Meet Christian Schwarm,contemporary art collector.

Independent Spirit

By Lollie Barr

It’s one of those rare winter days in Berlin when the sky is a crisp shade of blue. Sunlight floods the vast 4000-square-foot headquarters of Independent Collectors, the online community for contemporary art collectors, founded in 2008 by Dorten advertising agency owner-director and art lover Christian Schwarm.

The space also doubles as a gallery showcasing a rotating selection from Schwarm’s private collection, which includes edgy and conceptual works from the likes of Peter Piller, Jonathan Monk, and Michael E. Smith. The sheer brilliance of the day brings out the bold color palette and delicate silver threads of Schwarm’s most recent acquisition: ten suspended banners from the Friendship of Nations Polish Shi’te Showbiz series by artist collective Slavs and Tatars. Nearby, another neon-fueled Slavs and Tatars piece casts an incandescent green glow on the walls and floors, while an imposing wooden semi-panoptic installation called Das Amt by Canadian artist Cedric Bomford looms large. Behind it, New York artist David Horvitz busies himself at an oversized desk; a collection of spoons and miniscule shells suggests the embryo of forthcoming work.

Schwarm’s enthusiasm for his artists of choice is charmingly boundless. He generously offers impassioned dissertations on each work before we settle down to talk about his penchant for turning private art ownership into an act of connection.


Lollie Barr: Tell me about the first piece of art you collected?

Christian Schwarm: In 2004, I was browsing Printed Matter, a non-profit art bookshop in New York, and chanced upon British artist Fiona Banner’s work called All the World’s Fighter Planes. Banner had collected photographs from newspapers, magazines, and the Internet of every single fighter plane in commission somewhere in the world. I’d been interested in contemporary art for years, but this was the first time I knew I had to have a work.

LB: What was it about that particular work that spoke to you?

CS: I was born in 1972 near Ulm, in southern Germany. When I was growing up, there were a lot of American military maneuvers taking place around my village. It’s hard to believe now, but I regularly saw fighter planes in the skies and tanks on the streets. Until I was ten, it was my dream to become a fighter pilot. Then in the mid-1980s, the anti-nuclear movement started, and I became political. Consequently, I had to rethink my fascination. It was the same for Banner. I read in an interview that as a child she used to draw fighter planes and loved Top Gun. Like me, she had that perspective shift after she made the association that these machines are designed to kill people… but the fascination remains.

LB: Is that what collector’s instinct boils down to, having a personal connection with the piece?

CS: The most important piece of advice my mentor the German photographer and veteran collector Wilhelm Schürmann gave me was this: “You can only collect yourself. You always collect yourself.” This philosophy has influenced the whole way I look at art, and, of course, how I collect art. I have a very personal relationship to everything I acquire. For me, it’s not about having heard something about an upcoming artist, or, necessarily making a financial investment. It’s not even a question of taste in the end. It’s a quest to find out more about who you really are.

LB: What is it about contemporary art that particularly inspires you?

CS: Contemporary art is a snapshot of now. What’s really interesting is when you look at art that’s more than a hundred years old, we’re unable to see any difference between, say, 1790 and 1795 anymore. However, look at a photo by Wolfgang Tillmans from ten years ago and compare it to a photo made by him now: we are still able to observe a difference. In one hundred years, they won’t be able to perceive the nuance. It will be from an epoch. We see these subtle differences only when we deal with contemporary art.

LB: How do you find the artists you collect? Are you an art foot soldier marching from gallery to gallery?

All the World’s Fighter Planes by Fiona Banner © Fiona Banner
CS: If I discover a gallery with an interesting program, I’m typically attracted to the gallery’s entire perspective. I usually don’t buy at art fairs—yes, I’m at Art Basel every year, but usually it’s not my way. However, my good friend gallerist Barbara Wien and I were walking through LISTE, the Basel fair for young art, and we both stopped at a piece at the same time with the same thought: ‘What is this?” That’s a magical moment. We both knew instinctively we had happened onto something special. Now I’ve bought three works by Swedish installation artist Nina Canell, and Barbara became her gallerist.

LB: What attracted you to Nina’s work?

CS: With Nina’s work, it’s hard to say what was so personal for me. Wilhem advised me that sometimes you find out years later. I’d always read that a collection has to have a concept, like collecting from specific era or a specific concept, but he said, “You are the concept.” It’s so wise. There has to be something that emotionally resonates, even if you’re not sure why.

LB: Yet buying contemporary art by young artists is a highly speculative investment.

CS: If you want to ensure that you make money in art, you have to look for works that are already over €100,000. There is a general rule that expensive gets more expensive. When you spend say €10,000 or €25,000, there is no way you can be certain about how an artist’s career will develop in terms of monetary value. But for me, collecting art isn’t about investing. It’s about emotional value. When passion is your guiding principle, less expensive pieces become opportunities rather than risks.

For me, collecting art isn’t about investing. It’s about emotional value. LB: What is the most challenging piece you’ve collected?

CS: The ten-piece series of Slavs and Tatars banners, since I only wanted to buy one! The artists had the idea to sell them separately, and I spent hours and hours over months with their gallerist discussing which single banner could best represent the whole group. In the end, I knew that the group belonged together. So I asked if there was any chance we could do a deal. Believe it or not, most of the collectors I know are not millionaires. It’s a cliché that you have to be a millionaire to collect.

LB: Your organization Independent Collectors gives art collectors the opportunity to VJ their private collections, remixing them for an online audience. How is this changing the way we’re viewing contemporary art?

CS: Works of young contemporary artists usually go into storage or to private apartments, so it can be difficult to access them. It’s only when the work becomes more popular that it comes back to the galleries and museums to a broader audience. Our site provides a platform to explore a whole gamut of contemporary art. Our collectors can open their collections to the public to browse or set their privacy settings to show members only.

Before Independent Collectors, I was looking to meet collectors of my generation that shared my perspective on contemporary art, and I couldn’t find them. Independent Collectors is about making those connections. When you are a member, you can look for others who live in your city, or who like the same artists. It’s a closed, protected space, but it’s not elitist. We have 5,000 individually checked members from 97 countries. We represent a whole range of collectors from the beginner to the so-called top collectors. We select 30 collectors a month from about 300 applications. We want to grow it organically.

LB: Yet it’s a non-commercial, non-profit initiative. How do you manage that?

CS: Within a start up culture, the organization wouldn’t have survived—someone would have given venture capital and we would have had revenue goals to meet. We probably would have tried to sell art, and that wouldn’t have worked. We don’t charge our members, and we don’t want to.

But we have found a great supporting partner in BMW, who allowed us to expand our community offline. A few years ago, we realized there was no global, publically accessible list that compiles private collectors of contemporary art. Now we are proudly introducing the second volume of our BMW Art Guide. This latest edition introduces readers to private yet publicly accessible collections of contemporary art: 217 art collections, 156 locations, 41 countries. It’s available for sale in major bookstores around the world and online.

LB: You’ve inspired me! How do I become an independent collector?

CS: Listen to your heart and develop a deep understanding of what really touches you. Read a lot, visit a lot of exhibitions, and talk to people. Don’t be afraid to speak to gallerists! I also have a large collection of artists’ books. I don’t mean art theory books or books about art. These are books produced by artists and that come in small editions of 100 or 500. They are collectibles and also give you an opportunity to find out what you like. Good luck!

  • Photos by

    • Kevin Mertens

      Kevin Mertens

      In addition to a fantastic eye, Kevin brings years of print and online photo-editing experience to L’ArcoBaleno. He is also a photographer who draws on his passion for helping others to create documentary photography.
  • Text by

    • Lollie Barr

      Lollie Barr

      A proud global citizen and self confessed gypsy, English-born, Australian-raised writer Lollie lives in Berlin, where she divides her time being an internationally commissioned freelance journalist, writing novels, playing guitar, singing, and traveling.