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Lawyer merging business and arts

Jan Widlund, who accidentally became one of Scandinavia’s best-loved corporate art collectors, is a living example of how the arts and business should be practised together, as Artworks discovers.

3 min read

Raising his voice above the noise of creative types drinking with philanthropists at a party in Stockholm’s Museum of Modern Art, Jan Widlund says: “Most people wouldn’t expect anyone in business to have a clue about the arts. People think the arts and business are very different. They are not.”

The Swedish-born business lawyer is living proof that the two sectors can work beautifully together and he believes they can have a great influence on each other.

“Great businessmen have an arts side as well,” he says. Widlund has combined a glittering career in business with a long track record of backing and working with a range of artists and arts organisations, building one of Scandinavia’s finest corporate art collections, and recently supporting young talents.

One of Widlund's most dear pieces of art is created by Tony Cragg.

When we meet at the Stockholm Museum of Modern Art, where he also sat until recently on the Friends of the Museum’s board of directors, we discuss some “golden rules” for how to build a corporate collection.

“At first I looked at the collection as part of office decoration. Later I thought of the art as a part of the identity of the law firm, both for clients and employees,” he says. “It’s important, for media and clients to be interested, that someone in the firm – rather than an outsider – manages the collection, so it improves the firm’s reputation. You shouldn’t partner with a gallery. Buying an art collection is different from creating it.”

“You have to be decisive to build a corporate art collection. You may well listen to knowledgeable people in the trade, but don´t forget that you are fully responsible for the collection. Don’t set up a committee unless they’re qualified, so you’re not compromising on quality.”

By all means measure the collection between yourself and experts, which adds media value and good will. You’ll need to think about management of the collection if you move on.

“A good art collection must be built on knowledge not only of art, but also of the particular business where the art is situated. The environment helps strike the balance so the collection isn’t too controversial, but has a few provocative pieces at least. Close relationships with artists are best avoided however. You have to like the art first and not buy because you know the artists, so it’s not too difficult to sell later.

“The collection must have a clear direction, such as modern art or medieval art, for example, even if you choose to be as narrow as ‘Young Swedish Contemporary Art’. As a collector, you can get invited to previews, which helps you access great work and make your collection better by getting the best works from whichever artists you love in whichever direction you have chosen.

“A collection is always judged by its worst artwork. Each work, therefore, has to be good and make sure it’s kept up to date; it needs reviving all the time. To keep the collection strong, you must be prepared to sell not only because you make mistakes, but since ‘fashion’ changes. And remember, the economic value of art isn’t the same as artistic value.”

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