Collection David H. Brolliet, Geneva
Foundation Fernet Branca
Espace d’Art Contemporain
27 May to Sunday 30 September 2018
By MARK BLOCH, JULY 2018
The Fondation Fernet Branca is currently presenting an exhibition of works owned by David Brolliet, an art collector from Geneva, Switzerland, who has been passionately committed to contemporary art for the past forty years. The show’s focus is the collector, his wide-ranging tastes and unorthodox approach to collecting and his commitment to contemporary art. It runs until September 30, 2018.
The show features an international roster of artists, many unknown and some of them very well known. Some are from the collector’s home base like Lyon artist Daniel Tillier or Swiss artists like John Armleder and Sylvie Fleury, Roman Signer and Pipiloti Rist, an artist who is represented by one of the few multi-media works in this show, a film.
Brolliet also resided Paris in the mid-nineties where the scene of that time is represented by Saâdane Afif, Kader Attia, Wang Du, Richard Fauguet, Marlene Mocquet, Bruno Peinado, Barthélémy Toguo, Erwin Wurm, and Chen Zhen.
Prior to that, Brolliet acquired works in Europe by Cindy Sherman, Robert Mapplethorpe and others when the price was right. He also bought from New York's 303 Gallery and from Metro Pictures but he told me, “I had no money at the time.” His limit was “a couple thousand at first. I was not a tycoon,” emphasizing, “It is a collection built with my heart, not my wallet.”
Most recently, Brolliet has been interested into the African art scene including artists in Mali and Benin, and has developed projects in Tunisia and Senegal. Artists he likes are Ousmane Dia in Senegal, Romuald Hazoume in Benin and Mounir Fatmi in Morocco, a Muslim artist. Brolliet always befriends the artists he collects and gets to know their work personally. “When women couldn’t ride bicycles in Afghanistan, they used skateboards instead,” so Fatmi “honored them with art that some consider blasphemy.” Two of his “skateboad prayer rugs” are in the exhibit.
The show of works by over 90 artists is being presented by Fernet Branca Foundation in the Espace d’Art Contemporain (which is subtitled “1500m2 for contemporary art”) in Saint-Louis, near Alsace in northeastern France, as well as near the Swiss and German borders. It is also close to Art Basel from which many art enthusiasts recently made to trek to see Brolliet’s collection, among them well known collectors Susan and Michael Hort. This fascinating structure, down to the distinctive eagle above the entrance, is included in France’s registry of historical buildings. The founding company’s brand symbol and now signals the use of the site as a cultural venue housing a museum of modern art greatly enhanced by the architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte.
The Italian company Fernet-Branca was created in 1845 to produce a bitter herbal liqueur. “It is an old fashioned alcoholic drink, made by an Italian family, very popular in Europe,” Brolliet recalled. “As a kid, I remember it as a stomach ache remedy. It was always a treat. My grandfather drank it. Old people still like it.”
Their building was constructed when a distillery was needed in Saint-Louis to provide Germany with alcohol in 1909. Over the decades, production and sales slowed until the site was shut down in 2000. Today 16,000 square feet of the space is used for various exhibitions of contemporary art.
This show of artists came about as the result of an inspiring documentary on Brolliet’s collection. “When I was in Paris a while back I met the video people who were covering the award ceremony of the Marcel Duchamp Prize at Centre Pompidou.” The group, Creativ tv, are film makers who focus on the art world and who in the past 20 years have produced a large number of artist’s portraits and documentaries. Their latest work is a sixty minute documentary in which Brolliet shares the day to day routine of maintaining his art collection. The production has been well received and led directly to the current exhibit.
The show’s curators, Veronique Hillereau and Yann Rudler, are from the same team. Broilliet feels their prior experience served his collection well. When he saw the show for the first time he exclaimed, “Oh my god.” When I asked him if it was fulfilling to see so many of his works united after in having many far flung locations in several countries he told me, “I was so moved. I almost cried. Some I had not seen in years. I was very touched.”
David Brolliet was born into a prosperous Geneva family. His father owned a successful real estate business and collected small drawings by nineteenth and twentieth century masters that hearkened back to previous eras. To his taste, contemporary art was out of the question. Meanwhile, Brolliet’s mother knew American artists and he recalls summers on the west coast of the US where he met the abstract painter Sam Francis, Ed Ruscha and others. He believes his taste was subconsciously formed then. He spent his youth in boarding school, then studied economics and political science at American University and Georgetown University in Washington DC.
The younger Brolliet aquired his first work of art when he dragged his father, more interested in classical drawing and the figure, to Geneva’s Galerie Pierre Huber who was then exhibiting Igor Mitoraj, a more daring Polish sculptor. His dad, seeing a connection to ancient Roman sculpture, bought a bust and the grateful gallerist showed his appreciation to the son by letting him pick a piece from his back room. The 18 year old selected a small sculpture of a paint brush by the Lyon artist Jean-Philippe Aubanel and that began a forty year long passion for collecting.
The early years of his collection began by crossing the border to buy more from Lyon artists, about two hours away. Next, at the age of twenty-seven, an inheritance allowed Brolliet to begin to acquire contemporary art with greater ease. “In the 90s, I bought something every week.” he said. “When I was young and living in a small studio apartment in New York, I had art hanging everywhere, including on the refrigerator door, pinned up with magnets.” Later his Paris apartment was similarly packed with art from ceiling to floor, as depicted in an acrylic painting on wood by Julien Beneyton that is part of this exhibition.
He now owns over 700 works. Brolliet took advantage of access to other collectors and an ability to constantly travel to develop taste and connoisseurship for contemporary art. He has said, “I like all periods but I want to promote today’s art. It's a mirror of society; our problems, our hopes. And the collector acts as intermediary.”
David Brolliet talked with me about the difference between collecting art in the USA and in Europe. “In the US, some buying and lending of art can be tax exempt, but not here,” he said. Nevertheless, he gave an oil on canvas work by John Armleder to the Geneva Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art that he was glad to borrow back—“for a period of time,” he explained, gratefully, referring to the run of the exhibition. “I can enjoy and admire it again. But what I am interested in is art as a pure gift, a militant gesture of radical kindness.” WM
Mark Bloch is a writer, performer, videographer and multi-media artist living in Manhattan. In 1978, this native Ohioan founded the Post(al) Art Network a.k.a. PAN. NYU's Downtown Collection now houses an archive of many of Bloch's papers including a vast collection of mail art and related ephemera. For three decades Bloch has done performance art in the USA and internationally. In addition to his work as a writer and fine artist, he has also worked as a graphic designer for ABCNews.com, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. He can be reached at email@example.com and PO Box 1500 NYC 10009.
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