Growing up as the son of Heinz Berggruen – a prominent German art collector, friend to Pablo Picasso, lover to Frida Kahlo – art has unmistakably been a part and a privilege of Nicolas Berggruen’s vita. If often art is spoken about in the context of the market or a certain prestige, Nicolas Berggruen’s involvement seems more substantial than this. After a fast-paced business career, the 56-year-old has settled in Los Angeles and founded the Berggruen Institute in 2010. Together with global thinkers like Google’s Eric Schmidt, the former President Of Mexico, Condoleezza Rice, top Chinese leadership and many others, Berggruen’s think tank is developing new ideas to shape political, economic and social institutions, ultimately creating a vision that is bigger than his own. It is this interest in the future, in human culture and the substantial questions it invites, that make Nicolas Berggruen an intriguing personality and an art collector to watch.
How did you get into art?
Well, in my case very organically because as a little boy I was interested in aesthetics, in beauty, and I was lucky because in my father was an art collector from the very beginning. From the day I was one year old I would see beautiful art at home, obviously, that helped – it probably modified my DNA and created an appreciation for art. I was also lucky because at a fairly young age, even before my studies, I would travel to places like Italy and I would go to see the museums and churches and spend time there. I loved the role of beauty from early on.
What made you start collecting contemporary art?
I was lucky to be living in New York in the 80s and 90s and to be in contact with art and artists at the time. I met people like Andy Warhol but frankly, I didn’t really understand the significance when I met him. But in the 90s I started collecting Warhol and Basquiat because I simply liked their work, for no other reason. I felt especially Warhol was a giant of the 20th Century.
Which contemporary artists do you collect now and why?
Aesthetically, I like what Petra Cortright and Jon Rafman do but I also find it incredibly interesting that they move digital to make art – there’s a combination of an aesthetic mind and the use of very contemporary tools.
What are you looking for in the artists you collect?
To be honest, it’s about something that catches me and that speaks to me. It’s not a very deep intellectual process – even with artists like Bruce Nauman who are very intellectual, I have to be attracted by the work. It’s a visceral attraction which I then can find ten ways to justify, but it has to start from the heart.
Do you have art that grows on you, art which you appreciate more over time?
Yes, Bruce Nauman is a good example. But even among much older artists, I remember I didn’t like El Greco. After going to see more and more El Greco at some point I saw his genius. It can take time.
What do you think is the importance of art and architecture in modern day society?
I think art and and architecture survive and transmit our cultures from generation to generation. That has been the case forever and it’s still the case today. Art reflects our mindset, our cultures and it engages people beyond themselves, beyond their daily life. Architecture is a way to bring people together, architecture in terms of monuments or temples has been a way to bring people together and inspire them at every level. Art and architecture belong to those things which not only make us human but also transmit human history over time.
What makes Los Angeles an interesting city in the art world?
Los Angeles is a very unlikely place, it’s almost like a non-city. But what I like about LA is that it’s so incredibly open, physically and also mentally. It’s a place that looks towards the future and there’s a lot of space here where things can be invented and can be tried, and you won’t be judged. I think it’s like an open canvas, not a blank canvas anymore but pretty open in every way possible. For artists it’s a place where they can work with freedom and independence, as it’s not that expensive compared to other metropolises. They can invent, and that’s good and bad, without the pressure of historically New York or London.
But there are more and more cultural destinations – art galleries, museums, happenings. It’s a crazy city and a very welcoming place for artists from any place in the world.
You were famously called the ‘homeless billionaire’ living in hotels. Didn’t you miss your own collection of art around you?
Yes, after a while I realised that I had an emotional attachment to some of these things that I was lucky to live with, but I have a different view than most people. I feel that no matter what you own, especially art and great art, you are just a custodian or a temporary shepherd as opposed to really being the owner because the art will survive you. So even though I think I missed it, if it ends up travelling, if it ends up in a museum – if it ends up somewhere where it’s more acceptable to have it, that’s better.