The Scheryn Art Collection: welcome to the first collection of collectors

Stefano Pirovano

Herman Steyn, founder with Dabing Chen of the Scheryn Art Collection, explains why they joined forces to back art from Africa and the African diaspora.

Launched in 2015 as an art fund, then turned into a more innovative cultural project, the Scheryn Art Collection is a rare example of collaboration between contemporary art collectors, that is Herman Steyn and his fellow Dabing Chen. Both businessmen based in South Africa, they have instead preferred to join forces rather than following the individualism which generally characterizes collectors. Hence they created a ‘collection of collectors’, aimed at making ‘purposeful and meaningful contributions’ to the African art market, but with no return target or exit strategy. The model they have created could be a valuable option for all those collectors who aim at playing a leading role in the art community. Some new partners of the Scheryn Art Collection will soon be announced, meanwhile you may like to find out a bit more about it from Mr Steyn himself.

Could you briefly describe the Scheryn Art Collection?

Herman Steyn: The collection consists of contemporary African art this is art produced in Africa, produced by Africans, African diaspora, Art that has a strong connection with Africa. This covers the entire African continent and we collect all forms of art and art from any medium.

How is it structured?

Herman Steyn: At the moment we are two partners, Herman Steyn and Dabing Chen. We do intend to enlarge the pool of partners to six or seven over time. We want to partner with collectors who think like us and want to have the same collection that Scheryn has. The reason we want to have a number of partners is that we can combine money, information, connections and efforts. It takes a lot to manage the collection, in terms of curating, insuring, storing and this is more manageable when properly funded and structured.

Would you say that there is an idea of community beyond your collection?

Herman Steyn: Not so much of a community as a collection of collectors. Being a number of collectors allows you to have a wider and better reach, as well as different contacts. We would also love to have a collector from outside South Africa, so that he/she can keep us up to date with the information from different areas. A lot of art collecting is about relationships, with artists, galleries and fairs. Together we are stronger than alone.

Is it the first collection of this kind?

Herman Steyn: I think it’s the first collection that it is structured like this in Africa. Obviously there are individual art collections, that are also private. We structured ours in a partnership. Clearly there are some collectors who put money together in consortiums to buy one or two art pieces but this is much broader and deeper. Our intention is to eventually build an exhibition space and also start a foundation, when we are more established and more able to raise some funding for it. At the moment it’s the collection and the management of the collection.

Do you have any storage or exhibition space at the moment?

Herman Steyn: The big part why we collect is that we want to be involved in the art and use the art. Currently we put art in our homes, in our offices and we also store it because obviously we have more than we could put up. One of the intentions is for us to hold a proper storage facility that we would be able to use and also to offer to other people in time. We don’t have an ideal storage like that yet.

So do you buy both for yourself and for sharing with the other members of the Scheryn Art collection ?

Herman Steyn: As far as contemporary African art is concerned, we buy it together. If it outside of that, then I buy it by myself. Sometimes I buy European or modern art.

Are you aiming at having more collectors in Sheryn?

Herman Steyn: Yes, we would like to. We are actually looking for 3 or 4 more collectors but Scheryn Art Collection is not a fund that anybody can join. If somebody wants to join us, we would look at their collections, see how they can contribute to our effort, if the current partners can get on with the new collector. In terms of structure, we also established a management company. Brett is the Collection manager. We are also offering art management services from the management company to other collectors. A collector might want to use our services of insurance, storage, evaluation, documentation, cataloguing, etc but might not want to be part of the collection. We will then manage his/her collection for him/her but that doesn’t mean he/she is part of the collection. So either collectors become part of our collection or we can manage their collections for them.

On your website it’s stated you want to be active in the market of African art. Do you only buy or also sell?

Herman Steyn: We don’t trade in Art. We collect. Active in the market means we engage actively with a buying programme. Each collector must invest a certain amount of money per year so that we can continue buying and enlarging our collection. We are active in the market in that we support institutions that we believe should have support. We were the first sponsor of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz-Mocaa) in Cape Town. We also assist international art institutions to access to Africa. We believe that by having a more professional art community in Africa, not just South Africa, it will enhance the value of African art. We help African artists and collectors to go offshore. We were, for instance, one of the sponsors of the South African Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. There were eight sponsors and we were one of them. We need to make sure that South African art was represented well at the Biennale. We participate in talks and panels. We have a very active programme, where we lend our art to institutions in Europe, in the States and in China so that art can be exhibited. That’s what we mean being active for the market, that is promoting, supporting, selecting.

How many artworks are there in the collection at the moment?

Herman Steyn: There are 125 pieces from 40 different artists and 15 countries.

What is your approach to collecting?

Herman Steyn: We collect any medium, sculpture, glass, bronze… Our only criteria is that it has to be contemporary African art that we believe will have international appeal, that it will stand the test of time and that will also interest not just African collectors but also international ones.

Does this include Northern Africa art?

Herman Steyn: Yes, all of Africa. Africa is one continent, 54 countries. We have pieces from Mali and Morocco. .

How do you see the African art scene in five years?

Herman Steyn: Many African artists did not go to traditional academic art schools, if you look at the quality of art and creativity today, there is a lot of new thoughts, new ideas, new and unique things that are coming out from African art. So this is an exciting and innovative art community.

When contemporary African art is properly managed and stored, and the faith in the art institutions from the Continent increases, I think the value of African art will be significantly higher.

Herman Steyn: The interest that the Museum of Contemporary Art Africa is going to generate is fantastic. I have walked around many museums and a lot of them seem to have stopped collecting African art decades ago. So MOCAA is filling a big gap and will generate a lot of new interest. I think in five years’ time the market will be much stronger. I am aware African art is going to be a phase and we have to work very hard to make sure attention won’t pass by and move somewhere else.

The 1:54 art fair is a very good example of the development of African art. Despite some people being sceptical about it, I think it’s working and indeed expanding and gaining importance. I would like to see more African galleries at the big fairs like Basel and Frieze

Or we would like to see more people from these fairs visiting art fairs in Africa.

Herman Steyn: Cape Town Art Fair and FNB JoburgArtFair are pretty well established now but we would like to see more African galleries participating in these fairs. We also hope that Art X Lagos grows. We need African art fairs to expand and to attract more and more international visitors. In my opinion it’s going to happen in the next five years. If I look at what Cape Town art fair was five years ago, basically very small and what it is now, much stronger, there has been a big shift.

How did the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa start? Are you happy with the opening and what is going on right now?

Herman Steyn: They’ve done a great job to bring it to where it is now. The test will be the strength of their collection going forward, the management and fundraising as well as the funding of the collection. The collection itself will also play a big part and will have to be very strong. There is a lot of work ahead but I am sure they will be up to it.

What are the last three purchases of the Sheryn collection?

Herman Steyn: We bought four pieces in London during Frieze Week. Achraf Touloub, Galeria Plan B, Paul Onditi, ARTLab Africa, Admire Kamudzengerere, Tyburn Gallery and Billie Zangwena, blank.

January 9, 2020