Speculation and Meaning in the 1980s Swedish Arts World: The Making, Display and Dispersal of the Financier Fredrik Roos’ Art Collection: Jenny Sjöholm

Landscape Surgery’s summer term programme started on 2nd May with a round of news about the varied and fascinating things that Surgeons have been up to over the past few weeks. These involved suitcases, corridors, conferences, placements, submissions, and a fellowship. The one I will give a specific mention to is Ben Murphy’s show at the Architectural Association’s School of Architecture until 27th May, to give you all a chance to see it in the next couple of weeks or so. It sounded like Ben gained some rich experience about dealing with press interviews along the way.

For the main part of afternoon, Jenny Sjöholm, Marie-Sklodowska Curie Fellow with the Department, introduced us to an art collection created by Frederick Roos. This collection was remarkable in many ways as we shall see; but Jenny’s particularly fascinating work has been to trace the collection over its life. This is not an object biography but a collection biography if you will.

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Photography: Huw Rowlands

Her work has moved from the artists’ perspective, looking at the production of work, towards its subsequent circulation and patrons’ perspectives. In this case, the whole life cycle revealed a number of interesting complexities.

The context of the Roos Collection’s biography is a changing dynamic in the art world in Sweden in the 1970s and 1980s. Although this reflected some aspects of broader global trends, Sweden’s experience was distinctive. Jenny’s sources were principally the National archives and their media database as well as printed material such as newspaper articles and exhibition material.

Broad influential trends included the generally anti-capitalist dynamic of public art museums in Sweden dating from the 1930s, the global oil crisis of the 1970s and its impact on public funding of museums, and the subsequent changes in relationships with financial patronage. Generalising, one might characterise the earlier period as patronage for production – investment in art and artists, and the subsequent period as patronage for profit – investment in capital.

As the dynamics of these changes played out, public museums found themselves in competition with private museums, leading to what Jenny referred to as institutional transformation and disruption. At this time a new archetype emerged in the Swedish art world, that of the dealer-collector. Private sponsorship grew, and a network of patrons emerged, who both took, and were later given, roles in the art exhibition environment in Sweden. The first privately-run art museum in Sweden, Magasin III, was opened in 1987.

Against this background, Jenny’s work on the Roos collection has focused on its assembly, display, and dispersal through the practices and politics of the collecting world. She described collecting as a specialised form of consumption, with the art object’s value defined by the networks of individuals involved in its circulation, as well as in Gell’s sense of the art object as an agent in social relations, as the extension of a person, or indeed as a form of personhood.

This personal perspective is particularly relevant to Roos, who started collecting as a child: beer mats, coasters, match boxes. More than that, art was very much part of his family upbringing. In this sense he was perhaps quite different from the financial art investors with whom he found himself engaged in later life. Perhaps his motivation was more personal and less exclusively commercial than theirs. The dynamic of this group has been described as an aggressive accumulation of art by a corporate elite, part of the careful construction of the role of the financial art collector, for whom collecting and owning art is a representation of power and wealth. Which is not say that Roos himself did not display such characteristics. He often bought several works from exhibitions, or even entire exhibitions. From these he selected some to keep for his collection, and selling others more-or-less immediately. This is speculative behaviour typical of his network. What distinguished Roos was perhaps his personal relationship within this collecting behaviour: he had an insatiable curiosity to see and feel the presence of the pieces he bought, and gained a credible reputation in the art world.

So much for assembling the collection; what about display and dispersal? The scale of his collecting was immense, outgrowing his homes in Stockholm and Switzerland, and so, rather than display it, he stored much of it in a warehouse, which he shared with others in his network. This storage solution provoked a strong antipathy in the press, where accusations of speculative buying were expressed.

Parallel to the way Roos’ collection grew, so did his plans and ideas of how he could take care of it, and above all share it with an even wider audience than his family and financial networks. In 1988 the art museum ‘Rooseum’ was opened with the intention to use Roos’ collection as a foundation for experimental exhibition practices: a focused cultural asset upon which to build a broader one. In 1989, Roos presented his first exhibition based on his Basquiat – Schnabel collection, which he also curated. This was followed by five exhibitions based on his collection. However, in terms of the actual use of the collection in the museum’s exhibition activities, it later became perhaps weaker than had been expected.

During this period Roos discovered that he was seriously ill and his behaviour reflects a sense of urgency, and of unrealised plans. A difficult period followed his death, with a contest between his family, in particular his parents, and his (hitherto unknown) boyfriend. In order to ensure the survival of Rooseum a foundation was put together with the city of Malmö, The Swedish arts council, the Danish art museum Louisiana, and Fredrik Roos’ parents. By 2006 the collection had not been shown for nine years, and the parents then decided as they said ‘to take their hand from the collection’, because it no longer followed the intention of their son. They decided to sell their collection at auction the same year.

As the wide-ranging and engaging discussion noted, this is far more than a simple move from public to privately funded art museums in Sweden. The broader economic, social and cultural dynamics had, and perhaps continue to have, a significant impact on the collection’s biography. Others noted that the individual biography of Roos himself, and his deeply interwoven relationship with both his collection and the people around him, are also crucial to understanding the collection’s biography. Finally, I was particularly fascinated by Jenny’s point that it was the changing context of the collection, rather than the exchange of art objects per se, that led to changes in its value.

Huw Rowlands

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