Interview Sabrina Kamstra, voorzitter VBCN
07 02 2012
Sabrina Kamstra, voorzitter VBCN — Foto: Petra Spiljard
Interview with Sabrina Kamstra chair of the VBCN, Netherlands Association of Corporate Art Collections and curator of the art collection of the AMC Academical Medical Centre Amsterdam.
The VBCN has 52 affiliates at this moment including just about every large and small corporate art collection in the Netherlands plus those that are just started.
The VBCN is intended to be a platform where members can exchange information and experiences.
The association aims to be a discussion partner at a national and international level with players in the cultural field - galleries, museums or government bodies.
Q: Can you please elaborate a bit about the core values of the VBCN in terms of dynamic, independent, international and stimulative?
A: Before I explain those criteria I would like to tell more about of the history of the VBCN: Netherlands Association of Corporate Art Collections. We started 6 years ago out of an unofficial network circle of art curators working for different companies and academic hospitals. They had similar kinds of work, faced the same questions and all felt the need for a professional network within which to exchange experiences and best practices. Once the VBCN had been set up as a formal association, we came together on a more regular base and started to think about the various possible aims and goals of our association. We then came up with the criteria dynamic, independent, international and stimulative. We want to be independent and free of any commercial activity; we aim to operate internationally, as visual art is international and a lot of companies have international branches, like banking companies, petro-chemical companies. Furthermore, we wanted to be creative and dynamic to support the artists and so support the quality of the art.
Q: Is the VBCN open to all? Are there any specific criteria that must be met before becoming a member?
A: In principal yes, membership is open to all. We provide advise to new members who are just starting a corporate art collection to set out criteria on how to establish a collection, make choices, understand where to go etc. We do expect new members to collect in a professional way and to have a policy for that, and a proper budget, so that they can actively acquire works for their collection. It is more a question of professionalism and commitment more than anything else. In principal any company can be entering except for example organizations linked to galleries, because that might harm the independence of the VBCN.
Q: Does your organization give direct advice on what pieces of work to collect?
A: No, that’s entirely up to the individual members, every company has its own art policy and identity. Of course there are similarities between the collections of various VBCN members. As VBCN, we do not predominantly focus on the collections, but try to create more professionalism by organizing round tables to exchange information, for example, how digitalise a collection, what kind of contracts to make for galleries and artists, how to present the works of art, how to preserve the works of art etc.
On the other hand, we also want to stimulate the discussion of what is corporate art itself, what the term exactly means. For example, museums were reluctant in the beginning and in a way were prejudiced as they have the idea that the museum is a better place to collect art instead of companies, and moreover, that museums can guarantee artistic quality. They rather prefer to get the companies art budget direct to acquire for the museums. So there is a lot of work to do for the VBCN. For that reason, we published in 2009 the book Corporate Art Collections in the Netherlands, For the book, we interviewed 19 stake holders (Collectors, journalist, gallery owners, artists etc.) and we asked Dr. A. Witte – assistant professor in cultural policy at the University of Amsterdam - to write for the publication. He researched the history of Corporate Art collecting, and tried to answer the question of legitimization in having a corporate art collection. Corporate Art in the Netherlands was in the beginning, in the 1960s, more serving a social aim, companies were displaying pieces of art in their offices so that the employees could get in touch with art, and become artistically educated. Later, for some companies art became a marketing tool, and some introduced the idea of corporate social responsibility (CSR) as the basis for having a collection. This recently changed to the concept of corporate cultural responsibility, which is a redefinition of CSR in a more explicit cultural way. He concludes that the various aims shifted over time, and fluctuated with changing general policies of each company.
Q: Do the members need to pay fees to join?
A: Members pay an annual fee so we can finance our activities and maintain a secretariat. Being member of the board is an honourable position and goes without payment. We pay for someone doing our administration, and for the rest try to collaborate as much as possible in the organisation of our activities. For example, our publication Corporate Art Collections in the Netherlands was co- financed by several cultural Funds and the Mondrian Foundation, an institution responsible for allocating the budget for visual art of the Dutch government.
From your point of view, what do you think are the most important and valuable experiences you have gained in process of managing this Association.
Bringing so many art professionals together and sharing information is very stimulating. Most of the members are working often as a soloists in their company, mainly because their work is not part of the core business.
Secondly, bringing the corporate collections out into the open through the VBCN is like revealing a big secret. In the Netherlands, there is so much high quality art to be found in Corporate Art Collections that it merits to be shown to the public.
It is a challenge to open up these collections, most of these works of art invisible. Bank collections for example, due to regulation and safety measures, are seldom open to the public. But the collection for which I am responsible, that of the AMC Academic Medical Centre Amsterdam is the opposite: it is open to the public 24/7.
We try to find ways to open up these treasuries for which the VBCN communicates in various ways for example by organizing round tables, lectures, exhibitions and our website www.vbcn.nl .We think it is a good and worthwhile thing to collect art as a company: it brings good spirit to the people working in the company and stimulates an ‘out of the Box thinking’, and last but not least opens up new networks.
Q: The VBCN is a link between the curators; you don’t have any curators yourselves?
A: The VBCN is a platform - with a good national and international network in the art world - for curators and art advisers, where we share and exchange knowledge and information.
When a company becomes a member, they are the ones to decide who will be sent to the VBCN meetings. That can be an art professional working for company, or an external art adviser. To safeguard the independence of the VBCN, we do not allow anyone with commercial links to acquire membership.
We are now setting up a tutor system for new members, in which a member who is more experienced will guide a newly admitted member for the duration of one year.
We ask and stimulate an active participation of all our members, so that they can come up with themes for roundtable meetings, research and discussions.
Q: What do you think is corporate art collection?
A: A corporate art collection can have many definitions depending on the company. Some of our members have over 10.000 works of art while some are small but own outstanding works of art. As long as the intention of the board of the company is positive and supportive towards a corporate art collection, it can be successful in achieving its aims. If the board is not supporting the art collection, however, there is no way of setting up a professionally maintained art collection; you need the commitment and the continuity of the CEO’s and managers. Finally, an interesting art collection cannot be brought together overnight. This is one of the most important things that the VBCN members try to communicate with everyone.
Q: Were there any particular difficulties that you encountered in your process of setting up a daily management structure for the organization?
A: No, not at all. All the curators from the companies are very active; we get together about 4 times a year. In between those gatherings, we meet at various gallery and museum openings and at international art fairs.
But a realistic problem now is the economic recession. A lot of the member companies in 2008 had to decide to cut down the budget on everything including the budgets for art collection. In some cases they even decided to sell parts of their collections. The VBCN is of the opinion that a corporate art collection should not be seen as a financial asset. We communicate to our members and the general public that it is not a good idea to collect art as a form of investment or to consider it as a figure on the balance.
We did have one member of VBCN where the board of the company has decided nevertheless to sell the art collection. We have advised them to keeps the works together by donating the collection to a museum. However, they just auctioned everything, which illustrated what Lucebert, a Dutch artist once said: “All things of value are defenceless”.