Friendly Collecting: No Need To Put On The Dog

It should come as no surprise to me that, outside the house of Berlin-based art dealer & historian Joelle Romba, I happen to notice a dying June beetle twitching in a small rectangle of dirt by the front entrance. Its quietly backpedaling limbs are catching the afternoon sun at some angles and illuminating both its opalescent copper exoskeleton and sapphire back. 'Such beauty to be found in unexpected places,' I think before popping open the buzzing door to enter. The interior of the house possesses a beaming, negotiated balance of art and space, with some beautiful works adorning the walls but no ostentatious statements, bespeaking a refined taste without any highfalutin bitterness. Having been the Berlin head of Sotheby's for a decade, in addition to directing and assisting high-profile contemporary art galleries in the city and now forming part of the exclusive Independent Collectors network, Joelle Romba has seen it all and knows what she likes. The Romba collection is beautiful yet practical, dare I say well-collected. I sat down with Joelle Romba to talk about what goes into all of this business.

Curating The Collections Of Others

Artparasites: Who are you and what do you do?

Joelle Romba: I'm Joelle Romba, living in Berlin. I'm an art historian, but I'm also an art dealer with a curatorial practice focusing on private collections.

APs: Can you tell us more about curating a private collection?

JR: Being an art dealer, my interests are always in the various facets of private collections – the lineages, motivations and themes behind them – and I also act as an advisor to other collectors looking to add to their collections. Recently I started a company with two of my colleagues to exhibit pieces in private collections, A Private View. Timo Miettinen of the Salon Dahlmann asked us to develop a concept for an exhibit, and we thought to ask Berlin art collectors to loan us their crucial works, the ones that made them feel they were collectors. We called it The Moment I Became a Collector, and in the end, we exhibited at least one piece from 17 different collectors, all of whom wrote anecdotes about the circumstances of their acquisitions. One collector wrote of spending every spare pfennig he had to buy a Gerhard Richter in 1969, a decision which now has proven to be quite lucrative. One collector wrote of having just passed his driver's license exam and was en route to buy a used car with cash in hand, but saw an interesting art exhibition on the way and ended up taking home instead a Piero Manzoni!

A corner of the Romba house, with works by Noa Gur (video) and Leonor Antunes. Photo by Drury Brennan

APs: How does what you do benefit collectors?

JR: For example, the second A Private View exhibition was a presentation of the collection of Daniel and Miryam Charim in Vienna. Miryam is a gallerist there and her husband is a lawyer, and over a period of about 40 years they assembled a whole collection. However, they only live with one or two pieces at time, and have never seen all the works together. Miryam invested all the income she made with her gallery back into art, and so I started to see the exhibition as a reflection of the Charims' lifetime dedication to art, a significant achievement. Also, this exhibition was a great way for the Charims to share what they've achieved with their family and introduce a real understanding and appreciation for both art and the collection. 

We made them aware that they and their collection is an active part of art history. Collectors also collect what they want and what they love, but they sometimes don't know why. Having someone who is informed look at a collection and engage in a dialogue with the collector brings about deeper understandings, themes the collector has never realized that bind their collections together and more ways to find beauty and meaning. Also, I have some friends who are now in their 60s and don't know what to do with their art, and they approach me for an exit strategy; for what to do with it. They don't want to de-acquisition everything, but maybe they don't have any family, or their family doesn't adore art. I can step in and organize, help them plan a future of their collection.

A photograph by the artist Evel Knievel in the Romba collection. Photo by Drury Brennan

APs: Who are some of the artists in your own collection?

JR: We are focusing on contemporary art, and we have several baskets that we are filling with the art that we like. For instance, in an established category we have Charlotte PosenenskeWolfgang Tillmans and Leon Polk-Smith, to name some. In the younger positions, we have Matti Braun, Daniel Lergon, Noa Gur, and Leonor Antunes. Our collection focuses primarily on 5 themes: photo-realistic painting, contemporary op-art, the search for identity through photography, architecture in art, and also, the predecessors or forerunners of certain genres.

APs: What's in the future for you?

JR: Our focus is really turning towards our foundation, ROCCA; the Romba Collection of Contemporary Art. We support contemporary art and art criticism equally. We exhibit new artists in new locations, also showing pieces from our collection in dialogue with those of other collections, and also hosting roundtable discussions between artists, journalists and art historians to unpack critical issues in contemporary art. A residency is also in the works, but that is, as you say, in the future.

Joelle Romba with a painting by Joep van Liefland. Photo by Drury Brennan

As I leave the Rombas' house to head back into the city, I notice that the beetle I so admired is gone. Either it flew away, or someone- someone with a discerning eye and good taste maybe- took it for their collection. Such is the fate of beauty found in unexpected places.

Joelle Romba is part of Indepent Collectors, the first network specifically designed for collectors of contemporary art. Learn more about them here.

Article by Drury Brennan