Businesses may come and go, but culture and art remain forever


Karolina Tomkevičiūtė

An interview with Vilius Kavaliauskas, a businessman, collector and founder of the Lewben Art Foundation 

I think art awakens creativity in us, and creates a favourable emotional atmosphere. If we are constantly surrounded by artwork, it encourages at least a slight interest in art and culture. Culture is by far one of the most important bases for the existence and survival of a nation. After all, what will remain when we are gone?,” says Vilius Kavaliauskas – a businessman, collector, founder of the Lewben Art Foundation and a patron of the art world.

In this conversation, which is a part of the series of interviews initiated by Lewben Art Foundation (LAF), Behind the Collections: Collector Interviews, Vilius Kavaliauskas shares his experiences, including the plans related to the creation of the Lewben Art Foundation collection, and its new home.

The Lewben Art Foundation has been expanding its collection for almost ten years now, and is preparing to open an art centre at Bernardinų St. 6-12, in Vilnius. Together with art critic Karolina Tomkevičiūtė and photo artist Visvaldas Morkevičius, LAF introduces us to collectors, who share their stories, experiences, and the benefits and value that their interest in art creates for them.

Is it true that your wife Rita brought you closer to art by presenting you with a painting? How connected were you before then?

I didn’t really have any connection to art before that moment. My wife’s birthday present, among other things, aroused my curiosity and served as an incentive to take a closer look at art. Circumstances fell together rather organically. More than ten years ago, collector Edmundas Armoška was selling various works of art and kept offering them to me to buy. And my acquaintance with collector Rolandas Valiūnas, also encouraged me to delve into the art arena. Gradually, I began attending various art events more often. And as they say, the more one has, the more one wants.

To an outsider, it looks like you gained a great deal of experience as a collector rather quickly. You appeared to forge straight ahead, boldly buying a lot of works of art.

At first, the enthusiasm for it was high, especially when we understood that there are many works by expatriate Lithuanian artists that could be brought back to Lithuania. In the United States, we had an agent who would find quite a few pieces, for example.

As a result, first the Lithuanian Expatriate Art Foundation came into being, and only later, when we gradually began to change the collection strategy, was the LAF established. There was definitely a time when I wanted everything. However, in the beginning, we focused mainly on the expatriate art, by artists who left Lithuania during the pre- and post-war periods.

Photos by Visvaldas Morkevicius

How was it that you began collecting contemporary art?

Well, when the heads of the art gallery ‘Vartai’ said that we should be interested in contemporary art, because we live in a contemporary world, I clearly remember myself replying that I would never in my life, buy any piece of contemporary art.

Yet, a year after this confident statement, I was already fully immersed in contemporary art. This was due to my delving deeper into the world of art, including numerous visits to galleries, and my first visit to the Brussels Art Fair. I saw that there were many extremely interesting, exclusive and very relevant works of art. I was hooked. So, we gradually changed our strategy, and started buying artwork by contemporary artists, too.

You began by collecting time-tested valuable artwork. Buying works by contemporary artists is far riskier. What do you consider to be important when choosing artwork for purchase? Do you consider its investment value?

The main criterion when choosing artwork is that we like it. Second, a piece of art must be in line with our strategy. And only then, do we ask ourselves if it is a good investment.

At first, we don’t necessarily have a clear vision of a collection, and certainly, we make mistakes. Still, if the acquired artwork is good, then even if it is not quite suitable for your collection, you can easily find a suitable buyer for it, and later supplement your collection with more suitable pieces of art instead.

The investment value is no less important, but not because we want to make money on it. It becomes important when considering exchanging a less relevant piece for a more relevant one. Sometimes, when possible, we might even exchange it for a better and more expensive piece of art by the same artist. Certainly, it is important that the artwork that we collect does not lose its value. Conversely, if it loses its financial value, most likely, a particular artist stops being so relevant or important, too.

The artistic and cultural value of a particular piece of art is very important when choosing what to buy, because our current strategy is to collect artwork by emerging artists. They might not necessarily be young. Works by somewhat mature Lithuanian or foreign artists are suitable too. However, the artists should meet two main criteria: their works must already be in international private or museum collections, or they must have at least participated in exhibitions organised by museums.

The current collection, however, shows that you are not afraid to take risks and buy works by the artists who do not necessarily meet these criteria, and that the LAF collection can become the first that their works are included in. Is that correct?

Definitely, we do take risks, especially with young Lithuanian artists. It is really very difficult to predict what they will be capable of. Many have not yet discovered successful ways to reach foreign markets, and the development of the Lithuanian art market is very slow. History teaches us that quite a number of artists, even those seemingly with potential, can one day suddenly stop being the centre of attention in the art world.

It must be rather easy to choose the works of contemporary Lithuanian artists, because the market is relatively small. But how do you choose the works by artists from abroad?

One of our goals is to have a high-quality international collection of contemporary artists in Lithuania, that would stay in Lithuania. At first, we were a little surprised at how difficult it was to choose, when there were so many options to choose from. The international art market is huge. So, at the beginning, to find our way around, we worked a lot with the art curator Francesca Ferrarini. She is extremely knowledgeable in this field. It’s as if you’re walking with an art encyclopaedia in your hands. You could just point at any work of art and she would be able to tell you all about it. We always trusted her opinion, but at the same time we also wanted to buy what we like, and to shape the collection ourselves. Therefore, for four to five years, we continued learning, assisted by Francesca. At the same time, we did our best to find out more ourselves, to visit important exhibitions, and chat with gallerists or curators. We now buy much less, compared to the time when we began collecting, and of course, we are much more considerate when it comes to the artists that we choose to buy.

Do you decide on your own or do you consult with the team?

In most cases, it’s up to me to decide, but certainly we consult with the team.

Can a collector influence an artist’s career?

The main players on the global market are auction houses, museums, private galleries and collectors – they all influence the career of an artist. There are quite a few cases where private collections even patronise certain artists. It frees them to create, and work on what they actually like. However, here in Lithuania, it is more likely that the collectors have the greatest impact on the price of artwork rather than on an artist’s career. Certainly, if the prominent Lithuanian collectors have works of art by a certain artist, then most likely everyone else will want them, too. When promoting the artists they represent, galleries, and even the artists themselves, often focus on the collections that contain their artwork. It seems to be an important factor.

Does it ever happen that fellow collectors trip up their colleagues?

Not that I know. However, I think that when our art foundation stormed into the Lithuanian art market, it definitely stirred up the waters and even resulted in higher prices for the artwork of some artists. But, the Lithuanian market is not large. When we started, there were not many people buying art. Nowadays we see certain works or artists travelling from collector to collector. Nevertheless, the market itself does not stand still, it grows. More and more people want to know what adorns their walls, and not just put something on it for the sake of decoration. Competition seems to be of benefit to all.

Do the worlds of art and business help each other?

I think art awakens creativity in us, and creates a favourable emotional atmosphere. If we are constantly surrounded by artwork, it encourages at least a slight interest in art and culture. Culture is by far one of the most important bases for the existence and survival of a nation. After all, what will remain when we are gone? There may be no businesses left, but culture and art, in many cases, will remain forever. Therefore, it is important to nurture culture. To this end, LAF aims to both collect, and present, the available artwork to the general public. We put a lot of emphasis on education to inspire a wider interest in art across society. With that goal in mind, we organise numerous events and exhibitions.

My wife and I became interested in art more than 10 years ago. We wanted our peers to join us in our interest. At that time, there were not many colleagues from our circle, or from the business world, frequenting museums or exhibitions. Even the image of a collector was in a way mysterious. And we have shown by our own example that active young people can get involved in it and find it meaningful. We have noticed that we can contribute to the fostering of Lithuanian culture and encourage others to do so as well.

Let’s talk about legacy. Is legacy the reason for a new LAF space being created on Bernardinų Street? What is the vision?

Part of our collection will actually move to our new office on Domaševičiaus Street, and the new space on Bernardinų Street will host much more dynamic representations of the collection. The programme has been strictly defined, since we rent premises from the municipality and there are certain conditions attached. We have committed to organising about 40 to 50 events per year – including exhibitions, smaller scale presentations, and educational projects. There is no point in showing only our own collection. It is important for us to form and be part of a community of art lovers. Hopefully, people will start sharing their cultural experiences there, and we’ll just contribute by creating those experiences – they can be lectures, video screenings, performances, and so on. We have a contract for ten years, so I hope that this will be a vibrant location on the cultural map of the city and an important attraction, too.

You are one of the first private collectors in Lithuania who gave in to the temptation to purchase NFTs. What is the vision behind this particular collection?

I was indeed the first private collector to do so. We acquired the first NFTs, one might say, at the time of the NFT boom. The market is highly volatile and the value of NFTs is currently at a low. There is a lot of discussion on what will happen with NFTs in general. It remains to be seen. My approach is very simple: this is a media that is going to stay forever. The only concern is the future financial and artistic value of a particular artwork or artist.

Today, we see the top artists, such as Damien Hirst or Takashi Murakami, experimenting with NFTs, even though they usually work with entirely different media. In any case, it’s a media that reaches more people, and not necessarily the lovers or collectors of traditional art. It reaches those people who have a completely different perception of art. I expect the NFT market to grow. The only question that remains is the number of famous names, be it the artists themselves, collectors, galleries or auction houses, that will get involved in this process. But the NFT is here to stay.

In the future you might also have to consider a virtual museum. Do you agree?

The advantage of digital art is that it can also be displayed in a physical museum on screens. For now, our website serves as our virtual museum – the collection is easily accessible there. We had various ideas, including an NFT gallery, but since the overall situation remains unclear, the plans have been put on hold for now.

I happened to see your TAAD project on social media. It involves accounts where you share photo and video content from your travels. Is this your way of collecting experiences?

It all started with the fact that we travel a lot, see a lot, and from time to time we do share our experiences on Instagram, but there was no system to it. So, I thought of creating a blog to share those experiences, including travel impressions, worldviews, and art.

We came up with the idea in winter time, while visiting South Africa with my study colleagues. That was when we began disseminating these experiences in a systematic way. It was then that I created TAAD accounts on social media. Of course, we do not travel all the time, we need to work, too, which results in considerable content gaps. And so, yet another idea, was to share a wider range of experiences, covering architecture, design, cars, and fashion.

Now we’re thinking about a digital magazine. As we delve into the digital world, we feel the same as we felt when we delved into collecting art. We want to create an international, high quality virtual magazine on culture, design, art, and architecture.

Based on personal experience, what would be your advice, to people who are interested in art and would like to have their own collection, or maybe those who do not yet dare to buy art?

The core advice would be to study art and decide for yourself what interests you most. The field of art is huge, and full of endless opportunities. I would definitely advise you to visit at least one art museum in every city that you travel to, and to view artists representing different periods in time. Certainly, it is worth visiting the most prominent art fairs, like Art Basel or Frieze. The Venice Biennale is the place to feel the pulse of the contemporary art world, as it hosts many artists, presents the latest projects, and has special exhibitions. Obviously, museums and biennales present a wide variety of artists and artwork, so later on, you may want to narrow down the fairly wide scope that you see.

My advice would be, where possible, to initially attend art events together with a knowledgeable person who can easily help you differentiate what is good and what is not good. Do not forget private galleries either. Try to understand their context. However, avoid emotional purchases, especially if the price of the artwork is high. Moreover, you can always consult with gallerists (although their opinion will tend to be subjective, because they represent certain artists). Nonetheless, they always share good-natured advice. As a result, you can begin to see the overall picture for yourself.

How important is the relationship with the artist to you personally?

It is very much as with anyone – either there is a connection or there isn’t. I would not single out artists. I myself do not seek to necessarily get to know the artists or to distance myself from them. I’m always interested in chatting with the creator, especially if I have their artwork. There are artists and artists: some like to be intrusive, while others, in contrast, want to distance themselves.

All kinds of strange or even funny stories happen when collecting artwork. Can you recall any of them for us?

Nothing immediately springs to mind, but we have on occasion bought fake pieces of art. There were cases when the art that we purchased had travelled from exhibition to exhibition for two years before we were able to see it with our own eyes. During the lockdown, we had to purchase pieces via the Internet. In most cases, we would choose artwork based on the photo. It was a lot of fun when a particular piece of art arrived and was a positive surprise. On many occasions, purchasing art has resulted in making interesting acquaintances.

Let’s go back to your personal relationship with art. It seems you are very fond of sculpture. How do you choose what will decorate your home out of the multitude of options that are out there in the world?

It is a pity that no one sees the artwork that is currently in our storage room. However, I am glad that in the new office we will be able to display more art and renew the exposition there now and then. At home, we try to keep the same artwork, because it organically found its place in our house and became an integral part of the interior. Recently, I certainly do seem to be more and more interested in sculpture and photography.

What would your dream list look like? What pieces of art would you like to see in your collection today?

My dream list would be very long. However, sometimes it is interesting not only to dream of famous names, but also to discover for oneself those creators who will later receive recognition. I would like to have a sculpture by Antony Gormley, a painting by Marlene Dumas, and a photograph by Andreas Gursky. And I would very much like to purchase a video installation by Christian Marclay with the Crossfire! soundtrack. My biggest dream is to build a museum of contemporary art in Nida. We spend a lot of time in Neringa and see that the region lacks a cultural centre of attraction. For people coming to visit this area, the museum could be a cultural, educational and leisure centre, and it would attract new visitors and tourists.

To close, I would like to continue our tradition of asking you to share three art recommendations.

It would definitely be the film The Best Offer about a collector’s passion and the way he was deceived. Since I am now very interested in architecture and design, my eye catches these elements every time I watch a film. Yet another film that I have been recently thinking about and that is brimming with a multitude of interesting architectural details is Dune. Certainly, my second recommendation would be the Venice Biennale, because this event is aimed at both the heart and the mind. In addition to the already well-known Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris, I would recommend visiting the Bourse de Commerce – Pinault Collection – a place of amazing interior architecture with spectacular exhibitions.