"You Aren't Born a Collector, You Become One": A Conversation With Joseph Kouli

"You Aren't Born a Collector, You Become One": A Conversation With Joseph Kouli
Bruno Peinado, "Sans titre, Silence is sexy," 2004-2009
(Le Figaro/ François Bouchon)

Can a young professional who lives off salaried income rather than a trust fund still collect contemporary art? Yes, and Joseph Kouli is living proof. The Paris-based ad agency associate director, currently in his early thirties, has been acquiring works for the past six years using his own hard-earned savings rather than the cushion of family inheritance. But unlike many wealthier collectors, Kouli buys artworks for personal satisfaction, rather than to continue family tradition or live up to social expectations. His goal, he says, is to put together works by artists of his own generation who “have something to say about our time.” In February, Kouli will show his young collection in its entirety — about 50 pieces — at the art and performance center Mains d’Oeuvres outside Paris.

Kouli recently welcomed ARTINFO France into his Parisian apartment, which is relatively modest and typical of its location in the ninth arrondissement with its ceiling moldings, parquet floors, and sober furnishings. With the conversational ease of many an advertising professional, he held forth on habitus and socio-demographic profiles, and complained with some amusement about his crowded yearly calendar of visits to Art Rotterdam, Art Brussels, Art Basel, and FIAC. Of his “first time” purchasing a work, “the hardest part is walking through a gallery door and daring to ask the price of a piece,” Kouli explained. “After that, it keeps on going by itself. You end up being approached and invited to fairs. You aren’t born a collector, you become one.” In the beginning, he had some help from a friend — art critic Frédéric Wecker, who accompanied him to help with decisions — but these days, he’s established himself as a regular.


Many of Kouli’s works line his living room, including his first art purchase from 2006, a piece by French artist Bruno Peinado; a small neon work by Saâdane Afif and a found bell by the Argentinean-born, London-based artist Amalia Pica, which was put out on loan at the 2011 Venice Biennale. In the kitchen, “L’Impasse du Progrès,” a photograph by Mathieu Mercier, hangs near neon works of Braille by the duo Angela Detanico and Rafael Lain of the Galerie Martine Aboucaya. Other works from his collection are stored in a closet, piled up under the bed, or waiting on hold at galleries. The prices hover around €2-3,000, with a symbolic maximum of €5,000.

Kouli says he buys art without “any particular ambition,” but an organizing principle of his collection becomes clear pretty quickly: the pieces essentially consist of European conceptual art, almost tending toward the immaterial, an art that practices self-mockery and aims to produce meaning. He’s interested in all media, including video even “if it is still more difficult,” and he doesn’t rule out collecting performance art one day.

Right now, his favorite work is one by Vanessa Billy, a concrete block encased within a thin clear plastic bag. “I like this piece; the contrast between brutality and fragility, and the way we’re all tempted to grab the bag by the handles and pick it up, in the utopian belief that it could work, that the bag wouldn’t ultimately be torn.” But Kouli is cautious about his selection, often waiting three to four years to decide on buying a work after first spotting it. “I’ve learned to resist temptation, to learn about the artist, to understand the piece before making the decision to acquire it,” Kouli said. “Choosing a work means being sure that I want to say no to other ones.”

He’s already thinking ahead to his next find: maybe a piece by Polish artist Alicja Kwade, or one by the young Mexican artist Antonio Vega Macotela. He dreams of one day setting up an association of small collectors who would pool together their funds to acquire expensive pieces. According to Kouli, the hardest part about collecting is keeping a healthy curiosity, avoiding the comfort of purchasing without risk and falling into a routine of the same artists, the same galleries. A “visceral” art-lover who is also rational, Kouli takes collecting even more seriously than most; and he’s steadily forging a path in the contemporary art world that, within his self-imposed restrictions, has a deep impact.