A chat with Han Nefkens

“I’d like to be a fly on the wall in the museum and see the people looking, listen to them talking. How does the art I’ve collected affect people” – Hans Nefkens.

Dutch collector and writer Han Nefkens stated previously that he “doesn’t collect art,” but rather “collects experiences through art.” This quote is most evident in the work he carries out through the Hans Nefkens Foundation, a non-profit set up over a decade ago operating out of a Barcelona base with a mission to connect people through art across the disciplines. The foundation also has a clear objective of supporting the artistic production of new works, alongside finding international platforms where these works might be seen. Born in Rotterdam in 1954, Nefkens studied journalism in France and the United States. He began collecting contemporary art in 2000 for the H+F Collection, a collection centred on loaning works long term to various international museums and not as a financial investment.

Nefkens is renowned for his philanthropic work that extends far beyond art collecting. Aside from being an initiator of art projects in museums and art institutions, he is also deeply invested in community activism, most evident in his establishment in 2006 of ArtAids (now part of the Han Nefkens Foundation), which “uses art to increase awareness of HIV/AIDS and improve the lives of people living with HIV.” Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in his home city of Rotterdam is one example of a museum that has benefitted from H+F patronage, which saw the acquisition of the monumental Notion Motion (2005) installation by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson and the permanent video installation Let Your Hair Down (2009) by Swiss-artist Pipilotti Rist. Earlier this year, Nefkens donated an extraordinary dress called I Want a Better World, from fashion house Viktor & Rolf at Paris Fashion Week, to the museum.

In the interview below, Nefkens discusses his drive to share experiences of art and the transformative possibilities this offers audiences.

Q: Could you tell of your first experience of art (or an artist or artwork), which made an impact on your collecting and philanthropic efforts, centred on global contemporary art?
A: In May 1999, I was visiting Paris when I coincidentally walked past the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and saw an exhibition announced of an artist with a funny name, Pipilotti Rist. The title, Remake of the Weekend, was also intriguing, so I went in. There, I was absorbed by the universe of Rist. I could smell the wet grass, feel her skin, dream along with the image, and I swayed with the music. At that point, I knew I wanted to be a part of this world, and I started thinking of what the best way would be. I am not interested in acquiring things. What drives me, is sharing my experiences, so I decided to buy works that would be able to be seen by other people. This is how I first started collecting. Several years later, I decided to commission works together with art institutions. Accordingly, Rist was the first artist to inspire me, but each artist wants to share their views with the world, so I am constantly being inspired by the artists I work with.

Q: The artworks in H+F Collection are very much out in the world, out of storage and into institutions on long-term loans. What led you to establish this as criteria, and could you describe the importance of private collections engaging with an ever-changing public?
A: I see that more and more collectors are sharing their work with the public, sometimes by lending works to art institutions and sometimes by erecting their own museums. For whatever reasons they may have for doing so, for their love of art, or ego, or perhaps both, it is great that more and more people are exposed to art. In China, a new private museum is opened practically every week. There is not always art to hold there, and at times there may be some confusion about what “good” art is, but at least more people have an opportunity to see art in comparison to 10 years ago. Art being present in their lives, well, that is evidently a good thing.

Q: How do you feel art and activism intersect to shift normative perspectives on how the world is experienced today?
A: Through art, we are able to see the world in a different way. This is why art is such an important ally for activism, precisely because it seeks to change our view of different issues and invites us to act upon that new view. Rather than giving a theoretical explanation, I would like to give you an example. In 2011, we had the Art AIDS exhibition, More to Love, at the Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona. There were tens of thousands of visitors. During their visit, all these people had to think about the social stigmas of HIV-AIDS. They might have imagined, for a moment, how they would have reacted if they or their loved ones had HIV. This would not have been able to happen without the exhibition. Seeing the works actually changed the life of one person living with HIV. In the guestbook, they wrote that after seeing the exhibition, they felt the strength to tell their family that they had HIV. Again, without art, this would not have happened.

Q: Art AIDS was an important foundation that has been going for over a decade now, and it continues to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS globally. Can you speak about the legacy of the work that was done and why you decided to absorb Art AIDS within the Han Nefkens Foundation?
A: I answered part of this question with the previous answer. However, I want to add that with our Art AIDS exhibition, which we took to Thailand and Senegal, we definitely broke taboos there. These were subjects that people did not openly talk about. It was touching to see young people participate in the workshops we organised around our exhibition there, and to see whole families, including grandparents, visit our exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery in Bangkok. Some of the artworks from our exhibitions can still be seen in the waiting areas of hospitals in Bangkok and Barcelona. I am glad that we were able to draw attention to HIV in this way, but I did not want to reiterate the message of HIV being a medical condition like many others, and that there is nothing to feel ashamed of. Also, people began confusing the work of the Han Nefkens Foundation with Art AIDS, so we had an unclear identity. I realised that in order to do something well, I had to focus. I decided to centre on helping emerging video artists worldwide by producing new works with them and showing these works at the art institutions that we collaborate with worldwide.

Q: Selections Magazine is based in the Middle East, a region that has gone through upheavals, conflicts and human rights issues over time. The collection includes works by MENA artists including Adel Abdessemed, Runa Islam, Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh, Hesam Rahmanian, Arash Nassiri, Shirin Neshat and Erkan Özgen, who currently challenge and contest a lot of the stereotypical narratives associated with the region and its citizens, alongside offering new perspectives of MENA art. This appears to be related to a quote of yours that states that “Giving is one of the most undervalued things in our society.” How do you see art as a way of “giving” to society in a way that can perhaps instigate change in society?
A: Just by showing their art, artists are instigating change. I can see it with the artists we work with. We have shown their work in areas outside of East Asia, and not only are people being made aware of the issues the artists bring up, but just as importantly, people in other areas of the world see the vigour of artists from an area that is almost always perceived as problematic. Through the artists we work with, we can show the vision, dynamism and strength of a region. Yes, there are many, many issues, but there are also people who are able to give form to those issues in such a way that they become literally visible to those not fully aware of them. And they do this in an artistically impeccable way. I may not be very objective when talking about “our” artists, but I am right!

Q: What are your projections for the future in both art and life?
A: I have learned one thing. You never know what will happen in the future, so it is best to focus on the present, and see what will come out of it, organically. Nonetheless, if we continue to work in the same way that we are doing now, producing new work with emerging artists and above all, connecting people through art, I will be very happy. Personally, I am open to whatever comes my way. Change is constant and every new situation, even if it involves loss, brings new possibilities, as long as you are willing to embrace it.

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, 21 Artists and a Biennial #49, pages 22 – 24