The Belgian banker has been collecting art for art’s sake since the mid-1990s. Part of his collection is on display in his old Brussels loft twice a year.
© Michel Loriaux, courtesy Servais family collection
Alain Servais stopped following his heart a long time ago. The 56-year-old takes collecting seriously. Feelings, much less speculation, play little part in his choices: for Mr. Servais, art is an intellectual and philosophical pursuit. He has bought hundreds of works but prefers installations and digital creations to paintings and drawings, whose market dominance he deems anachronistic in the age of the Internet and new technology. In his collection, famous artists—Sherman, Richter, Kruger, Holzer—mingle with younger or emerging ones—Versteeg, Papadopoulos and the team of Broomberg and Chanarin. Like many collectors, Mr. Servais feels the need to show their work to the public, which he does in his old nearly 9,700 square-foot loft in the Schaerbeek area of Brussels.
What guides your choices?
The first thing I ask myself is this: is there any chance it will seem as interesting 30 years from now as it does today? In my opinion, what makes a work important is its connection to the reality in which it was created, the social, political and artistic context. From that viewpoint, a collection is a bit like a history book. For over 20 years, I’ve collected works from a psycho-sociological perspective: they have to do with how people live together. That was already true with my earliest acquisitions, Nan Goldin and Andres Serrano’s photos of America’s underside, the sense of unease that beauty can cause when it’s unconventional. There was already something political about the work of those artists.
How would you define your collection right now? Does it resemble you?
I often say that a collection is always a mirror image of the collector. It allows him to be revealed to himself and to others, but if it focuses on just a single individual, it really wouldn’t be interesting. That’s the danger of collecting with the heart, of purchasing works on the basis of “gut feeling". After a while, there’s necessarily a risk of repetition, of always buying more or less the same thing. So you have to constantly ask yourself these questions, continuously go back and forth and be as open to reality as possible.
Isn’t exhibiting certain pieces in your collection precisely a way of "questioning" it?
Art lives only when it is seen. Like many collectors, I don’t consider myself so much the owner of the works I collect as their custodian. Showing the collection has always been a priority of mine, and that’s just what I do in Brussels by letting the public see it by appointment year round, but especially during the Art Brussels fair [editor’s note: the next one will take place from April 23 to 26]. For eight or nine years, I’ve asked outsiders, whether freelance curators, artists, writers, etc., to organize the exhibitions. I give them access to the whole collection and they can do whatever they want. The first time I see the result is when it’s all hung. There’s a certain amount of risk in letting outsiders do whatever they please with your collection and seeing what they’ll make of this mess that’s also a representation of yourself, but it’s worth it. A collector is a risk-taker, and I’ve never been disappointed.
The number of art fairs and the amount of work being produced has led to much talk about "collector fatigue". Have you ever felt it?
I don’t feel like a victim of my collection. I always decide what I want to see, and although there’s a lot out there in the market and a plethora of fairs, I don’t feel overwhelmed at all. It’s important to know how to take your time to select works. I must participate in around 30 fairs a year, and going to see art on various regional scenes, in Asia and Latin America for example, still makes me happy.
What’s your take on how the art market has changed over the past 20 years?
Art is nothing but the reflection of the society in which it is produced. The same tensions are found in the art market as in every other area of society. The growing concentration of wealth in the hands of a small minority over the course of the last 10 or 20 years is also found in art. The same clique, the same coterie, shifts unbelievable sums of money around and makes yacht-builders and golf course developers rich. There’s not one art market, but a host of markets for three main kinds of collectors: investors, people who consider artworks fashion accessories and those who love art for art’s sake. I fall into in the last category, and although the number of these collectors hasn’t really gone down in that period, it’s much smaller percentage-wise. Nevertheless, it’s still possible to buy important artworks for €10,000 or less!
Are you thinking about transmission yet?
No, not really! I hope I’ll be able to keep my collection for a long time, bearing in mind that every collection has a fairly clear best-by date. It can happen that a collector loses faith along the way. Sometimes it’s because of age or weariness due to routine, or a desire to do something else, like Antoine de Galbert and his Maison rouge [editor’s note: foundation’s museum in Paris, which closed in 2018 after 15 years of exhibitions]. But I think that as long as you’re interested in art with a capital "A", it means you’re still alive. I’m aware of its asset value, but my children aren’t interested in it right now, and what’s more, it’s my thing, my passion. There can be something quite invasive about that for them, creating a kind of competition. As for setting up a foundation, I really don’t want to. We’ll see about that in due time!