The art of sharing

The symbiosis of art and business requires a deft hand. Both harmonise in the enthusiastic and energetic personality of Frank Kilbourn, executive chairman of Strauss& Co, writes MELVYN MINNAAR.

Amid the colourful bonhomie and vivid allsorts of the auction fare all around, these two pictures wouldn’t necessarily catch anyone’s eye. Unless the eye belonged to a person in the know, a connoisseur.

Fred Page’s What’s This Then and Not Enough were lots 511 and 512 at the Strauss & Co 2018 summer auction in Cape Town. They were sold for the low estimates of R50 000 and R35 000 respectively.

Enigmatic and challenging, the two pictures were made in 1980, four years before Page’s death at 76. They are in the artist’s definitive style and manner: smallish, vertical, formally structured, viciously crafted in dense black, white and grey gouache on card. And about as bizarre and dream-like as any dyed-in-the-wool surrealist could conceive. In the first, two white fishes swim on a highway to nowhere; in the second, a white cat sniffs at a drape. Both include very strange-looking men and women, typical actors in visual plots that tickle the mind. Or blow those with no affinity for the odd.

“Do you like it? I own more than 40 of his artworks.” It is as if Frank Kilbourn realises he has encountered a fellow member of the secret society of Fred Page admirers. Our mutual Page recognition strikes an upbeat note with him and he reveals his art collector’s passion with a cheerful smile. (In fact, when we checked, he owns 52 Page pictures, but he didn’t buy lots 511 and 512.)

Frank is an important art collector, as those in the serious business of local art have noted – and nurtured – at a time when South African art is in an upswing. And his is not a minor role. In July 2016, he became the executive chairman of the auction house Strauss & Co, which has taken flight since he got involved. There’s more to come, it seems, as the auction and art territory expand under his direction.

Wearing the understated uniform of high-end business casualness – chinos with an expensive, fine-checked shirt – the strapping 56-year-old with a keen demeanour and an amiable smile leads the way to his corner office on the 11th floor of Convention Towers near the docks. This is the home of the Bright group of companies, which focuses, he explains, on “private equity and venture capital such as exploration, beneficiation, manufacturing, technology and renewable energy”.

How Frank’s extensive art collection relates to all this is one for the books and a personal story of enlightenment. The career balance between a dynamic, well-to-do businessman and a fervent, adventurous collector of art is worthy of analysis, especially at a time when so much is simply for show or calculated hubris.

The walls of the long passage to his office are hung with exquisite pictures in multiple media by notable South African artists, young and older. It’s an intriguing medley but is visually connected by associations: either colour or form, or imagery and narrative make the links as the visitor lingers to take in one art piece after another.

Frank’s pleasure in making this introduction is obvious; he is sharing what he loves. This installation of more than 100 artworks in the business space he shares with his partners was his personal choice and arrangement. It’s a view into the heart and mind of
the collector.

In time, this impressive in-house exhibition will change once more. After all, the Kilbourn art collection comprises, at the last count, 1 350 works. The same happens at his Tamboerskloof home, where he sometimes surprises the family with overnight art changes.

“Art is to be shared” is a frequent mantra as we discuss his art passion, business, Strauss & Co and spreading the word. It’s a point he emphasises strongly when we talk about the ambivalent contemporary space of art as ‘investment’; the business realm of a gilded auction house like Strauss & Co where extraordinarily high prices often colour the public’s perception of aesthetic worth.

Frank sees a different dynamic in play, one that suggests a mission for Strauss & Co to promote, support and influence what he calls the ecosystem of the art world. “We have a duty to plough back,” he points out. “To cultivate new generations of art lovers and aspirant collectors. To create space for young and contemporary artists within the auction environment.” To this end, Strauss & Co held its first exclusively contemporary art auction, with success, at the off-beat venue of a harbour warehouse a few weeks before the formal summer show. There will be more, Frank says. Online auctions too are taking off and are especially well positioned for ‘affordable’ art.

He is opposed to wealthy collectors who buy art pieces and store them as trade currency, out of sight. “After all, art needs to be seen. When you look at a good work of art, the intrigue increases and deepens as you gaze at it.” Gladly and generously he shares his own collection, as when a selection of eye-catching South African abstract works he owns was shown at a fundraising exhibition for Jan van Riebeeck school’s Welgemeend culture centre last year.

For Frank, philanthropy goes hand in hand with culture. His Bright Foundation has sponsored various art projects and, as a co-owner of Grootbos Private Nature Reserve near Gansbaai and a trustee of WWF South Africa, he sees nature conservation as another fit.

A glimpse at the database of the Kilbourn Collection suggests it contains valuable works that would augment appreciably any museum show. Perhaps more significantly, though, the striking quality of much of this private collection draws attention to the person who has selected the works, the one with ‘the eye’. While Frank happily confesses to a collector’s addiction, he points out that it is an addiction shared by his wife, Lizelle. “She buys what she likes,” he says.

They bought their first art together exactly 30 years ago, while students at the then Rand Afrikaans University (RAU). “I paid for it with an overdraft, but that painting, by Gordon Vorster, is still firmly in the collection,” he smiles.

It was a serendipitous meeting with a remarkable trio of artists at RAU that first kindled the art flame. As a law student on his way to a Latin class, he fell into a discussion with Edoardo Villa, Walter Battiss and Armando Bardinelli. He missed the class but was fascinated by their dynamic interaction. Now, some 30 years later, he recalls with enthusiasm that encounter with the ‘big boys’ of art.

Another meeting, with Stephan Welz, the auctioneer who founded Strauss & Co exactly a decade ago, led to Frank’s interest in, and ultimate leadership role, at this prestigious auction house.

From his office desk he points to a smallish picture by Walter Battiss. It’s a favourite, perhaps a material marker of the enigmatic allure that draws him to art and artists. The painting, oil on canvas, is titled Mantis (Ant life). Measuring 51cm by 45.5cm, it is a melange of earthy green, brown, blue, yellow and grey, in which ant-like figures (or calligraphic marks) energise the primordial space in a fierce dance of mystery. It mesmerises and plays with the exploring eye, setting off all kinds of associations in the viewer’s mind. “Every time I see something different, notice a shape, a colour.” The secret is never quite revealed. Art is captivation.

If, in Frank’s mind, an artwork is a democratic construct to be shared and experienced widely, it is as much – when it is good – a timeless challenge for the engaged viewer. “There is always something new, something different to observe, to figure out,” he says.

This is the crux of the matter when the tricky issue of art and investment comes up for discussion. “When I acquire a work of art, one which obviously I admire, I simply trust that the amount I pay would not diminish when its value is determined in future. Even if I’m not going to get a large investment return, I’m unlikely to lose a lot of money.”

In other words, the investment is really in the enjoyment of the work, underwritten by a thought of capital security. And so the balance between dynamic businessman and adventurous art collector is found in a gentle, sensible aesthetic space.

Frank Kilbourn has called it ‘a sacred space’ and it’s one that Stephan Welz knew so well. V

Contemporary artists to watch

“South African contemporary artists have enjoyed an enormous increase in global exposure due to local and international art fairs,” says joint managing director of Strauss & Co, Bina Genovese. “As a result, their prices have increased sharply. So one has to be careful not to get sucked in. Prices will stabilise.

“My preference would be for artists with international representation whose work has won recognition at art events around the world. Among these are Kemang We Lehulere, Robin Rhode, Wim Botha, Gerhard Marx, Frances Goodman, Zander Blom, Angus Taylor, Georgina Gratrix, Willem Boshoff, Dylan Lewis, Mohau Modikaseng and Zanele Muholi. Of course, I would also include heavyweights like William Kentridge, Penny Siopis and David Goldblatt, given their proven record in the secondary art market as well.”

It’s an intriguing medley but is visually connected by associations: either colour or form, or imagery and narrative make the links as the visitor lingers to take in one art piece after another.

The painting is a melange of earthy green, brown, blue, yellow, grey in which ant-like figures or calligraphic marks energise the primordial space in a fierce dance of mystery.