‘I was fortunate to discover Gerhard Richter very early on’

Triptych from Sigmar Polke shown in Baden-Baden for the 10th anniversary of the Museum  Frieder Burda. Source: DPA
A triptych from Sigmar Polke shown in Baden-Baden for the 10th anniversary of the Museum Frieder Burda in 2014.

Handelsblatt: Mr. Burda, you opened the Museum Frieder Burda in 2004. How are things going after 10 years?

Frieder Burda: First of all, I’m extremely grateful that I had the opportunity to build this museum in Baden-Baden. It’s located in Germany’s most beautiful park. We have had 36 major exhibitions and have had seen more than two million visitors to date. That’s an unbelievable number in this small city. I’d have to say that I am rather proud of my life’s work, the result of 40 years of collecting art.

What were the most popular exhibitions?

Marc Chagall brought in 192,000 visitors, The Blue Rider attracted 185,000 and (Emil) Nolde 155,000. Blockbusters like that are important to us.

Have all exhibitions been that successful? 

I was admittedly somewhat disappointed by the sculpture exhibitions. Sculptures, even those by (Alberto) Giacometti, I find generally less appealing to visitors than beautiful paintings, which are a completely different story.

Do you still have palpitations today, as you did before your first art purchase in 196, the slit painting by Lucio Fontana, which is in the anniversary exhibition?

I’ve become older, calmer and more levelheaded. I’m also more critical of painting in general. But even today, I still get very excited when I see a painting that I like. I was fortunate enough to discover Gerhard Richter very early on.

What does your luck consist of?

I immediately liked his painting style. We even became friends. It isn’t easy to make friends with artists. I was always very careful not to get too close to him, or to influence him in any way, as a collector.

Which paintings get your pulse going?

Many years ago, I saw Richter’s three-part townscape in the Abteiberg Museum in Mönchengladbach. I was so excited that my heart was racing, and it led to my attempt to buy the work.

Why do you feel that Richter’s “Townscape TR” is such a great painting?

You have to feel it. There’s no point in looking through catalogs to find the best painting. I have always been extremely enthusiastic about the paintings, and it gave me great satisfaction to be able to buy them.

When did you buy your first painting by Richter?

In the late 1970s. One of my art consultants suggested I invite the fabulous painter Gerhard Richter to dinner. Gerhard turned up with his then wife, Isa Genzken. I confess that I was still a little naïve at the time. I asked him if he’d be interested in painting the high-rise building and the printing plant in Offenburg for us (Burda laughs).

A commission!

Of course, Richter was annoyed and threatened to leave. He said: If that’s what you want, go to an art dealer. I don’t do commissions. I was sufficiently charming and eloquent to convince him to stay. We drank a few more glasses of wine, and the whole thing was forgotten.


You said that you’ve become more critical. In what sense?

I decided early on that we had to be involved in promoting the emerging German art scene. We sold a lot and exhibited in various configurations: Karin Kneffel, Neo Rauch, Eberhard Havekost, Matthias Weischer, Corinne Wasmuht, Heribert Ottersbach, Susanne Kühn. At the same time, I paid very close attention to which of them had staying power.

The painter Karin Kneffel is now under contract with the world’s most powerful gallery owner, (Larry) Gagosian, and is exhibiting worldwide.

I was one of the first to exhibit her, and I still like her work.

Is there anything that disappoints you?

When artists just keep copying themselves and always do the same thing.

Why should I buy a Picasso? I have some excellent Picassos from the late period. I think that chapter is closed. Of course, when it comes to young art I'm far more skeptical than I used to be.

Do you sell from your inventory? Your Sigmar Polke paintings must be very sought after.

Yes, Christie’s and Sotheby’s are after my Polkes. But we’ve organized our inventory. The works we put up for auction were merely contemporaries that ultimately don’t fit into the collection.

Polke and Richter are part of your generation, and you’ve been close to both of them. But as you become more distanced, perhaps your emotional involvement decreases, all curiosity aside. How do you envision approaching today’s art and a younger audience?

We have to attract more young visitors to the museum. Our curator, Patricia Kamp, took a very successful first step with the “JR” exhibition. Some 60,000 visitors saw the show, both in the museum and in the city. It was a real coup, because it was the first time we had ever attracted so many young visitors.

Does this enormous success with the artist, who simply calls himself JR, make Patricia Kamp, your stepdaughter, a contender for the position of museum director?

Yes, that could happen eventually. But Patricia should work somewhere else for a while and get some more practical experience first.

After the museum’s surprise success with JR’s street art collages, will it begin showing more works by younger artists?

The JR exhibition gives me great confidence to do something like that. It was a very important turning point. A museum like ours cannot become static over time. I want to exhibit young artists at the museum in the future. Perhaps we’ll also exhibit video art one day.

What do visitors tell you when you talk to them?

Although I’m in the building quite a lot, very few people recognize me. It’s a wonderful compliment when visitors do approach me and say: “Mr. Burda, your exhibitions are so beautiful. We come here a lot!” It’s an expression of appreciation for me, given all the struggles we’ve been through.

Have you withdrawn from the art market? You made your last purchases in 2011. What’s upsetting you?

There are many reasons for that. Prices for great art are exorbitantly high today. When I’m offered a Picasso, it’s for at least €10 million.

Expensive Picassos haven’t been selling in a long time.

Why should I buy a Picasso? I have some excellent Picassos from the late period. I think that chapter is closed. Of course, when it comes to young art I’m far more skeptical than I used to be. My access to the art world is completely different today. It used to be spontaneous. I also don’t want to spend the night at art shows. I go to Art Cologne, FIAC, Art Basel and the Venice Biennale. But I don’t go to America. Whatever you can see in Miami you can see here too.

Mr. Burda, thank you for this interview. 

Translated from German by Christopher Sultan.

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