Collectors as philanthropists

This text appeared in the “Collectors as Philanthropists” catalogue for the RazemPamoja Foundation-initiated charity auction held at the Center for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw:

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Philanthropy and collecting stem from opposite impulses. Collecting amounts to acquiring things for one’s own private enjoyment; philanthropy, on the contrary, consists in giving away money or other valuable assets for the public good. The one is self-gratifying and wrapped up in itself, the other selfless and outward-looking. Whereas the collector bestows his affections on objects, the philanthropist is by definition animated by the love of mankind. The auction Kolekcjonerzy filantropami (“Collectors as Philanthropists”) sets out to prove that you can be both.

For a benefit auction to consist solely of artworks donated by collectors is virtually unheard of. While artists are routinely approached with requests for gifts in kind, and indeed their generosity has made live and online auctions organized by the Razem Pamoja Foundation possible in the past, it is much less common for wealthy art collectors to pledge works they own to a worthy cause. Why would they part with pieces they once cherished, which reflect their tastes and often have memories attached to them, when they could give money instead? Apart from anything else, this would have the merit of speeding up the whole process since the aim of any charity auction is ultimately to generate funds.

The founder of Razem Pamoja Foundation, Bartosz Przybył-Ołowski, whose brainchild this alternative type of fundraiser is, does not see it that way. “We could, of course, gather money instead of motivating collectors to donate works from their collections. Even from the very same people. It might have been simpler,” he concedes. “But we also set ourselves the goal of building a unique community of collectors, of connecting individuals, encouraging them and giving them the opportunity to share something they consider significant.” For Przybył-Ołowski, a fundraising event on this scale, which brings together some of Poland’s most prominent art collectors, aside from creating the opportunity for them to showcase a fragment of their personal collections, is primarily an exercise in community building, or strengthening rather. The fact that friends’ associations of Warsaw’s foremost modern and contemporary art museums – the Friends of the Museum of Modern Art, of the Zachęta Fine Arts and the Center for Contemporary Art Zamek Ujazdowski societies – have rallied behind the “Collectors as Philanthropists” auction attests that such a community already exists.

Conceived as a meeting place, this charity auction offers a new breed of philanthropically-minded collectors the chance to join forces and pull resources together, a concept that is at the heart of the Razem Pamoja Foundation, reflected in its very name. Philanthropy typically involves some form of sacrifice and parting with an artwork among many is a small price to pay for contributing to building something other than one’s own collection.

The proceeds from the sale will be used to resume the construction of a school in Jacmel, Haiti and to build from scratch an educational-cum-recreational space in the Mathare slums of Nairobi, both designed by Maciej Siuda in the spirit of experimentation that characterizes his socially-engaged architectural practice and, for that matter, Razem Pamoja’s own working method. Siuda’s rich and complex, semi-open spaces challenge the structural unity, the division into classrooms and corridors – intended respectively for learning and as recreational areas – that makes for the monotony and institutional, even carceral feel of school buildings as we know them. Rather than buildings per se, in the traditional understanding of the term, the visionary alternatives proposed by Siuda are aggregates or clusters of discrete spatial units that organically combine to form what Przybył-Ołowski dubs a “didactic ecosystem”.

By championing these two original and forward-looking architectural projects, the Razem Pamoja Foundation reverts to its core concerns of educating by means of art and engaging privileged art world people in a productive dialogue with less fortunate residents of the Global South. For the former, the “Collectors as Philanthropist” auction is the means to turn what is, after all, a luxury item into well-designed public amenities that the latter can enjoy. What is more, this species of cultural philanthropy puts artworks at the service of another art form, one that allies functionality with beauty.

Although collectors have been known to donate works to museums and art galleries, it is much less common for pieces culled from their collections to be sold off at charity auctions. When this does occur, a mix of donators – artists, dealers and collectors – tend to be involved. Organisations such as Artist Equity are calling on collectors to supply the artworks for fundraising events instead of their makers, arguing that they benefit from tax incentives (at least in the US) unavailable to artists, who stand to lose more in the long run when their works are sold beneath their market value. In its exclusive focus on collectors as the benefactors of this particular charitable function, the Razem Pamoja Foundation sets a precedent. One can only hope this alternative fundraising method catches on.