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ARCO 08 - Interview with Helga de Alvear

Helga de Alvear with works by Imi Knoebel

The 27th edition of the ARCO fair, a landmark in the art world, has just been held from 13-18th February. The new fair's approach, aimed at positioning the fair at the top, was noticeable: new pavilions, new sections and a surprising and controversial selection of galleries. A total of 295 galleries have been showcased, of which 222 were foreign galleries. This year's guest country was Brazil. Despite the uncertainty caused by the economic recession, it seems that the market is still peaking.

At ARCO, Artfacts.Net has interviewed Helga de Alvear, gallery owner and collector. Since the 60's, Helga de Alvear who was born in Germany, has cultivated - primarily - a very close relationship to Spain where she lives and works. She has always been interested in the avant-garde movement, and has focused on photography (she was a pioneer in Spain), videos, installations, and on works by minimalist artists in the last few years. She owns one of the most important collections in Spain, which gathers around 2000 works.

AfN: This is ARCO's second edition with Lourdes Fernández as new director; and changes are noticeable. Which aspects of this edition would you highlight?

Helga de Alvear: I have a very positive impression of this year's spatial planning. Pavilions are larger, and corridors are wider. Additional galleries are included, filling the fair. Hopefully, Lourdes is not going to include more galleries; the fair is already large enough.

Work by Daisy Xavier, courtesy of Laura Marsiaj (Brazil).

AfN: Which artists do you show at this year's edition of ARCO?

Helga de Alvear: I show my own artists: Isaac Julien, Jean-Marc Bustamante, Santiago Sierra, Alicia Framis, Angela Bulloch, Jürgen Klauke, Imi Knoebel... They all are artists I work with. Neither do I prepare anything special, nor do I bring artists specifically for fairs. That would be the secondary market.

AfN: This year's edition of ARCO seems to be controversial. Over twenty galleries that used to take part in ARCO, have not been admitted to this year's edition. According to the management, selection criteria remain the same. However, galleries complain about the lack of impartiality and openness throughout the selection process. Do you think that internationalization has been a priority over quality?

Helga de Alvear: Quality has been the priority. I think that there has not been a strict selection process. It happened to me twice in my life that I was told: "If you come back with that rubbish, you are out". And I learnt my lesson. From time to time, you have to make a clean sweep of your own gallery. We, the gallery owners, are a relevant part of the fair, but if the fair is not good, it will be impossible to compete against other fairs, such as Basel, Paris or London. ARCO wants to be at the top. And Madrid needs to have an important fair. Therefore, galleries should measure up to their reputation as art galleries. It is not about galleries, but about what they have inside; and artists must be good. That is why the fair has a committee that should work hard and "sweep".

AfN: And as to the committee, do you think new independent bodies - meaning bodies that do not take part in the selection process - are needed? It has been suggested that critics or curators without voting right could be included...

Helga de Alvear: We have worked a lot on that already, and we will continue to do it. In the past, even institutions were included in the committee. I have taken part in many committees, but I honestly think that institutions should not participate in the decision-making process of a fair's committee. Fairs are markets. Institutions should buy, which is different. Committees must be made up of galleries, and the director must select his or her own committee to improve the fair. I can assure you that there have been no cheats within the committee. Lourdes is there, but she has no rights.

AfN: Many Spanish artists and gallery owners regard ARCO as the main event of the year that might introduce them to the international scene, apart from their economic benefits. Will the Spanish contemporary art scene feel the consequences? Do you think that ARCO should, to a certain extent, continue supporting the domestic market?

Helga de Alvear: No, nobody has to support the domestic market. We should strive for being the best because we have great artists. Whenever somebody asks me if there are artists from Extremadura in my collection (the collection that will be set up in this Spanish region), I say that I do not know. I do not care where the artist comes from. I look at the work, and I think about whether it is good or not, whether I will purchase it or not. But it has nothing to do with the artist's region.

AfN: Some of the galleries excluded from ARCO are taking part in Stand Off 08 where they showcase what they had exhibited at ARCO. The timetable is the same. Do you think that the doors are open for new parallel fairs to be created (apart from Art Madrid)? Could this have a positive effect on the contemporary art market in Spain, which has a more rigid structure?

Helga de Alvear: In Basel Miami, there were 21 fairs. I could not visit any of these, since I was too busy at the fair in which I was taking part. I guess that it is always possible to have smaller fairs, but it is primarily a question of quality. There is no need for another fair. Of course, if there are other galleries, why not. But mainly, we have to tell the customer that art cannot be learnt in a single day. Everybody has an opinion on art. However, for future collectors, art is a degree, and they have to study. The steps to take are: look, know and want.

AfN: As for the international contemporary art market, it seems to be flooded, and now the fears of an economic crisis arise. However, auctions at Christie's and Sotheby's in London have been extraordinarily successful. According to Christie's head in Europe, Jussi Pylkkänen, art is "a wealth reserve in troubled times". Will the market continue to boom for some time to come?

Helga de Alvear: I do not believe that, either. Good art is really good and will always be expensive. Those who want to speculate should go to the stock market. Art is different. And people should realize this. We sell art because we have good art. Customers should not invest in art to have more money, which they will throw out on the market later on. It is very sad; though a very widespread practice.

I am also against the work of advisers. You should learn by yourself! At the beginning, mistakes are normal. I made a lot of mistakes. But you learn from them. My advice is to start buying works that are not very expensive. For example: there is an affordable collection owned by the Swiss magazine "Parkett"; if you want to advertise in Parkett, you have to be chosen by them. They make editions and have an outstanding committee [for the selection]. I have made the whole collection by gathering small works by the best artists.

Work by Jaume Plensa, courtesy of EL PAÍS

AfN: How were your first years as a collector?

Helga de Alvear: In 1967, I was a very good friend of Juana Mordó, the gallery owner. I met many artists, we travelled to Cuenca, El Paso group... The first work I bought was from Fernando Zóbel, and it cost 300EUR. Juana told me to buy it. I could not afford it. She agreed to a payment by instalments: 30EUR per month. I will never forget that; nowadays many customers pay by instalments. No gallery director should forget that. When I got home, my husband was mad at me. Why did you get that? What does it mean? Eventually, he would say: we (in plural) bought the first work with Juana Mordó. Juana helped me much at the beginning, but I had other friends who were gallery owners, and I bought other works. Some were worth it, others not so much.

AfN: Cáceres will permanently hold your contemporary art collection. That's why the Helga de Alvear Foundation has been established in this city, and the Casa Grande is being restored and will be included in the Centro de Artes Visuales project focusing on contemporary art. The first phase will be opened this year, and the centre will be in operation from 2010. Let's talk about this project: what are your objectives?

Helga de Alvear: My objectives are always the same. I currently have over 2000 works gathered in three different huge warehouses. It is such an enormous work because everybody asks me for pieces in order to put an exhibition. The Foundation will be in charge of all that work. It is already established and will own the Centro de Artes Visuales. A total of 10 000 m² that will hold exhibitions, workshops... I want to offer culture. We must help so that each region has its own centre, as in Germany. It will stay in Spain. I have been living here for 50 years, and I love Spain.
Mr. Falckenberg will organise an exhibition with my collection. The opening will be on November 21st, in Hamburg. He showcases 70% from a collector's work, and 30% from their own collection. In collaboration with a curator, they will present a large exhibition and compile a catalogue. We have to promote art dissemination, also by bringing together different collections.

AfN: You try to move your works as often as possible...

Helga de Alvear: Yes, my works travel as often as possible. Besides, I believe that it is the raison d'être of every work: it has to be moved, it is not just for interior decoration. I have a lot of works at home, but it is not full of them. From time to time, I change my works. I live with them for a while - there are some works I love very much, but others are too big, and they just do not fit in a house.

AfN: Cáceres is trying to become European Cultural City in 2016…

Helga de Alvear: That is what they want, and I certainly help them as much as I can.

AfN: Contemporary art has reached a peak; there are more and more private collectors gathering a considerable amount of works and looking for institutions to share their cultural heritage with the society. You once said that gallery directors were "responsible" for culture. Do you think that collectors are "responsible for culture" within society?

Helga de Alvear: Yes, I absolutely do. There are two different persons. On the one hand, there are those who pose as collectors, and who decorate their houses. They are not collectors - they are rich people, who buy a yacht on one day, and a Ferrari car or a painting on another day. And then, on the other hand, there are the real collectors. They are the ones who want to help, since they are aware of the importance of culture. And besides, it becomes an addiction. I have a very clear addiction: my collection.

Helga de Alvear and Patricia Blasco (AfN).

AfN: Has your collection approach changed since the project on the Centro de Artes Visuales started in Caceres?

Helga de Alvear: Not at all. From the very beginning, I was very clear in my mind about it. Besides, I agreed with the authorities to do it my way. Everybody wants it to start as soon as possible.

AfN: After many years of work within art world, do you still maintain the beginner's freshness regarding art? Do you still buy impulsively when falling in love at first sight?

Helga de Alvear: Of course! I am a completely impulsive person; I look at the work, I fall in love with it, and I buy it. That is why I could never have an adviser - if I was told to buy something, I would just turn around and leave. First of all, it is me who should like the work. I will see whether it fits or not afterwards.

AfN: Is there any cure for the collector?

Helga de Alvear: No, I think there is no cure. It is not bad for your health, but it is for your own pocket... That is what you have to control, and sometimes it is hard!

Interview: Patricia Blasco

Translator: Sara Sanchez Alonso
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