Homa Taj In Conversation with Dutch Art Dealer: Robbert van Ham of Jaski Art Gallery

Andy Warhol, Sarah Bernhardt, 1980 – courtesy Jaski Art Gallery

I first met Robbert van Ham at TEFAF Maastricht, late in March 2011. One of the leading international dealers of CoBrA art movement, the 36 year-old gallerist has been an active participant in the Amsterdam art scene, for the past two decades. My next meeting with van Ham was in his Jaski Art Gallery on Nieuwe Spiegelstraat, one of the Dutch capital’s most exclusive shopping streets. Our next meeting was at Art Cologne… followed by a series of email dialogues during which we discussed state of the arts in the Netherlands, Dutch collecting communities and the temporary closure of some of Amsterdam’s biggest museums…

Homa Taj Nasab – You practically grew up in Amsterdam’s modern and contemporary art scene, especially at Jaski Gallery of which you are now the owner…

RvH – I started at Jaski when I was 15 years old since my mother was managing it. At the beginning, I only helped during vernissages but when I began my studies in Modern Asian History at the University of Amsterdam, I was already working in the gallery on a part-time basis. After I finished college, this became my full-time job. Six years ago, the former owner decided to retire so my mother and I took over the gallery together.

HTN – Why did you keep the gallery’s name if not add yours as a double barrel, say: Jaski van Ham?

RvH – Jaski Art Gallery is a very well known name in the Dutch art world. I think the name is more important than my own name. Most of the people know I am behind Jaski Art Gallery. That is enough for me.

HT – A number of major museums and contemporary art exhibitions in Amsterdam have been closed for some time, including: the Rijksmuseum, the Stedelijk and de Appel. How do you think that this has affected the art scene in the city?

RvH – It is terrible and a shame on Amsterdam, especially the Amsterdam government. The Rijksmuseum should have been opened three year ago and still there is no final date. A whole generation is growing up without knowing the Rijksmuseum or the Stedelijk Museum. The Stedelijk is also confronted by a lot of delays at the moment. Nobody seems to know when this will end. The Stedelijk is important for Amsterdam and the art scene since they used to be known for their cutting edge exhibitions. A place they really lost in the international art scene. It is very sad and we can only blame our government for mis-communication and bad organization.

HT – I agree that it is a loss to the Amsterdam community and for (those of us) visitors. Though, of course, there are a great number of art exhibition spaces and organizations not only in Amsterdam but, also, in Rotterdam, the Hague, Eindhoven and Maastricht, etc. So, I think that there is no shortage of exhibitionary experiences for international visitors. However, what do you think that the re-opening of these major institutions in the capital will do to re-invigorate the Netherland’s art world?

RvH – Of course there is a lot outside Amsterdam but most visitors are here for a few days. They only see Amsterdam and do not go beyond the city. Re-opening the major institutions will increase the visitors who are interested in art. If the Rijksmuseum has a big exhibition it normally attracts 200.000 visitors or more, if it is a very special exhibit, to Amsterdam. I hope the neighbourhood where my gallery is located, the Spiegelkwartier which is very close to the Rijks and Stedelijkmuseum will florish again when they open.

HT – Let’s talk CoBRA! I stayed at Hotel Ambassade, in Amsterdam, which has a terrific collection of CoBRA art. So, I admit that sleeping with (ok, under) Theo Wolvecamp, dining with Karel Appel and having afternoon tea with Corneille re-ignited my passion for the CoBRA movement… as did visiting your booth at TEFAF and later your gallery in Amsterdam. How did you become, or shall I say remain, passionate about CoBRA?

RvH – From the old days, Jaski Art Gallery was always involved with the CoBrA movement. We represented Corneille, Constant, Brands, Doucet, Wolvecamp and dealt with many other CoBrA artists like Karel Appel, Anton Rooskens, Asger Jorn and Pierre Alechinksy. CoBrA still is the most important post-war movement in western Europe. It is fascinating to educate a whole new group of young buyers about CoBrA art. Our close relationship with the CoBrA Museum in Amstelveen helps as well.

HT – CoBrA is not particularly well known in the United States. What aspects of this art do you think would appeal to American collectors… with which they may not be familiar, yet?

RvH – The CoBrA Movement as a whole might not be so well known in the US but some of the CoBrA artists are. Appel, Alechinsky and Jorn are very well known and always present on the bigger auction scenes. Besides that, there is a big CoBrA collection in the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale. And, there is still a lot of work by Appel in private collections in the US.

HT – You also represent a number of contemporary artists. Your last show that I saw in Amsterdam was by American photographer Jill Greenberg. How did you meet her and why did you choose to represent her?

RvH – We have been looking to expand our gallery to photography but we only wanted to do this with a photographer whose work we believe in. We are never in a hurry and after searching for a few years, we decided to go with Jill Greenberg because she fits well in our gallery’s overall program. She responded very positively because her main market is in the US. Jill’s show was a huge success. It is not that we want to be a photography gallery, now, we just want to show our clients and visitors a good overview of works we believe in. This can include photography as well as paintings, installation or sculptures.

HT – How do you choose to work with a contemporary artist? What aesthetic or personal criteria do you, as a gallerist, look for…?

RvH – My personal idea is always when I see a work that reminds me of nothing… I mostly think that it is good. Maybe not to my taste but good. We mostly look for younger artists with good educational backgrounds. We really invest in our artists; represent them at art fairs, make books and catalogues, arrange all the pr, and above all, make good exhibitions in our gallery …and, also promote them abroad. It is easier to grow together with an artist which is why we mostly start when they are young. It is not that we represent hundreds of artists like some galleries do. I do not believe in that. Every artist needs a lot of attention. So I work together with 6 to 8 artists. Maybe I add a new one every two years but only if we strongly believe in that person.

HT – How would you define the Netherlands’, or especially Amsterdam’s, collecting culture?

RvH – It is great. Dutch people are brought up with a lot of culture. The Dutch government also has an ‘art buyers regulation’. It means that young buyers can buy an artwork on a three-year loan and the government will pay the interest. The gallery, however, immediately gets the money. It is a very good regulation and stimulates young buyers to buy something they thought was out of reach for them.

HT – And, in the same light, how would you define the taste of the younger (25-50) generation of Dutch collectors?

RvH – It depends, some are very serious and want to build up a diverse collection, others just want to have something nice above their couch. We have a broad range of artists. Some are easier to understand than others. I like it that way; every sale is different with different reasons for buying. That makes my line of business so nice to work in.

HT – What’s next for Jaski Gallery? And, for Robbert?

RvH – Jaski will go on, participating in some of the biggest art fairs in Europe (TEFAF & ArtCologne). We will keep on promoting our contemporary artists and educate new art lovers about the CoBrA Movement. We do 7 to 9 exhibitions a year. And, as for Robbert? Robbert will do this ‘til he is very old because this is what I do best.