I run out of wall space from time to time
Károly Gerendai has bought the first piece for his collection in 1991 and has not stopped since. When it comes to collecting, the word passion in his case is by no means an exaggeration: he can't even imagine getting rid of any of the pieces in his collection.
As your name has mostly been linked to Sziget, I would like to ask you one question about the festival. How did you come up with the idea of including various other cultural programs at an event primarily hosting pop music performances? Was it the result of conscious planning or the demands of visitors?
I would immediately like to clarify that Sziget did not start out as a pop music festival. Back then, we had no firm idea of exactly what kind of festival we wanted. It was meant to be a week-long holiday and an eventful cultural cavalcade of sorts. We did not have any experience with such things, since the group of friends who founded the festival had not been to foreign festivals before. A bunch of people of different cultural backgrounds came together in the organizing team and we all put together what was of interest to us, creating the first Sziget. That is why there have been theatre and circus performances as well as film screenings from the beginning, but it is also due to this that Tamás Király’s fashion shows and an exhibition of the statues of István ef Zámbó have taken place on the Hajógyári Island. It soon became clear that these colourful events would make Sziget special and stand out from other festivals around the world. You can say that this instinctive planning process, guided by the desire to realize our individual ideas, later gave a very strong character to the festival.
When did you start collecting? What motivated you in the beginning?
I have bought the first work of art in memory of my mother whose favorite flower was white lilacs. In 1991, I saw a painting of such a bouquet on the wall of a restaurant in Vác, which instantly reminded me of my mum who passed away when I was nineteen, thus it became the first piece in my collection. At that time, of course, I had no idea that I would have more pieces. Before the Sziget Festival, I was the music manager of the band Sziámi, so I was familiar with the Hungarian underground scene where I met various performers, such as István ef Zámbó, Laca Lugosi, András Wahorn, Bada Dada or Dr. Máriás, who were not only musicians, but artists as well. They formed a kind of bridge between the music world and the fine arts, and I saw an opportunity to get to know them not only through their music, but through their other works, so I first started buying works from them. When financial success hit and I became able to afford to buy more, I realized that purchasing contemporary art not only makes me happy, but I can also support artists who often have difficult circumstances. From the second half of the 1990s, I have consciously been buying only contemporary works. I've always been attracted to objects and quality things, but at the beginning I wasn't aware that I was building a collection. I was just happy that more and more works were decorating my home. I soon realized that I appreciate those works much more whose creator I know personally, since I am familiar with the story and the message behind those works.
How do you choose an artwork to be placed on the wall of your apartment or office?
I consider only one aspect: whether or not I want to live together with the piece in question. According to experts, my collection has an arc, but it has several elements that are not so easily integrated into such a narrative. The reason for this is probably that when I choose to purchase a work, I only concentrate on what that piece means to me at that certain moment. I have always chosen artworks because I liked them, but sometimes I wasn’t able to explain, even to myself, what captured me exactly. Coming from a businessman, you may find it strange that I never look at pictures as investments. I can’t even imagine selling them. Nowadays it is becoming more and more important when choosing where to actually put the work, so lately I have hardly bought large pictures. Unfortunately, I run out of wall space from time to time, and if there is no space where I can hang my pictures, I'm in trouble because I don’t buy them to hide them in storage but to look at them. I like starting new projects, because they usually bring more wall surface. One of my biggest problems with Lake Lupa was that there are not too many walls on a beach. (laughs) But we have already built an event hall there since then…
Where do you usually buy your pieces? What is the ratio of Hungarian and foreign artists in your collection?
Although I know many artists personally, I mostly buy from galleries. I don't want to bypass galleries because they are sustained by buyers and they are very much needed as institutions. In the long run, it would also hurt artists because galleries manage them and help them build their careers by organizing exhibitions, or helping artists through their connections so their works can become part of museum collections as well. Furthermore, more prominent galleries also participate in art fairs abroad, which artists may not be able to do on their own. My other principle is that I do not bargain for artworks. I like to know how much it costs and then I decide whether to buy it or not, but I do not want to qualify anyone’s creative work as being pleasing to me, but only for less. Ninety-five percent of my collection consists of works by Hungarian artists. I bought one third at auctions, two thirds from galleries, and a few pictures directly from the artists. I also make purchases at charity auctions quite often because that way I can even support a noble cause at the same time.
Do you consider it important to support culture as an individual?
Since I have always been part of this scene, I have a thorough understanding of its inner workings. In my opinion, there is no market for culture in Hungary. This is partially due to the size of the country, but, on the other hand, for certain genres, it comes from the language barrier, because even though culture is globalizing, if something is only understandable in Hungarian, its opportunities are much more limited than an English-language work’s. Unfortunately, even within the cultural sector, many people think that culture cannot be market-based at all, so it is essentially the state’s job to give culture to the people. But this issue is much more complex. For example, I do not find it fortunate that productions from certain genres receive a significant amount of state support so their ticket prices can be reduced. Of course, this can be a kind of help and encouragement for those who, due to their financial situation, are unable to go to an opera or theater, for example. However, those who can afford it will only have to pay a third or a quarter of the actual cost of the ticket, too, as the rest will be financed by public money. This system neither engages the consumers in the financing of culture, nor encourages stakeholders to try to produce a more competitive, i.e. better quality cultural product. Of course, innovative, experimental artists and workshops cannot deliver on a market basis, as their activities will only become measurable later. In their case, it is indeed very important that both the private sector and the state play a role. As an individual, I think it is important that we help talent and innovation to develop to the fullest extent possible, and thus to advance cultural life. At the same time, I definitely do not endorse the mentality of “we are artists, we should be supported by someone, because we should not consider material aspects in art” which many people still claim. I think it's a bit hypocritical to say “I don’t deal with money because I'm an artist”. One has to deal with maintaining one's life; one cannot say “this is not my problem”. The state can best play a useful role by acting as an incentive, even with the act of making up a system of rules. But I’m not a big believer in expecting everything from the state. I do not consider it a good tactic for people to always expect help from somebody else, preferably from “above”.
And how do you see this as an entrepreneur? How important is it for a business to support culture and what is the best way to do it in your opinion?
I’m happy to hear if a company considers it important to support culture, but it’s up to them. It is not right to expect or require this from an entrepreneur, or to judge their company on whether or not they support health care or culture. I think a business can not only support the arts directly, but also by encouraging its employees to consume culture which can be rewarding for a company in many ways. On the one hand, cultural vouchers can bring tax benefits and, on the other hand, the more culture your employees consume, the more informed and educated they are, the better and more creative they will be as a workforce. And in most areas of economic life, the quality of the workforce is a key issue because it is usually easier to work with thinking people.