“It’s like a disease, the passionate collector sees no borders, but on the other hand there is nothing more fun in the world.”
Joëlle and Eric Romba’s ROCCA Foundation in Berlin is a must-see for anyone with an interest in how to put together a distinct and personal art collection. With a wealth of experience in art, we speak to Joëlle about her career and her husband the “Trüffelschwein”.
Before even sitting down to talk we take a quick tour of Joëlle’s beautiful home and the open, light rooms of the upper floors. It is impossible not to be struck immediately by the art’s considered and easy arrangement—this is a collection to be enjoyed, not worshipped on the walls. Joëlle tells me about a Max Frintrop work hanging in her bedroom: “It was raining constantly on the island of Sylt and my husband and I had nothing to do all day but surf online. We found this work and simply had to have it.” Was it a thrill, buying online, I ask her? “It was a different pleasure, I felt real trepidation before it arrived—would I actually like it?” You can see that there is an impulsiveness to Joëlle’s collecting, a spontaneity which gives the collection its own energetic quality. In the hallway a colorful Simon Starling photograph is itself in danger of being overlapped by the neatly hung jackets on coat rack. “I may be impulsive for my own collection, but never when I am consulting for other people”, she tells me.
Her excitement at uncovering a new artist was plain to see—I mention a Berlin artist I like and in seconds she is feverishly hunting him down on her phone, spelling his name out to me to be sure she has it right. “Sometimes there are works we can’t resist buying, and some are out of reach and we have to buy over time. The two Daniel Lergon’s above the sofa weren’t extremely expensive, but we love to live with them, they are always joyful. We just bought a new one at auction but it’s 2m 70 and we can’t fit it in through the door.” She looks around for a second, as if scanning the room for a previously unseen entrance big enough to fit the canvas.
Joëlle Romba lives in one of those impressive Berlin villas rising incongruously between the trees surrounding Nikolassee. During the interview a violent thunderstorm breaks out, while we sit down in her bright, surprisingly cozy kitchen beneath a huge Matt Calderwood. Joëlle tells me about an Eberhard Havekost edition she bought, “because by the time we got into his work the price was way too high. The editions we have as editions we would also love to have as paintings.” We are interrupted by Joëlle’s large dog Emile chewing noisily on a fragment of bone that is banging against the coffee table, “Is your microphone picking this up?”, she asks amused.
Joëlle and her husband Eric’s ROCCA Foundation is a vibrant array of more than 150 works collected over the past ten years. It seamlessly combines Carmen Herrera and Gregor Hildebrandt with younger emerging artists like Noa Gur. The ROCCA collection is intended to give an incisive slice of contemporary life. “We don’t collect politically, but our collection gives insights into the issues of today’s society.” The collection is broken down into five “baskets”—architecture in art, photorealistic painting, contemporary Op Art, identity in photography, and art historical archetypes in artistic production—“but we assembled a lot of work and then tried to find out what the categories or paths were that we found ourselves always following.”
Joëlle leads me to a work by Leigh Ledare which has a prominent place in their study. Called An Invitation, the artist received a private commission from a well-connected European woman to produce a series of erotic photographs of her. The work was private but the artist was allowed to produce a series of photographs, which he presented over the front page of the New York Times, but “the woman did not want to be revealed, in these poses, which is why there is a black line over her face”. The front cover corresponds to the day each photograph was taken, and Joëlle’s edition, produced on a Sunday, was taken in the aftermath of Anders Brevik’s attack in Norway. That absurd combination “captures the craziness in our lives, there’s nothing real anymore.”
Having wanted to be a journalist, Joëlle moved to America where she plunged herself into the art scene, visiting the many galleries and museums around Philadelphia. Returning to Germany she worked for Michael Haas Galerie for a few years before becoming an independent curator and consultant. Her consultancy company set up with friends called A Private View worked almost exclusively for private collections. “Advising is nice, but people in Germany don’t want to pay for advice, it’s different in the US and UK. Collectors here phone you up to find out what you have bought after an art fair to decide what they want to buy—free advice!”
We talk for a moment about Joëlle’s husband Eric, a real “Trüffelschwein” (someone with a knack for finding hidden gems). They were introduced to each other by a mutual friend because of their interest in art. A lobbyist in the financial sector and co-founder of the ROCCA collection, “he is a lawyer, and as you know lawyers always know better, but he has a great eye for art. He is a junkie, iPad in hand always looking for something special.” I ask if she has ever hated an artwork that her husband has brought home, “Yes, only once, but now thankfully it’s in his office.”
With Joëlle’s devotion and formidable knowledge of contemporary art, why did she never think about opening her own gallery? “The art market was always my field,” she replies, “but to take on five artists and commit my life to them was never something that appealed to me. Perhaps it’s something to do with my personality—prioritizing is simply not my thing.” Is it important for her to know the artist? To like them even? “I ask about the artist, but basically I have to be convinced by the artwork itself. If I don’t like the artist the work may lose its magic which is stupid, the artwork does not change, only my perception—the artworks should stand alone and speak to us.”
The collection clearly gives them a great deal of pleasure, not only in assembling it but in showing it off as well. “Both Eric and I believe art is produced to be seen by as many people as possible. Our foundation is published in the BMW art guide and we show it to people from all over the world. Sometimes two people, sometimes 30 people. One of us is always here, and Emile is always here,” she says, pointing to the dog.
She tells me she is fascinated by other “people’s collections, learning about the engines that drive them, the psychology of a crazy collector. It’s like a disease, the passionate collector sees no borders and that’s tricky, but on the other hand there is nothing more fun in the world.” Perhaps it is the family setting housing the art, but there is an undeniable sense of warmth to this collection, in all its jubilant, well-chosen splendor. The art spreads into every corner of every room in the house, but there is a perfect balance between the collection and the personalities that have helped piece it together.
Find out more about Joëlle and Eric’s foundation here.
Interview by Duncan Ballantyne-Way