How I Collect

Collector Alain Servais on Why the Venice Biennale Is the World's Best Art Fair

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Collector Alain Servais on Why the Venice Biennale Is the World's Best Art Fair
The collector Alain Servais (Photo by Jean Leprini)

In the late 1980s, the Belgian financier Alain Servais was gripped by Starry Night and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon at MoMA on a trip through New York, which he capped off by buying some posters at the Whitney—a rather ordinary set of experiences that, remarkably, became catalysts for his evolution into one of today’s most outspoken and relentlessly searching collectors. Known for his sartorial flair, which has been known to accommodate a cravat or two, Servais can be found at art events around the world—pedaling his trusted folding bikes through the streets of Mexico City during Zona Maco or stalking the aisles of Art Basel, where he is on the Global Patrons Council. Above all, what he is looking for is the undiscovered country: the new. 

His approach to collecting stems from a career in finance. Servais was an investment banker with Drexel Burnham Lambert and then the private Banque Dewaay for 14 years before taking a more entrepreneurial route, and experience in the financial sector informs his thorough research process (which entails sifting through reams of data about artists and market trends). Servais’s independent spirit, meanwhile, has led him to seek out opportunities to buy advanced work in places where some might not expect. One of his favorite places to go shopping, for instance, is the Venice Biennale.

To find out more about Servais’s philosophy as a collector, Artspace editor-in-chief Andrew M. Goldstein spoke to him about how he goes about buying up a storm in Venice, how his finance background gives him an edge, and why he’s drawn to violent art. 

You work as an independent financial consultant. How would you say that your business overlaps with your collecting in terms of your outlook and approach to the field? 

I would say, strangely enough, that it’s a continuation. Finance and art are related but not just in the way that everybody thinks, which is all about money. The truth is, if you want to be good in finance, you have to think outside the box. If you’re in the crowd, you’re lost—you’ll lose money every single time. In order to be good at finance, you have to be ahead of the crowd, ahead of the view. You have to study and absorb a lot, nourish your intuition with a lot of information. Then, if I have a strong feeling about buying a financial asset or buying some art, I know it’s good. 

How do you nourish your intuition when it comes to buying art? 

It’s through research. For example, right now I’m preparing for Venice. I’m reading the e-flux announcement of the pavilions, emails about the events. When you’re well connected, as I am, and you know where to look in Twitter and emails, you find out about good things. And you have to see thousands of works. 

I did a count one day and calculated that I might see 40,000 artists in one year. From these, I collect maybe 150—so less than half of one percent, on average. When you see a lot it’s always about putting yourself into question, looking from a different angle. And sometimes there are people who I like and trust who are telling me to look at something and I don’t like it, or I don’t get it right away. 

With Paul McCarthy, for instance, it took years for me to get used to it, to see it as not totally a joke or a fraud. Then I really got to understand where Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, even Richard Prince, are coming from. The underbelly of the American unconscious is very interesting. So I got it. But it takes a lot of work to get there. 

Going to museums is absolutely key. I’m a massive visitor of museums. and they’re very important to me because even if I’m looking at Caravaggio, I try to put myself back to the 17th century and look at him in the way it was seen in the 17th century and maybe see what was radical in his work then. It’s a reminder of how important it is to ask for radical things from the artist. That’s my problem with the Los Angeles art scene right now—it’s extremely comfortable, and it’s always referring to something you know. 

That’s the key thing in today’s market. There’s so much new money coming in that’s not really sophisticated, with no knowledge about art and culture, so they feel most comfortable with things that refer to something else they do know. It’s funny because today I was doing an email interview with the Financial Times about classicism in art. The question was something like, “What do you find interesting about the resurgence of classical imagery in contemporary work?" Agh! It hurts me to read this. What I replied is that it scares me.  

One way of applying a kind of finance worldview to the art world is by looking for openings in the market that people might not already be exploiting. One thing that I think is fascinating is that, while the majority of collectors buy through galleries, advisors, and auctions, you hunt in the more rarefied terrain of museum exhibitions and biennials. How does that work? 

Simple. I was speaking about this with a friend of mine a few weeks ago, because he had already done a small scouting trip to check out the works in Venice. The first thing to understand is that there is a strange relationship between curators and collectors: good curators are like good collectors. They both highlight artists’ works and themes that are interesting and they are both looking at art in the same way, except that curators put it on museum walls rather than putting it on the walls of their homes or in storage. So curators are virtual collectors, with their shows functioning a bit as temporary and virtual collections. To put it another way, curators are great intermediaries.

A difference, however, is that the artist will give his best for a museum, which he will not do when it comes to sending a work to an art fair. I’m speaking from experience. I was once speaking to an artist in New York about how it’s really tiring to see “art-fair art,” if you know what I mean—art with a lot of sugar and a lot of whatever is necessary in that market to sell. The guy said to me, very candidly, “You’re right, because I was at the booth of my gallery at Frieze New York and I considered my work… it’s not that I’m disowning it, but I must recognize that I did it for selling.” Everybody needs to make some money and to earn a living and I respect that 100 percent. I’m not anti-market, I’m not anti-art fairs. Not at all. It’s a necessary evil. But let’s be clear: let’s not call it art. It’s something else. 

When you get to the biennial level, then, artists will try to give their best. That’s when you can judge them in some way. But then you get into another problem, which is the power of the mega-galleries. One of the most important articles this year was the Julia Halperin’s piece in the Art Newspaper about how 30 percent of solo exhibitions in major U.S. museums originated from just five galleries between 2007 and 2013. That’s the reality. Why is it so? Because museums do not have enough money, and they have to do shows. How do they do it? They rely on the galleries to produce the works. 

For example, I was speaking to another artist in Dubai who said to me, “Can you explain something to me? I’ve been asked to do some works in Venice, but is it because I am such a minor artist that they do not consider paying me for the work I’m giving?” That’s the famous problem highlighted by W.A.G.E. [Working Artists and the Greater Economy], who argue that artists should be paid for the labor they put into showing somewhere. And the Venice Biennale does not have enough money for production.

So I said to him, “There’s kind of an underlying understanding between the biennials and museums and the galleries: ‘I’m lending you my walls for selling, so make the best out of it. I’m not asking you for a commission—you’re just contributing to be on my walls.’” So, in fact, if you put everything together, biennials and museums are sometimes an extension of the gallery in very large part. It is a direct consequence of the privatization of culture.

So, say you walk into a museum or a biennial and are struck by a work of art that you find profound. How do you go from admiring it in the gallery setting to putting it on your own wall? 

Come on, Andrew, how long have you been in the art world? 

But spell it out. 

Then you know the answer. The answer is that you look at the little texts on the walls. If it says, “Courtesy of X Gallery,” what does it mean? It’s for sale! So I call the gallery from the museum, I send them a little picture, and I say, “How much is this piece?” And that’s why I want to go to the opening of the Biennale. 

You’ve said that of all these collecting opportunities, the Venice Biennale is the best. Why is that?

It’s the best because in some ways it’s the most diverse. You’ve got over 88 countries represented in the pavilion and main exhibition, and even more curators. With the Whitney Biennial or the New Museum Triennial, for example, you have two or three curators, so you have maybe one and a half points of view and you can either share that point of view or not. I know because one of the reasons I’m going to Frieze is because I want to hunt in the New Museum Triennial. I know already what I want: Josh Kline. I’ve been following his work for two years now, and I’ve tried to get him a few times. I hesitated a bit, and it didn’t work out. 

With the Venice Biennale, on the other hand, if you have 88 countries that means there are 88 eyes and propositions. Sometimes you’ll find stuff in places you don’t expect, like the Iraqi pavilion. The last winner of the Venice Biennale was the Angola pavilion, and there were some amazing works from Lithuania too. It’s extremely broad, and you have the whole world in one place. 

And the criteria for selection is totally different country by country. As you know, in the U.S. it’s always about whoever is bringing the money, but in others it can be a state decision by the ministry of culture, or by a committee of experts, like Belgium. There’s not a standard way of selecting, because if it was all decided by ministries of culture it wouldn’t be good. If everything was selected based on money, it wouldn’t be good either. So there’s an immense diversity of choices. You’ve got the whole world, and the expertise of the whole world. When, say, the New Museum tries to do something about the Middle East, well, the potential issue is that they’re not from the Middle East. In the Biennale you have exhibitions about the Middle East done by people from the Middle East. 

In an era in which the art market is increasingly spreading around the globe, this kind of diversity of perspectives in one place is still incredibly rare. 

Globalization is one of the major themes in my collection. I’ve been living through globalization for the past 30 years. This is my job. At the beginning we were trading treasuries and stocks on Wall Street, and now we’re trading anything anywhere, from bonds to Nigerian equity to you name it. Another theme that is very clear in my collection is the places where different forces are meeting. You asked me the connection between my finance background and my art collecting, and one lesson I’ve drawn from finance is that you have to look at art history with big glasses. Every single movement of art in art history is always linked to the socio-economic, psychological environment of the time.  

For example, people who love the Impressionists may think that suddenly Mr. Monet woke up one morning and saw the sun rising, really liked it, and painted it. They think he’s a genius and that’s it. Sorry guys, you’re missing the point. Many things had to happen to get to that painting. The Industrial Revolution happened. Before the 19th century, society was controlled by the nobility who had the land, the king, and the church. As for the rest, you were a slave. Then machines came along and people with no land became super-wealthy.

Suddenly, boundaries that had been fixed could be contested. You had new varieties of speed, and you had technological change that allowed people to put paint into tubes that then allowed them to paint on the move, whereas beforehand they needed to be inside the studio. Impressionism is only important because it reflected society at one point. That’s what people forget when it comes to art, and that’s where being in finance has helped me a lot. 

Can you explain?

It’s because I’m connected to information and evolving scenarios every single day. Sometimes I hear about my fellow collectors living in a cocoon between their three houses in Barbados, London, and the penthouse overlooking Central Park. They’re like, “My life is fantastic, I got rid of all the televisions in the house and I don’t watch the news—it’s too depressing.” So I ask them, “But what about your collecting? You have no idea what’s going on in the world. You need to know what’s going on in the world to collect properly!”

Coming back to your strategy of collecting from the Venice Biennale, are you rare in that regard or are there many other collectors who see it as an opportunity as well?

Look at it this way. When I go to Frieze in New York, I would say that 25 percent of the works I’m going to see in the fair originated in Venice in some way. That will also be the case in Basel. So, either you want to buy late or early. Do you want the derivative works—do you want the t-shirt versions that you can buy at Frieze and Basel—or do you want the original one? The big boys, they prefer the originals. Particularly the ones with serious private museums, because, of course, the pieces in Venice are often too big for anywhere else.

It’s a special market. I’ve heard there’s an installation in the Arsenale that’s a few hundred meters long. Of course, that’s hard to fit in your Park Avenue apartment, and not everyone can do that, so then you’re going to go for the t-shirt. But there are obviously also many smaller works and installations in the Biennale that can be picked up more easily, too.  

Am I the only one? Absolutely not. Is it funny? Yes, because you’re fighting with the biggest at full speed. You know the Zeitz Collection? Jochen Zeitz is the former CEO of Puma, a German, who decided to build an amazing 50,000-square-foot African art museum in Cape Town. The director is Mark Coetzee, who was the first director of the Rubell Family Collection. He knows everything, inside out. It is public knowledge that Zeitz bought 85 works at the last Venice Biennale. He bought everything that was African. I know because there was something I had my eye on that I couldn’t get because of him. 

Do you feel that you’ve been ahead of the curve because of the pieces you’ve been able to get there?

For sure. It’s so funny. With the Venice Biennale, if you do your homework properly and go to every corner and spend 12 hours a day doing it very seriously—forgetting about the parties at night and the long lunches with friends around the canal—you will absolutely see the major art offerings of the next two years. These major biennials and art events set the trend even if they need upstream work as well, because the curators need to see it somewhere, so they see it either in galleries or in studios. That brings us back to the good curators being good intermediaries. You need them because they really do the homework to find the good things.

And for artists who do the Biennale, suddenly you’re at the top. I mean, some people say that after the Venice Biennale you just retire, because there is nothing left. The only thing that ranks higher than this is dOCUMENTA. 

You recently posted on Twitter that, since January, you’ve already traveled to Los Angeles, Mexico, India, Hong Kong, Madrid, Dubai, Milan, and Cologne this year to see art. What is it that drives you to travel so relentlessly to look at art?

First of all, it’s not relentless, in a way. It’s strange, but if you organize yourself well it’s possible to do a lot in very little time. It depends what you want to do, but in a 12-hour day you can do an enormous amount. And that travel was mainly done over two trips. One trip was San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Mexico, which lasted 10 days, and the other one was India, Hong Kong, and Dubai which lasted 12 days. Over four and a half months, that’s still not too excessive. The rest—Cologne, Milan—is through short trips of a few days here and there, which are kind of extended weekends.

Why do it do it? Because I believe that one of the key elements in the arts is to be curious. I am insatiable for knowledge. I want to discover, I want to learn something every day, and it’s something that extends to my work as well. I’m an investment banker, and I’m a happy one. I really enjoy watching what’s going on—pulling up the news on my computer or my terminal, every day is a sort of surprise. Sometimes bad surprise, sometimes good surprises, but always surprises. That curiosity keeps you alert intellectually, and keeps you young. 

It’s funny, but when I was much younger, I thought, “It’s nice to be a teacher at school, because you stay young.” I was with Jesuit Fathers, about 65 years old, who were teaching me, and I was amazed that they could relate to youngsters of 15, 16 years old in the way that they did. I said to myself, “That ability to put yourself into question all the time is keeping you young in some way.” I think curiosity is a main element.

How do you make the most of your limited time when you go to these cities? 

As with Venice, it involves quite a lot of preparation in advance. Again, I’m really interested in being off the beaten track. It’s a funny evolution because people still tend to call me a young collector, and while I feel young I’m 51 years old now and not young anymore. In fact, I’m an old man in terms of collecting—I’ve been collecting seriously since 1997, which puts me in the category of rather veteran collectors. 

What this means is that I’ve seen so many of my friends fall in and out of the art world. They come, they develop a passion for it, and then they have a tendency to get tired of seeing the same people all over the place, tired of going to the same dinners, tired of all the same schedules of the art fairs and so on. They give up—they’re tired of it, because they’ve done it all. 

And it’s true, it’s repetitive if you stick to the same things. You’re going to have the opening party at the hotel in Miami for blah blah blah and the dinner for this or that, and so on it’s extremely boring. For me, the way to keep it fresh is to always be going to new places, discovering new things. Having a good network of information is key, so yes, I pride myself on having some of the best schedules on the art circuit, in terms of discoveries and knowing where to go. But it’s all preparation—it’s many many hours in advance before getting there.

What is it that you enjoy so much about collecting art?

I’ll be brief. I believe strongly that it is inside you. Artists and collectors are two faces of the same coin and, in my opinion, a good artist is a gatherer of information, feelings, sentiments, questions, worries, fears, and hopes in the world. They translate all of that into objects, as if they were emitting a message, but they are kind of broken emitters, because if they are really good they emit something that is not the common view. Otherwise, it’s lost in the mix. For me, that’s the definition of a good artist, so I’m not surprised that a good artist should not be understood by the majority. 

On the other end, there are some broken receptors, which in my opinion are the collectors. Look at the history of collectors, from Gertrude Stein to Albert Barnes to Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and so on. Even today’s guys—look at Don and Mera Rubell, look at Agnes Gund, Charles Saatchi, Michael Hort, François Pinault, Martin Margulies. If you get close to them, you’ll realize one thing: they’re not regular individuals. They’re something special. Would we say a bit crazy, or outside the norm? Yes, they are outside the norm, without any doubt. Those guys are perceiving something that maybe the average person does not perceive or understand. That’s why they are able to connect to those artists early on and to support them, and that’s why it is a complementary relationship. 

I believe that those elements are what you need, together with chance, because there is an element of chance in that development. Let’s say that I am a strange mix between the ice-cold way of thinking of my father and the extremely emotional ways of my mother. I’ve got a strange mix which I think is necessary because you need to have a great sensitivity to approach art. 

What first got you started as a collector?

Some accidents made it possible, in a sense. One of my so-called accidents was that one of my childhood tennis partners, who was playing in a U.S. university tennis team and was supposed to play on the professional circuit, had a hernia and had to end his career and move onto something else. This friend is [blue-chip gallerist and former Gagosian dealer] Christophe Van der Weghe. In a sense, we grew up in the art world together, and in a way he opened a back door into Gagosian and that part of the world.

This is why I’m a pretty rare collector, in the sense that, yes, I’m collecting very modestly priced things and I’m riding around on my bicycle, but I know quite a lot of what’s happening in the higher levels of the art world, because of the way I entered by accident many, many years ago. 

What is the price point that you find yourself most comfortable collecting in?

Between $5,000 and $50,000, but I go higher than this when necessary, or we would not count in the collection Gerhard Richter, Frank Stella, or Barbara Kruger. My father is a great support when we go out of that range.

That more or less places you in the market for emerging artists. What is it that you look for in the art that you collect? 

Questions, surprises, disturbances, the direct expression of doubts and questions I harbor within myself. Sometimes you read a paragraph and you think, “Wow, this guy explained in five lines something that would take me an hour to explain.” Very often, the work of art finds me as much as I find the work of art. So, what am I looking at? I insist on a few things. First of all, appreciating art and collecting art are very linked—I don’t consider them to be separate. I’m just you with the luck and possibility of acquiring a work of art we would both love.

So if I see something, I have a chance to acquire it, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going on the hunt and say, “I’m going to San Francisco with the intention of buying something.” Never, ever. I want to be very clear: never, ever. If I can by chance come back having bought nothing, I’m a very happy man. Because when you do make the decision to buy something, you have to find the money to pay for it and a place to store it, to exhibit it, to preserve it. It’s a lot of trouble. 

What are some of the thematic subjects that you look for when collecting?

The human being is definitely a fascinating object of observation. The way we live together or not together. I’ve been very marked by Claude Lévi-Strauss’s anthropology, with him venturing into the Amazon to observe the way people behave in those supposedly primary environments and then applying it to how we live today.

Another very important book for me was Edgar Morin’s The Lost Paradigm: Human Nature, trying to explain that common knowledge led us to believe that the human being is superior to the natural order, but in fact he’s not. He is part of it. We think too often that we’ve extracted ourselves from the natural world and the natural order, but a lot of our behavior is fed by our instincts that go back to the caves, by fear, by the herd instinct, by possessiveness, jealousy, wrath, and envy. 

War and violence are also intrinsic to the human being, and I consider humans to be extremely violent in many, many ways, both physically and psychologically. You can see it in the news, when those barbarians [ISIS] killed those 27 hostages, one by one. It’s a sad reality, I’m not rejecting it—it’s part of humanity. That’s why visitors often judge my collection as quite brutal and violent because, yes, I want to provide a mirror to this reality. Ethnology and religion are other themes that guide my collection—and I’m very anti-religious, seeing it as a destructive and abused organizing power in our society, nothing more. One more theme is minorities, because the minority is usually the place where you can judge a society.

Everybody calls themseelves a democracy, and the Iranians, the Nigerians, and the Americans all vote, but the difference between all of them is the way they treat their minorities. It’s there that you see the frictions of society revealing themselves. I cannot be more surprised and disgusted by all of the things happening to black people in the U.S., the way they are shot down like animals. It’s completely wild. Not even to talk about the struggle for gay rights in Texas and other states like that.

You mentioned some people are struck by the violence in your collection. What are some of the pieces that you find in your collection are the most resonant and powerful to yourself?

I would say all of them, because it’s like a puzzle, and it’s all building up into a discourse. In a way, it’s all about the evolution of a collection. I was listening to Uli Sigg, a major Swiss collector with one of the best contemporary collections in China, and he said there are three stages in collecting.The first stage is to collect what you like, even if sometimes you go by what you hear and you collect too much with your ears. The second stage is to start collecting and following a theme, sometimes very narrow and sometimes broader. The third stage is to start creating a dialogue between the works, where they reinforce each other or detract from each other but, regardless, their interaction adds to the collection. 

That is very interesting to me, and maybe I’m aiming for that last level. That’s why I’m less interested in identifying any of the individual artists whose work I collect, because I’m most focused on the general elements. But which works are contentious? Sometimes people are obsessed by the works that disturb them a lot. I collect an American artist named Melissa Ichiuji, and she’s absolutely brilliant—her work is so raw. I’ve got a David Altmejd, but a tough one, a fantastic one. I have a few Cindy Shermans, but my favorite series is the dolls from ’93 and ’94 called the “Sex Pictures,” which is very tough. My Gilbert and George is threatening in a way—it’s large and dark red and black with the two of them in the middle, and people feel uneasy about it.  

There are a lot of very peaceful works as well, and that’s another thing that sometimes makes people upset. But I find diversity very important. You’re diverse, I’m diverse; one day I’m like this, one day I’m something else. I can be in a tuxedo at a benefit party, shaking hands with Sandy Heller or Steve Cohen, and next I can be riding my bike through the streets of Mexico City, where you saw me. Throughout all of this, you are in different states: you’re in love or disappointed in love, you are questioning life, you're euphoric, you’re having professional difficulty or success. You’re never the same. 

So I don’t want my collection to be one color—I want it to be multicolored. Sometimes I make the conscious choice to go places where people would not expect me. Sometimes it means buying a painting or two when I’m not that into painting, as you may have noticed. Some people who know me well say that they really don’t get it, and I explain to them that it’s a way of shuffling the cards. I find that interesting. Do I want to be an open book? No, I don’t—that’s really important to me. It’s the chameleon element of my personality, and my collection reflects this. 

I’m very aware of avoiding one of the biggest threats to building an interesting collection, which is what I call “collecting yourself.” People who collect themselves have the tendency of always buying the same things. But it’s not interesting for the rest of the world. Why would anyone else care? It’s the same way that I’m tired of artists who are speaking about their belly button, making art about something they discovered in a book that happened in 1965 somewhere. No one cares about it—can’t they speak about something a little bit more universal? Art I can relate to? In the same way, with collecting you need to open up and bring in some diversity. 

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