Win a moment of happiness for yourself

Helmuts Caune

An interview with Leon Zilber, patron of the arts


The Israeli contemporary art exhibition Dreams and Dramas, which took place in October at the newly opened Zuzeum art space, created quite an uproar on the Riga cultural scene and attracted an unusually large number of visitors. Dreams and Dramas is linked to last year’s exhibition of German art, Elective Affinities, by way of both events’ largest financial supporter, Leon Zilber, the Latvian-born businessman and patron of the arts. This year, Zilber switched his sights from 20th-century Germany to a country which he has been a citizen of for more than forty years now – Israel – as he helped the works of fourteen Israeli artists make the long journey to Riga. Although Zilber is not a huge fan of the spotlight, he gladly, and with an open heart, agreed to be interviewed because, as he says himself, he enjoys sharing the joy of what has been achieved.

Exhibition “Elective Affinities. German Art Since the Late 1960s”. Exposition view. Photo: Elīna Bērziņa

How did you decide that you wish to help art exhibitions happen?

Well, I’ll start by saying that I’m an aesthete. I like it when the environment around me is aesthetically pleasing, that is, beautifully made and balanced. So naturally, I like art and I like going to art exhibitions. I have a lot of free time, and when one has a lot of free time, one develops various hobbies. I’ve always gone to art exhibitions, but around twenty years ago I began to visit them with increasing frequency as my interest evolved into a fascination with art. I also began to collect art myself. However, I still understand very little about art; I cannot compare with people like Mark [Gisbourne], whom I worked with to put together the previous exhibition. 1 We’re friends and we can talk about anything and everything, but when we talk about art, I realize that I really know nothing. So that’s why when I was thinking about organizing a show in Riga, I knew I wanted to have him be the curator; his personality really fascinates me.

Supporting art for you is a way learning about art, then.

It’s a way of living! I very much like to work on projects, you see.

You mean, on something that has a beginning, middle, and end?

Exactly. Much like the houses that I’ve built for myself...I perceive them as projects. I like to be closely involved in the whole process of their creation – choosing an architect with whom I can communicate well and oversee the designing of details, and so on. Once it’s built, I do enjoy the house, but the excitement that was there during the planning and building process is gone. And then I start thinking about the the next project I could do. The way in which I work on a project is similar to how a painter works on a painting. As soon as one project is done, I move on to the next. 

Of course, I also find joy in work done well. For example, Dreams and Dramas is a beautiful project. After the opening, I went to see it a couple more times, just to observe it from the sidelines. I saw an impressive amount of people coming to see it, including a lot of young people...they look at the artworks, everyone gains something from it...and this space, the environment, the chosen artworks, the music in the background – it’s all in perfect harmony. For me, this has been a very beautiful project. That’s my motivation, my “why”. I don’t do it for publicity; I actually don’t like seeing my name appear somewhere. I don’t do it to please my ego, or to show off in front of my friends. I do it because I feel some sort of inner...need. A need to do things.

Exhibition “Elective Affinities. German Art Since the Late 1960s”. Exposition view. Photo: Elīna Bērziņa

Where do you think this need comes from? Were you involved with art in your youth?

Yes, I liked to draw, but not on a serious level. When I was a child, I liked to take a sheet of paper and draw something, make an image of something… I know the basics of drawing, but that’s all. Art enthralls me. I’m also thrilled by design, architecture, beautiful buildings...I can walk along Alberta iela for hours by myself, looking at the buildings, comparing’s something inside of me. Well, I was born in Riga, and Riga is a beautiful city. I grew up in this environment, and the nature of Latvia is also beautiful. If a person pays attention to what is around them, the environment also begins to form a certain perception in them… On the other hand, some people notice things like that whereas others don’t. This sense of location is already within a person. I think it’s in my genes.

At age twenty you emigrated from Riga to Israel.

Yes, but I was not leaving Riga – I was leaving the Soviet Union. My parents were from the Baltic States: my father was from Latvia, my mother from a town on the border of Latvia and Lithuania. They raised me like someone from here, with the local culture, but we decided to leave the Soviet Union. Perhaps if the ruling government had been different, we wouldn’t have even thought of leaving...I don’t know. I really like the natural environment of Latvia, of the North. When I go on holiday, I’d much rather go to Norway or Sweden than some beach with palm trees. But maybe that has to do with my age. But yes, since we left I’ve lived in Israel; that’s where my daughters were born, as were my grandchildren; it’s where I served in the army. But now I have the opportunity to travel wherever I want to, and I like to take advantage of that. I like to go somewhere, learn something new, and subject myself to unfamiliar situations and new impressions. Moreover, the more you travel, the more you realize how similar we all actually are. We humans have much more that unites us than separates us. When I fly from Tel Aviv to Riga or back again, I like to observe the other passengers. I see young Latvian families traveling to see their relatives, or to spend their holidays in Israel and enjoy the sun, food, culture, and whatever else; and young families travel from Israel to Latvia for their holidays! All of my friends whom I’ve brought here, say – Goodness, I never thought that this place was so… It had never entered their minds to come to Riga; in their minds, it was still a city in the Soviet Union. But now they come here again and again, on their own.

Exhibition "Dreams and Dramas". Exposition view. Photo: Ģirts Muižnieks

How often do you come to Riga?

I actually come here once a month for board meetings, but during the summers I come with my family on holiday. My daughters and their children really like it here; they come even without me. Sometimes my grandchildren ask – Well, when are we going to Riga again? That makes me very happy.

Is your personal connection to Riga the reason why you’ve helped organize exhibitions here for two years now?

That is a factor, of course, but not the only one. Exhibitions like these are still a novelty here. An exhibition like Dreams and Dramas has greater meaning here than it would somewhere else. In addition, elsewhere there are many other people who could help set up something like that, but here aren’t that many here who would, or who would support it.

Why is there even such a situation that art needs patrons? Wouldn’t a world in which patrons weren’t needed be a better one?

There have always been patrons, and there always will be. Art is something that you want to share with others… But of course, patrons do it for themselves. Everything that we do in life, we do it for ourselves. It’s a hard thing to admit to because we don’t want to sound selfish, but that’s the way it is. For instance, if you’re buying a present for someone that you really like, you take great care in thinking about and choosing something that they would like. And the moment when see this person opening the present and receiving joy from it – that’s the moment that you bought and won for yourself. I can say the same thing about this exhibition. It is very important to me that everything was done the way it should have been. And I’m very happy watching from the sidelines as people come to enjoy art and be happy. At that moment I think – Damn it, I’m a part of that! That’s my joy. And that’s all. I don’t do it for publicity.

Exhibition "Dreams and Dramas". Exposition view. Photo: Ģirts Muižnieks

But doesn’t it also give you a certain sense of power?

No, not really. Although there is another aspect here. If you have power over something, if you can afford to do something, then you have to do it.

It sounds like you’re quite adamant about that. But there are many well-off people who will never think that just because they can afford to do something, they should.

Well, that’s how I was raised. I’m not a religious person, you see, but in the holy scriptures of my people, it says that if you can, you must. And I can, so I do… I don’t only support art; I also donate to other causes, such as hospitals, so that they can buy new equipment or build a new facility… But as I said before, it brings me joy. Just as one invites friends to dinner, or to a party or a celebration – no matter if it’s two people, five people, or a hundred – if you’ve carefully planned and prepared the whole evening, what to serve, how to decorate the room and so on, it’s immensely satisfying to see them appreciating it and having a good time. It’s the joy of sharing – you share with other people, and in return, you receive joy. Nothing more than that. That’s very important to me. I’m not interested in expensive things or luxury cars; things like that don’t mean anything to me. My wife is the same. I sometimes ask her if she doesn’t want me to buy her some jewelery, and she answers: “What for? And it’s so expensive! Who needs it...what will I do with it?” But if I spend much more money than that on putting together an exhibition, or to help a hospital, she completely understands.

When you support the organization of an exhibition, is it important for you to follow along with its conceptualization and execution? Do you oversee which works will or won’t be included?

I try not to do that. To tell the truth, I don’t think that I’m the one who knows best. That’s why I try to put together the best team possible. I was very careful during the initial stages of creating this exhibition; I was in contact with Arterritory and I met several times with Daiga [Rudzāte] and Una [Meistere], both of whom I consider kindred souls because we understand each other so well. Then Roy [Brand] came, and I saw how passionate he was and I liked that. I asked Una if she thought she could work with Roy, and I asked Roy the same about Una, and both replied favorably. We also brought Astrīda [Rogule], who works at the museum, onto the team because she helped us with last year’s project and we were confident in her abilities. I saw them all together, I saw how well they interacted, and I knew it was a good team. And then I said: “I’m not going to select the artists. You know what, don’t even tell me who you choose. Even if there are potentially political issues. Just do it. From this moment on, it’s your chance to express yourselves; you are free to do as you choose.” My job was to support the project and to put together an effective team. That’s where I have a bit of experience – to put various people and things together that work well. Of course, I was interested in the content, and I wanted the exhibition catalog to have this wonderful design, but I didn’t say – I don’t like this, I’d rather have it like that, and so on. Although, I could have…

Exhibition "Dreams and Dramas". Exposition view. Photo: Ģirts Muižnieks

It could have turned out differently.

It could have been completely different! I could have dictated what goes into the show and what doesn’t. And if you don’t agree with me, then prove me wrong! I don’t have a problem with stating my opinions if I’m asked to do so. But in this case, I put my trust in the team, and they did a truly wonderful job. The works they selected are excellent, and so diverse… There are some that need an accompanying explanation for those who don’t understand (like me), and some that can be immediately understood. For instance, the boat, right? 2 Without any background information, it’s hard to figure out what you’re looking at. But once it’s explained, you look at it differently. On the other hand, there are works like that video with the music and the calls to Muslim prayer, and a guitar...I think it was called Dialogue

The Messenger.

Yes, The Messenger; but I think that Dialogue would also be a good title. I’ve been in the place you see in the video, and you know, it really is like that – day after day you hear this singing. And then this guitar, which ostensibly lives its own separate life, is being played opposite, and when you hear both together, something very beautiful is created! This sound can be heard in the background throughout the whole exhibition; you hear it as soon as you enter the room, but you don’t know where it’s coming from… It supplements everything else, gives it added value. And it’s simple! Simple in the sense that this sort of a work is easy to understand; it doesn’t matter if you’re educated or not, a child or a teenager. This work is easily accessible. Sometimes artworks are so overly complex that a regular person can’t even understand them, but you have to act as if you do…

Exhibition "Dreams and Dramas". Exposition view. Photo: Ģirts Muižnieks

Do you see any problems in today’s art market that could be hindering the development of art?

You know, I’m not a big collector, and I don’t do it for the money. To do it for the money – to sell and buy artworks for profit – you don’t even need to be a serious art lover. There are many people who make money  outof it, and there obviously are people in the art world who manipulate the viewer, manipulate the consumer for monetary gain. Often times when something leaves a great impression on you, you don’t even realize that the conditions and the situation were specially made so as to leave an impression. And it’s like that everywhere. Art, sports – if people like something, someone will figure out how to make money out of it. The art world is no different in this sense. And that’s understandable. After all, artists also have to eat, just like everyone…

Perhaps artists do their job better if they don’t have anything to eat.

Yes, there is such a belief out there. Like Chagall, or Jackson Pollock, who regularly brought Peggy Guggenheim new pieces in exchange for a warm meal… But that’s not a rule. There are artists who create their best pieces while they’re young and poor, whereas others do their best work when they’re old and well off. Just like everyone, artists are a very diverse group. That’s why you can’t say that they’re better off hungry. Basquiat left excellent works behind, but who knows what he could have accomplished if he hadn’t died at the young age of 27? You known, there’s a saying: If you’re not standing on the barricades when you’re 20, you don’t have a heart; but if you’re 60 and still standing on the barricades, you don’t have a brain.

Exhibition "Dreams and Dramas". Exposition view. Photo: Ģirts Muižnieks

What are some other favorites of yours from today’s art (or relatively recent art)?

I very much like the minimalistic works of Zero group. 20th-century avant-garde, Rothko… One could say it’s banal, but I do like Lichtenstein. In general, I don’t like holding on to fixed favorites. We live in a changing world, and there are so many new things going on in art… I want to try and understand them.

Could you describe (if you can recall) the greatest moment of joy you’ve ever received from a work of art?

I think it was at MoMA… I’ve been there several times, and each time I looked at this and that, I collected a variety of impressions, until finally there was one time when everything just came together. That is, up to then, I had gone and wondered: “What is it that I like here? Could it be that I’m being lied to? Maybe it’s because of all the money that’s been put into the that what makes me like it?” I tried to find out more; I began to read about art. I wanted to find the answers to these questions, and then one time, when I had gone to MoMA by myself, I suddenly saw it all… Everything together.

It’s hard to understand what you mean by that.

It’s hard to explain. But I somehow could perceive its entirety. I understood something. And that fascinated me. And so I continue to feed my interest in art as I go to see exhibitions by myself. I actually really like doing something by myself; I’m never bored.

Wasn’t it Sartre who said that if you’re bored when you’re alone, you're in a bad company…

[Laughs] Yes! Exactly. I really like it when someone can put into one sentence what I’ve been trying to get across during a whole conversation.

1 – Mark Gisbourne, the British art curator and critic who put together the exhibition Elective Affinities at the Arsenāls exhibition hall in 2016.
2 – Ship of Fools, by Erez Israeli.