Harald Falckenberg on art as adventure, working with the Hamburg Deichtorhallen, and owning 150 works by Richard Prince

“Collectors have a tendency to self-delusion”


Harald Falckenberg hasn’t made it easy for visitors to find his private art museum. The Falckenberg Collection is kept in the former workshops of the Phoenix rubber goods factory—renamed the Phoenix Cultural Foundation—a 20-minute train ride from Hamburg’s chic shopping malls and the cafés along Lake Alster, in the working-class district of Harburg. “So people can’t just pop in before lunch,” he says.

The 2,000 or so pieces form one of the world’s finest collections of contemporary art. Falckenberg reveals little about their overall value, although, by way of a rare example, he says: “Certain works by Richard Prince, of which I have 150, or those by Kippenberger, cost between E1.5m and E3m.”

The five-storey building, remodelled in 2008 by Berlin architect Roger Bundschuh, feels like a cross between a factory and a cathedral-scale central hall of a traditional museum. Generous spaces and white-painted walls and floors focus the visitor’s attention while the distant sounds produced by some of the installations create an atmosphere of permanent productivity; he regards his museum as a place for experimentation and funds the project entirely himself. Since 1998 the museum has staged some 60 exhibitions, including shows devoted to other artists and collectors, such as the art dealer Helga de Alvear’s collection in 2008-09 and the Reininghaus collection in 2010.

Harald Falckenberg was born in Hamburg in 1943. Trained as a lawyer, at the age of 35 he took over as managing director of the family business, Elaflex, manufacturers of refuelling equipment for petrol stations and the aviation industry. So when did he start collecting art?

“I’ve been collecting systematically since May 1994,” he says. “I was 51 years old and felt I needed to get involved with culture and history, rather than travelling to faraway islands or playing golf. Adventure should be something that happens in your head, not on the beach. Engaging with art is an excellent way of getting to the heart of social conflicts. I didn’t grow up with art, I was more into music and people like Bob Dylan and Kurt Weill.”

It was artist Werner Büttner who provided the motivation for the expansion of his collection. “I met him in a bar. He was standing there, sadly propping up the bar, and he told me he had just been kicked out of his house and divorce proceedings had been started. I told him I had a small flat where he could stay for a few weeks, which turned into nearly two years. It must have been in 2000 [or] 2001. Büttner needed money to pay for his divorce and he sold me works by his fellow artists, Martin Kippenberger, Albert Oehlen and Jörg Herold, most of them very good. Back in 2000 I could buy a Kippenberger for between three and five thousand Deutschmarks, a ridiculous price in comparison with what you pay today. Then I bought pieces by their American opposite numbers, Jon Kessler, Mike Kelley, John Baldessari, Paul McCarthy and Richard Prince, and then a third group consisting of Franz West, Öyvind Fahlström and Dieter Roth. What makes them stand out is that they all reject any kind of system or order, sometimes ironically and intelligently, at other times rather stupidly, but the art they produce always works against what is beautiful, good and true, against the traditional perception that things have to look nice. They were all children of the punk era.”

Falckenberg’s preference for art that is subversive and unwieldy—a Jonathan Meese installation has a room all to itself in the museum—emerges in his books including Civil Disobedience: Art in Plain Language, published in 2002, followed in 2007 by From the Machineroom of Art: Chronicles of a Collector. They earned him an honorary professorship in the theory of art at the University of Fine Arts Hamburg. Two years ago he bought two major publishing houses —Merve Verlag and Philo Fine Arts.

“I had written a few books on the law, a field that requires a certain precision, which has served me well in dealing with art. I [had] stopped writing for a long time until [German journalist and critic] Eduard Beaucamp set the ball rolling again. In 2001, he claimed in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper that art collectors were simply poseurs who wanted to flaunt their wealth. At one time, they used to show off by owning powerboats, now they did it by collecting art. But I find it is always dangerous to generalise and I asked him what sort of rubbish he thought he was writing. He then invited me to prepare the case against, which I did. I wrote that the willingness of museums to accept collections had its limits.”

As Falckenberg sees it, the problem lies in the antagonism that exists between private collectors and museums, a result of new perceptions of their respective roles. In order to increase public awareness of his collection Falckenberg has, from January this year, entered into a cooperation agreement with the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg. An additional E570,000 has been earmarked by the city of Hamburg for the Falckenberg-Deichtorhallen partnership to pay for exhibitions and trainees (the Deichtorhallen receives public funding of around E1.4m, but needs around E2m more from sales, entrance fees and sponsorship). In return, Falckenberg will bear all additional costs. The general director of the Deichtorhallen, Dirk Luckow, is enthusiastic about the deal: “Mr Falckenberg has had a decisive effect on the climate for contemporary art in Hamburg and we expect our cooperation to produce very positive effects.”

So what does Falckenberg hope to gain from the arrangement?

“We have been working on the new model for four years. If collections are no longer accepted in the traditional way by museums where they are left to mummify and finally end up being consigned to the storeroom, exhibition centres are the only solution. The question for me is how can my collection best be integrated into public institutions. These days, museums must first and foremost generate visitor numbers. You have to bear in mind that in Germany more people go to museums than to football stadiums.”

And what are the particular challenges facing today’s artists?

“The market and the auction houses have become bigger opinion-formers than the critics. In order to be noticed, artists have to position themselves through self-promotion. For example, Jonathan Meese has become something of an institution, as has Damien Hirst. The London [Hirst] auction in September 2008 will come to be acknowledged as one of the most important events of its kind, in terms of increasing our understanding of how the system works.”

For Falckenberg the prototype modern museum is Tate Modern. “The combination of new and old, collection and exhibition is brilliantly handled,” he says. “But [the UK] is centralised, which perhaps makes things simpler. However, when you cooperate with the state, you have to expect cuts. I was sad to read that the [London University] intends to withdraw funding for the Warburg Institute (The Art Newspaper, July/August 2010, p29). Warburg had enormous influence on today’s cultural sciences. I hope the problem can be resolved.”

In November 2011, in collaboration with the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid and the Centre for Art and Media (ZKM) in Karlsruhe, Falckenberg will stage an exhibition curated by Georges Didi-Huberman which has as its starting point Aby Warburg’s “Mnemosyne Atlas” series 1924-29. In November 2012 there will be an exhibition on visual culture which will also be shown at the Warburg-Haus Hamburg and the ZKM in Karlsruhe. It will include the reconstruction of three presentations made by Aby Warburg at the University of Hamburg in 1927, never previously shown in public.

In the meantime, Hamburg’s budget for art and culture faces severe cutbacks, however public protests—particularly against the announcement that the Altona Museum would close—have lead to the city authorities looking for alternative ways to save money. “Even so,” says Falckenberg, “the market for new, as yet unestablished, art is very bad. In times of crisis the tendency is to invest in real assets. It is precisely because new art has such a hard time that we need to provide space for it. In the spring I am holding an exhibition of the work of 55 young artists, and this will become a regular feature of my programme so as to counteract these market trends.”

“Hamburg and Berlin have challenged the position of Cologne and Düsseldorf as traditional strongholds of the art world and up to a point they have been successful,” he adds. But especially in Berlin—an Eldorado for artists—the way institutions deal with contemporary art is catastrophic. There are no collectors, the whole of Berlin is more or less phoney. But then collectors do have a tendency to indulge in self-delusion.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘“Collectors have a tendency to self-delusion” '