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The New Spirit of Collecting: From Maecenas to Prescriptor to Speculator

Roberto Coromina Untitled, 2002, oil on paper, 25.6”x32”. Courtesy Magnan Projects, New York

By Paco Barragán

Collectors have achieved a central role in contemporary art, not that the spirit of today’s collectors has less or nothing to do with yesteryear’s philanthropist or maecenas. With the advent of neo-capitalism and neo-con philosophy, new players and distant economies have descended upon the arts with a set of new motivations that loathe the great charm of the cultural benefactor in his relationship with “the men of genius” who formed his circle. The original simplicity, cordiality and sincerity have given way to aggressiveness, benefit-seeking, and vanity. This attitude, that for decades was considered by Europeans typically “American,” is finding its way among European private collectors.

Historically speaking, patronage and support of the arts have their origins in the Mediterranean cultures. The word “philanthropy” was coined 2500 years ago in ancient Greece, by the playwright Aeschylus in his Prometheus Bound, in which the author narrates the myth of Prometheus, who out of his “philanthropos tropos” or “humanity loving character” gave fire to the primitive human creatures who lived in caves. This “love of humanity” became the highest educational ideal, and patronage of the arts was essential in developing the body, mind and spirit of Greek society.

This idea flourishes further during the Roman Empire with Gaius Cilnius Maecenas (70-8 B.C.), who was political advisor to Octavian (later Caeser Augustus), as well as a generous and enlightened patron of the arts, and known for having supported among others, the poet Virgil. The Classical view of philanthropy disappeared in the Middle Ages, but was rediscovered and revived with the Renaissance. In the Catholic South of Europe, the Medici in Florence nurtured Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo; Philip II in Spain appointed Velazquez as court painter and Philip IV, Rubens; the Sun King generously financed Hyacinthe Rigaud in France, and, in particular, the Papacy commissioned projects to Michelangelo, Leonardo and Bramante. Thus, the state and the Catholic Church emerged as important maecenas supporting artists’ lives with significant commissions or by appointing them as court painters.

The Protestant North of Europe saw the advent of the market in early modern Antwerp by the end of the sixteenth century. “This was an age,” writes Elizabeth Alice Honig, “when commerce overflowed the boundaries of the marketplace and penetrated all aspects of life: the market, and its pictorial representation, were crucial grounds for testing how the new ideas could be made to fit into what seemed reasonable patterns of belief and behavior.” (Honig 3-4) This new conception of religion brought along a change of moral standards in which the pursuit of wealth is taught as, not merely an advantage, but a duty. Labor is thus not merely an economic means: it is a spiritual end.

In The Netherlands, England, Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland, the connection between religious radicalism and economic progress promotes the naissance of the art market and the specialization by genres -portraits, still-life, and landscapes- in order to meet the demands of the new wealthy merchants and their desires for power and recognition. Except for some exceptional and temporary support, like collector Pieter van Ruijven with Vermeer, and patron Jan Six with Rembrandt; the artist, like the trader, brings his goods to market where he becomes an entrepreneur. If in the Catholic countries of Southern Europe the relationship between the king, the church or the nobility and the court painter was of an uneven nature, the necessities of market exchange insisted that all parties be considered equal, for the free determination of value must be blind to social status. It is this basic assumption of market economics that is most at odds with pre-capitalist ideals of social hierarchy (Honig 44).

The New England colonies were founded by preachers with the help of small bourgeois, craftsmen and yeomen for religious reasons. According to Weber’s book1, these Protestant forms of religious beliefs and practical ethics fostered the qualitative formation and the quantitative expansion of the capitalist spirit throughout the new world, and gave rise to Benjamin Franklin´s credo of moral attitudes colored with utilitarianism. So here, a new type of “calling” progressively emerges with a conception of money-making as an end in itself, to which people were bound, contrary to the original ethical feelings of the countries of Northern Europe. At the same time, in a land that had to be built from scratch by volunteers, philanthropy flourishes as a practical necessity. But, we have still to wait till the mid-nineteenth century to see these private initiatives for public good transformed into schools, libraries, hospitals, publications, academies, civic meeting houses, museums…

This, by all means, brief introduction serves to point out at least three hypotheses: A) the historically different origins and conceptions of “maecenate” or patronage between the South and the North of Europe based on opposed professed religious foundations, B) the new spirit of capitalism and material culture in the American colonies that brought about a new moral conduct in many ways different from the Protestant European countries of the North of Europe, and C) a shift from a philanthropy focused on the artist to one sponsoring the institution.

These different religious convictions are very important, as they allow us to understand basic and dramatic differences between the procedures, the funding, and the functioning of museums and art centers in the USA and in Europe, and, especially, the role of collecting on each continent. If historically philanthropy was an act of patronizing the artist, sponsoring is, above all, focused on funding an institution. It engages the collector with the museum or art center in the form of a presence on the board of trustees, “collector’s day,” a plate, a wing or room named after him or even the entire museum-like the peripatetic Eli Broad soap opera.

Now, the interesting thing is that many of the behaviors of American collectors have started to influence not only Northern Europe, which from a historical point of view would be more than logical, but also the Southern countries of Europe.

Lluís Barba. The Garden of Earthy Delights.Bosco (detail) from the series “Tourists in Art”, 2007, Diasec, 212.5” x 118”, Courtesy Galería Sicart, Vilafranca del Penedès


Collectors have always been pivotal to the art world, but especially so in the USA where, unlike Europe, museums are privately funded and need to provide for themselves with works of art and sponsorships from the private sector. Basically, most American museums have their origins in donations of one or more private collections, whereas in Europe most museums are state funded, be it by the central government, the regional government or the local municipality. (Some museums, however, like the Dutch Rijksmuseum or the Stedelijk Museum, have their origins in private initiatives by rich merchants, and little by little more museums are being founded in Europe by private collectors like Pinault, Dakis Joannou, Patrizia Re Rebaudengo, Saatchi, or the more recent The Garage in Moscow by Roman Abramovich and Dasha Zukova, in what we can perceive as a clear emulation of American collectors’ attitudes.)

If we take this into consideration, and given the particularly difficult economic times, we can easily understand that the collector generates major interest and increases the “idea of centrality” in the world of art. New players -hedge funds, revolving funds, the new rich and young liberal professionals- and new emerging economies -India, China, Russia, Brazil, and the Middle East- are in search of new diversification for their portfolios. And taking into consideration the unstoppable speculative prices at auction during the last decade, it is absolutely understandable that many private and corporate companies see in art a good investment, i.e. financial capital.

Now social capital, as stated by Pierre Bourdieu in his theory of the social classes, (131) referring to motivations of prestige or social acknowledgement, has always been an important issue, be it Guggenheim, Rockefeller, Rubell, Saatchi or Eli Broad. But, today it goes much further than simple prestige. For Veblen, (43) “the trophies” have a place in the mental habits of people, as essential pieces of “life paraphernalia” that confer honor. Collectors nowadays still maintain, to a certain extent, the rank of “trophy predators,” as a conventional exponent of arrogance and success -obtaining a piece by Julie Mehretu, who has a waiting list which exceeds 10 years, is undoubtedly a desired trophy urbi et orbi. On the other hand, the relational aspect, as Bourdieu points out, “is represented by the totality of the current or potential resources associated with the possession of a lasting network of relationships which are more or less institutionalized [e.g. Art Basel's 'first choice' or 'second choice' and access to the former UBS VIP Lounge or being invited to the right exclusive parties and dinners among the primus inter pares] by mutual knowledge and recognition.” (Bourdieu 148)


Well-respected collector Panza di Biumo stated many years ago that “there are good collectors -a few- and ones who are less than good -the majority.” (17) I would rather talk about trendsetters and trend followers in order to understand that this is one of the most salient characteristics of current collecting.

Thus, we face the fact that certain collectors -especially Saatchi and the Rubells- have become trendsetters, and to such an extent, that even if they buy boring paintings, legions of collectors worldwide and even art advisors will do the same. Therefore, we can refer to the concept of “interpassivity.” The way the Austrian cultural critic Robert Pfaller understands “interpassivity,”2 as a concept opposed to “interactivity,”entails “a relegated pleasure or consumption.” As such, we can see how many collectors buy what they believe they should buy or what established collectors are buying. Adam Lindemann, Peter Brant, Benedikt Taschen, Pinault, Saatchi, Eli Broad and the like bring to mind the words of Jerry Saltz: “Collectors now imagine that they can become part of and even make art history simply by paying gigantic prices for works of art. All I can say to those people is that when this market phase ends, you better be sure you didn’t do anything that you will be embarrassed about.” (34)

The historical figure of the collector as maecenas has given way to that of the collector as prescriptor, who is no longer content with supporting or sponsoring a museum or an institution, but now imposes his artists and his artistic desires; thus forcing, with open delight, the whole managerial and artistic staff of a museum to be at his authoritarian disposal. Robert Storr’s Venice Biennale could not be a more appalling example of this! The last step of that erratic and perverse ascending line is the more and more discussed figure of the collector as dealer. As we are reminded by Richard Flood, the Chief Curator of the New Museum in New York: “There are people selling art they bought six months before -it’s brutal.”3 Not only Saatchi but even Lindemann (although the first moves into long-term positions and the second into short-term ones) and many others use auctions for the speculative buy-and-sell of values, the Mugrabis being the ones who embody the perfect example of aggressive and benefit-seeking sharks. In all of that, there is undoubtedly the idea, or at least the temptation, of being the best.4

Álvaro Barrios Untitled (Looking for an Utrillo which looks like a Mondrian), 2008, acrylic on canvas 39.4” x 71”, Courtesy Nohra Haime Gallery, New York


Obviously there is a “new spirit of collecting,” which has come along with the “new spirit of capitalism” -so accurately described by Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello5 - that, I am afraid, not even Obama will be able to regulate. Neo-capitalist practices aside, surprisingly enough, many of the habits of the art world in the United States are finding their way into Europe. Traditionally, both in Northern and Southern Europe, collectors avoided ostentation and unnecessary expenditure, as well as conscious enjoyment of their power, and were embarrassed by the outward signs of the social recognition they received. Over the last decade - especially coinciding with the celebration of art fairs, and accentuated by the “Miamian” style of opening collectors’ houses and private exhibition spaces like the Rubell, De la Cruz, and Cisneros-Fontanals -, Europeans too have followed the trend of making their houses accessible to guests and have even opened already or still aspire to have their own private museums: Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo and her Fondazione, La Maison Rouge Fondation Antoine de Galbert, Dakis Joannou and the Deste Foundation, Saatchi, or the future state-funded museum hosting the private -albeit internationally unknown -Helga de Alvear collection in Cáceres, Spain. Interestingly enough, and particularly with the current economic drawback, the Calvinist Low Countries, i.e., The Netherlands, now aim to reduce state participation and encourage major private capital funding for museums, theaters, and other cultural institutions usually provided by social democracy. Furthermore, the traditional European collector, with an extensive knowledge of art history and a profound respect for artists and art professionals, has given way to a new breed of collector inspired by the “American model,” based upon aggressive price negotiation, quick access to the boards of trustees of museums in order to conveniently push his artists, and in the end, the attainment of significant economic results for his investment in art. Not only do gallery dealers complain about the rude price tactics of collectors, but they assure that if they do not accept the collector’s terms, they are threatened with aggressive auction sales, just like what Saatchi did with Sandro Chia!

Most collectors are aficionados and pretending to be an art expert is of course as ridiculous as an art professional pretending to be an expert in finance. In this sense, one of the heights of stupidity is the Sydney Biennale on whose Board of Trustees art professionals have been totally set aside for collectors. Even a serious European museum like El Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (CARS) has collectors on board!

The exhibition of Mr. Dakis Joannou’s private collection at the New Museum is a clear case of the power and the control of the collector and the ethical conflicts it raises. The aggravating factor here is that we are talking about a non-profit museum, which benefits from significant tax exemptions, which opens its doors to trustees and donors, and, in doing so, publicizes and enhances the market value of Mr. Joannou’s collection. Basically, it means that once again -let us recall the Brooklyn Museum with Saatchi’s “Sensation” or more recently with Rubell’s “Hernan Bas” - a renowned space like the New Museum is acting like a private gallery.

The art world needs collectors, and every one is free to collect whatever he likes, but the spirit of collecting should be preceded by aesthetic pleasure and intellect, and not by benefit or trends. Also, it would be important to recuperate the old philanthropic spirit -like, for example, Dutch collector Han Nefkens who, besides collecting and donating many works to renowned Dutch museums, has founded the H+F Mecenaat, with a view to sponsoring artists and their productions- and the direct relationship with the artist instead of marginalizing him for a “cute” collector’s plate in a museum.


1. Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Mineola, NY: , Dover Publications, 2003. [First published in 1904-05 in Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik].

2. Pfaller, Robert. “Backup of Little Gestures of Disappearance: Interpassivity and the Theory of Ritual.” Journal of European Psychoanalysis: Humanities, Philosophy, Psychotherapies 16. Winter -Spring, 2003. Website. <http://www.psychomedia.it/jep/number16/pfaller.htm>.
3. Interviewed by Charmaine Picard, The Art Newspaper/Art Basel Miami Beach Daily Edition, 6 Dec. 2007: 6.

4. Or simply to skip the tedious <<waiting list>> which is imposed by gallery owners, and then beat them at their own game, as Saatchi would say.

5. Boltanski, Luc and Eve Chiapello. El nuevo espíritu del capitalismo. Madrid: Ediciones Akal. 2002. [Boltanski, Luc and Eve Chiapello. The New Spirit of Capitalism. Trans. Gregory Elliott. New York and London: Verso, 2006.]


Bourdieu, Pierre. Poder, Derecho y Clases Sociales [Power, Law, and Social Classes]. Bilbao: Desclée de Brouwer , 2000. 131.

Honig, Elizabeth Alice. Painting and the Market in Early Modern Antwerp. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998. 3-4.

Panza di Biumo, Giuseppe. “Las motivaciones del coleccionismo [The motivations of collecting].” Los espectáculos del arte. Ed. Francisco Calvo Serraller, Barcelona: Tusquets Editores, 1993. 17.

Saltz, Jerry. “The Zero-Sum Game.” Modern Painters. [London] February 2007: 34.

Veblen, Thorstein. Teoría de la clase ociosa [The Theory of the Leisure Class]. Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 2004. 43.

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  1. [...] reading more about the economics of the Art market leading me to an article by Paco Barragan at ARTPULSE Magazine titled “The New Spirit of Collecting: From Macenas to Prescriptor to Specula…. The article focuses on the historic transition of collecting art from a system of patronage and [...]