For the better part of their lives Henk de Heus and his wife Victoria de Heus-Zomer have worked to build up their business. The De Heus animal feed company has a hundred year history but it wasn’t until the last couple of decades that the family business from rural Barneveld boomed, becoming a world leader in animal nutrition, a multinational active in fifty countries. The de Heus-Zomer couple has invested a sizeable part of the resulting fortune in art. Since the late eighties they have collected works of art in large numbers but until recently they have stayed very much under the radar. The March 2013 exhibition of their Dutch art in the Singer Museum in Laren marked their coming out as collectors. This exhibition, titled Cobra tot Dumas, was the first in an exhibition triptych. The follow-up was an international show centered on nature and landscapes in Museum Belvédère. The finale, now on show at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, focuses on their collection of contemporary Chinese art.
This series of exhibitions fits in with a trend. Ever since the Dutch government started pulling out of the museum sector and demanding a more self-reliant mode of operation, we have seen quite a few presentations of private collections in public institutions. In the US public-private cooperation of this kind is common, but in the Dutch cultural landscape, which has been strongly government dominated since the Second World War, it’s a novelty. Even so much so that De Fundatie in Zwolle—explicitly set up in 2005 as a collectors’ museum—had a bit of a false start: collectors were not yet used to going public. But that soon changed. In 2011 the Kunsthal in Rotterdam hosted I Promise to Love You, an overwhelming presentation of Joop van Caldenborgh’s world-class collection. Last year saw, amongst others, Zero art from the Manders Collection in Museum Van Bommel Van Dam. And this summer we also have the Sanders Collection in the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam and an anonymous private collection in the Fotomuseum Den Haag to enjoy.
The advantages for museums are obvious: big private collectors command resources far greater than museums and buy expensive pieces which institutions are unable to procure and present. On top of that, they usually pay for the logistics of their own exhibitions, thus easing the pressure on museum budgets. And by honoring collectors with an exhibition museums hope to forge lasting alliances, eventually resulting in donations.
But reliance on private partners is not without pitfalls. Since a museum presentation boosts the provenance of a work of art and makes it more attractive at auction, collectors may use institutions to increase the value of their property. The most blatant example of this practice is super-collector and owner of his own museum, Charles Saatchi, whose tactics have been dubbed “show and sell.” But the Netherlands is not immune for this type of misuse. Entrepreneur Bert Kreuk, who showed his collection at the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag in the summer of 2013, sold off a considerable number of works later that year at Sotheby’s New York.
Hai Bo, The Northern Series - A Man is Riding Bicycle No. 8, 2005, Color photograph, 129 x 81 x 8 cm; © De Heus-Zomer Collection
With Chinese contemporary art still very much on the rise in the art market, the danger of price manipulation over the backs of museums is definitely real. Boijmans Van Beuningen Director Sjarel Ex, however, is relying on the integrity of the De Heus-Zomer family, who are not known to sell off art. Moreover, Focus Beijing is not an opportunistic endeavor, solely undertaken for the sake of cutting costs. The Rotterdam museum has a history of showing contemporary Chinese art, the 2006 overview China Contemporary being the highlight so far. For Focus Beijing Ex did not simply hand over his museum to the collectors but had his curators carefully select from the De Heus-Zomer Collection.
The resulting show combines a few internationally recognized stars with a large group of artists lesser known in the West. Having started acquiring contemporary Chinese art in 1998, often by artists they have personal acquaintance with, the De Heus-Zomer Collection concentrates on the so-called second and third generation artists. Representatives of the first generation, roughly placed between the proclamation of the Open Door Policy in 1978 and the protest at Tiananmen Square eleven years later, are absent. The same is true for the proponents of Political Pop, who combined symbols of Western consumerism such as the Coca-Cola logo with socialist realist imagery.
Cynical Realism, dating to that same period in the early nineties as Political Pop, is obviously much more to the collectors’ tastes. The first room of the exhibition is dominated by Zhang Xiaogang. Girl (2008) shows the type of oddly colored face—yellow here, but sometimes also red or purple—Zhang is world famous for. His Four Sons (2012), four precocious, naked boys in a bed, can be read as a depiction of Chinese male-dominated society. Almost inevitable is the inclusion of Fang Lijun and Liu Wei, early flag bearers of Cynical Realism. Both are thoroughbred painters, the first in a brightly colored realism with abstract touches and the second in a more expressionistic style.
Focus Beijing contains very little performance art. Only two photographs by Wang Jin, showing a pile of people holding up a concrete bridge and a group hidden behind a massive rock, refer to what was the most influential art form during the early nineties. Zhu Fadong and Ma Liuming—these revolutionaries are absent. On the other hand, works by Ai Weiwei and Hai Bo, who had their breakthrough moments at roughly the same time, have been included in the De Heus-Zomer Collection. Ai because he simply cannot be denied. And Hai’s photographs of farmers on bicycles probably appeal to de Heus’ agrarian background.
Wang Guangle, Coffin Paint 120312, 2012, Acrylic on canvas, 80 x 80 cm; © De Heus- Zomer Collection
A private collection is always some kind of portrait of the collector, and the de Heus family can be said to highly value craftsmanship and things well-made. Place of honor has been awarded to Wang Guangle’s work, large canvases painstakingly filled with thousands of pebble-size forms. Close by hangs Liang Yuanwei’s dot painting, four square meters filled with minute brush strokes.
Focus Beijing is a solid and decent show but not wildly exciting. It just lacks a rough edge. Still, there are some surprises such as Black White Grey (2013) by Lin Tianmiao, one of the few famous female artists in China. Somewhere between sculpture and painting it combines organic forms, industrial grills, bones, and furniture in a haunting memento mori. If the collectors decide to eventually donate this work to the museum then they’ll have added something truly extraordinary to the public realm.
(Image on top: Zhang Xiaogang, Girl, 2008, Oil on canvas, 130 x 110 cm; © De Heus-Zomer Collection)