The documentation of their times

Una Meistere

An interview with German art collectors Johanna and Friedrich Gräfling


The key word to the collection of Johanna and Friedrich Gräfling is “time”. By using art as a medium, they are documenting the times they are living in: the thoughts, visions, contradictions, passions, trends and life itself in Europe within the span of their own lifetimes. But documenting time is also an important way for the couple to understand their own place and role in these times.

Friedrich Gräfling is an architect; Johanna has studied art history. They are both in their early thirties and have more than ten years of experience collecting art together. Their collection is a natural continuation of the art collection Friedrich began already as a teenager. Like many other collectors, he says he was born with the collecting gene. In other words, it’s in internal impulse, not something dictated by external circumstances.

But at the same time, collecting for the Gräflings is not just about their own private relationship with art; for them, it’s also important to share and promote interaction with and interest in art as broadly as possible. And the instruments they use to achieve this goal are quite unusual. In  2010 they opened an experimental art space in a former slaughterhouse in Friedrich’s native town, Aschaffenburg. Once a year they organised an exhibition curated by either an artist represented in their collection or laid out a concept themselves. The artists were given complete freedom, and therefore the resulting exhibitions also served as experimental collaborative projects and creative testing ground for new ideas. The slaughterhouse is now closed, but it has led to two further projects: Salon Kennedy in Frankfurt and Kunstverein Wiesen located about 60 kilometres from Frankfurt.

Salon Kennedy is an independent art space located in the Gräflings’ home, a turn of the century stucco fronted villa on a respectable avenue in Frankfurt. The art space occupies two rooms of their apartment and is open to the public by appointment. Unlike the slaughterhouse, here they do not exhibit art from their own collection; instead, they invite artists to create works specifically to be shown in this space. Salon Kennedy operates as a salon in the classic and slightly nostalgic sense, meaning that the Gräflings regularly host dinners and other events for art professionals as well as others interested in art, thereby initiating conversations and discussions about art and life. According to the Salon Kennedy concept, artists prepare only a single exhibition, and the space does not act as a standard art gallery. This allows it to foster opportunity, experimentation, networking and the exchange of ideas.

Kunstverein Wiesen, for its part, is located in a former hunting castle in the village of Wiesen. The Gräflings manage the art space together with an association of people interested in art. It is said that the building inspired the “Snow White” fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. Today, Kunstverein Wiesen is a “cabinet of curiosities” of art in the middle of the forest that has, since2014, exhibited the work of artists such as Douglas Gordon, Fischli & Weiss, Alicja Kwade, Jeppe Hein, Benedikte Bjerre, Michael Sailstorfer and others.

Johanna and Friedrich in Grace Weavers Studio, New York, in front of their dance portrait

I found it interesting the way your collection began. You didn’t have enough money to buy works of art, so you worked for artists, helped organise exhibitions for them, stamped invitation cards... It’s not the classic collector’s story.

Friedrich Gräfling: I wanted to own art. It was not enough for me to just go to a gallery or museum and see it there or get a print of it. It needed to be original. I couldn’t afford to buy art back then, but I was bold enough to approach the artists themselves, and I offered to work in their studios, thus earning the artwork I had craved. I was around seventeen at the time, and of course it was unusual for them to get a request like that. But more or less everyone was very happy, kind and nice and got back to me. It depended on the artist, of course, but usually we agreed on the fact that the painting cost a certain amount, and I needed to pay that down by working for the artist. I had to do whatever was necessary in the studios.

Like washing the floors...

FG: Sometimes. But mostly I was stamping invitation cards before exhibitions and putting them in envelopes. I also had to pack paintings for exhibitions. So, super-easy support work in the studio. And apparently I did a good job, so some of the artists then gave me more elaborate work. Not really running the studio, but kind of taking care of it. I answered emails, organized stuff and even, as I was studying architecture, designed and built a painting rack for one of the artists. I was in touch with curators, journalists and collectors. It evolved and I started doing group and later solo shows, and in a way that became the foundation of what we’re doing today.

Collecting for us is not just going to Art Basel, spending money and getting an artwork. It’s really about being involved and getting to the essence of it. It’s not necessary to be friends with the artist, but really having a discourse, an exchange.

It’s interesting that you said you really went to the essence of it all at the age of seventeen, eighteen, but at the same time you didn’t choose the path of art professionally. Instead you decided to study architecture.

FG: Architecture is another passion of mine. I studied in London at the Architectural Association, which is also quite artistic in a sense. It was very free and conceptual, and a lot of students from the school become artists. Like Lawrence Lek, who is now represented by Sadie Coles gallery in London or Helen Marten was quite often around at the AA. The Architectural Association’s approach to architecture wasn’t as technical as elsewhere, so in a way this school offered a different kind of architectural experience. Of course, that makes a difference, but also for me it was clear that I had no interest in depending on earning money with art. It’s hard to put into words, but I felt like art would somehow lose its quality if I’d have to begin selling, auctioning or curating. I think I’d be the worst gallerist in the world because I’d want to keep everything for myself. I couldn’t curate because, although maybe I could do nice shows, I’d always feel bad because the art wouldn’t be mine (laughs). I think the only way for me is to collect.

And this is what you came to understand while working in the artist studios?

FG: Yes.

Johanna, how did your journey with art begin?

Johanna Gräfling: I always knew that I would like to be involved in the art market somehow. I have a master’s degree in art history as well as a background in international business so I even worked for Sotheby’s for a while. When I met Friedrich, we began doing in London what we actually do now, but on a very small scale. I remember we removed all the furniture from our living room to the bedroom and invited our artist friends who came to London during Frieze week, and we threw parties. We cooked according to the paintings and so on. That was very exciting, and through all of that I kind of caught the collecting “disease”. We started to build a collection together, or, really, continue the collection Friedrich had already started. Collecting is a completely different way of looking at an artist’s work. Just looking at it and appreciating it is one thing, but when you know the entire process behind it – where the idea for an artwork stems – that’s something completely different.

Johanna and Friedrichs appartment between 2012-2014

Your collection mostly consists of works by artists of your own generation. Does that mean that you intentionally collect art from this, your own, time?

JG: Yes. When we started, it was plus ten or twenty years, but now it’s plus or minus ten years.

Does that mean you’ve never bought anything just randomly at an art fair?

FG: Most of the artists we collect – although of course, with some exceptions – we collect really in depth. Theses are never impulsive purchases. We invest a lot of time into research on the artist. We tend to go quite deep, we read every interview, every article, and this process might take years. And then, if we believe that we want to and can financially follow the artist for a while, we take the next step and purchase a work.

That’s not always so easy in the current market situation.

FG: Yes, that’s the thing. Of course, from the artist’s perspective it’s good that prices for art go up.

And maybe for some collectors it is enough to have just one work by an artist, but for us this is never really an option.

JG: It can gets a bit frustrating. Some artists, of whom we started buying works a couple of years ago, are now very successful, which is of course amazing. Yet, we can no longer afford to keep on collecting their works.

What’s your opinion – will the market bubble slow down a bit?

FG: I don´t think it will slow down. There needs to be a financial crisis for that to happen. But I think what is differentiating is that it’s spreading the seed for quality. The quality is what matters.

Several gallerists have recently noticed an interesting trend: although the number of young collectors is growing, especially collectors from Silicon Valley, they’re not investing in the artists of their own generation. They mostly buy trophy pieces. They don’t experiment, they don’t challenge the rules. Instead, they follow the safe investment path. What do you think?

JG: I just recently had a conversation about art and my generation. Right now there are comparatively many family collections in Germany that aren’t being taken over by the younger generation. There’s not that urge to be a collector, to be involved in the arts, as there was for their parents’ generation or before that. We experienced it in London already, that at some point when you own enough – say, you have a flat, you have a car – and then you need a work of art that everybody recognises.

FG: In many cases like that, art mostly becomes a sort of decoration. It might be Gerhard Richter or some other artist who has been recognised by the art market or the institutional environment. Hence, people buy that artist’s work just to put above the fireplace or the sofa, or as a crazy sculpture in the living room. Of course, sometimes a single work of art can inspire the owner to begin a collection, but usually that doesn’t happen.

JG: I think it’s also a matter of time. Those who work basically 24/7, don’t have time to invest in learning about art. They buy what the art investor tells them to buy.

FG: But maybe it’s also something to do with the whole system. Where does one start? There are so many galleries, so many artists, and then on top of it all we’re now living in a global world, which was maybe not so much the case forty years ago. I don’t know, I wasn’t alive at that time, but I guess if forty years ago someone was truly interested in art, it was relatively easy to get down to the nitty-gritty of it. While nowadays there are so many areas and so many different perspectives. Maybe in one way it has become easier, because you can look on Google and you can find someone in Indonesia, for example; but on the other hand it became harder, exactly because you can look everywhere. There are too many choices.

JG: That’s the question we always hear – how do you know what and where to buy? And this question is obviously market-driven, because there’s always this idea behind that the value of art should increase. So it’s not really just for the sake of art; there’s also a financial aspect behind it. I don’t know if that was the case forty years ago either.

Daniel Lergon, Untitled, 2010, sammlung FIEDE collection display in Schloss Wiesen 2012

What do you look for in art? Especially considering that collecting is a time-intensive process that’s also linked to the need to learn to look and see.

FG: Yes, it takes a lot of time and energy. And in the end you do it only if it’s a passion for you. Because if you don’t invest time, you’ll never get to the essence. Our approach to collecting has several levels, and one of those is context. Art is a kind of key that offers both information and a different perspective on the political, economic and social processes going on in the world.

Meaning that, from one angle, art for you is also an intellectual challenge.

FG: Yes, a visual and intellectual challenge.

JG:, You  also get to explore certain points that you wouldn’t necessary encounter just from your daily routine. This is also a reason why art is so interesting for us – it’s a way of getting down to the root, and dwelling in a completely different sphere.

FG: It’s also a documentation of the times we’re living in. For instance, a Joseph Beuys wouldn’t be relevant  for us to buy now, even though we recognize the relevance of his work. Thus, it might make sense in terms of collecting, but it has no relevance for our life. That is something I realized when working in the artist studios and documenting their work. I’ve never felt the need to acquire the most attractive, but rather the most personal work. The work that was the most special to the artist and for me/us.

This naturally became characteristic to our collection - we have a lot of “strange” works in our collection that might not be iconographic for that particular artist, but are nevertheless somehow quite important as they have some sort of processual relevance or indicate a turning point in the artist’s career etc.

Have there been things you’ve discovered through collecting that you maybe couldn’t have discovered some other way?

FG: There’s a work by Simon Fujiwara that we recently acquired, which is Angela Merkel’s makeup. The specific thing about it is that the work consists purely of the powder Angela Merkel wears. It’s a specific makeup that’s produced only for her, and it has this quality that it doesn’t reflect camera lights, flashes, etc. A lot of politicians and celebrities wear makeup like this, but the specific thing is that in Merkel’s case it doesn’t appear as makeup – she always looks like she’s not wearing any makeup at all. And that’s quite interesting – that is, how perverted our Western world is in a way. I don’t know how many hours of chemical research and how much money went into this little product just to represent an image, which is probably relevant for Merkel but politically completely irrelevant.

Before our conversation, I saw a documentary about Lee Krasner at Schirn Kunsthalle. In it, she says that she’s convinced that all art is biographical. Could you perhaps say something similar about a collection?

FG: Definitely. In a way, a collection is a stage for everything that has happened to you – because, for example, you live differently as a student than you do as a married couple, you live in different places geographically, and so on. The personal factor plays a big role.

Benedikte Bjerres insitu work in London at the project Money over World organized by Johanna and Friedrich

Speaking of biography, your collection began with graffiti artists.

FG: It was a short period, but yes, that is how it started. I was involved with a lot of older Grafitti guys in my hometown when I was about 14/15 years old. Even though I did Graffiti myself, I was never too serious about it. I admired them as they were older and quite skilled, so I was happy to hang out with them. At some point I wanted to document that time, so my first work of art was a piece by them.

Do you still follow street art?

FG: Not that much. I used to in London, where it was a big thing. I actually enjoyed going out and explore and follow the artists path through the city. But what I was missing was that a lot of these street artists were too two-dimensional – not on the surface, but in their perspective. So, it was purely about putting it out there. Banksy is an exception. In most cases it doesn’t go beyond, but I still like that it becomes spatial, not the work itself, but through the activation of the urban space. That’s what I’m still interested in - that the art I collect is more than just something on the wall...

In 2014 you began an unusual initiative, Kunstverein Wiesen, which is located in an old hunters’ castle in the middle of the forest near a village of only 1000 residents, about 60 kilometres from Frankfurt.

JG: It’s a traditional German Kunstverein, an institution based on members.

FG: It has nothing to do with our collection as such. It’s an institution that serves as an innovative platform for contemporary art and its discourses. It’s a place for artistic experiments.

JG: It’s an interesting building that constantly and currently being restored. It’s very rough – you don’t have flat walls there, and so on. It’s very interesting to see how artists react to that and how the architecture, which is so strong and so dominant, works with contemporary art. Further, it fosters our idea of that kind of a space where people arrive with a certain mindset – they drive for almost an hour through the woods to get there. There’s nothing to do there otherwise, except to see art without any distraction.

Do you feel it has an impact on the local village life as well? Has the presence of art changed anything in the course of everyday life there?

FG: It’s hard to tell. I mean, not in the sense that busloads of tourists are now coming in. So, it hasn’t had any economic impact. But for those locals who have enjoyed getting involved, for those who always come on the tours and who are interested, their minds have been changed.

Alicja Kwade, Heavy Weight of Hindsight (The cloud), 2016, sammlung FIEDE

Many great artists, film directors and musicians were already talking about climate change years ago. But no one has managed to have as strong an impact in as short a time as Greta Thunberg. Why is that? How strong is the voice of art itself?

JG: Art as such is not a mass medium. So, maybe this is why it’s harder to create a voice with art. Of course, there are artists who pinpoint urgent topics, who highlight them in their own way. But in the end, I think it’s always difficult to reach a truly broad audience through art.

FG: I think it does reach a broad audience, but it doesn’t have as strong a voice, as you said. For example, the New York City Waterfalls by Olafur Eliasson (a temporary installation running from mid-July to mid-October 2008 – Ed.). I do not know how many people saw them, but they were all over the media, it was definitely an amazing project, but did anything change? Maybe it was too early. Who knows what impact it actually had. Or the works by Tomás Saraceno. It’s difficult to say how many thousands of people have perhaps begun to think about  alternative ways of living after encountering his art.

JG: Or take Laure Prouvost participation in Venice last year (the artist took on the French Pavillion, where some of the works belong to Johanna and Friedrichs collection – Ed.), it is in my eyes a very interesting way to highlight current movements in migration and climate changes. But of course only a limited number of people, although we are talking about the Venice Biennale, do see and reflect on it.

Were it not for these and other works, maybe Greta would not be in the centre of discussions as much as she is now. But if you hadn’t brought Greta in, I would probably have said that art has a quite important voice. And it can have a voice. We also had a big thing when Johathan Meese did an act of public provocation by making the Nazi salute on stage. It was a huge topic in Germany, because the salute is a taboo, but obviously, he as an artist was able to name it, to show it on stage. So, there are levels at which art can actually be political by not being political. Just by being free. But it’s surely not the same as when schoolkids are going out into the streets.

There’s also another opinion, that when art gets too political, too socially oriented, it starts to mimic mass media and therefore loses its core value.

FG: Or it becomes too playful, too engaging.

JG: At the same time, artists have this freedom to highlight difficult questions that you might not otherwise put out there.

What is the main advantage of running a private space as compared to a public institution?

FG: There is, of course, a certain freedom.

JG: Here it’s all very familiar, very intimate. It’s easy-going.

FG: We’re really interested in a dialogue, in an exchange of ideas, and this of course happens during the tours we organise here at Salon Kennedy. And it’s not like it’s only people with an education in art who take part in the tours. Sometimes it’s just regular people who are interested in art, people who have never encountered anything like this before but are open and interested. And then it’s the most amazing thing to talk, to exchange ideas with them, to get a completely different perspective, because both of us are already brainwashed by the art world and see things that may not be there. I don’t know, but it’s refreshing.

JG: We’re interested in offering a space for debate again. Just to sit down and talk about art. To open up discussions.

Did you think a lot about the name “Salon Kennedy”?

JG: Kennedy is just the name of the street the salon is on. But we knew already from the beginning that it was supposed to be a salon as we really liked the idea and concept of the old-fashioned, turn-of-the-century salon.

FG: Yes, but it’s not only about nostalgia. It’s really about sitting at this table and talking about whatever, but being triggered because the discussions are exciting. It’s really about the exchange.

Looking back, is there an artist in whose career you as collectors have played a significant role?

FG: It depends on which level. We’re not the big blue-chip collectors, where Tate Modern is coming just because they bought something. But there are certain smaller things that are maybe even more important for an artistic career because they’re not directly linked to the market. For example, for our first collection display at the slaughterhouse (the Gräflings’ first art space, now closed – Ed.) we invited Gregor Hildebrandt to curate it. We gave him the complete archive of our collection up to that point, he did a show, he chose the artwork, he set up the exhibition in the way he wanted, and then he created a curtain out of magnetic tape, in effect framing the works of art. And this was the first time in his career that he had experimented with this new wall technique. In subsequent years he continued to develop this style, and it led to a completely new technique within his practice.

Of course, we didn’t know it at the time, but we had given him the freedom of a space where there were no market or institutional expectations – just us, our friends and some guests. He could experiment, and this actually led to something new. So, there are these links, these elements. And this is what makes collecting interesting for us, rather than having this very important work that’s being show at the Met, etc.

Michael Sailstorfer, Tränen, 2015, during production, art production organized by Johanna and Friedrich

Do you have some kind of mission in regard to the future of your collection?

FG: We’re at the point now that we purely collect for storage, because we don’t have any more space other than storage. Which is, of course, sad on the one hand, because you want to see the art, you want to show it. And also, artists want to have their work out there. So, the obvious question would be why don’t we show our collection here at Salon Kennedy, why don’t we show it out in the woods? But that would somehow feel wrong if we were now to put our energy into something that’s pure representation. Maybe it’ll be different in twenty years, but at the moment it doesn’t feel right for us to use our own collection just as a showcase.

JG: We do although change the hanging on our apartment and country side home quite regularly and of course give loans to museums/exhibitions. Hence it is not as static as it sounds.

If collecting is like a disease or addiction, does the knowledge that you’re collecting for storage change anything in your mindset and in your approach to collecting?

FG: From the collecting aspect it actually makes us much freer. Because in the beginning you’re usually considering that you have a wall here and a corner there and this sculpture should be just 1.80 metres tall otherwise it won’t fit. But now the medium and the format is really irrelevant. And that, I think, really frees us in terms of collecting.

JG: But it’s also quite dangerous to have that sort of mindset. Because it means there’s no limit anymore. Of course, at some point there is a limit to the size of the storage unit.

How do you see the role and responsibility of the collector in the ecosystem of art today?

FG: I think collectors have a huge responsibility.

JG: Of course, if you collect purely for storage, you also have a cultural responsibility to take care of the works for generations to come. They’re not only for your own pleasure. I think that if we bought just for ourselves, that would be quite selfish.

FG: For us, it’s a cultural and social responsibility to keep these works of art as a documentation of the times. It’s our generation, plus or minus, and the themes and topics that are relevant for us in the world we’re living in here and now.

Christian Jankowski, Honey I`ve build a new wall in our appartment, sammlung FIEDE