Art Market

Gesine Borcherdt
Gesine Borcherdt

“Of course I get recognition – is that a bad thing?”

Gesine Borcherdt in conversation with Bettina Böhm, director of Outset Germany

alt Photo: Christian Hasselbusch

Bettina Böhm is a patron, manager, and art historian – and the new director of Outset Germany. Her role: getting people on board who support museums in buying art. In this interview, she explains why she’s chosen not to be compensated for her work, how she wants to change the charity mindset in Germany, and what sets Outset apart from other museum societies.

Gesine Borcherdt: You’ve only been doing this job since the summer and already you’re one of the most popular people in the German art industry. That must feel good!

Bettina Böhm: (laughs) Yeah, but in the first place I’m a door to door salesman. I go looking for donors to support Outset in making the purchase of contemporary art possible for museums. Only once I’m as successful as Outset’s founder in England will I be able to pat myself on the back. But that’s still a long way off. Germany’s mindset towards charity still needs some love.

What is Outset exactly?

We see ourselves as a bridge between private patrons and public institutions. Our goal is to make contemporary art possible through private and corporate sponsorship – to support its production and purchase by museums. What is important here is that it’s about public institutions that can’t resell the art.

So how does a sponsorship procedure like that work?

We’re actively asked by museums if we can assist in the purchase of a work that they would like to have for their collections, but that they can’t afford to buy themselves. Recently, a highly internationally regarded museum came to us: it wanted to buy a complex installation by Mika Rottenberg which the artist was producing at the time and was going to be shown first at Skulptur Projekte in Münster. In order to make that possible, the Outset locations – we call them “chapters” – in England, India, Israel, the Netherlands, and Germany are working together. For these kind of purposes, we have access to the IPF, the International Production Fund. We have a shared interest that an installation by this great artist goes to good hands.

You took over the position as the director of Outset Germany this year – but internationally, the institution already has a longer history.

Candida Gertler and Yana Peel had the idea – they founded Outset in London in 2003. Both of them wanted to be philanthropically engaged. The initial idea was to make an acquisition budget available for the Frieze Art Fair that the Tate Modern and Tate Britain would benefit from. In 2015, the Tate purchased its one-hundredth artwork from Frieze through Outset. And with that, the project was completed. But already from the start, a lot of other purchases and productions were being supported by the London chapter, and of course that’s continuing. In the meantime, there are now eight chapters worldwide. Sometimes we work together, often in collaboration with other institutions and foundations. We have offices in England, Scotland, Estonia, Greece, Israel, Germany, and the Netherlands. I’m also planning to set up a chapter in Switzerland and to lead that one together with the one in Germany.

Interesting mix.

Yes, and of course you ask yourself why there still isn’t an Outset chapter in other large countries like France or Italy. But it’s not so easy to find someone to devote their cumulative labor to this cause, and uncompensated. Myself, I’m always asked why I’ve devoted myself to this unpaid. First of all, it’s simply a pleasure to put good ideas into action that benefit the public. And of course I get my own personal benefit from it, and that doesn’t have to be monetary. Yes, and of course you get recognition – but is that a bad thing?

Up until now, no one’s heard that much about Outset Germany. That should be changing now under your leadership.

Outset Germany has been around since 2008 and, at first, was run out of Munich as an association that was strongly focused on Bavaria and supported a lot of projects for the Pinakothek der Moderne and the Haus der Kunst. Now we’ve moved to Berlin and I’ve taken over the leadership. I work full-time and can move around all of Germany and Switzerland. My goal is to give Outset a much broader footing in this area. In England, there are already 500 patrons. At the moment we have 23 here in Germany, but I’ve only been active in my search for new additions since October. My first step was to change the association into a non-profit society – you can operate more flexibly that way, and don’t need to hold general meetings. But of course I have to make sure that the donations are completely tax-deductible. That’s a prerequisite for that kind of financial commitment.

What amounts do your patrons need to contribute?

There are two categories: The normal patrons pay € 3,000 a year. If you want to be more strongly engaged – and then also develop the projects together with me – then you’ll pay at least € 8,000. Up until this point I’ve had one patron from Munich who is so strongly engaged that he takes over whole projects. Last year that was one project – and one that will take place annually from now on – that he financed with € 30,000: the purchases at abc, Art Berlin Contemporary. Luckily, he wants to continue this commitment for 2017 and possibly even increase it.

What amount of funds have you had to work with so far?

Since 2003, we’ve generated a total of € 8,5 million. Unfortunately, that’s not as much money as you think. This is the issue I want to focus on now. I want to influence the charity mindset in Germany by trying to convince people of its necessity. I think it’s clear to everyone that museums have too little money for acquisitions. But up until now, no one has really been thinking about how to tackle that.

Besides, every museum has its circle of friends that also finances new purchases. Do you encounter conflicts when you meet potential art patrons?

That is an important question. When I talk to people from those circles of friends, I’ve already heard the answer: “Actually, you guys are competition.” But that’s not true. We provide support independent of institutions. The circles of friends need money for their own institutions. And they often don’t hear precisely what’s being done with it. Acquisitions are mostly funded “with the help” of the friends of the museum – how high the contribution is, exactly, remains unclear. But that’s not meant to be critical. We cannot replace the circles of friends, nor do we want to. They are essential for every museum. But we want to help bring more new, current art to museums and see ourselves as a supplement. The Outset patrons take pleasure from knowing exactly what they are contributing to and also following the process, but most of all from not just supporting one institution, but every conceivable one.

Why is it actually only about acquisitions? You could also finance a new volunteer with the money. And incidentally relieve the state…

Correct. I experienced that myself at Museum Folkwang in Essen. My ex-husband and I were engaged in the fundraising for the museum. Then the new Chipperfield building went up and the structure expanded. The museum belongs half to the city and half to the museum association, which was founded in 1921. The director at the time, Hartwig Fischer, needed more staff, but the city didn’t want to give him the money for it. So we decided to fund a position at the museum through fundraising. That went well for two years – until the city of Essen decided to let another person go because there was a private donor who had paid for a position there! Of course we then gave up our position there. It’s exactly for these reasons that there’s reluctance to fund such posts privately: the city can simply withdraw from its responsibility. In this case, it was especially shortsighted as this associate was responsible for fundraising.

Public art sponsorship is on a continual decline, and that could also be down to the horrendous prices on the art market. What purchasing budget can handle them?

Art doesn’t always have to be expensive. We just assisted Kunsthalle Hamburg in purchasing a video work by Annika Kahrs, “Strings”: thematically, it’s about “failing better” – four string instrumentalists play different instruments and change them among themselves. The piece they play keeps getting worse until everyone goes back to grab their own instrument. For years, Kunsthalle Hamburg had reserved the piece in the gallery, but it simply lacked the money. When I took over Outset in January, the curator called me – a private collector was going to buy the piece if they didn’t finally get the money together now. I thought: Oh god, it must be expensive. I had already spent a lot on other projects and was afraid that there wasn’t enough left. But then came the surprise: The price was only € 10,000 – I could hardly believe it. I made an ad hoc pledge because I knew I would somehow get this amount together. There you can see: It’s not always about really big contributions. Kunsthalle Hamburg is now one step further ahead with this purchase.

What project is coming up next?

We have a lot planned – 2017 is a year full of major exhibitions! For Museum Ludwig in Cologne, for example, we’ll be buying a new work by the New York painter Avery Singer, who is now showing at Vienna Secession and will be at Kölnischer Kunstverein during Art Cologne next year. Her work has become rather pricey. But we got a very good discount on a piece from her new series that was even a little more than the usual museum discount.

Maybe some gallerists aren’t so happy about these special discounts and would rather sell to a private collector instead?

Gallerists know to value Outset. Essentially, we’re doing their work, getting artists into museums. And there, good discounts are completely normal – you have to think in the long-term. At the same time, we’re also sponsoring the catalogs for both exhibitions at Vienna Secession and Kölnischer Kunstverein.

So, who makes the decision about your funding projects – and especially if the artist hasn’t secured a historical position or isn’t already established high up in the market?

I decide what we sponsor, together with our patrons. In January 2017, we will hold our first “Annual General Meeting” where we’ll present the projects of participating curators and artists to our patrons. There we’ll decide what projects will be supported, and to what extent. We have to be really convinced of something. With Avery Singer, that was already the case since her exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. I have an insane amount of respect for her work. This young woman has re-invented painting again! She is constantly on the search for new paths of expression and new techniques. I consider her an outstanding artist that is absolutely worthy of support. Her age is of no relevance to me. And if her market value is already gaining, then it’s good for the museum that we’re buying now – before it’s too late.

Translation: Melissa Frost

OutsetArt MarketArt Fairsabc art berlin contemporaryKunstvereinFrieze Art Fair
OutsetArt MarketArt Fairsabc art berlin contemporaryKunstvereinFrieze Art Fair
Jan Winkelmann
Jan Winkelmann

"I’m helping to make a bit more space for the most important thing: the art."

Jan Winkelmann in conversation with lawyer and consultant Dr. Martin Heller

alt Photo: Gregor Hohenberg, Berlin

Jan Winkelmann: For years your Berlin-based law firm, Heller & Partner, maintained a practice that was largely focused on the art establishment. That was something quite unusual at the time, a law office dedicated almost exclusively to artists and their legal needs. Can you describe a little bit how you got started and what kind of work your firm was doing?

Martin Heller: I had already founded a law firm in Berlin in 1994. Representing and advising arts clients was a focus that started slowly at first, but then really developed around the time of the first Berlin Biennale (1998). Berlin was gaining significance as an art capital, and perhaps more importantly, also a reputation as a center of art production. I became especially interested in this area and Berlin offered me the opportunity to gather both experience and contacts. There weren’t many offices of our kind to model ourselves after; the majority of lawyers working in the field—in a broader sense—either worked exclusively in copyright law or represented larger government institutions. I had to find my own way to adapt my specialized skills to suit artists, art production, and galleries. That means it was a learn-as-you-go process. From the requests for representation and consultations on an increasing number of commissioned works, to the continued growth of artists’ studios and all the questions of business law that came with that, the challenges kept getting bigger. These were all small businesses with very individual products and a very personal approach to their economic ventures. The combination of so many international commissions and artists from all over the world resulted in an exciting mix, but brought distinct challenges. And as you said: it was the interests of artists that excited me, and the fact that, to a large extent, legal work also extended into the human and the strategic. I liked it, I noticed, that consulting and developing solutions suited me.

In 2013, you specialized even further and founded HELLER Consulting and Arts Management, again with a tight focus on the art establishment and its players. To what extent has your practice changed between now and then and why, from your point of view, was this the most sensible or perhaps even necessary course of action?

It was a personal and an objective decision; as a lawyer, you find that your occupation is defined by clear boundaries. In my day-to-day experience, taking cases to court was rare and most figures in the art world would do as much as possible to avoid it. Negotiation, mediation, free action, and solution development were, in any case, something I considered preferable to procedural maneuvers within the prescribed frame of the law. That is also intellectually limited and limiting. I had already thought years before about what it would be like to found a legally modeled business consultancy combined with a kind of practical coaching for artists and galleries, one that could be dedicated to the interests of the clients and be solution-oriented. In doing so, I’m helping to make a bit more space for the most important thing: the art. And I try very personally to establish and improve lines of communication. But, that’s a topic all its own.

Do you have ‘role models’ and/or know of other law firms working in similar ways, for example in the USA?

No, there is little comparable in my field. There are firms that offer similar services. There are individuals who work as freelance consultants to artists and galleries. But, often these are collectors who got close with this or that artist. That is sometimes very valuable. Sometimes there are law firms in the USA that—and also through the possibility of working on contingency, and in that way also acting as artist’s agents—are much freer in this respect. Art consultants have a different focus altogether. For me it’s all about offering a service that is as independent, professional, and still as personal as possible. Artists and galleries should be able to have me as an independent advisor, a coach, and—if you will—a professional friend on the side, someone who has no other interest than advising them and helping them to advance.

Your job is different from that of art advisors, who, especially in the American market, are very powerful in the building and expansion of institutional and private collections. Do you work occasionally for art advisors, or are there points where your jobs intersect and/or meet?

I (still) don’t work with art advisors, but I do occasionally have something to do with them. Our approaches are just too different. Art advisors facilitate the acquisition of art, with more or less of a curatorial element to their work. They earn a commission from the sales. We don’t do that—it would obviously put our integrity and independence into question. Art advisors would often be glad for me to put them in touch with this or that artist, and sometimes want to know things about the behind-the-scenes art business in order to align their strategies. But, we can’t help with any of this. As with any advisor, discretion is the bedrock of your reputation. I was recently approached to help build a collection, but I turned down the offer. To be involved with that would have mixed too many interests, and I want to keep our profile as clean and clear as possible.

Do you see your job as a reaction to the changes in the art market that have happened in the last five to ten years? What I mean by that is the commercialization of artists happening at much earlier points in their careers and therefore as a consequence, a necessity? Or perhaps better said: the need for artists to professionalize very early on?

I see it as the expression of a development that no longer conceives of the artist as a romantic existence that is kissed by the muse, but rather as one who creates, takes it seriously, and doesn’t want to stay in a near feudal state of dependence. That has nothing to do with the commercialization of artists’ careers, but rather with a healthy professionalism. I guest lecture master classes, for example at the Sandberg-Institut in Amsterdam, with a course “Professional Instructions”. Very practically speaking, what I’m doing there is leveling the playing field between the artist and the gallerist, the institution, the curator, or the collector. To do that, you have to first define the roles and interests of each party.

As part of a somewhat perverted romantic notion, artists were excluded from certain existential questions; the conventions of the art market, the basic legal and factual circumstances, were rarely if ever communicated to art students. Part of freedom is knowing what is possible in a negotiation and if what is offered is appropriate, and not being directed by the hearsay of others. This fixation on the commercialization—which means, yes, also exploitation—of individual artists is only an especially dramatic aspect. 95% of artists are all about organizing themselves, their world, and their existence so that they can work in peace—making clever decisions in a completely pragmatic way (e.g. “How do I create a realistic budget for an art project?” or “What do I negotiate or discuss with my gallery?”, etc.) and, in this way, gaining freedom and headspace, is really an important thing to do. Often it’s the galleries that help with these things; unfortunately, that also often exceeds their capacity and sometimes it’s just really good to hear an independent opinion. At the end of the day, it’s best when artists realize as quickly as possible that they are business people and they—of course, always depending on the kind of art—can decide how they will arrange their way of working, whether alone, with assistants, or with a whole workshop.

In addition to the private business pursuits we’ve just discussed, you’re also committed to strengthening the art market in Berlin. For example, you supported the initiators of Gallery Weekend Berlin and were there at the very beginning to advise on abc berlin contemporary. How did all that start?

We already had contact with most of Gallery Weekend’s initiators or had worked for them in other matters. They came to us with the idea for Gallery Weekend in order to give it structure and a framework. You have to keep in mind that for the founding gallerists, this was years of extra, pioneering work that in terms of quality, quantity, and intensity was a gigantic load that they needed to keep away from their respective galleries’ daily business.

So, we helped to guide the organization and the structure and to implement some of the decisions while also supporting communication between all of the parties involved. Since it was the same galleries that also had the idea for abc, which was initially conceived as an attempt to fill the fall season with a typically Berlin caliber event, it was very natural that we would also advise on this. That was an effective approach given limited funds and the need for coordination. Today I’m very happy that Christiane Rhein and Maike Cruse exist as the professional team behind Gallery Weekend and abc; both events are creatively and competently arranged and managed.

Recently you also joined Julia Stoschek and Olafur Eliasson on the board of KW Institute for Contemporary Art. What exactly are your duties?

Since the legendary early days of the KW, the city and the art scene have changed dramatically. An institution must be constantly developing, always asking itself questions about its own identity. The board of trustees recognized that, and with our appointment, handed over the task of making structural reforms and putting the innovations in place that would not only make the KW sustainable, but also to a large degree establish it as a vibrant and liberal center for contemporary art with an international presence. The potential it has acquired in the last ten years is enormous. Our task is to develop structures and implement new ideas. The important thing here is keeping art itself in the foreground as well as the artists, those who create the art and make the exhibitions. And as far as the board is concerned, it’s most effective for us to step further and further into the background as these processes develop and to support the institution in the way of making things possible, things that perhaps wouldn’t be so easy to realize without us. Julia, Olafur, and I are working here in close, direct agreement with the KW and its director Gaby Horn. The motivation and the support on the side of the Berlin Senate is huge, and I am sure that the KW will fulfill those expectations by remaining a dynamic location and shining on the international scene.

Translation: Melissa Frost

BerlinArt MarketArt Consulting
BerlinArt MarketArt Consulting