Interview : Giovanni Springmeier

Interview : Giovanni Springmeier

Artwork by Gina Beavers (left), Petra Cortright (right)

By Constance van Berckel

Giovanni Springmeier started collecting art at a young age, and the Gnyp/Springmeier collection today encompasses works from artists all over the world in media ranging from sculpture, to photography and painting. Largely made up of contemporary art, the Springmeier’s home provides a welcoming and lively surrounding for the public to experience the vast array of vibrant artworks.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself, and how you first started collecting?

I’ve been collecting art for about 35 years now, which started with collecting Polish posters at the age of 19 when I was having my internship in Paris. I have no art family background, and in my professional life I’m a medical doctor, of which I’m currently taking a break to get more involved in art. After the posters I quickly wanted something more unique that didn’t come in multiples, and so I started looking around without having any idea of where to even begin.

My first art buying experience was a disappointing one. I was looking to buy a drawing by Saul Steinberg, a great cartoonist for the New Yorker, so I went to an art fair where I approached Steinberg’s gallerist. The initial price of 1000 French Francs (around €250 now) that he offered me turned out to be for a Steinberg poster; the drawing I wanted was 30-40.000 Francs, which of course I couldn’t afford at that age. It made me realize very early on that collecting art goes together with money and the limits of what you can spend.

Despite this slightly disappointing start I have developed a sincere passion for collecting. What is exciting from the personal point of view is that while you accumulate artworks, you collect memories and stories of how and why you bought certain works. You create this collection of moments for yourself that you can link to a tangible object. Collecting is very personal, especially at the beginning. Later on you realize that you are also connected to our culture at large.

What is your process like when you acquire a new work of art?

The buying process has become much more complex over time. I collect together with Marta (Gnyp), who has become increasingly involved in the art world over the last 10 years, with her business as an international art advisor and a gallerist here in Berlin.

I like to buy works by young artists, as I think it’s very important to support artists at the beginning of and through their career. It not only connects me with the new and the future, but also challenges certain notions of today’s society and ways of thinking. This means that the majority of works I collect are very contemporary, and have been made in the last 5 years or so. However, I’m also very interested in older artists that have been overlooked by the market throughout most of their lives, and are only now getting the attention they deserve. At the end of the day, nobody knows what artist is here to stay and will remain relevant in the years to come. Even Rembrandt was forgotten for a long time, which at this moment seems very unbelievable as he is now regarded as one of the most important artists of all time. Tastes change over time.

Many of the works I collect have a strong narrative element to them, but there is no conscious line or theme that I follow when acquiring new works, it’s rather a bit impulsive. When buying a new work, I don’t necessarily think about whether it will fit in with the rest of the collection, as I believe that a work should always stand strong enough by itself alone.

I do very much like work that explores human identity, which is why I have collected a lot of portrait photography and video art in the past, like work by Rineke Dijkstra or Douglas Gordon. These artworks really delve into what it means to be human and highlight the differences or similarities between us.

Giovani himself & Artwork on background by Rose Wylie

"As a private collector you have a freedom to be creative and to take risks."

Do you have works that you acquired when you first started collecting that you don’t’ like as much anymore?

Of course, I do. It is unavoidable when you have been collecting for over 35 years. Even though some collectors say they cherish their early works as much as they did in the beginning, I rather appreciate the idea of development and change of taste. Selling works every now and then allows me to acquire new works that fit my taste better at this point. It’s like when you read a book: you interpret a story in a way that fits in your life experience at that very moment in time, but you might take away another message from it when you reread it at an older age, when you’re at a very different point in your life. You change as a person, so naturally, your perception of the world, of stories or of artworks changes too.

As a private collector you have a freedom to be creative and to take risks. Museums don’t have this type of freedom, but have to very carefully consider the academic and art historical value of a work when adding it to their collection, which can sometimes lead to a certain uniformity amongst museums which can be quite boring. As a private collector you can buy spontaneously, intuitively and impulsively. This is sometimes visible in private museums, where the collectors can follow their own vision and add elements of surprise and entertainment to the way they present human creativity to a larger audience.

It’s intrinsically human to want to create and be creative. Culture and art is so important to our society, and I think we can learn a lot from artists and their work. It’s a shame that in today’s society, art is regarded as something of secondary importance, and is the first thing to be cut out of the school curriculum. Art can inspire people to think about culture, society and identity – it teaches you to think about what it means to come from a certain place, or belong to a certain nationality. Art makes you think about change and time, and about how we are the same. Art makes you realize that you are not the middle point of the world.

What spurred the decision to open the Gnyp/Springmeier collection to the public?

I’ve visited a lot of private collections myself, which I have always really enjoyed as I like to look into people’s homes to see how they live with their art. It’s very refreshing and inspiring to see how others display their collections, so I thought why not start this conversation with our collections? We meet a lot of interesting people, and it’s great to see how certain works can inspire dialogues and reveal surprising new insights.

How do you curate the display of your collection?

We often change things around a bit when we put up a newly acquired artwork, and take another work to storage. During my first 20 years of collecting art, I collected with the idea of ‘musée imaginaire’, exhibiting the works in my head as a concept, but accumulating the physical works in storage. Back then, I used to buy a lot of video art, as displaying the work wasn’t my priority and when you have something in storage, it doesn’t make a difference if it’s a VHS tape or a canvas.

After I met Marta, I started putting a lot more focus on purchasing works with the idea of having them on display in my home, and to live with the art. At that point I realized how complex it is to display and conserve photography and video art correctly, as the technology quickly becomes outdated. I donated a lot of these works to public institutions.

Artwork by Wojciech Fangor

"When buying a new work, I don’t necessarily think about whether it will fit in with the rest of the collection, as I believe that a work should always stand strong enough by itself alone."

Which artists do you find particularly interesting or inspiring at this moment?

I really like the elaborate and colorful sculptures of Raúl de Nieves, whose work Marta discovered at this year’s Whitney Biennial. De Nieves is from Mexico, and this catholic, colorful, and over the top aspect of Mexican culture really comes forward in these works. They add so much color to any environment, especially compared to the dreary Berlin sky when you look out the window. I also love work by Rose Wylie, who paints these incredibly fresh works at the age of 80. Looking at her work you would think it was made by a young artist. I would love to have this level of energy at that age. Another artist I really like is Alexandra Noel, a young American artist who is with Bodega gallery in New York.

To me however, the work itself is more important than the artist behind it. I want a work to inspire some kind of reaction in me, but I feel that today the discourse is often much more about the artist’s identity or where he/she comes from than the work itself.

What is some advice you have for young collectors?

Start by looking around! Go to galleries and museums and see the Old Masters. Go alone, think about what you like and what you don’t like, and then decide if you want to read more about it. Remember that it is very doable to buy art without a lot of money. Buy art by emerging artists that you like. Make mistakes, have fun with it and don’t take everything too seriously. Live with your art and display it, as it’s a real pleasure to be surrounded by art.

Artwork by Gina Beavers (left), Petra Cortright (right)