Going on Instinct: The Collection of Pieter and Marieke Sanders

Nina SiegalSotheby's Magazine

AMSTERDAM – Typically, when collectors decide to donate art to a museum, they select a few works they are ready to part with and offer them as a gift. For Marieke and Pieter Sanders Jr., however, this way of donating their art was a bit too old-fashioned. The Sanderses, who have collected more than 1,000 pieces over the past 40 years, are known for never having taken a particularly traditional approach to art patronage.

So a few years ago, when the Haarlem-based couple decided to support Amsterdam’s newly expanded Stedelijk Museum, they simply opened their home and storage facilities to the museum’s curators and then-director Ann Goldstein and let them pick and choose. No limit was set on the number of pieces the curators could select, says Marieke, but she and her husband did have two caveats: First, they would check with their children before giving anything away; and second, the couple reserved the right to say no. In the end, Pieter explains, that veto power was only used in a few cases – for art the children wanted to keep and for promised gifts the couple would leave on their walls for a little while longer.

After spending two years considering how the Sanderses’ holdings related to the Stedelijk’s collection, curators selected 115 works, highlights of which are on view in ADDITION: Gift Pieter and Marieke Sanders. The exhibition runs through 3 January 2016 and includes pieces by Jan Andriesse, Alicia Framis, Ryan Gander, Navid Nuur, Paulien Oltheten, Amalia Pica, Stephen Waddell and duo WassinkLundgren. The juxtaposition of these works with contemporary art by many of the same artists already in the museum’s permanent collection allows visitors to understand how these gifts pertain to the Stedelijk’s acquisitions process, explains exhibition curator Anne Ruygt, who helped select them. As a curator, “you don’t just want artworks,” she says. “You want work that’s relevant and valuable to the current collection. It’s not about single individual highlights,” Ruygt continues, but it’s “a powerful statement that we can add these works to the collection and therefore extend it.”

Reflecting on the process of giving and on the meaning of their gift, the couple expresses true satisfaction. “It’s interesting to discuss the works, especially the older works,” says Marieke. “They get out of your view when they are in storage, but when they come out again you say, ‘Oh, did we have that?’ “You see it in a new light.” Adds Pieter, “We’re only too happy, and the artists are also happy, that their works are now included in the Stedelijk’s collection.”

In fact, the Sanderses were among the first to collect many of these artists, buying from their earliest exhibitions and often from local galleries devoted to showing emerging international talent. The couple maintains this adventurous spirit. “They’re both super active – looking at art, going to art fairs,” says Amsterdam gallerist Annet Gelink, from whom they have bought work by Gander, Framis, Barbara Visser and Kiki Lamers over the years. “You can say they’re always there. It’s typical for them to buy at an opening,” Gelink continues. “They have already done all their research, and they talk a lot to the artists at the opening. They’re very impulsive buyers, which is nice because that’s a lost generation. Nobody has this open mind anymore of just looking at things and being taken by the work.”

Marieke describes their collecting style as intuitive rather than impulsive. In other words, she explains, she and her husband buy with their hearts first and then follow with their heads. When asked how long they take to choose art, Pieter responds: “Five minutes. Or less.” Marieke agrees: “Often we look at each other, and we know.” When one of them doesn’t like something, they don’t make a purchase. And then there’s another more or less strict rule: The work has to fit through the door of their house.

Luckily their home in Haarlem, about 40 minutes away from Amsterdam by car, has a fairly large door. Inside their cozy but spacious three-storey house, some rooms display as many as a dozen works of art. A few of these, such as a photograph by Viviane Sassen or an oil painting by Eva Räder, are shown in conventional fashion, on the walls. Others catch visitors’ eyes more unexpectedly. For example, After the Party 2007, a trio of white balloons by Hans Op de Beeck, is nestled against the living room ceiling’s mouldings and not immediately visible.

Around the corner from the house, the Sanderses have another building, a former 17th-century horse stable that was later turned into a furniture-maker’s shop. Now the Sanderses’ storage facility, it also functions as a small gallery, showcasing another 40 or so pieces. A room upstairs is devoted to screening video work, of which they are particularly fond.

Pieter comes from a family of art collectors that has been repeatedly included in ARTnews’s yearly “200 Top Collectors” feature. His father, Pieter Sanders (“Piet”), who died in 2012 just after his 100th birthday, was a notable Dutch jurist and professor who, with his wife, Ida, collected works by avant-garde artists of their era, including Karel Appel and Henry Moore. A Moore sculpture in Pieter and Marieke’s dining room and an Appel painting, placed high on a hallway wall, attest to this legacy. “We started with work borrowed from my father’s collection,” recalls Pieter, who followed him into the field of law, “and eventually we bought our own things. You’re used to having art around you, and it was nice to go and discover things.”

Pieter’s brother, Martijn Sanders, the former director of Amsterdam’s prestigious Concertgebouw concert hall, is also regarded as a major patron. He has a trove of contemporary art by a firmly established core group including Gilbert & George, Cindy Sherman and Anselm Kiefer, whom he and his wife, Jeannette, collect in great depth. From July 2014 to January 2015, the Stedelijk Museum hosted a temporary exhibition of loaned works from their collection, titled Bad Thoughts. Although they share a love of art, “there’s a huge contrast between Pieter and his brother,” notes Xander Karskens, curator of contemporary art for the Frans Hals Museum/De Hallen Haarlem, “because the way Martijn collects is to pick an artist and follow the career. This is not what Pieter and Marieke do.”

Karskens, who included about ten works from Pieter and Marieke’s collection in A Modest Proposal for Radical Bourgeoisie, an exhibition of contemporary art from four private Dutch and Flemish collections at the De Hallen last winter, explains that Pieter and Marieke “buy early work by young artists. They tend to look for what is happening now, look for new developments in art, and they only buy one or, at most, a few pieces by a given artist.”

Because of their focus on youth and fresh ideas, those few pieces are typically from within the first five years of the artist’s professional life, and usually just two or three years in. “We buy young artists because many of the new developments are from young artists,” Pieter explains. “Sometimes they keep working in the same field, and sometimes they’ll start to do completely different things. It’s only when they start doing something completely different that we might buy the same artist again.”

To keep themselves informed about emerging artists and innovative work, the couple always attends open studio days at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam, where they discover mostly young international artists who are there on fellowships. While many of their contemporaries are more likely to favour such hallowed fairs as The European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht or KunstRAI in Amsterdam, the Sanderses’ top picks among the Dutch fairs are much smaller and devoted to edgier art: Art Rotterdam and the UNSEEN Photo Fair, which takes place in a former gasworks in Amsterdam. They’re also active players on the international scene, visiting all the big jet-setting fairs but then just as avidly – or perhaps more so – scouring the satellite events. “In Basel they’ll do Liste as well, and they’ll also do Volta,” Karskens notes. “They will do Frieze or the Armory in New York but then also Pulse, and this is quite special,” he continues. “They keep on orienting themselves in this direction and keep rejuvenating themselves in this way.”

The Sanderses confirm this is their strategy. “We are always looking for innovative thoughts, ideas, new techniques,” says Marieke. “We find it very interesting that young artists find new ways of exploring ideas. Or they explore old subjects, but they do it in a contemporary way. It’s not just the skills that interest us, like that they can paint very well,” she continues. “If they don’t add something contemporary, it’s not something that’s interesting to us.”

Nina Siegal is a critic and writer based in Amsterdam. Her novel The Anatomy Lesson (Nan A. Talese) was published last year.

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