is surrounded by several objects created for the 1929 Expo that took place here and have since become emblematic elements of the city. Nearby is the German Pavilion (dismantled after the Expo but rebuilt in 1987), the essence of architectural modernism designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the German master of Bauhaus and coiner of the phrase “less is more”. And right next to the Italian Pavilion is the Magic Fountain (Font màgica de Montjuïc).

Swab 2013 art fair in Barcelona. Publicity photo

What inspired you to start collecting art? When did you buy your first artwork and what was it?

Since I was a little boy I was interested in art, and at the age of 14 I was already buying artist catalogues. I bought my first artwork at the age of 30; it was a drawing by a Catalan artist, Joan-Pere Viladecans.

It is said that in the beginning you collected art by Spanish artists only, but later you sold this collection to start building a more international one. Is that true? Why was it important for you to turn to a more international scene?

Yes, that is true. I thought that an art collection should reflect the international scene through the view of coetaneous artists, regardless of their nationality.

Please outline the history of the Swab art fair – how did it start and how did three architects decide they needed to start a contemporary art fair?

Art is our passion. At the time we started Swab we were travelling a lot, visiting contemporary art fairs in Basel, Miami, New York, Berlin or London, and we were surprised that Barcelona didn’t have one of its own. We wanted to bring the stimulating experiences we were having to Barcelona and share them with everyone.

It sounds a bit unbelievable that Swab is the only contemporary art fair in Barcelona. How would you describe the contemporary art scene in your country?

Although Swab is the only contemporary art fair in Barcelona, there are several others in Spain, among them ARCO, one of the most important art fairs on the international scene. I think that nowadays, and perhaps because of the economic situation, we are experiencing a unique moment of creativity, which is signifying the emergence of artists with very interesting work and great artistic careers that in the future will give Spanish art a relevant place on the international scene.

Swab 2013 art fair in Barcelona. Publicity photo

Why did you decide that Swab will focus on emerging artists? One of the key points mentioned on the Swab website is “Emerging art is the protagonist”. Can you comment on this?

We always wanted to be away from art theory and to focus on art itself. For us, emergent has always been related to its true etymologic meaning. It comes from the Latin emergere, which means “to move out of or away from something and become visible”. As collectors, we were very tired of going to art fairs and always seeing the same artworks, the same artists; it had no sense. We much more enjoyed visiting the galleries in the city and discovering artists, visiting their studios, being part of their work in progress. That’s the kind of art we wanted to see at our art fair – the unseen, the totally new and fresh. For the first edition of Swab in 2007 we went around galleries looking not for the gallery itself but for specific artists, specific works. So far that’s the spirit that leads Swab.

Emerging art is a tricky thing. There are not many aspects you can rely on when choosing an emerging artist. How do you spot potential? What helps you as a collector to develop an eye?

I believe the only way to develop an eye is to be in contact with art as much as possible. Picasso used to say that inspiration exists, but it has to find you working hard. For me it's very important to be informed, to read magazines, books, to visit art fairs, galleries, openings, artists’ studios, to talk to other collectors…. But most important is that art for me is not an investment; it's a drug, it's something I need to be alive. It’s a place where I can find inspiration and motivation for working on my other passion, architecture.

What do you think of those who see art only as interior decoration? And from your professional experience, what kind of artwork is in the most demand for modern interiors?

Art has always had a relation with interiors in architecture. I personally feel closer to art that is involved and done specially for architecture, such as the Diego Rivera murals at Rockefeller Center in New York City or Michelangelo's works in Rome.

Indeed, a work of art is able to fill an empty space by itself, so it is logical that it plays a key role in interior architecture. I think eventually the artwork can be determinant in terms of interior decoration but not vice versa. Abstraction and geometry are widely used, as it allows different types of decoration.

Where do you buy art? Have you ever bought something for your collection at Swab?

I always buy art in galleries and at art fairs. And, of course, I also buy at Swab.

There is an unwritten demand for great collections to have big names. How do you deal with that when collecting emerging, as yet unknown, artists?

I have never pretended to have big names in my collection, but works that make me feel something.

Can you highlight any works or names from your collection?

To me all the artists that are in my collection are important. All respond to a special moment, a certain momentum, and therefore each one holds a memory for me. Obviously, some of them have more or less international recognition. Among the most famous we could highlight Tal R, Pauline Fondevila, Inka Essenhigh, Matthew Ritchie and Mark Tickner.

Can you describe the emotions when adding a new work to your collection?

Surprise, when discovering an artwork that awakens a feeling in me. Also, the anguish of trying to acquire it and, finally, if it was possible to purchase it, the pleasure of owning it.

Art is immortal, but we are not. Have you thought about what will happen to your private collection after your death?

Indeed, this is a delicate issue. In any case, I do not want my collection to end up in the storage room of any museum; to me it would make sense in the future to sell all the artworks in the collection that are not in my house and use the money to enjoy the last part of my life.

Where do you keep your art collection? To be a collector means to not only be able to afford art, but also to afford the space and conditions to safely keep the artworks. What have you learned from your experience?

My collection is currently divided between my house and my office. The first time an artwork that I bought at an art gallery in New York went directly from the gallery to a storage space I had, I realised I had a problem, because my way of collecting may have gone from collecting to storing.

Joaquín Diez-Cascón with one of his collection's work: Clare Woods. The Manster. 2004. Publicity photo

One of the goals of the Swab art fair is to break with the elitist art world, making it accessible to the people. But is it also a collector's responsibility to make his/her collection available to the public?

Of course. In fact, I have exhibited in different spaces in Barcelona, and a selection of artworks from my collection have been exhibited during two editions of Swab, sharing it with all those who wanted to visit it.

Swab organises special events for young collectors. What would be your best advice and encouragement on how to start? And why is being a collector worth it?

I would encourage people to collect if they feel they want to, not because it is a social need. I would also tell them to collect with passion, following their feelings and instincts.

What would the world be without art?

A very grey and cold place to live in.