Conversations with Collectors: Tiqui Atencio

'I think everyone has an ego: it depends how you use it'

Part of a new series of ‘Conversations with Collectors’, Tiqui Atencio spoke to Frieze.com about responsibility and regret in the making of a collector, and her new book Could Have, Would Have, Should Have.

Frieze.com Could Have, Would Have, Should Have is not about your collection, but about collectors; moreover, it’s about the things they don’t buy, as well as what they do. How did your thinking start?

Tiqui Atencio Collectors are always talking, and giving advice, sending you somewhere. ‘Have you ever heard of Kara Walker?’ ‘Have you seen the Marlene Dumas show…’. It sounds incredible but early on, even artists like Dumas were ones you had to discover through recommendations. We are always swapping information and anecdotes. And exchanging regrets. About three years ago I was having lunch with Jill Ritlblat and it occurred to me that these conversations could all build up a picture; I just thought “this is it”.

Frieze.com There are these wonderful cartoons by Pablo Helguera throughout the book - quite a bold move given that they’re so playful. Where did that idea come from?

TA I knew I wanted illustrations from the beginning. I thought about inserting photos through the book in the style of a photo album - the kind I’d do as a young girl. Then I realised how many photos I would need… But I wanted the book to humanise the world it’s about, so I thought - wouldn’t it be wonderful to have cartoons?  So much more fun. Then I had to choose the right cartoonist. I agonized over the options – and then realised the best one was already there! Pablo is a friend, and had been a close friend of my aunt - she has been one of my great inspirations in life.

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Cartoon by Pablo Helguera from Could Have Should Have Would Have (c) Pablo Helguera

Cartoon by Pablo Helguera from Could Have Should Have Would Have (c) Pablo Helguera

Frieze.com Were there any particular people who inspired or oriented this project?

TA An early conversation was with Maja Hoffmann, and it was so lively that from that I realised the style of the book had to be anecdotal. But no: really the book is born out of a thousand conversations. I am regularly going to fairs and biennales and galleries - every Saturday and Friday I do the rounds of the galleries. And being involved with museum board and acquisition committees: this all gives me a wonderful platform for meeting people. I am privileged, really, to know so many people, but so often I have to have these very short conversations with them, because we’re all in a hurry. So this was an opportunity to spend more time really talking to them, to dig into these topics more deeply. I definitely never wanted the book to be about me only; I would never be able to fill enough pages!

Frieze.com The index of the book is crammed with names - Agnes Gund to Benedikt Taschen. How did you decide whom to talk to? Were there any reluctant characters you had to persuade?

TA Anyone I had to persuade, I dropped - if they didn’t want to talk, then I just moved onto someone else that I had on my wish list. I wanted to have very candid conversations, and some people need to be careful with the information they share. But also, I wanted to make a positive statement about the world of art. We are very used now to a negative image of “collectors”. I don’t feel there’s anything to add there. Yes there are big egos - which exist in every world. But they’re also the big givers. I think everyone has an ego: it depends how you use it. So I wanted to add something new to the picture, to focus on how wonderful it is - how privileged we are - to wake up and have art on our walls.

Frieze.com What art do you see on the wall when you first wake up?

TA That depends where I am. In New York: David Salle. In London: Pistoletto…

Frieze.com What was the first work you acquired?  You talk in the book about being given Bernard Buffet painting as a wedding present when you were 17.

TA Well that’s not the core of my collection by any means. But it was I suppose the “eye opener”. It was so beautiful: a white vase of lilies, with black. And the flowers were yellow. In contrast with his better known dark works, this was something joyful.

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Should Have Could Have Would Have by Tiqui Atencio, published by Art/Books

Should Have Could Have Would Have by Tiqui Atencio, published by Art/Books

Frieze.com If you could live with only one work from your collection, would it be that, or something else?

TA That’s so hard, so horrible. But maybe a black and white Christopher Wool. I remember it so clearly: the first trip I did with the Guggenheim after I became part of the council, we went to Cologne and there was an exhibition of Wool’s at Max Hetzler. I remember being in a bus and driving past a building with many galleries in it - even through the window, I looked up and saw these black and white forms. Beautiful, beautiful. I went in, and the painter was there, and we talked and talked and talked - we talked so much, I didn’t get a chance to go up and see the other exhibition in the building, by the young Damien Hirst

Frieze.com How do you tend to make discoveries like that?

TA Quite often serendipitously. As I said, I was recommended once upon a time to “go and check out this Marlene Dumas” and I soon fell in love with her work.  But there was a list - and I never managed to get one. I was dying for one. One came up at auction which is now one of her most acclaimed works and I was the underbidder - can you imagine?  I didn’t have any money at the time, so I don’t know how I would have paid for it anyway. Now it is the hands of Charles Saatchi.

At fairs I make discoveries - at Frieze Masters here I acquired things by an artist I have never heard of before - Bill Walton [at the stand of Philadelphia’s Fleisher/Ollman in the Spotlight section]. He’s deceased. He created the most beautiful, small works of art. He’s almost constructivist, but his vocabulary is miniature. The biggest work on the stand is the size of the back of the chair. The delicacy really struck me.

Frieze.com Has anything else stood out for you at the fairs here, or in around “Frieze Week” in London?

TA I was asked this earlier - I need time to think. At Skarstedt, works by David Salle from the 1980s - his old works are especially fabulous. I’m a sucker for Rudolf Stingel… I feel I should say someone more under the radar!  Sculptures by Leonor Antunes at kurimanzutto - I found those extremely interesting. Outside the fair, Kounellis at White Cube was mind-blowing - that is a must see. And I am excited for the 'Abstract Expressionism' show at the Royal Academy.

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Tiqui Atencio signs copies of her book in the VIP Room at Frieze London 2016, following her 'Conversation on Collecting' with Louisa Buck

Tiqui Atencio signs copies of her book in the VIP Room at Frieze London 2016, following her 'Conversation on Collecting' with Louisa Buck

Frieze.com Speaking of institutions, you’ve held very prominent positions at the Guggenheim and now the Tate. How did that part of your experience begin?

TA There was a friend called Barbara Steffen, who approached me about the Guggenheim International Council. I was aware of it, but not informed. When she asked me if I’d like to do it  I didn’t know what I would have to do, I didn’t know if I would have time to do it well.  The chair at the time was Dakis Joannou - he passed the chair to me in time. Eventually I thought: this would be a way to keep me on my feet, and concentrated. Looking back, for me, it’s been the most intelligent move I’ve made within the art sphere, being part of a institution. You just learn so much, you take the pulse of the market, of the curatorial world, to learn things and see things and get introduced - it’s unparalleled.  That comes with responsibilities too: you have to give time, to donate, to support projects and exhibitions, and to visit - visit artists, fairs, take trips.

Frieze.com Have these responsibilities shaped the way you approach your own collecting?

TA I don’t buy because a museum is buying. It’s very rare that I do buy the artist the museum has bought. It might be an artist I have bought before - but even then out of 10 ten times, that happens once or twice. The role of the committee at the Tate now is about filling in gaps in the collection, creating a broad and meaningful whole.  So that’s a different set of priorities to my own collection, say. In a way it’s more challenging - I like that.

Frieze.com You touch several times in the book about how long it takes people to realise they are collectors - they resist that label even when they’ve been collecting art for years. When did you accept the label for yourself?

TA Well - I am a “collector”, yes. But even I still shrug off that title sometimes, just like the people I spoke to did. It’s a difficult thing to fathom, being a collector. It’s not a profession. And it’s not the same as just buying things. At the beginning –you may just be buying things for your house but with time, and dedication gradually you become a collector

Frieze.com So how would you characterise the activity of a true collector as distinct from “just buying things”?

TA It’s more conscious. It’s dedication. But there are so many approaches… Some collect “in depth”, as we say, choosing one artist or area and going deep into it. Others, in breadth. Some collect based own their life experience, where they’ve been and lived. In the book, James Hedges describes a stage of collecting as ‘travelogue’ - buying Tina Modotti in Mexico, Cartier-Bresson in Paris, etc. For some it’s based on who they are, and their heritage - James comes from a collecting legacy. When I was growing up I saw my uncle and aunt collecting different things, Latin American, Modern and Contemporary, Pre-Columbian as well as Latin American pintores viajeros. From seeing them collect, I started to learn, and a commitment to learning as much as I can has helped me form my collection.

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Tiqui Atencio with Yehudit Sasportas' Raw Material Nr. 3 (2013) on the stand of Sommer Contemporary Art at Frieze London 2016. Artwork courtesy: the artist and Sommer Contemporary Art, Tel Aviv. Photo courtesy: Linda Nylind / Frieze

Tiqui Atencio with Yehudit Sasportas' Raw Material Nr. 3 (2013) on the stand of Sommer Contemporary Art at Frieze London 2016. Artwork courtesy: the artist and Sommer Contemporary Art, Tel Aviv. Photo courtesy: Linda Nylind / Frieze

Frieze.com So it’s kind of an education?

TA Yes - there is a lot of education in the process. You have to do a lot of leg work. Like any passion!  You go to museum, to fairs, to galleries. Education creates an eye. You have to ask questions, investigate - read. Especially with prices today - you have a responsibility to yourself, to your family, to make informed decisions. It’s not so simple - you have to know what you’re doing.

Frieze.com Someone asked you in your 'Conversations on Collecting' talk earlier today “How do you haggle?”

TA And I said “Very Well!”.  Well, that was partly a joke, Sometimes you don’t haggle - you have to step up to the plate. But there is nothing wrong with asking for a discount. Sometimes, it’s just part of the conversation - galleries want the work to go to collectors, and you have a relationship: or you have to build one. That means having a responsibility to the artist, and the galleries. You’re a custodian at the end of the day. But it’s good to trust yourself. I’ve never had a curator: I always do my own homework.

Frieze.com Is this a good moment to talk about regrets?

TA Well, you make mistakes - it’s inevitable. That’s one of the messages of the book. When I have been insecure about a decision I’d start talking to a curator or a director I knew, who gave me good advice. Sometimes I did follow it, sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes they have a different vision - what a curator is thinking is not necessarily applicable to a personal collection. I don’t regret any decisions I’ve taken on advice.

Frieze.com What are your biggest regrets, then?

TA I want my heart back!  My Jeff Koons red heart [Hanging Heart (Red/Gold) (1994-2006). In the book, Atencio describes buying the work based on drawings in Koons’ studio, before it had been fabricated, and then being put off by its size relative to her apartment]. And the small Robert Ryman I was the underbidder on at auction. Those are the works that most haunt me.

Could Have, Would Have, Should Have by Tiqui Atencio is out now from Art/Books

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