Collecting video art: an interview with Isabelle & Jean-Conrad Lemaître

Benjamin Weil


Curator of the Exhibition

Paris-based collectors Isabelle and Jean-Conrad Lemaître have lived for a long time in other cities, such as London, Brussels and Madrid. They started collecting etchings, and proceeded with contemporary art. Video came in the mid-nineties, and has been their key focus since. In the course of the past eighteen years, they have put together a collection of outstanding quality and breadth, and which ranks them amongst the top collectors of video in the world.

The Lemaître were instrumental in the making of the Loop art fair a reference, and with the Loop festival, has become one of the most revered specialized video art event. To this date, they still are part of the artistic committee, presided by Jean-Conrad. Their relentless passion for this art form – and others – has also led them to start a small summer “happening” in Burgundy that takes place yearly during the course of the month of July. They happily host dinner parties, which eventually lead to viewing of some of their favored work of the moment, seated on a couch in the basement of their mews home in the west of Paris.

Collectors at heart, they travel to festivals and fairs, always looking and always encountering new and exciting new voices in the field. Risk taking is part of their business, and nothing seems to make them happier than sharing their passion with others. Their generosity is also at the core of the numerous exhibitions that have been featuring their collection.

A few years ago, Isabelle and Jean-Conrad also launched the Studio Collector prize, which is awarded each year to a young artist in residence at Le Fresnoy, a unique institution located in the suburb of Lille (France). For the past fifteen years, the Studio National des Arts Contemporains (National Studio of Contemporary Art) has been offering a two-year post-graduate residency and production program with recognized professionals as mentors, and state of the art production facilities in the field of the moving image and hybrid art forms.

Benjamin Weil: How did you begin collecting video?
Isabelle and Jean-Conrad Lemaître: We have always been film aficionados, and collectors for quite a bit of time. In 1996, we encountered the work of Gillian Wearing, and it dawned on us that we could combine both our interests. The rest is history!

BW: But video is not like cinema, although I guess there’s definitely a part of what we call video today that stems out of a school of experimental cinema…
I & JCL: No, video is not like cinema. However, there are similarities, and cinema is probably a source of inspiration for artists. Video borrows from cinema as it borrows from other forms of moving images, as well as other art forms.

We do not collect historical work for many reasons, but one main issue is that we are interested in what video is now, with a multitude of references.

We want our collection to reflect our place in time. We are surrounded by images of all kinds, and at the same time tools have become more accessible to shoot, to edit and to present work. As a growing number of artists use video as part of the many tools they use to make art, there is maybe a more fluid way to produce moving images: video is a medium that makes complete sense today.
We also like the fact video is a time-based media. You have to take your time to enjoy it: somehow the moving image imposes its time on you as a viewer. In a day and age when all goes fast, and when we tend to zap and hurry, it is nice to have a good reason to slow down, and focus!

BW: Increasingly, artists working with the moving image demand state of the art playback equipment in rooms that look more like a movie house; else, the work has to be staged as an installation with specific dimensions, and very intricate details. Don’t you find it difficult to showcase your collection at home?
I & JCL: You know, when a private collector buys a painting, she or he does not ask the artist where the work should hang in their home. Somehow, the moment the work of art enters a private space, it becomes part of the daily life of who has purchased it. So unless one decides to turn one’s home into a museum, the showcasing of art in a private environment cannot be compared with exhibiting it in a public space.
Before collecting video, we used to collect etchings. These were kept in drawers, and we used to pull them out, look at them and then store them back. We very often did that with friends, and enjoyed that moment of sharing: formally, it adds a degree of intimacy with the work, a different bind.

With video, we do the same, and we feel the same. We hold our collection in a closet, and screen the work on our home cinema, also with friends. We like the specific and intimate time frame in which this takes place. These are very special moments.

Then, we are happy to see our works installed and/or projected in institutions, and it is one of the reasons we enjoy lending to museums and art centres. This said, the core reason why we lend is that we believe it is part of our duty as collectors to promote the artists we support. As you know, we primarily buy works by emerging artists, so this promotion is all the more important. And sharing our vision is also something quite exciting.

BW: Is that why you were involved with Loop since the very beginning, and have launched the StudioCollector prize a few years ago.
I & JCL: It is indeed part as a whole. Loop is an important event for video, and we have continued to be involved, year after year. The same way, we launched and host this small festival in the countryside every summer. Sharing information, disseminating knowledge, and gathering friends to partake in the celebration of good work is a driving force in all we do. We are excited when we discover new work, and sharing makes it all the more exciting.

BW: this is how you acquire new work as well?
I & JCL: Scouting for new work is a truly exhilarating adventure, which we have enjoyed and continue to enjoy as much today. We usually buy in a very impulsive and intuitive fashion. But it is also true that we have a more educated eye, and know much better what appeals to us today than earlier on.

In order to proceed, we need to keep watching more work, all the time, and everywhere. There are now works coming from all over the place: it’s a never-ending endeavour!