Consistently ranking among the most influential figures in the British art world, Zabludowicz has expanded her collection to over 5,000 works by 500 artists, and now employs a staff of 13 to promote and keep track of it. Together, she and her staff also run 176, an exhibition space in a former Methodist Chapel in north London. "The Shape We Are In" takes place simultaneously in three locations: the top floor of 1500 Broadway in New York, the 176 space, and several vacant shops in the London Borough of Camden.
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Collection director Elizabeth Neilson first conceived of bringing the collection to the Big Apple two years ago, when she was in town re-hanging the Tamares offices, located a few floors down from the current exhibition space. Neilson teamed up with New York-based independent curator Alex Gartenfeld to produce the exhibition. The pair decided to split the space down the middle and mount two parallel shows. Neilson selected and commissioned new works by artists in the collection, while Gartenfeld chose works from outside the Zabludowicz holdings. "Mine is bright and brash — it really focuses on the idea of regeneration," said Neilson. "Alex's is kind of about the mess of life."
Both halves poke fun at the sometimes-mundane, sometimes-dizzying atmosphere of office life. On Neilson's side, artists Ethan Breckenridge and Sean Dack collaborated on an interactive coffee machine-cum-sound piece; on Gartenfeld's side, Dominic Nurre mounted salt licks onto cut up office chairs, transforming them into mutant, sexualized objects. Other works reflect on the industrial architecture that surrounds them. Sarah Braman's enormous cardboard, wood, and plexiglass sculptures resemble stripped-down, refashioned versions of the advertisements and angular office buildings outside.
To learn more about the woman behind "The Shape We Are In," ARTINFO's Julia Halperin spoke with Anita Zabludowicz about her New York debut, her collecting philosophy, and her favorite places to shop for art.
You founded the Zabludowicz Collection in 1994 and your exhibition space 176 in 2007. What was it that drove you to show your work in Now York now?
I think it was time to introduce the work to a New York audience. We needed to broaden our horizons. We've been collecting a lot of young American artists since about the mid-'90s, and we felt it was time to move over to the Atlantic and test the waters there.
When I spoke with the exhibition director, Elizabeth Neilson, she said she wanted the exhibition to have a New York feel. She didn't want to simply bring British artists and put them on display in New York. How do you feel this exhibition relates to the collection as a whole?
It's an extension of the show that we have in England, "The Shape We Are In." We're able to show four New York artists: Sean Dack we've had in the collection for two or three years, Nick van Woert did a residency for us in Finland, Ethan Breckenridge we've recently acquired, and Sarah Braman, we only acquired her work one year ago. We felt it would be great to expose these artists to the public in America. We've also used a British artist, Matthew Darbyshire, and he'll be showing his work in the United States for the first time. We felt it was important to show New York-based artists while in New York.
How did you get started collecting?
In 1990, we were actually influenced by a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which was called "High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture," and we weren't collecting at all. We just thought, we would love to do this-we would love to have a collection somehow. For four years we did research, and we decided after four years that we would collect modern British. Our very first work was a Matthew Barney from Barbara Gladstone. We didn't think we were going to be great collectors, we just thought we were going to fill our walls. Then we started collecting art photography — Düsseldorf photography, Wolfgang Tillmans, Gregory Crewdson. And we realized we were running out of space on our walls, and I was also distracted slightly by other artists, like Keith Tyson, whose work I fell in love with straight away. We just wanted to support young artists. If we start with an artist — sometimes we even pick them up in college — we continue. We believe in the old-fashioned patron system. We like to follow the artist through from the beginning for as long as possible.
Your collection is quite large. Is there anything overarching that you feel characterizes the collection? Elizabeth mentioned that there was a kind of dark humor running through much of the collection.
The work is not pretty, it's not decorative. The artists that are in our collection are thoughtful. When an audience looks at the work, they may not like it, but they may go home and think about it. It will be food for thought, but not necessarily attractive to the eye. But that's why I collect it — I would see a young artist, I would read about the artist, spend time at home thinking about it, and then after a while, if I still had the same feeling, then we would continue. And sometimes artists — for instance, Ryan Gander — he took about three or four years for me to understand the work, and now we're avid collectors.
Elizabeth mentioned that sometimes after you give artists a commission or a residency — Rachel Kneebone, Nick van Woert, and Haroon Mirza, for example — you unintentionally "price yourselves out" of being able to purchase them.
Sometimes we can only have two or three works, and that's all we can afford. If we start following the artist all the way through, and that artist becomes really commercially successful, then we usually cannot afford to continue because we wouldn't be able to support young and emerging artists, and it would be very frustrating for us. We have a limited budget each year, it's a nice budget, but we have to choose very carefully which artists to continue supporting, and which artists we can afford only once in a while or not at all. Every time we look at an artwork, there's always a thousand questions: the price, the size of the work, the storage, the conservation, how it fits into the collection, if we're going to use it in a show-all these different reasons.
You keep "Art Diary" online of your travels — it's clear that you spend a lot of time out in the field looking at artwork all over Europe. Tell me what a typical day looks like for you.
I get up in the morning, and I look at my schedule. It can be that, one day, I'm off to Berlin and I'm staying there for a few days. I don't go to Paris too much, but it could be that I go to galleries in the East End. And it just goes on like that. There's always so many studios to visit. There are also the art schools — they have their shows at the end of the year. We're exposed to a lot of ways of looking at art. The fact is we feel very responsible to show these works — we don't want to be putting them away in a cupboard. We always want to be broadening our horizons. I just scheduled a trip to L.A. in December as well, which I'm very excited about.
How frequently are you buying artwork? How many artworks do you purchase per year? Did that change during the recession?
Maybe about two to three pieces a week. At an art fair it could be up to about five or six pieces. The recession was not a problem. We're always supporting the young emerging artists, and young emerging art is not so expensive. When the recession came, we couldn't support the more established artists that we had been supporting since the beginning, but we were supporting the young artists that probably needed help more than anyone.
Do you have any guidelines or rules in place for your purchasing? A certain number of years out of school or a certain price ceiling, for example?
Not really. We can't go out and buy ourselves an artist such as Glenn Brown every day, but we can afford to buy a very strong work of a young emerging artist that we believe is important, and that, to us, is often more exciting. Sometimes, if something is absolutely brilliant, and it is costly, than you have to think twice. One particular instance was many years ago, I think it was the first Art Basel, we saw a [Yoshitomo] Nara, "Big Dog." It was very expensive at the time for an emerging Japanese artist. At the time we weren't really buying these big purchases, and I thought it through, and then we did it. Now "Big Dog" is an important part of our collection.
Do you have any advice for young collectors?
Going to student shows and finding some work they've just got off their chest, and purchasing from student shows directly. And the next thing after that is going to those amazing art galleries that you have in the Lower East Side and we have in the East End and L.A. has in Culver City and checking them out, and purchasing work a little bit higher, but usually the price range is about $5,000-15,000 on average. Young collectors can purchase works from $100 and upwards — if you want to be a collector of art, you can be at any level.
Can you recall any particular incidents or moments in your collecting career that shaped who you are as a collector?
I think it was probably waking up one day and deciding that we should really have an art space. That really took me from being a domestic collector to a more institutional type of collector. When we were private, we had boatloads of people from museums coming to visit us. Our house was almost like a museum — every year, we had another hanging. But it was about pictures on the walls, sculptures, and video art. And then suddenly, I purchased two or three installations, and it felt like these works really needed some public platform. This was what really influenced us to collect more installations, things that were a little more conceptual. For instance, Keith Tyson's work was very conceptual — we acquired a work called "Large Field Array," which needed to be seen publicly. Actually having our own space has been so experimental and there's been a sense of freedom. That, for me, was a changing moment in my life. It's taken the collection to another level. The collection became far more conceptual than straightforward.
You've been involved with the Sunday and Zoo Fairs in London for the last several years. Can you describe your role and why you decided to get involved?
We really wanted to support young art fairs because this is another way that young artists would be able to expose their work. So we started all those years ago with the art fair Zoo. It was something that was needed in the art world — Frieze was getting very full and the younger galleries weren't able to expose themselves. Zoo, unfortunately, because of the recession, they couldn't do last year, so we wanted to support Sunday because a lot of the artists who were showing at Sunday were artists in our collection.
As someone who has worked with fairs as both a philanthropist and a customer, I'm curious to know what you thought of the VIP Art Fair.
I thought the VIP fair was absolutely brilliant. I know all the negative press about it — the press was incredibly negative. However, I went online at unsociable hours, and I was able to get access. There are so many advantages of it — they showed larger works, they showed installations. I was able to watch at ease video works, which I would never be able to watch in an art fair. There was no human contact, so I wasn't being bothered every five or 10 minutes. I could concentrate on the work. I was sitting in my own home, it was like one in the morning every night or seven in the morning and I was enjoying not having to walk miles and miles. I wrote my list and made my inquiries, and through the VIP Art Fair we managed to purchase two or three works.
How do you think the art world has changed in the last five years?
I think its really grown, and I think there's a lot of collectors in the world which there weren't when I started 15 years ago. There's even a lot of private spaces which have been built as well. I originally was influenced by the Rubells in Miami and, of course, Charles Saatchi. There weren't many private collectors at the time, and therefore that was my influence. However I think a lot of collectors today are also speculators as well — it's not just about creating your own space and opening it to the public. I think it's about trophy hunting, and finding wonderful works and putting them on your wall and being very proud. That side of it I think has changed a huge amount and I think the emerging side of it, which is my interest, has stayed quite underground. It's not as commercially oriented as the other side of collecting.
Do you think you'll try to maintain a regular space in New York City?
No, we won't do that. This is a satellite show. But we'll always be looking at different ways of broadcasting the collection.
What are you excited to see in New York while you're here?
I'm looking forward to visiting the Lower East Side — Simon Preston, James Fuentes, Untitled. Also I'm looking forward to seeing what Chelsea has to offer. And visiting Independent, which we're very excited about, and the Armory.