“We really don’t care what others think of what we buy. But of course, we hope that we are buying good art.”
Collector, entrepreneur, solicitor, and co-founder of art space SMAC, Matthias Birkholz tells us about what Berlin is lacking and about the tricky task of choosing what art to buy with his wife, Stephanie Hundertmark.
FAM: When you buy art with your wife, Stephanie—do you always decide together on an art piece?
Matthias Birkholz: We always buy together and we always decide together. Most of the time we like the same art but sometimes not.
We still buy it! Stephanie likes minimalistic art and once chose to buy works by Channa Horwitz, so we have two pieces by her. She liked them more than I did at the time, but now I guess I’ve come around to them.
Did you ever sell art again?
No. We have a storage and thankfully space at both of our law firms’ offices as well.
My experience in Germany is that nobody wants to be called a “collector” as this sounds too strategic, what do you think?
Actually my impression is that a lot of people like to be called collectors. Maybe not in an interview but they still like to be in books about collections. Actually, I don’t care, if you want to call us a collector couple, that is fine. Honestly, I know my limitations, I am no art historian. It is an evolution like eating cheese or drinking red wine. It is a process of exposing yourself to art, there is no overall concept. We would never decide against a work on the basis that it wouldn’t “fit” into our existing collection. We really don’t care what others think about what we buy. But of course, we hope that we are buying good art.
What is the most important aspect of an artwork for you?
That it touches and speaks to me. For me, it is not the craftsmanship of a piece that attracts me but its essence. It is often a comment on life that I found personally interesting. Like this work by Falk Haberkorn.
So, was there a point where you experienced this feeling in your life?
I like art that tells me something about myself—that comments on life and on my life. For me Haberkorn’s work feels like the punishment in school of having to write the same line over and over again on a chalk board. With this work a couple of things come together. Firstly, it is beautiful but it also asks questions; Are we doing the right thing? Or is there something else we should be doing? Is this it? Living in a well-constructed penthouse in Berlin?
How is the online art market evolving in your eyes? And do you see it continuing to increase?
I certainly think so, afterall we just opened a web shop… but honestly, I personally only buy works from artists that I have physically seen. There is still a certain hesitation from artists and gallerists to sell art online. They seem to prefer to sell in the more traditional way, but this is definitely changing fast!
Is there an artist you have an eye on right now?
An artist I really like is Jenny Michel. The big collage piece in the kitchen is by her. It has discolored slightly because of the sunlight but I asked the artist before hanging it and she didn’t mind in the slightest. The effect is actually rather good. Her work is so intelligent—it is beautiful and elaborate, but also tells you something. We like Sven Johne and Adrian Sauer very much too, who are both represented by Klemms gallery in Berlin.
Did you ever buy an artwork by an artist you didn’t know?
Yes. But the interesting question is: did we ever buy work by an artist we didn’t like?
Yes. This is how art can be, it can say something and can be done beautifully without you connecting with the artist.
Your art space SMAC has become very popular, how did you come up with the idea for it?
Everything important I do in life and art, I do together with my partner and wife Stephanie. We bought this house and then discovered the foundations of an old building buried under concrete in the courtyard. As we were cleaning it up we found an old cellar and we thought “Why not rebuild the whole house?” And so we did. We decided to do something useful with it, besides organizing birthday parties there for our children.
What is the concept behind SMAC?
We didn’t want to associate it with our names as we thought that for the artists it would be better if we could create some kind of pseudo institution. As it is right in the center of Berlin, it gives young artists real credibility to say “I have an exhibition in Berlin”. Carla Chan, the artist who will exhibit next at SMAC, is a young, talented Hong Kong artist who does intelligent and poetic video works.
You also offer editions at SMAC—how did this start?
We do SMAC for fun and of course also to support artists we like. SMAC started with this general idea and it kept evolving. First, we organized exhibitions with no commercial focus. Next, we wanted to create some commercial support for the artists by working together with their galleries and, if they did not have one, sell art through SMAC. Finally, we started producing editions. Now we have seven and do one for each exhibition. They serve as a great entry point into buying art.
With SMAC you bypass the challenges of a normal gallery…
Of course it is in a way easier for us, as SMAC is not about making money but more about supporting artists to set up an exhibition and maybe getting some of the production costs back. We serve plenty of wine at the openings, maybe that is also why so many people come by!
If you could change one thing in the Berlin art scene what would it be?
That is very easy to answer, we need a real art fair. It is a big loss that we only have Art Berlin Contemporary (abc). The art scene in Berlin is unique, but commercial people don’t really make use of it. They always complain that there are not enough collectors and the big sales are done elsewhere. This might be true, but all the artists are here and the environment is so vibrant.
To view the latest exhibition and artworks available with SMAC, please click here.