Jan Winkelmann
Jan Winkelmann

"Art never belongs wholly to an individual."

Jan Winkelmann in conversation with collectors Joëlle & Eric Romba

alt Joëlle, you’ve come to know the art world from quite different perspectives. When we first met in 1998, you were the director at Mehdi Chouakri Gallery. After that, you managed Monica Bonvicini’s studio; subsequently, you spent ten years working for Sotheby’s, before going freelance as an art advisor. Your professional experience in these fields overlaps with fundamental changes in the art world over the past fifteen years. To what degree have these changes influenced—or perhaps even shaped—your career?

I wouldn’t describe my career path to date as a reaction to the changes in the art market. Rather, the path I have taken has its origins in my innate curiosity. Upon completing my studies in art history in Munich and Berlin, I found myself eager to explore the components that form the art market. As a result, I got to know the workings of a gallery, the organization of an artist studio, and the system of a major international auction house from the inside. In mid-2007, I had the feeling that it was time to stand on my own two feet and establish Joëlle Romba Fine Arts, an independent art advisory firm . Events of the past years certainly do illustrate a structural shift in the art market. Mega-galleries and major auction houses appear to dominate the market. The myriad of medium and small businesses are hardly able to compete in this tough market. In the past, personal contacts, expertise, and trust formed the foundation of a fruitful cooperation between collectors and art advisors; these days, collectors appear to be looking for sexy, powerful brands.

The professional art advisor is far more common in Anglo-American countries than in Europe. What do you think are the reasons for this disparity and do you believe that consultancy services for collectors will continue to develop here in Germany?

In general, people in the United States and England are more open to hiring experts and service professionals, and more willing to pay for expertise. In contrast, Germans tend to display a certain reticence when it comes to art experts and collection advisors, because art and art collecting are more likely to be understood as a hobby and thus as an activity carried out in one’s free time.

Nevertheless, art advisors are increasingly taken more seriously in Germany. Top rates are paid in the field of contemporary art, most likely because this field involves large sums of money, making one more willing to engage an expert. Consequently, expert opinions are increasingly more important and more in demand in Germany.

You and Eric have been collecting for over ten years. Has your collection changed its focus (leaving aside the obvious fact that it’s grown in size over the years)? What thematic points of focus underlie your efforts?

In the beginning, we purchased the pieces we liked. When we began to consider establishing a foundation, we examined all our works in toto to see whether we had intuitively been following particular directions. And as a matter of fact, we were able to discern points of similarity. Five areas of focus emerged: photorealistic painting; contemporary Op Art; architecture in art; works which further developed art historical models; and the search for identity in photography.

alt The ROCCA Foundation at Autocenter (exhibition view)
Photo: Roman März

That sounds exciting. Could you be a little more specific, and can you name a few artists who represent each area of focus?

Fundamentally, the areas of focus reflect our general interest in topics such as perception, confusion and illusion, the architecture of the modern era, human psychology, and the tracking of art historical influences. Our joint journey through the world of art began with a photorealistic painting by the French artist Julien Michel. Work by Phillipe Decreuzat represents a relatively new focus on contemporary Op Art. Leonor Antunes’ strongly aesthetic installations offer new interpretations of modern architecture. We’ve been able to see artistic antecedents both through intuition and through conversations with artists: drawings by contemporary artist Haleh Redjaian reflect the sketches of her artistic ‘mother’ Carmen Herrera. The influence of Leon Polk Smith’s works from the 1960s and 1970s can be felt in current artistic works by, for example, Gerold Miller in Berlin. Photographs of interiors by the California-based photographer Augusta Wood evoke their absent residents, allowing them to be present without actually being present in the frame. The disturbing portraits taken by Leigh Ledare gestures towards his own disturbed interpersonal relationships.

alt The ROCCA Foundation at Autocenter (exhibition view)
Photo: Roman März

Do you always make a joint decision as to what you buy for your collection?

We always aim to be in agreement. But when we’re not, we follow a simple rule: whoever absolutely wants a work has to pay for it alone.

Alongside your more personal passion for collecting, you were also instrumental in founding the Freundeskreis Autocenter, and you continue to play an active role in the organization to support one of the most exciting not-for-profit institutions in Berlin. What exactly do you do?

We first discovered and came to cherish the Autocenter in the mid-2000s. The artist Iris van Dongen had asked us to lend a work for a group exhibition. At the opening, we were immediately attracted to the spirit of the Autocenter and by the drive displayed by its founders, Joep van Liefland and Maik Schierloh. We had the idea of founding a supporting organization to ensure both that more exhibitions could be organized and that the Autocenter would remain in operation. We organize exhibition previews, studio visits, podium discussions, curator tours, dinners for our members, and benefit auctions.

This June, the Autocenter showed a selection of works from your collection, curated by Heike Fuhlbrügge. Was there a certain thematic focus for the exhibition?

Heike Fuhlbrügge had carte blanche, meaning we gave her complete freedom to choose the works she wanted. The result was a skilfully composed, very focussed exhibition, which wonderfully documented our collection’s areas of focus. Because we’re open to all media, as can be seen in our collection, the exhibition included video, a sound installation, and a light installation alongside paintings, drawings, photographs, and sculptures.

alt The ROCCA Foundation at Autocenter (exhibition view)
Photo: Roman März

Do you occasionally sell works, which you no longer find so exciting?

No, not so far. But when we find that our enthusiasm for a work has waned, we place the piece in storage. The distance we gain leads to our seeing the work in a fresh and different way.

Joëlle, don’t you occasionally encounter conflicts of interest between your work as an advisor and your passion as a collector?

Not at all—quite the contrary, in fact: I would never recommend a work which hasn’t convinced me personally. Our passion for collecting leads me to discover works that I can in turn recommend to my clients, but only when the works fit their collection’s profile.

You’ve placed large parts of your collection in a foundation, which is a rather unusual model for a private collection. What motivated you to do so and what precisely are the ends that you hope to achieve with the foundation?

Our aim with the Romba Collection for Contemporary Art (ROCCA) is to support the arts. The collection can be viewed upon appointment both in our home and in Eric’s office. Moreover, we are planning a project to support art criticism and are considering an artist-in-residence program. The foundation is an expression of the seriousness with which we experience art. Art never belongs wholly to an individual; it’s always a part of society too. By placing large parts of our collection in a foundation, we’ve detached these works of art from our private sphere and placed them in a space where a larger community can benefit from them.

Translation: Sylee Gore

alt Opening of the ROCCA Foundation exhibition at Autocenter.
Photo: Ela Cle

BerlinCollectorArt Market
BerlinCollectorArt Market