Interview with Dr. Peter Haller, CEO of Serviceplan Group
Peter Haller vor Anselm Kiefer
Foto: © Serviceplan
Serviceplan is one of Europe's biggest owner-managed advertisement agencies. When Peter Haller and Rolf Stempel started the company in 1970, they also set the cornerstone for the art collection. Despite a small budget, by focusing on abstract art after 1945, the collection grew quickly to include over 50 different international artists. The German post-war artists such as Sigmar Polke, Anselm Kiefer and Georg Baselitz are the the focal point, but the collection also has international artists such as Tony Cragg and Alexander Calder. Peter Haller has published two books on the unique and significant collection and it is on view for employees and the public in the in the "Haus der Kommunikation“ in Munich.
The agency is closely connected to art, because art means expressing creativity and imagination – qualities required in the communication sector on a daily basis. The genres stimulate one another and their borders are fluid and changeable – works by Andy Warhol and Charles Wilp are ideal examples of this taking inspiration from pop culture. And, perhaps showing a modification of his belief that art and advertising are not one in the same, in July 2008, Dr. Peter Haller initiated the "Art & Advertising" series, presenting works by creative professionals who had made their name not only in advertising but also in contemporary art.
Interview: Dr. Peter Haller, Founder Serviceplan, Munich, Germany
EAS: Why did you start an art collection for your company?
PH: The starting point was the design of an old, artistic and historically significant building in Munich. In the late 1970s, Service Plan moved into the Wedekind House in the Prinzregentenstrasse – it was the house of Frank Wedekind, probably the most important and most provocative poet, theatre maker and versatile man in the 1910s, and 1920s. I stood in the empty house before the move and said to myself, “we cannot hang advertising on the walls here, that would be blasphemy. We can only hang art.” And this is how we started our art engagement. It has naturally evolved. At that time, we did not have large financial resources, but as business improved we've been able to buy art continuously.
EAS: Were you already an art collector at this time?
PH: No, but I have always been interested in the arts. I studied singing for three years in addition to my studies in economics, but I was probably a better economist than a singer. At the age of 20 I had a standing-room subscription at the Meistersinger opera, and my wife and I continued to attend the opera.
EAS: Did you have a strong concept for the collection from the beginning?
PH: Not from the beginning. I had very little knowledge about art when we started. I saw the first two works we bought by Víctor Mira in the Galerie Thomas in Munich and spontaneously said to my business partner “let’s hang those in the office.” Then we realized we could expand our collection, if further funds become available. And then you learn very quickly that the art market is infinite. And infinitely varied, especially for a layman. So we decided to hold off buying until we learned more and could determine a concept for the collection. Concept development is what we do for our customers, after all.
Sean Scully: Red Tryptich; Foto: © Serviceplan
So, I spent years looking at exhibitions; but I actually learned the most from the catalogues of the major auction houses - Sotheby's, Christies and so on. These catalogues are fantastic: incredibly diverse, containing substantial information. They not only show the art being auctioned, they explain each piece with enormous international expertise. If you study these books for two or three years, you learn a lot about art and the art market. And you also get a feeling about the prices and what would be a good fit in a collection.
After this period of “study” we finally decided to collect art from 1945 onwards. Why? Because of the history in Germany. Like all dictatorial regimes, the Nazis declared modern art as suspicious and illegalized painting in 1933. Then an “embarrassing” exhibition of what they called “degenerate art” was staged in 1937 and as a result almost all the modern German artists were banned from painting for 12 years. This created a pent-up creativity reserve which was finally discharged in 1945, after the war.
But it was a revolution in the sense that it expressed the informal and emotional elements of painting. Gestural art emerged. I thought this was fascinating and decided to focus on this period. That was the first step. But one learns that things continuously progress in art, and many artists came to reject this informal movement. The Zero Group, for example, is just the opposite: they investigated space, technology and different materials. Mack and Piene started the movement and Uecker joined with his nail pictures.
And so we expanded our collection. We want to cover a broad spectrum - we have more than 60 artists in the collection - and we want to have the pieces of each artist that have character and fit together. I do not want to build my collection with only Kiefer or Baselitz, because that would be too narrow. I could not have written my book on “Art after 1945” if that were the case. I would like to show the broad range of artists from that time time period.
Georg Baselitz: Elke; Foto: © Serviceplan
EAS: Was there also a link to your work as a communications agency?
PH: People who believe that advertising has a lot to do with art are on the wrong track. Advertising is not art, and the influence of art on advertising is relatively minor. Artists think totally differently from creative advertising people. One could say advertisements are commissioned art, but in advertising it is the customer who has something to convey, not the artist. The advertising creative must serve the brand. Creative people have a penchant for art, but they do not make art their profession. So many factors influence the result that it is no longer art. It does, however, suit an advertising agency well to have an affinity for art. For example, the most famous agency-owned art collection is the Saatchi collection in London. I think this kind of activity is an important pillar of our professional and corporate culture.
One could say advertisements are commissioned art, but in advertising it is the customer who has something to convey, not the artist.
EAS: Have you ever proposed engaging in art as a way to build or enhance a brand to a customer?
PH: A company can collaborate or support artists in order to make the company's image more creative and progressive - for example, to make editions of artworks, but bringing together artists and customers is a huge flop. It does not work, because artists are mavericks. Serious artists would never create advertisements, because they would rather create art, and that has nothing to do with advertising.
There are advertising agencies who offer a portfolio of artists and if the customer gives them a brief, then they commission an artist to make art instead of a classic advertisement. We have often worked out such concepts with our customers. But if you would like the artist to do a commission for a company, you have to give the artist complete creative freedom.
Your question reminds me of a story about one of the major shoe manufacturers in Austria called Humanic Shoes. From 1969 to 1995 they had appointed an artist as advertising director. The owner had bought television time and hired Horst Gerhard Haberl to create the TV spots. Horst worked with Austrian artists who could do what they wanted as long as the name “Franz” came up and the spot ended with the motto: “Humanic always fits.” That was all. You should have a look at the spots on the internet. Hans Mayer-Rieckh, the company owner, invited me to meet Haberl, so I went to see him and show him an advertising concept. He had a long beard and wore a black kaftan, and as I came into his office, he was on the phone. He held the receiver again and again to my ear. It was someone who had seen his TV commercials and the man on the phone objected to them vociferously; the ranting of this man amused Horst royally. I thought to myself “I will never get this account with my concept for a strategically aligned advertising campaign.” But I presented my strategy to Horst anyway, and when I finished he said: “You are an agency. You have no artistic skills what so ever, you are only strategic. You will get the account, so I can to continue making my art.”
EAS: What is the biggest risk in creating an art concept for a company?
PH: The biggest risk is if the company’s public behaviour contrasts to what its art collection exudes. That is the reason why a lot of the banks, for example, that have the image of being notoriously greedy, try to neutralize this image by engaging in art. Take the largest German collection - the Deutsche Bank Collection (38,000 works). The German bank is involved in multiple court cases, but it collects art to an extent that no one else can.
Still, art cannot be used to compensate for or camouflage bad behaviour. In this case, collecting art is counterproductive, because everyone recognizes that “the art is just a mask. And behind it are scandals and I do not know what all.” So you have to be very careful.
Another risk is certainly that you can buy the wrong art. Many companies buy or promote new art and support talented young artists because this is affordable. But sometimes these companies have no idea what they are doing and they end up with “conglomerations” not “collections.” The concept is missing.
EAS: How can you buy the right art? What would you recommend?
PH: You have first to build your own knowledge. Art collecting is an expression of your personality and you should not ignore that fact. I receive numerous offers from art advisors who say “I can do that for you.” But they offer me the exact thing that makes art collecting fun for me. It’s not owning the art or the pride of the collection, but the beauty of discovering a Kiefer and the process of finding it. So you should not leave it to the art advisors because then you will never develop a real relationship with your art. I admit that not everyone likes each piece in our collection, but I like the collection and stand up for it.
Many companies today use art collecting as part of their corporate governance or to build the brand- art is a very good way to create positive attitudes toward the brand.
EAS: In a time when museums have less public money with which to buy art, what role could companies play in supporting the arts?
PH: Some of the large businesses - banks or insurance companies; I mentioned Deutsche Bank - have quite impressive collections. I remember when I went to visit Ergo Insurance I noticed two giant paintings by Gerhard Richter in the foyer - I think 4-5 meters high. They are no longer affordable today. So companies love to collect art, and they should collect art. I think that’s right. Because they rightly say, the major museums have no money, while the private museums have lots of money, and most of those have a particular collector behind them.
Ernst W. Nay: Symphonie; Foto: © Serviceplan
As for these private collectors – contemporary artists need private collectors – people like Phil Lauder or his father Leonard Lauder (Estee Lauder heirs). I do not think there will be much more money from government cultural budgets in the coming years for collections in public spaces. Besides, many museums are indeed very well stocked; they just do not have room to hang everything. Take the Munich museums. If they purchased more art, it would go into storage. It needs to be shown. Our own building is full of art, so we do not need to build ourselves a museum; we are one.
Ernst W. Nay: Auge rot interpul; Foto: © Serviceplan
EAS: Which work in your collection is your favourite?
PH: Difficult question. Always the latest purchase. In this case, the latest work from the Rose Series of Anselm Kiefer. But also the painting on the cover of my last book about art after 1945: “The Eye Series” by Ernst Wilhelm Nay. Nay is actually known through his “Scheibenbilder” (“Disc Series”). But his next phase, “The Eye Images”, in my opinion, are even better, because these images communicate with the viewer. Because when I am faced with such an eye, the picture looks at me. I am not only the viewer. I find that incredibly interesting, so this is actually one of my favourite paintings.
EAS: Which artist would you like to invite to dinner?
Leonardo da Vinci, because he is the most versatile and also the most mysterious artist of all. People still interprete the meaning of the Mona Lisa! This Leonardo da Vinci was an incredibly interesting man. Probably one of the millennium characters. Unfortunately, he has not only painted. He has also created all those inventions , and that prevented him from painting more!
Interview: Ellen-Andrea Seehusen
Text: Julian Stalter, Shellie Karabell