Sammeln von Kunst im postkommunistischen Bulgarien: Probleme der Übergangsphase

Vessela Nozharova

Vessela Nozharova: A Short History of Art Collecting in Bulgaria

In the wake of the political changes of 1989, there were seemingly no more obstacles to artistic freedom and for a brief moment the future of art collecting looked bright. But after decades of international isolation and centralised management, the Bulgarian art scene was ill-fit to adapt to the new realities. One of the problems was that most artists as well as their public were practically unfamiliar with contemporary art. The first works of contemporary art – performances, actions and installations by a number of art collectives of mostly young artists -- did not emerge until the mid-1980s. But even the artists themselves – who, like previous generations, had received rigorous traditional training – did not think of this output with much seriousness. The critics, tellingly, referred to it as “non-conventional art”. In the 1990s, only a handful of artists and curators saw contemporary art as a possible career direction and those who did sought recognition in the West. Even today, contemporary art is outside the interests of private collectors in Bulgaria and is considered more an expression of artistic eccentricity than a true art form.

The early 1990s were marked by hope and innocence, but also by the fluctuations of a rapidly changing arts environment. New commercial galleries (of sometimes murky capital) emerged, then disappeared. It was a period in which a handful of people made a lot of money, while the majority got poorer and poorer. Critically, the state suddenly withdrew its support for its galleries, including the National Gallery, and it is a sad fact of the transition period that apart from donated artworks, these galleries have been unable to up-date their collections with contemporary art for over two decades. The support of private patrons in a situation like this is crucial, but their attention was engaged elsewhere.

The transition period created a fertile environment for a specific type of collector – typically of modest origins and swiftly accumulated wealth – who thinks of art collecting as an investment and status symbol. Art in the mind of this collector should by necessity be expensive – which explains the bias many Bulgarian collectors today have for ancient and older art, as well as for numismatics and weaponry. Such collections continue to dominate in Bulgaria, not least because the state does little to limit the activities of treasure-hunters. This trend has manifested in a number of bigger and smaller collections of the so-called “Old Masters” – eminent Bulgarian artists who were active from the beginning of the 20th century to the 1960s. Regrettably, Bulgaria has no large Western-style collection of contemporary art and there are few collectors who buy works by young artists or make an effort to stimulate new Bulgarian art in other ways. The 1990s were also a time when the newly-founded private banks entered the art market, but with the crash of the Bulgarian bank system in 1996, their collections changed hands. One such example is the collection of First Private Bank which was purchased in full by one of the biggest collectors of ancient art – Vassil Bozhkov.
A few new collections such as the painting and sculpture collection of Angel Simeonov continued the traditions of the previous period. Like other notable collectors before him, Simeonov owns works by artists such as Genko Genov, Svetlin Roussev, Emil Popov, Dimitar Kazakov, Pavel Koychev, Edmond Demirdjyan, and others. His collection is on permanent view in his hotel in central Sofia.  
There are a few collections which deserve attention both for the vision of their owners, as well as for the publicity they’ve received and the overall effect they’ve had on the local art scene. Some of them are the property of foreign citizens whose life has brought them in contact with Bulgaria.

The biggest of these belongs to the Belgian art collector and supermarket owner Hugo Voeten. Voeten visited Bulgaria for the first time in the 1990s, which is when he met sculptor Pavel Koychev. He liked Koychev’s work and commissioned him to up-scale a number of 1980s sculptures for his park in Geel, Belgium. In the following years, Voeten went on to gather more than 1000 works by more than 80 Bulgarian artists, which is the largest assemblage of Bulgarian art outside the country. Voeten also collects West European classical art (he owns works by Auguste Rodin, Aristide Maillol, Arno Breker, Käthe Kollwitz, François Pompon, Rik Wouters, Frans Masereel, Jozef Cantré, Félicien Rops and Léon Spilliaert), but it is the Bulgarian works which make his collection unique. The emphasis in it is on figure sculpture from the 1960s onwards, but he also owns plenty of paintings, prints and drawings. Some of the sculptural works have been made especially for the park surrounding Voeten’s house in Geel. Among the sculptors represented in it (in addition to Koychev) are Krum Damyanov, Kosta Denev and Emil Popov, while the list of painters includes Svetlin Roussev, Stanislav Pamoukchiev, Atanas Yaranov, and others. Voeten also owns original posters and other works by Christo as well as early works by Nedko Solakov.

The effect that Voeten’s collection had on the Bulgarian art scene in those years is difficult to overestimate. His acquisitions provided a stimulus to many artists who struggled under the limitations imposed by a prolonged economic stagnation. What was especially welcome was the chance to produce large-scale works from durable material – an opportunity which presented itself for the first time since the end of communism. In 2006, Voeten bought an old flour mill outside the Belgian town of Herentals where he has plans to open a museum and art centre. Periodically, his collection is presented within various curatorial projects. In the past ten years, Voeten has also sponsored the Bulgarian participation in the Venice Biennale (2007) and a recent renovation of the exhibition halls of National Art Gallery, among other projects. (In the last few years, his interest as a collector has shifted to international artists like Gilles Barbier, Amy Sillman, Ai WeiWei, Anish Kapoor, Antoni Tàpies,Jan Van Munster, Joseph Havel, Marc Fromm and Panamarenko, which he purchases from art fairs like Art Basel and FIAC in Paris.)
Another outside collector with an interest in Bulgarian art is Gaudenz B. Ruf, who in the 1990s was Ambassador of Switzerland in Sofia. Mr. Ruf was the first foreign diplomat to open up his residency for contemporary art exhibitions in a period which was exceptionally difficult for Bulgarian arts. His collection has works by contemporary artists such as Luchezar Boyadjiev, Kiril Prashkov, Milko Pavlov, Elena Panayotova, Valentin Stefanov, as well as younger ones like Samouil Stoyanov, Rada Boukova and others. Mr. Ruf has also provided personal and financial support to a number of artistic projects. In 2007, he founded the annual SHORTLIST Award for Contemporary Art, which aims to enliven and stimulate the Bulgarian art scene.

The largest collection of contemporary art inside Bulgaria belongs to artist Nedko Solakov (b. 1957) and his wife Slava Nakovska. They began purchasing works by Bulgarian and international artists (or exchanging Solakov’s own works with those of fellow artists) in 1987. Their collection’s focus is on drawing, collages and gouaches. The Solakovs pay special attention to the manner in which the works are acquired – they often have a special relationship with the artist and the process of communication surrounding the acquisition is important for them. Their collection comprises more than 1000 works by more than 200 artists, and can roughly be broken down to three sections. The first one includes the so-called “Classics” – Bulgarian artists from the first half of the 20th century, such as Ivan Milev, Iliya Beshkov, Georgi Mashev, Vladimir The Master Dimitrov, Nikola Mihaylov, Vassil Stoilov, Kiril Petrov, Svetlin Roussev, Genko Genkov and others. The second one is made up of Solakov’s contemporaries: Andrey Daniel, Vihrony Popnedelev, Bozhidar Boyadjiev, Kiril Prashkov, Pravdolyub Ivanov and others. And the third includes paintings, video, installations and photography by younger artists, such as Ivan Moudov, Samouil Stoyanov, Rada Boukova, Mihaela Vlasseva, etc.

In addition, Nedko Solakov owns a number of works by West European artists, most of which were acquired through artist exchange. These include, but are not limited to, Daniel Buren, Mona Hatoum, Paola Pivi, Monica Bonvicini, the Austrian art collective Gelatin, Erwin Wurm, Yoshito Monaro, Raymond Pettibon, Iliya Kabakov,
Miroslav Balka, Dan Perjovschi and Saul Levitt. There are also video works by Kristina Lucas and the artist duo Anetta Mona Cisa & Lucia Tacova, and an installation by the German artist Ante Timmermans. Solakov’s collection is not catalogued and has not been publicly shown to date.

The Bulgarian-born, London-based art collector Spas Roussev has also recently started collecting Bulgarian contemporary art (Pravdolyub Ivanov and Nedko Solakov, among others). Previously, Mr. Roussev had been known for his membership in the board of London’s Serpentine Gallery, as well as for his interest in hip international contemporary artists. A highlight of his collection is Chinese art. In 2010, he presented Beijing-based Zeng Fanzhi in a high-profile event at the National Gallery of Foreign Art in Sofia. Another of his favourites is Terence Koh. Roussev also owns a collection of Marylin Monroe photographs by Laurence Schiller, as well as works by Doug Aitken and Richard Serra.

Although the number of collectors who specialise in contemporary art in Bulgaria is still negligible, interest in it is on the rise. The opportunity to travel to prestigious international art forums and fairs certainly has a beneficial effect in this respect. Purchases are sporadic, but economic recovery and the formation of a prosperous middle class will undoubtedly further help put art collecting in Bulgaria on the path to normalisation.