An Art Collecting Journey with Han Nefkens

Han Nefkens Foundation – LOOP BARCELONA Video Art Production Award 2018 in collaboration with the Fundació Joan Miró - Thao Nguyen Phan

Han Nefkens has had an unusual art collecting journey. While he’s often described as a collector – he has, after all, bought more than 500 artworks – the description doesn’t quite give justice to the scope of his involvement in the art world.

All too often wealthy buyers hoard their collections in a warehouse, maybe rotating some around their properties and occasionally loaning a few works when it suits them. Nefkens’ approach to buying is refreshingly generous works he buys are lent immediately to museums on a long term basis with an agreement that most loans will be left as bequests. And while he started buying existing artworks for the last thirteen years he has only commissioned new works. The Han Nefkens Foundation offers several Video Arts Awards every year to support artists in their artistic endeavour, and these come with total creative freedom.
©Roberto Ruiz

“I have a very strong feeling that art should be seen. Artists show us their world, and for me the pleasure is to know that other people are also enjoying it. Sharing is very important to me, it’s not an altruistic thing, it’s not because I think I should share, but because my experience has taught me that when you share you’re not alone. This gives me a feeling of fulfilment, much more than a material possession would,” Nefkens says.

He adds that because he knew from the start that the works he was buying would be shown in a museum, it gave him “the liberty to buy installations, or series of photographs which otherwise I would not have bought because they wouldn’t fit into my house.”

Nefkens developed his passion for the arts, and in particular video art, later in life. While in Paris back in 1999, the then 45-year-old was attracted by the title of art exhibition Remake of the Weekend by Swiss visual artist Pipilotti Rist at the Museum of Modern Art. “I decided to have a look and I got completely absorbed by her work. I stayed there for two hours just feeling part of what she created,” Nefkens recalls, adding, “I knew I wanted to be part of that art world. Since I’m not an artist, the best way was collecting, but I never wanted to collect to have works in storage or just at home. I always wanted to share what I enjoy with other people.”

Nefkens had grown up in a house surrounded by his father’s collection of 17th century Dutch and Italian paintings, as well as pre-Columbian artefacts, but he knew little about contemporary art. Before actually buying his first work – incidentally a video by Rist – the would-be collector spent a year educating himself by visiting museums, art fairs, galleries, and generally seeing as much art possible. “You have to be knowledgeable in order to make decisions. The idea to just buy what you like is good, but there is so much more to it, especially if you are buying a lot. It’s very important to keep in mind what you eventually want to do with everything,” Nefkens says.

Finding a museum willing to collaborate with him was not easy in the early days, as Nefkens admits some were naturally suspicious of his motives or didn’t need the financial support. The collector found a kindred spirit in Sjarel Ex, then the director of the Centraal Museum in Utrecht and now director of the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam. Ex agreed to collaborate with him back in 2000 and their partnership endures to this day, though Nefkens now also work with several other institutions, including the Fundació Antoni Tàpies in Barcelona, the Spanish city where he now lives.
Sojung Jun, La nave de los locos, 2016 - Produced by the Han Nefkens Foundation

For many years, Nefkens’ art patronage braced large, as he set up the Art AIDS foundation to fight the stigma around HIV through art (a project close to his heart because he was diagnosed with HIV in 1987) and started to collect fashion forward pieces, such as couture gowns by Iris Van Herpen and Viktor&Rolf, and gave out a scholarship for Spanish-speaking writers.

“I followed my interest and all of these expressed who I am, but at the same time it was so diluted, and with so much time, energy and funds going to different projects that didn’t really strengthen each other…So three years ago, I decided to just focus on one thing, and that one thing was my initial love, video art,” he says, pointing out that his preferred medium has several practical advantages such as low transportation or insurance fees, making it “quite cost efficient.”

The collector is now organizing several awards in partnership with different institutions such as the LOOP Art Fair Video Art Award in Barcelona with Fundació Joan Miró, the ARCO Video Art Award in Madrid, and the CAC Award Latin-American Video Art in Ecuador.

Most recently the Han Nefkens Foundation awarded the first Buk Seoul Museum of Art Korean Video Art Production Award 2019 to the Moojin Brothers, who receive $15,000 towards funding the production of a new work which will be presented in 2020 at the Seoul museum. The Foundation is also committed to presenting the work in various art centres worldwide throughout 2020 and 2021.

In recent years, Nefkens has been particularly interested in supporting Asian artists: “I feel very much at home in Asia, I like the fact that they are very different from the way we are in the West. People are not so linear in their way of thinking, it’s much more circular. I like the idea that a lot is left unsaid in Asia, people infer a lot of things, they read in between the lines and I like that too. The directness of the Western world I find sometimes a bit unsettling,” the collector muses, adding “on the one hand there are so many cultures that are a thousand years old, and at the same time, in all these countries, you have the impression that the future is starting there now. There is a real hunger out there to know what’s going on in the rest of the world, and people are very eager to work, and do things.”
Shirin Neshat, Tooba (Composited version) 2002 - Han Nefkens Foundation

Nefkens says he never considered setting up a private museum: “I much prefer to support institutions that are already there rather than create a new one. Also, I’m not so much interested in the time and hassle that would go with administrating one; I prefer to focus all my time and energy in helping artists and production. The advantage is that we work on such an international level, and that would never have happened if I just had one museum in one place; and its’ wonderful and enriching to be able to get to know so many artists.”

Referring to descriptions of his role he says, “When people call me a collector, I feel collecting what? I collect experience, but that’s probably not what they mean. I don’t see myself as a mécène either, because it's not like artists or museums can come to me and ask me to finance their projects. That’s not what I do. I’m the one who thinks of projects and starts them. I really see myself more like an art initiator.”

Photography Peter Stigter Team

While Han Nefkens may feel he’s “married” to video art, he admits he still keeps a “mistress” in high-end fashion: “I cannot be too severe with myself,” he says with a laugh.

Nefkens’ first brush with cutting-edge fashion art happened in Thailand while attending an international AIDS conference in 2004 when he spotted a series of dresses by Brazilian artist Adriana Bertini made of condoms. He then worked with José Teunissen, now a dean at the London College of Fashion, and set up the Han Nefkens Fashion on the Edge initiative to commission designers like Hussein Chalayan, Iris van Herpen and Walter Van Beirendonck, amongst others.

He also started regularly buying couture pieces from Viktor & Rolf, and his collection of 23 garments by them has been donated to the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, and continues to be updated. The most recent addition is a dress from the spring/summer 2019 collection presented at Paris Fashion Week, a giant tulle creation with the message “I want a better world” spread across it.

“I continue buying work by Viktor&Rolf because I feel they are part of the Dutch culture heritage and I want the people in The Netherlands to know, even 50 years or 100 years from now, what they did. I don’t buy every show, but I buy regularly, just to give an idea of their development,” Nefkens says.

A version of this story was first published in A magazine (July 2019)