Alain Servais is getting ready to fly from his home in Brussels to Dhaka, Bangladesh, for a weekend before going forth to Mexico City for a few days, all in the name of art. These days, the 54-year-old Belgian investment-banker-turned art-collector tends to stay away from the more mainstream art scene: he’d rather go to Southeast Asia than Western Europe; he’s stopped going to Art Basel in Miami.
What’s more, he’s spent the last few years using interviews and his social media presence, especially Twitter, to question the current gallery system in which only the largest, richest galleries survive, at the expense of a more interesting and diverse art world. (His hashtag #GrowOrGo — in reference to the increasing need for galleries to expand in order to survive — has been particularly popular.) As Servais sees it, the current state of the art world is bleak. Whereas once there were “true” collectors like him who traipsed the globe looking for works that startled and shocked, and that reflected the deepest sociocultural truisms of our times, today the art world has regressed, with a glut of nouveau riche, wannabe collectors trying to get a piece of the pie. It used to be that when galleries made an exhibition, “you were aiming to sell one work or two works to one of the collectors you knew before you opened the shop,” Servais said in an interview. “Now we’ve got hundreds of thousands of so-called collectors or art buyers and maybe there’s the same number of ‘true’ collectors.” He added: “Really, there’s not that many of us.”
In Dhaka, Servais spent time at the Samdani Art Foundation, an arts trust founded in 2011 by Rajeeb Samdani, a Bangladeshi industrialist, and his wife, Nadia. The American curator Diana Campbell Betancourt is the art director of the foundation as well as the chief curator of their biannual Dhaka Art Summit, an international exhibition similar to documenta with a focus on South Asia and Bangladesh. Servais rarely buys through galleries any more, relying instead on these kinds of events.
The best gallery in the world, he tells me wryly, is the Venice Biennale. What impresses him most about the art in far-flung places like Bangladesh is precisely how far away it is from the world of more mainstream art. “Who the hell would have thought there would be culture and art in the poorest country on earth?” he says. “But there is. And there is good art everywhere if you dig for it.”
Later, in Mexico City, Servais is amazed once again at the quality of the art. “Mexico [City] is definitely one of the most interesting art scenes in America because it’s a very open city with very cheap housing, great communication, a great base of artists because you have major artists living there — many, many important artists,” he says. “It really is the Berlin of America.” Servais’s excitement for a less-mainstream art world is infectious, but the truth is, most people in the industry already know how progressive of an art scene Mexico City has, and nearly all of them also know about the Dhaka Art Summit, which has been dubbed “the Davos of the art world,” thanks to the way it attracts wealthy, well-educated, mostly American and European buyers like Servais.
When it comes to actually buying and selling art, however, smaller, more risk-taking galleries, even in global art capitals — New York, London, Paris — are indeed relatively scarce. In this, Servais makes an important point.
The galleries that once took bets on relatively unknown artists have been closing one after the other as collectors flee to their more moneyed and stable competitors. Over just two months last year, Envoy Enterprises, On Stellar Rays, and CRG Gallery in New York City; Wilkinson and White Rainbow in London; Acme in Los Angeles; and Silberkuppe in Berlin, to name just a few, all closed up shop. Mega-galleries like Gagosian, David Zwirner and White Cube promise a more branded, businesslike experience and a more stable guarantee of return on investment.
“Right now, we are going through a massive period of brand-building, and it’s perfect for those new buyers, because they might not know much about art, but they do know about one thing: brands,” Servais told Artnet a few years ago. “‘I want to buy from Zwirner.’ ‘I want to buy from White Cube.’ ‘I want to buy whatever Gagosian will bring me.’ What this does is that it allows the galleries to sell anything.” Since this comment, the closing of smaller galleries has only hastened, which has led to a further dulling of the art world, Servais said, in which a select, almost entirely Western set of artwork is privileged.
It is with this shift that Servais takes particular issue. To try to distill art to its financial value — to buy, sell, and trade art like stocks — is to fundamentally miss what it means to collect. Art must reflect life, and “life, in general, the way people live together, is socioeconomic; it can be psychological; it can be sociological, ethnological,” he said, but, ultimately, “art must open some way of questioning or thinking or looking at the world in a way that we’re not used to.”
The art that’s being sold at today’s mega-galleries tends to be branded not for how its form or content reflects such a definition of life, but rather how it might be best held onto and then sold at a higher price later. That is, collecting has become de-cultured in the name of finance. As capital becomes increasingly concentrated and global inequalities rise, the types of people who can afford to collect art have largely come into their wealth through business and finance.
“These people don’t have particularly cultural backgrounds so very often they’re applying the same rules and ways of acquiring things that they’re used to, which means investments and branding,” Servais said. In his opinion, therefore, any fault one may find with the contemporary art world ultimately lies with collectors. “We’re in a capitalist system where we command the offers,” he said. “The galleries that are showing more disruptive art, quality art are closing because of us — and that is what is killing me and that’s why I’m raising my voice.”
After working as an investment banker in New York and London and heading the international bond-trading department at Puilaetco Dewaay Private Bankers in Brussels, Servais began collecting art in the late-1990s. In 2000, he moved into an approximately 10,000-square-foot former factory located in a northern, working-class neighborhood of the Belgian capital. He has since turned the space into a three story loft, and today he both lives and shows much of his art there.
While he continues to work as an independent financial consultant (mostly in managing asset-backed securities), his focus is primarily on collecting. His investment-banking background has come in handy, however, not just for the money it’s given him to purchase art but also because of the lens it has afforded him, through which he has a unique understanding of the art world. “I think it gives me a rare capacity to see what is going on because most commentators on the art market, even the most senior ones, mainly have a background in art history — they don’t have the background of a finance guy,” he told Artspace in 2015. “They have no clue about the impact of finance on the art world, and the bad impact it has.”
As an all-in-one collector, financier, and art-world commentator, he has distinctive collecting tastes. He wants to purchase art that is, of course, a strong financial investment, but he’s also willing to play the long game, believing that the art that speaks to the society and economy of its time is what will have the most lasting importance and thus the greatest future value. “Most of what’s being sold right now will not end up in museums,” he said.
When he first started collecting in the mid-1990s, he bought work “instinctively,” like a painting of a woman in her underwear and an unbuttoned, blocky shirt with her head cocked to the side by Philippe Pasqua, which he purchased directly from the artist in his New York studio.
A few years later, he began doing his homework and went after two photographs from Nan Goldin’s “James King: Supermodel” series as well as one from Andres Serrano’s series “A History of Sex,”, which he bought at the Rebecca Camhi Gallery in Athens and at Yvon Lambert in Paris, respectively. (The photographs have proven to be particularly strong investments.) His collection, which is a family effort supported partially by the art foundation of his father, Henri Servais, has a notable selection of digital and video artworks as well as works from a wide range of artists — from the colorful British-Italian duo Gilbert & George to the American conceptualist Barbara Kruger to the lesser-known Mexican installation artist Arturo Hernández Alcázar to the young French-Swiss conceptualist-ecologist Julian Charrière.
The work that Servais points to as currently the most important in his collection is an untitled photographic silkscreen on vinyl from 1988 by Kruger. In a style that looks like an advertisement, the work depicts a black-and-white fork spearing a piece of cooked bacon. Next to it, white text in a red box reads, “God sends the meat and the Devil cooks.” “I’m interested in art that reflects the world,” Servais said, adding that this Kruger work “is showing a double-sided vision of the world. There’s not one truth; there’s multiple truths, very often depending on the point of view. And if there is good, there is evil. And if there is evil, there is good. Even in evil there are good things.”
It’s a nuanced, not entirely comfortable view, but Servais revels in the grey space that characterizes so much of modernity. Any collection of course reflects the collector, but, as Servais says, “collecting is more than acquiring works of art. It is a way of living, a way of thinking.” That way of thinking is, for him, comprised of a willingness to leave his comfort zone.
Indeed, this was the first lesson he learned from one of his most important mentors, Herman Daled. A Belgian radiologist-turned-conceptual-art-collector (he eventually sold his collection, including his letters of correspondence, to the Museum of Modern Art in New York), Daled instilled in Servais the importance of not trusting your immediate reaction to art. Great art, Daled told him, is not determined solely on how you perceive it, but on how it relates to the wider world. Often, that means it might at first make you ill at ease or unsure of how to respond to it.
The trick is to embrace that feeling. “He taught me a lot of things,” Servais said of Daled, “and one of them was that when you start collecting Contemporary art one of the things you have to mistrust the most is beauty. Why? Because beauty is always referring to something you know.” Servais is constantly asking himself what art will be remembered not in the next few months or years but over a significantly longer timeline. “My still-growing knowledge of art history convinces me every day that the art worth collecting, that the art that some will want to see in 30 years’ time, is always closely related to the socio, politico economic context of the society it develops in,” he said.
While the market might be currently enamored with record-breaking prices and voguish art, it takes someone who’s paying close attention to the long game to see that there are, in fact, other ways of doing business. The particular skill of the kind of old school, cultured collector whose diminishing percentage Servais laments is being able to identify the best art in places that many major galleries don’t even go.
If a new set of investment-hungry collectors is now driving the art world towards an increasingly narrow band of art, it will be precisely these more exploratory collectors upon whom the future of the art market will hang. Capitalism is a dangerous game and leaving the fate of the art world in the calculating hands of financiers and businessmen isn’t ideal. To have a different-thinking collector like Servais is to have a certain form of hope.
- This article appears in the March 2018 edition of Modern Painters