A Peek at the Personal Art Collection of Swiss Gallery Director Stefan von Bartha

Stefan von Bartha. Courtesy von Bartha.

To the Gallery Born: An Interview with Stefan von Bartha

Whether as an artist, collector, dealer, or curator, we all can probably recollect, with relish or regret, our first introduction to the art world. For Stefan von Bartha, however, his first memories of the art world are intertwined with his first memories of growing up. The son of Swiss art dealers Margareta and Miklos von Bartha, who founded their gallery in 1970 and operated it out of the family home, Stefan literally grew up in an art gallery. Starting out his career as a vintage design dealer at the age of 18, Stefan von Bartha now holds the directorship of von Bartha, where he has put new emphasis on contemporary art and staged memorable exhibitions of artists like Superflex, Sarah Oppenheimer, and Bernar Venet in the gallery's expansive converted-garage space in Basel, as well as artist interventions in the von Bartha Chesa in the mountain village of S-chanf. In the following exchange, we ask Stefan von Bartha about his personal collection of contemporary art, and what it was like growing up in the art world.  

Beat Zoderer, Bodenzeichnung No.2/09 (Floor Drawing No.2/09), 2009, Merker-Areal Baden. Courtesy von Bartha. Photo: Andre Huber.

Natalie Hegert: You came back to Basel to take over the directorship of von Bartha Gallery in 2008. What prompted you to return to the family business to run the gallery? What were you doing before then?

Stefan von Bartha: Initially, my business interests revolved more around design. When I was 18 I put together a show, which consisted of 420 vintage space toys. My parents gave me 800 francs to set up the show. They invested in me and helped make it a success by giving me the gallery space and, I suspect, by telling people to support me. We even went on to create a vintage design label.  

Von Bartha's Basel gallery. Courtesy von Bartha.

By the age of 21, however, I realized that my real love was art and not design. I tried working with my parents, but if you grow up in the art world and only have your parents as teachers, then you'll surely have a problem when you start working for them. How will you earn respect in the family business? That's when I decided to enroll in Christie's education program for contemporary art in New York; and then I worked for Sotheby's in Zurich and for Galerie Nordenhake in Berlin. Other people I met during this time had a huge influence on how I saw the art world, and that gave me other, much needed perspectives.

I returned to Basel when I was 26 and there was the family business! I was determined to move the gallery into the next generation and I clearly stated that I would only join the family company if I would be allowed to contribute my own ideas. As a member of the second generation, you are always quite focused on what you want to do. At the time, we were transitioning towards a focus on contemporary art. I wanted the family business to become a professional setup for contemporary art. My parents thought I was crazy, but they got excited about the idea. We found this gallery around that time and decided to buy. I recently found the first proposal I wrote to my parents regarding the setup of the new gallery and had a good laugh - it didn't exactly turn out the way I had planned at the time. It was good entertainment. The space is complex but was well worth it.

Von Bartha's S-chanf gallery. Courtesy von Bartha.

NH: Before that, von Bartha Gallery, which was founded by your parents Margareta and Miklos von Bartha in 1970, was operated right out of the family's home. I'm curious how that worked as an exhibition/domestic space, in S-chanf, a rather remote area of Switzerland? What was it like to literally grow up in an art gallery?

SvB: I always used to help my parents because it was way more entertaining to spend time with artists than to do homework. Annual Art Basels were always fun. I remember the install process most growing up. We would just park our car in front of the fair and I would help my parents carry the art works to the booth. It was as simple as that: we'd pack up the white Volvo, all squeeze into the car and drive off to the fair. Believe me I would love to do the shipment this way today - it would be so much simpler.

Terry Haggerty work installed at von Bartha S-chanf. Courtesy von Bartha.

NH: Generally one would start an interview like this by asking about that "first piece" and how you began collecting, but seeing that you grew up around artists and within the art world, I imagine it might have happened sort of naturally that you would also collect. Is that true? Or was that first acquisition, or the decision to collect art, a big milestone for you?

SvB: Yes, it happened completely naturally. I can't remember the very first piece of art I owned because my parents would take me travelling to artist's studios, and sometimes the artists would feel sorry for me - this kid being dragged around by his parents - that they'd give me small works as presents. Aurélie Nemours gave me a small oil painting at the age of 12 when we visited her. I started buying work for myself from about the age of 16, but as my taste was so different to today, it's so hard to remember my first purchase.

Sarah Oppenheimer, P- 21, 2008, installed in Stefan von Bartha's apartment, courtesy LUVO Architekten.

NH: What do you consider your personal philosophy when it comes to collecting?

SvB: My collection doesn't have a clear concept, but all of the works I have bought have either excited or irritated me in some way. I think it's important to be fascinated by a work of art, and sometimes that means that it bothers your subconscious for some reason. I tend to find that these works are slow burners - they grow on you over time, whereas as other works captivate you instantly. When I first started collecting I would buy work on paper because it was cheap, and now I buy work on paper because I love it and I don't see any differentiation between paper and other mediums.  

NH: What are some of the works of which you are the most proud to have in your collection?


Superflex, Guaraná Poer Corner, 2006. Courtesy of the artists. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.

SvB: One of my prized possessions is a rare Gerhard von Graevenitz from 1962. I'm also very proud of the installations I've acquired by Superflex called Guaraná Power Corner (2006) and by Sarah Oppenheimer called P- 21 (2008). I also have two very early sculptures by the great Swiss artist Bernhard Luginbühl made out of different coloured wood recovered from old machinery.

NH: What kind of relationship is there between the public aspect of your art-related activities--running the gallery, curating, going to art fairs--and the private side--as in your personal collection? Do you keep them strictly separate, or do they feed into each other?


Bernhard Luginbühl, Dieter Roth, & Björn Roth, HAUS, 1976 - 1994. Courtesy von Bartha.

SvB: My public and private lives are extremely intertwined. I don't know how I could begin to separate them out! There's a famous quote by Bruno Bischofberger about how you should be the biggest collector of the artists you work with, and I collect all of the artists we represent. Saying that, I also collect a lot of great work by artists like Bethan Huws, Albrecht Schnider and Raymond Pettibon whose work doesn't naturally align with von Bartha's vision.

NH: I like to ask the hypothetical question: if there were one thing about the art world that you could change, what would it be?

SvB: This is an easy one - I'd like it if we all stopped talking about art as an investment. Art should be bought and sold because it is enjoyed and ignites a special response in the viewer.

Beat Zoderer, "Raster, Grid Works from Three Decades" installed at von Bartha S-Chanf. Courtesy von Bartha. Photo: André Huber, Wettingen.

NH: The next two exhibitions at von Bartha feature Swiss artists, Beat Zoderer, which opens August 1 at the S-chanf gallery, and Bernhard Luginbühl at the Basel location, opening September 5. Can you speak a bit about the gallery's commitment to nurturing and showcasing the Swiss art scene, and how you maintain a balance and dialogue between Swiss artists and international artists?

SvB: Switzerland has a fantastic art history - from the establishment of the Dada movement in Zurich in 1916 to artists such as Alberto Giacometti and Paul Klee. We also have some of the best art schools, and our contemporary artists, like Fischli and Weiss are well respected and prominent on the international stage.

For von Bartha it is therefore important to represent both modern and contemporary Swiss artists and support the art scene here. But I wouldn't want to just focus on Swiss art; for me what is interesting is the dialogue between the Swiss artists we represent and the international artists such as Bob and Roberta Smith, Superflex, Imi Knoebel and Sarah Oppenheimer. It's these contrasts, as well as the contrasts between the modern and contemporary artists in our program, which makes von Bartha what it is.

Stefan von Bartha. Courtesy von Bartha.

Beat Zoderer, "Raster: Grid Works from Three Decades" is at von Bartha, S-chanf from 1 August - 5 September.

"Bernhard Luginbühl and Friends" is at von Bartha, Basel from 4 September - 24 October www.vonbartha.com.


--Natalie Hegert