An interview with the collector whose not afraid to mix things up.
Opened in 2010, the me Collectors Room located in Berlin-Mitte, is home to the private collection of Thomas Olbricht. Situated over 1,300 square meters, the collection is that of extremities: where Cindy Sherman can be found next to Marlene Dumas, and Gerhard Richter sits next to an Albrecht Durer. In addition to works of fine and contemporary art, the exhibition space also includes Olbricht’s “Wunderkammer”, which currently holds over 300 objects that date back to the Renaissance and Baroque periods – with the odd bug to be found in there too.
To celebrate the start of Berlin Art Week and the opening of the exhibition “The Moment is Eternity – Works from the Olbricht Collection”, we spoke with the collector and chemist, Thomas Olbricht, about the foundation of his collection, why mix-matching objects and artwork comes so naturally to him, and why it’s important for him to share knowledge about culture.
Looking back to the start of your collection, how and when did your endeavours in collecting begin? Was it with contemporary art or did it start long before that?THOMAS OLBRICHT
I started to collect much earlier. I’ve always collected things that fascinated me – it started at the age of four when stamps and little toy cars got my attention. Then in the 1980s, I focused more and more on contemporary art. Additionally I started to collect “Wunderkammer” objects around fifteen years ago.
What was the first important piece of artwork that you purchased?THOMAS OLBRICHT
That was an emulsion paint on beaver cloth Mit kleinen schwarzen Quadraten (1968) by Sigmar Polke. Concerning the photographic works, it was a photo by Cindy Sherman titled Untitled #322, which I acquired in the autumn of 1996 in New York.
Your collection is one of the treasures of the Berlin collector community, can you tell us why you made the decision in 2010 to open the me Collectors Room Stiftung Olbricht?THOMAS OLBRICHT
I wanted to open my collection to the public for a number of reasons: For instance, to share the joy the works are giving me with other people and to expand their horizons. In addition to that, over the years I was receiving more and more inquiries about loaning the work and I realized that there is a public interest to get in touch with the works I own. I chose Berlin because it is the most international city in Germany and is the city to reach most people.
In addition to making your collection publicly accessible, the me Collectors Room also encourages schools and learning programs to experience the exhibitions that are on show. Do you feel that it is a collector’s responsibility to help educate others about contemporary art?THOMAS OLBRICHT
It is not a duty, but a helpful and satisfying challenge for me personally.
My wife and I founded the Olbricht Foundation in 2011 with the aim of making contemporary art accessible to the public, particularly to children and teenagers. The goal of our workshops that are aimed at children is to stimulate imagination and creative thinking by practical work. It is not only about accumulating knowledge but rather trying to communicate with all senses and connect knowledge in an interdisciplinary manner.
The me Collectors Room also acts as an exhibition space for other collectors to show their collection. Why was this important for you to share the space with other collectors? Do you ever find it inspiring for your own collection to work with other collectors?THOMAS OLBRICHT
It’s always inspiring for me to work with other collectors and it’s my passion to share with other people who have the same field of interest and even more if their collection is completely different. Furthermore, there are many collectors who do not have their own exhibition space to make their collections visible to the public but with the me Collectors Room Berlin, we give them that space.
Your professional career as a chemist and a doctor of medicine, an entrepreneur and an endocrinologist must mean that you merge an assortment of knowledge and expertise together, something which is also apparent when looking at your own private collection and the range of mediums that are included. Why is it interesting for you to mix so many different mediums when exhibiting the collection?THOMAS OLBRICHT
It seems to be my inner nature to mix up things and to open my mind through this method. My collection in general is lead by passion and intuition. I am not set on a particular focus so that the collection is diverse, concerning media and also genre and epochs, but rather a love for works that transport me into a realm of astonishment and wonder and elicit new ways of looking at the world.
Curating such diverse objects is a possibility to create all sorts of combinations and realizing new and unexpected perspectives and ways of seeing.
The exhibition “The Moment is Eternity” which opens during Berlin Art Week 2018 addresses the theme of transience. Is this a theme that runs throughout your collection and if so, what is it that interests you about transient works?THOMAS OLBRICHT
I’m attracted to the “memento mori” which is often featured in baroque art – the pointing out the fact that we don’t live forever. This “Vanitas” topic – or also the topic of transience– is a central topic of our existence, as well as life and love, already for many artists throughout the last 500 years and this won’t ever change. For sure this is also a central topic for me as a human being, a doctor of medicine and a collector.
Is this why the collection includes so many works of photography?THOMAS OLBRICHT
My collection is very diverse in terms of medium and epoch. Collecting is part of my life cycle and as my focus in life changes, so does my collection. Sometimes I’m more into one category of my collection, sometimes less, then I turn my interest to something else. Mixing mediums is something that I have loved to do for many years, and since the opening of me Collectors Room Berlin in April 2010 we’re showing old works in the “Wunderkammer” and putting them together with contemporary works in the changing exhibitions.
The mix of artworks and objects is very interesting and I’m interested to know how this reflects to you living with art at home and what role living with art plays in your life?THOMAS OLBRICHT
You will find a similar combination of different objects in my home. This is some kind of crucial test: that the artworks are able to be experienced together and that I can if the artworks correspond with each other, and if that dialogue is creating new perspectives for a future public display.
What are the highlights of your collection, the artworks that are very important to you?THOMAS OLBRICHT
There are so many works that are important to me, so it’s hard to say! If I were to choose though, I would say Untitled, Memphis (1970) by William Eggleston and 48 Portraits (1998) by Gerhard Richter. Both are exhibited in “The Moment is Eternity”. Concerning the “Wunderkammer” pieces – a ragged small death hourglass made out of bronze around 1620 with the provenance of the Yves Saint Laurent Collection is definitely one of my favorite pieces.
Would you say collecting has changed your life? If so, how?THOMAS OLBRICHT
As I have been collecting since my childhood, collecting is part of my daily life and a huge passion of mine. Collecting, especially collecting art affects and enriches me personally in many ways.
You once said that even after twenty years of seeing and collecting works by Cindy Sherman that the “infection is incurable”. Would you say that collecting is an addiction? That you can get addicted to the artist and artworks?THOMAS OLBRICHT
The works by Cindy Sherman will infect me until the end of my life. Collecting for me is both a desire and an addiction.
How has the Berlin collecting scene changed in recent years and how do events such as the Berlin Art Week help support the city’s cultural reputation?THOAMS OLBRICHT
The Berlin Art Week and the Gallery Weekend Berlin are the two major art events in Berlin, making the city the cultural heart of Germany. But it’s sad that the increasing rental fees as well as the VAT rates are repressing the art scene.
Is there something in particular you are looking forward to at this year’s Berlin Art Week?THOAMS OLBRICHT
I really love Berlin and I’m always delighted to come to the city to get new impressions and to broaden my horizon.
Many people who visit the me Collectors Room might dream of owning a collection such as yours one day. What advise would you give to young collectors that would like to start their own collection?THOAMS OLBRICHT
Firstly, they should take their time. Second, it’s absolutely necessary to widen their knowledge for contemporary art by visiting fairs, art weeks, galleries, auctions and museums. They’ll get to know what they are missing and only then, they should make their first purchase. They have time to buy their first artwork, if not today or tomorrow, the next chance to buy comes in any case. What I absolutely do recommend though is make sure you have a pair of really good sneakers!