The position of the art collector has always been vital, for without them the art world would not be able to function and artists would not be able to survive. Even the great art museums of the world would not be as impressive as they are, most of them having been built on donations from individual collectors. Through a series of interviews with collectors The Flaneur is interested to discover more about how collectors think, the relationships they build with artists and what drives the formation of their collection.
For this discussion The Flaneur has been lucky enough to interview Simon Mordant. An art collector for decades, together with his wife Catriona he has created a collection that includes international megastars such as Tracey Emin, Antony Gormley, Bill Viola, Damien Ortega, John McCracken and Craigie Horsefield as well as Australian artists like Dale Frank, Tracey Moffatt, Sean Gladwell and TV Moore. Not only a collector he is also chairman of the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia and, amongst other cultural positions, the Commissioner for the Australian exhibition at the 2013 Venice Biennale. He also sits on the International Council of the Museum of Modern Art and the Tate and Leadership Council of New Museum.
A man then steeped in the arts and well positioned to give an insight into the world of the art collector.
I think you bought your first artwork when you were a teenager in London. Have you always had the collecting streak? Do you still own that original piece that started it all off? What is it?
I have always been a collector – the passion for art started whilst a teenager and developed into an obsession as I got more and more into it. We have only sold one work of art in exchange for a better work by the same artist – we have never sold otherwise.
The first work I bought was a hand coloured etching bought in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition for £50 – it sits on my desk at home. I wrote to the artist to learn more about the work and that began my continued engagement with most of the artist we have collected since. My wife Catriona and I have a shared passion for the arts.
How has your knowledge of art been developed and strengthened? Do you use advisors or choose works purely on your own?
The knowledge is self-taught and based on only buying works we like – my wife Catriona and I do this together. We have once used an art adviser to buy one picture early in our collecting, but quickly built our own taste and confidence and since have done everything ourselves. In more recent times we once used a consultant to introduce us to a gallery we didn’t know in New York to endorse our credentials as a purchaser. We often buy work from artist’s first shows and then follow them as their career develops. We never buy work from artists direct.
Does a pressure develop that the newest purchases must live up to the rest of the collection?
We only buy work we love and have only once sold a work – we have enormous amounts in storage and rotate work – we don’t think of it as a collection but rather individual works we love.
How have you decided on the art you collect and the direction your collection has taken? Was it planned from the start or has it grown organically?
We only buy work we love and never have thought of it as a collection – it has no theme and covers all mediums from video, neon, sculpture, drawing, painting photography. We spread it around our homes and offices and regularly lend. It has grown hugely.
Do you ever buy in bulk, unseen, or do you always have a relationship with an artwork before you buy it?
We only buy work we love – we have bought at auction without attending but that is rare – we don’t buy in bulk – we always seek a relationship with the artist following a purchase and often buy the work of the artist over many years.
Do you see any stars in your collection, or would that be like picking a favourite child?
We each have a favourite work we would grab if a home caught on fire – in each case it’s a work by our son from when he was in kindergarten.
How have your tastes changed since you started collecting?
We have evolved – in particular for 20 years we didn’t understand how people could live with video. We had a shared epiphany one day with a particular exhibition buying two works as we each couldn’t agree which we liked better. Following that we removed walls and ceilings from our home to install screens and projectors and love video. The same epiphany moment happened with a neon work more recently.
Meeting the artist who created a work is important to you. How does knowing the artist affect your opinion of a work?
It never affects our opinion of the work but it helps us understand the works and why the artist did the work. Many of the artists we have collected for over 30 years have become dear friends.
You are very generous in your donations and loans to museums. Did you always intend to share your collection in this way? Is this de-collecting almost one of the best parts of collecting?
We believe we are temporary owners and should share our works widely and constantly lend works for exhibitions and open our homes for viewings. We haven’t yet decided what we will do with works in our collection but are beginning to think about it. Along the journey we have also supported institutions in their own collections funding the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Art Gallery of New South Wales in purchasing important works for their collections.
Thank you very much for your time and giving us some interesting insights into the thoughts and motivations of an art collector.