Art Gives Life an Edge

Daiga Rudzāte, Una Meistere

An interview with Latvian art collector Jānis Zuzāns


Art collectors Jānis Zuzāns and Dina Zuzāne are currently the most influential and generous patrons of contemporary art in Latvia. Jānis Zuzāns is one of the initiators of the Purvītis Prize – Latvia's most prestigious and most generous (285,000 EUR, pre-taxes) award for achievement in the visual arts. The prize's objective is to keep alive the relevancy of the local art scene and to bring attention to its most outstanding participants.

The Purvītis Prize was the first initiative that Zuzāns launched in the field of contemporary art, which was then followed by the opening of his own exhibition space, Mūkusalas mākslas salons, and many other activities associated with modern-day art. Zuzāns' wish to jump-start the art scene is a well-known passion of his, as is his zeal in creating his own art collection – which currently consists of about 5000 pieces. This collection is the basis for the regularity with which exhibitions are held at Mūkusalas mākslas salons; in addition, the collection is always open to lending out pieces to professional entities interested in exhibiting them. Zuzāns himself says that his wish is to create his own portrait of Latvia's art – “One that reflects how I see it.” Another of Zuzāns' obsessions is to make Latvian art a desirable commodity outside of Latvia as well; which sometimes seems as being naively idealistic. Apparently, it is this goal of his that led him to become a member of the Tate Modern Russian and Eastern European Acquisitions Committee.

Just as enthusiastically as Zuzāns collects art, he collects – or absorbs – knowledge, emotions, experience and adventures revealed to him by the art that he goes to see during his world travels. Going to an exhibition in any of the world's metropolises is always his priority. And the same goes for art and things that do with art.

At the end of our conversation, Zuzāns remarks: “In truth, art poisons you. In a positive sense. […] Art gives life an edge. It doesn't allow one to get bogged down by routine. At least in my case. In business, if there aren't any big and clear challenges, everything becomes mundane and the daily grind sets in. And then it becomes boring. Art is what allows one to never have to feel this routine to its most extreme.”

What is the first artwork you bought that is still valuable today?

“Nude In the Artist's Studio” by Indulis Zariņš; at the end of the 1990s. But I didn't buy it as a collector. You become a collector slowly. Just like a drunkard; you're not already a drunkard from the very first drink. Once you begin to feel that you need to drink more often, and even in the mornings, then it's clear that you have slowly, slowly turned into a drunkard. It's the same with collecting. It doesn't happen on a certain day or date. It doesn't happen that way. But there comes a moment when you realize what you have become.

And when did you realize this about yourself?

Almost ten years ago. It was about the same time that we began the Purvītis Prize project. Up to that point, I hadn't defined myself. Some things Dina and I bought for fun; not consciously with the aim of creating a collection. So, it was relatively recently.

What made you want to collect art specifically? There are so many other things one can collect.

The urge to collect sits somewhere inside – in some gene. We've all done this in childhood. During my school-years I collected stamps. Later, as a teen – beer cans. Then I sold my stamps, threw out the cans, some time passed, and I turned to art.

Before you had realized what you were becoming, were there any pieces that you passed on buying, and now you regret not having bought them?

Yes, there are many. One must make choices. Yes or no. A great offer comes only once.

In another Arterritory interview, a collector said that he does not collect artworks as objects, but as ideas. What is it that you collect?

A simple question, but the answer is in no way simple. That collector must be a fan of conceptual art. We started with collecting the works of the Riga Artists Group. They were the first ones that we noticed. We became interested. That's how we began collecting art consciously. I really liked the 1920s period of Latvian modernism, and I must admit that it still is one of my favorites.

What do I collect now... I'm trying to put together a comprehensive portrait of Latvia's art; in the way that I see it myself, and that consists of signs that I find interesting. There are artists in which I have no interest at all. I realize that the collection currently has many unnecessary artworks, but I haven't seen an opportunity to implement them elsewhere because the Latvian art market is so very small and inactive right now.

How far have you gotten in drawing-in the features of that portrait?

This portrait can always be added on to, and it will never be completely finished. Some parts are very good. Taking into account that we have a total lack of museums, there's the urge to do the unfinished. To make a collection that someday could also be shown outside of Latvia. Everyone's looking for international names, an international point of interest; national works are only interesting on a national level – this is what I was recently told by some respected professionals. The people who can be called investors, for them this is definitely true. Actually, the art market is messed up – everything is indexed and art is being measured by the square centimeter.

But for those people who are still looking for reflections of themselves and their surroundings through art, Latvia's art can be very interesting. When Dina and I went to Bilbao to see the Guggenheim Foundation that Gehry built, we also went to the local museum. There we saw some galleries that seemed much more interesting than Georg Baselitz and Frank Stella at the Guggenheim. This art seemed more authentic and more interesting. The big names are so accepted and have been so rehashed that they no longer interest me.

Romans Suta / Porcelain factory “Baltars”. Plate “Kurzeme”. 1927. © Mūkusalas Mākslas salons

Do you think that there even exists the possibility of a phenomenon such as “national art” in today's world?

I would like to believe so. I'm probably an idealist in the sense that not everything should be put in the framework of the market. Some little part should be left, a “back door” through which one can enter a kind of “cleaner” space. Where not everything can be measured in dollars. Of course, those Latvian artists who yearn to become cosmopolitan stars have no choice but to pack their bags and go to New York or London... My wish is to turn the vector so that others can see that Latvia is also on the map. And through this vector, they would also see the art of this place. And maybe those who buy art for the sake of art, will also discover Latvia's art.

Your are currently on the Tate Modern's Acquisitions Committee. What do you see as your mission there? What is your vision?

I see as my mission the promotion of our artists. I'd like to hope that I can manage to get the other collectors to come over so that I can show them what is going on here. Let them “feel the fabric” here, in person. I have the feeling that today's art history has been ignoring Eastern Europe so far. We are like a blank spot on the map of global art history. We have to get ourselves on there. The time has come to rewrite that history.

Jean Pigozzi, who collects African art, believes that the problem in the recognition process is hidden in a local environment that doesn't have any art collectors.

Yes, of course; that is our problem as well. The number of collectors here has to increase. And this condition should also be sanctioned by the state – the wish to promote your culture outwards. It must be stronger and more sure of itself.

Returning to the portrait of Latvia's art: when you add a new artwork to your collection, do you understand what you are looking for? Do you understand how this process happens? Do you look for something that is missing in the features of the portrait you are creating, or is it an emotional process, or is it simply a crazy decision?

It's different every time.

Oto Skulme.  Composition of a Portrait. 1923. © Mūkusalas Mākslas salons

Have you made any unwise purchases?

I have. Perhaps not so much “unwise” as “passionate”. Probably the last crazy purchase was this here [indicates the painting “Composition of a Portrait”, by Oto Skulme – A.]. This sort of an opportunity, as I said, comes only once in a lifetime. And either you act on it or you don't.

Of course, there are artworks that I have bought based on the pressure of the moment, and later I come to understand that actually, they weren't needed at all. There are works that I have circled around for a long time, and when I finally acquire them, there really isn't a sense of satisfaction anymore. Because you've already gone through it. But the process has been started, and it has to be finished.

So “the hunter's instinct” has prevailed over the value of the artwork?

I don't think the value of it is even relevant. It's just that you've been reaching for it for so long that, once it's yours, it is no longer interesting. It turns out that the process has been more important than the specific work of art.

As I said before, there are artists that are important and interesting to me, and whose works I buy from whatever point in their career. And if some portion of their career is missing or weak, then I happily supplement it with something better. Unfortunately, oftentimes you can't get rid of the weaker pieces. But better ones come along and the portrait's features increase in quality and become stronger. And then it is a joy to take that art out of storage and put a good exhibition together.

That leads to satisfaction. For example, the exhibition of the works of Jānis Pauļuks. I believe that our collection has representative pieces from all of his periods – good-quality works. Sometimes I'm asked: And what are you going to do with it now? Let it be. Maybe it is a mausoleum for one artist. I hope that one day we'll be able to set aside a separate gallery for Pauļuks. Perhaps there's an institute of higher learning that would be willing to take a part of the collection.

What would you say are the “highlights” of your collection? Can you choose five?

Yes, the already mentioned “Composition of a Portrait” by Oto Skulme, which I regard as one of the top five pieces of art representing Latvian modernism; “Portrait of Lieutenant Glāns”, by Kārlis Padegs; the small and insignificant “Loner”, by Auseklis Baušķenieks, which is very dear to me and gives off the message that everything depends on you alone – you come into this world naked and you leave it naked; the plate “Kurzeme”, by the porcelain factory “Baltars”; and “Madonna”, by Oļegs Kuļiks, which is hard to display because it requires a large and specific space. And also the so-called “plastic-film” pieces by Kristaps Ģelzis.

There are only a couple of contemporary art pieces in this list of highlights...

I'm still in the process of getting into modern art.

Oleg Kulik. Madonna. © Mūkusalas Mākslas salons

What do you have on display in your house?

Modernists and the so-called “First Trio of Latvian Art” – Vilhelms Purvītis, Jānis Valters and Janis Rozentāls. I also have paintings by Miervaldis Polis and Bruno Vasiļevskis on the walls of my office.

What do you have in your bedroom?

Currently there's a painting by Konrāds Ubāns in there, from the 1920s.

But why do you buy contemporary art if you don't like having it around you?

Because I live in this time.

But it's not around you on a daily basis...

No, it isn't. But you can see it in the exhibitions we put on at Mūkusalas mākslas salons.

You are the most influential patron of contemporary art in Latvia. How did that happen?

Life and the world are made up of paradoxes. And my much-mentioned “portrait of art” wouldn't be complete if it didn't have today's art.

That's the only reason?

Not exactly... But in large part, yes.

Because it's your duty?

I simply think that I must help in the act of preservation. If the state ever builds a museum, I'll be able to give to the museum what otherwise would have been lost by Latvia. In a sense, my job is like being the guard of contemporary art. I see it as my duty to preserve the best things. And this may not be so germane to me as to my children and grandchildren. I gather up things that I like and that seem important. Sometimes artists redo their works. I have personally seen artists make one work from another.

There are collectors who admit that one of the reasons that they collect is to have the opportunity to keep up a dialog, to converse with the artists and to get to know them.

Artists (much like other groups of people) are very diverse, and there aren't even that many who are interesting to talk to. There are those, of course, with whom it is very exciting to talk to.

Kristaps Ģelzis. Flag. 2013. © Mūkusalas Mākslas salons

Do you have artist friends?


When you speak to them, do you feel any closer to the essence of their art?

It depends on which one. But oftentimes the artist doesn't even want to explain his/her idea. At least it seems that way to me. Or they aren't able to. Sometimes the artist explains it, but I see something completely different it. Or I feel something different. This is especially true of conceptual art, of which I am not a fan.

How important to you is the aesthetic aspect of art – its beauty?

What do we understand with the word “beauty”? Some sort of aesthetic quality is definitely important to me. It can even be ugly... but there has to be a harmony in what I'm seeing. In no way does the kind of art that is based only on an intellectual basis, speak to me. The kind that is made up of a few pieces of A4 paper with text on them. I try to get into that kind of art – sometimes I go to the same exhibition three of four times because it's impossible to understand and comprehend with just one viewing. And after numerous visits, sometimes I even begin to understand these works of art – with my mind; but it is not a kind of art that moves me in some way or speaks to me. As I said earlier: in art, it is important to find that which causes a shift in my comfort zone.

What has been able to cause a shift in you comfort zone lately?

Last year I saw several great shows – Anselm Kiefer in London, Bill Viola in Paris, and Vija Celmiņš and Gustavs Klucis in Riga.

Someday I'd like to acquire a work by Anselm Kiefer – it really speaks to me. In my opinion, he is the number one artist right now. When I came out from spending two hours in his exhibition in London, I felt like I had just taken a drink of fresh water. There is insane energy there.

Do you feel the energy fields that artworks give off?

There are times when you feel this energy, and times when you don't. For instance, Mark Rothko doesn't speak to me. I don't know why. I've tried to get some clarity with him by sitting in the Beyeler Foundation, which has quite a lot of his works, but I guess my skin is too thick for him. It requires a finer soul. I have the feeling that Rothko speaks to those people who have a leaning towards suicide. People who really get Rothko... there's something suicidal residing in them.

How did you arrive to this conclusion?

I read books about him. And I understood that one has to be on the same wavelength as Rothko, in terms of his inner discontent with himself. And those that feel something similar, they also find it in his paintings.

Auseklis Baušķenieks.  Loner. 1957. © Mūkusalas Mākslas salons

What is it that makes something a work of art?

Everyone can't be an artist. And it's not education that's important here. It is God's gift, after all. One must have a completely different kind of “optics” – the ability to see in order to create art. One has to look at the world completely differently. Not everybody can make a work of art, not to mention something lasting.

Does art require a viewer?

Yes. Just like a book requires a reader. It could be called a reservoir of knowledge, but if you don't use it, it has no worth. For art to work, it needs a person to look at it and reflect upon it. Unconditionally.

Would you like to have in your possession “Fountain”, by Marcel Duchamp?

(Begins to laugh) I think every collector would like to. Like owning some rarity.

How about as a work of art, and not as a rarity with a marketable value?

Probably – no.

Why not?

I still perceive it as a utilitarian product. It's actually just the same with Damien Hirst. The signature is more important than the art. I don't perceive Hirst's “spot paintings” as serious art. It's the same slot machine, just done up with oil paints. A money-maker.

But do you understand why Hirst and 20 or so other super-stars have been so successful?

That's how it turned out for them. A coincidence of good circumstances. The right gallerists, the right curators, the right time. There is talent needed, too. I think that for collectors, [these super-stars] are like a sign. As I said, there has to be something from each period of an artist. They are like a sign about this period. But is it art? I appraise factory work as factory work.

Is the signature at the bottom important to you?

The signature itself maybe isn't so important... Even though... it probably is. Not always, but it is. Especially in the context of artists that are no longer living.

If you had the opportunity to acquire any three works of art, ignoring all existing barriers to their procurement, what would they be?

“Milkmaid”, by Jan Vermeer – no question. “Hunters In the Snow”, by Pieter Bruegel, and “The Garden of Earthly Delights”, by Hieronymus Bosch.

Even though Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali – in their film, “An Andalusian Dog” – created a practically legendary association between Vermeer and death, you wouldn't mind hanging a Vermeer in your house?

No. I would put it up. We're all slowly nearing death, after all. Death is just a transformation into a different aggregate state. No one has come back from the dead, and we know naught about it, but I have thought about death. When you're getting close to sixty, you begin thinking about that. That's the way it is in life.

I would never put “When the First Roosters Crow”, by Janis Rozentāls, on my wall – those demons crossing the field... Everyone who has ever owned that painting has died horribly, at least that's what I've heard. I know the story. Superstition is like a clock that needs to be wound – if the spring isn't wound, the clock just sits there and does nothing. It's just a regular object. If the spring is wound, the clock starts ticking. I have another painting by Rozentāls – “Christ Carrying Over the River of Death”, which I definitely wouldn't want to bring into my house and then keep it there.

Why did you buy it then?

The portrait needs it.

When you make acquisitions, do you listen only to yourself, or do you have advisors? How can you be sure that with “this piece” or “that piece”, the Latvian art scene that you are creating will be more complete?

It's interesting to make mistakes, after all. Each of builds our own worlds. With the artworks that I buy and display, I am also building my own world.

Is that your parallel life?

I think it is. It certainly unburdens me. It makes me more creative.

Do you allow many people to see your collection?

No, just a few. But that's why there are exhibitions, when the artworks are taken out of storage and displayed for the public to see.

Do you like the feeling that it belongs to you alone?

No, I'm ready to give it away someday, but only to a suitable place. I don't have this feeling of – that is mine!

Even when it comes to “Composition of a Portrait”?

I am proprietary about that one. The Latvian National Museum of Art asked if I could give them the painting for permanent display. I answered that that's a complex issue (laughs). I didn't answer them. In terms of this artwork, the inner ego triumphs. I like to sit by it.

How did you train yourself to discern good art from bad, and do you think that you're able to do that now? Is there even anyone who can say what is good art and what is bad art?

It can be discerned – but one needs training; and time and the handling of numerous works. And when you've handled 1000 works by Pauļuks, then you're able to pick out about fifty good ones. Place the remaining ones aside, even though they're not that bad either.

Jānis Zuzāns. Photo: Reinis Hofmanis

What else (besides having the ability to discern good art from bad) has changed in you since you became a collector?

In truth, art poisons you. In a positive sense. Passion. Addiction. And in the end, you can't live without “it”. Art gives life an edge. It doesn't let you settle into routine. At least in my case. In business, if there aren't any big and clear challenges, everything becomes mundane and the daily grind sets it. And then it becomes boring. Art is what allows one to never have to feel this routine to its most extreme. You set an objective, conjure up a vision that you want to fulfill, and then you determinedly go after it. The only strange thing is that once you've done that, an anticlimax sets in. Until, that is, you set a new objective for yourself.

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