Illustration by Yasmine Gateau.

Dslcollection: A Collecting Project for the 21st Century

Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

In 2005, after almost 25 years of collecting art, my wife and I established Dslcollection after our first trip to China. For this project, we knew from the beginning that we did not want to just amass artworks. We wanted to embark on a “collecting project for the 21st century,” with a cultural perspective that reflects two tectonic changes that we are currently experiencing: the rise of China as a superpower, which is altering the face of the world, and the digital era that is transforming humanity as a whole.

Today’s collectors have endless opportunities to show their collections to the public, from traditional methods such as museum loans to the post-internet model of sharing on social media or through virtual exhibitions. Yet most private collections are still in the “Digital Stone Age”; according to the website Larry’s List, in 2014 only 12 percent of collectors around the world were found to have an online presence. For Dslcollection, however, the digital world is more than just about having an online presence.

Firstly, the love for art is not a predetermined sensibility. Passion for art, like that for music, is nourished through exposure and education. Digital technology provides a channel for art to reach anyone with an internet connection, thus promising a future in which art is as ubiquitous to culture as popular music. But one has to be cautious with this global democratization—there is a difference between dissemination and vulgarization. A collection should be accessible, but also sophisticated. Collecting art and sharing it on a large scale, such as on the internet, comes with new responsibilities.

Showing art virtually is not a new concept. Our vision for Dslcollection is greatly inspired by the late French novelist André Malraux, whose concept of musée imaginaire (“the museum without walls”) advocates presenting art outside the traditional confines of a museum setting. The same can be said of the Google Art Project, an online platform where users can access high-resolution images of artworks from partnering museums and institutions. The world’s art is literally at one’s fingertips.

Collections have come to be seen more as vehicles for intellectual, cultural and social exchange than as mere assemblages of objects. Therefore, in their presentation, one must go beyond the traditional white cube. Working online offers opportunities to tailor projects to specific audiences and create content with widespread appeal and accessibility. We have witnessed a shift in the behavior of the art audience, who no longer simply view or observe art but now “consume” it as well—a change made possible by the desacralization and democratization of art. Today, art aficionados are looking for experience, engagement and perceived quality, which are the very same attributes that a consumer would look for in any goods or services. We have truly moved into an age of mass production, where anyone can create and publicize content to every corner of the world.

A major part of Dslcollection’s operations involves people from around the globe approaching us to participate in our mission—through research, communications, curatorial and publishing projects and many other ways. Encouraging others to collaborate is what makes Dslcollection a “learning,” and in some ways an organic, entity.

We believe that the digital world provides the opportunity to create a “cultural institution without walls” as well as build a sustainable brand identity. The necessity for private collections and cultural institutions to have a branding strategy perfectly highlights the change that is overtaking the art industry today. Branding is a significant step that one must take in order to stand out, make a difference and speak with a unique voice that represents one’s personality and values.

In 2014, Dslcollection received the inaugural Art Newspaper Asia Prize for the “Organization of the Year,” marking the first time an online organization received an award for its mission to disseminate information and engage with the arts. The implications here are noteworthy. Firstly, there is a clear shift in what the arts community understands as an effective way of sharing art. Secondly, private art collections can make a significant impact, and enter the public consciousness as an institution, without the need for a physical showcasing of artworks.

Is the experience of a person who interacts with art online worth less than that of someone who visits a physical exhibition? We think that they have the same value: human interactions mediated through computers and smartphones are not just virtual, but a form of experiential reality, which raises new questions on how the public connects with art. The digital world can be where art, science and business converge to explore expression, communication, social interaction and education. Digital technology can help create an interactive community around a brand’s mythology, and Dslcollection aspires to be, in the words of Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, a “junction meeting between objects, between people, and between people and objects.”