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The Museum of Everything: An Interview with James Brett
by Char Jansen

The Museum of Everything’s founder James Brett is perhaps an incongruous addition to the Collector’s Catalogue – since he frowns at the idea of being labeled a collector.

Collector, hoarder, or fanatic – what is so compelling about the Museum’s activity is their novel approach to promoting and presenting artists.

Brett, somewhat of a talismanic leader in this – almost intimidatingly so – has punctured the bubble that is the art world, by representing the underrepresented, but also by circumnavigating the conventions for showing and selling art. 

Their archive is an abundantly impressive one which Brett has drawn together and championed, presenting it to audiences through an international series of itinerant exhibitions – the next, Exhibition #5, opens in Moscow, on 26 April.


Charlotte Jansen: How and why did you start collecting?

James Brett: I don't consider myself a collector. Rather I am a part-time accumulator. It is similar to hoarding. It is certainly different to making a decision to form a collection. As to when the accumulating started, probably in childhood.

The Museum of Everything isn't really a collection either. It is an exhibitor and an archive, and most importantly, an informal travelling institution for a specific genre, which floats by and its respective boats.

As you might realise, I have a bit of an issue with the whole notion of collecting. In my own opinion, it is used all too often as some form of high-faluting accolade or achievement to flatter spendthrift gallery customers. The truth is that real collecting is a genetic addiction. If so, then yes, I stand accused.

CJ: You've stated that when The Museum of Everything opened, no-one else was curating this kind of artwork. How did you learn about it and develop your eye?

JB: Not quite. The artists we show at the Museum were exhibited and sometimes in excellent projects. It's just that they were rarely included by curators in contemporary art shows. The reason was simply that self-taught and other non-traditional artists have almost always been considered to be "something else", hence their status as "outsiders".

I personally felt this was wrong. I still do. It smacks of art world segregation – and so my role with The Museum of Everything is to challenge this clearly unjust assumption.

Yet it was the work, not its status, which first got me going. I stumbled upon it and immediately was hooked by its liberated forms and formats. I started to research it, and as I did, found many subcultures with similar themes. The essential truth was that these artists created work without thinking about markets or museums. And as I started to discover more, I realised that they have always existed everywhere, in every country, in every era.

If anyone wants to know more, do what I did and pick up a book on folk or self-taught art, or research the seminal curation of Alfred Barr or Harald Szeeman. Or just look for the many contemporary artists inspired by this kind of material and find out who they dig.

As it happens, in the last year the mainstream art world has finally started to catch up – and hopefully thanks in part to the work of The Museum of Everything. In June we will be collaborating with the Hayward Gallery on a major show of alternative artists; and the theme of the Venice Biennial 2013 is a coincidental mirror of The Museum of Everything – and will surely turn many more onto this essential art form.

CJ: What is your most expensive piece?

JB: Not only is that confidential, it is a misleading question. After all, the price of an object is not its only cost.

For me, the twists and turns leading up to the moment of acquisition are much better indicators of real value. Like the pieces which took days, weeks or years of painful patient negotiation. Or the items which were presumed lost, only to re-emerge unexpectedly many eons later.

CJ: Least expensive?

JB: Also confidential. A wise person reveals neither his bargains nor his fripperies.

That said for years I was addicted to eBay and to the e-services which allow you to snafu an item in the closing seconds of its shelf-life. My home overflows with many tiny jewels which fall into this particular category.

CJ: A favourite piece?

JB: Of course there isn't one. However some years ago I stumbled upon an elaborate cork castle in the closing moments of an antiques fair. It wasn't costly and was perhaps even lying about its age. Yet it was so enormous and over-ambitious in its design, with such intricate brickwork and ornamentation, that we decided to display it in all our overseas shows as an original model of The Museum of Everything in London.

CJ: If you do not like the artist as a person, do you still buy the work?

JB: Creativity is not about being liked, nor is great art. Some of the worst art crimes are committed for a toothy smile.

CJ: Do you ever feel territorial about pieces or artists?

JB: You cannot and should not try to control an artist or their work. The best you can do is support them and it. If the artist is living, make their work known. If the artist is dead, celebrate their work and communicate its truth. There are way too many examples of collectors who in not wanting to miss any of their artist's masterpieces hoarded them all, and in so doing, denied the artist visibility. This kind of territorialism does few artists any favours.

The only difference might be where I do not believe an artist or idea is being communicated correctly. Perhaps the strongest example was when The Museum of Everything presented over 500 artworks in Exhibition #4 made in studios for artists with learning disabilities. Not only did we have to communicate that yes, this was art and yes, these people were artists, but also that a mighty department store in London can be a museum.

We fought a lot of bigotry against the artists – as well as bigotry against the store itself, which supported the project in a way no formal institution could have done. The result was a revolutionary project with 100,000 visitors and a real democratisation of the viewing process. And I still feel completely territorial about the whole thing!

CJ: What would be in your dream collection?

JB: For many years I have tried to build a dream collection. But I usually wake up too late to write them down.


Charlotte Jansen


(All Images: Courtesy of the Museum of Everything.)


Posted by Char Jansen on 4/3/13 | tags: mixed-media alternative outsider-art collector's catalogue collecting

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did mr. james make the "everything" arrow photographed in the dirt? i like it. article was good, too. reassured me that i'm on the right path.. thank you ms. jansen, mr. james amy o. woodbury chicago, il.

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