The businessman, philanthropist and art collector Robert Devereux sold £4m of his prestigious post-war art collection, in order to build the African Arts Trust. Three years on, the trust has funded ambitious projects and bold new artists; from Baudouin Mouanda's residency at Gasworks Gallery in London, to Nancy Mteki's residency at Deveron Arts, to supporting Kampala's first contemporary art festival (KLA ART). Basia Lewanowska Cummings spoke with one of contemporary African art's biggest supporters about his motivations, and what he feels the future might hold for the networks and institutions he is doing so much to support.
Basia Lewanowska Cummings: Your African art collection now includes more than 400 pieces. How did you become interested in contemporary art from Africa?
Robert Devereux: I suppose simply because contemporary art and Africa have been two of the great loves and passions of my life. Combining an interest in the two was a very natural thing for me to do. Wherever I go, I always try and find the local artists and take an interest in what they are doing.
BLC: Three years ago, you decided to sell your post-war collection to set up the African Art Trust. Why did you feel, as a prominent art collector, that it was an appropriate time to invest in African art?
RD: I don't actually invest in African art. There are people that do, and I leave it up to them to decide whether that's a valid motivation for collecting art, but it has nothing to do with my motivations.
I think it's a very important distinction to make between investing and funding. I'm not saying that you can't necessarily invest, and also have a passionate engagement with both the artists and the art, but I think it does change the nature of your engagement. It's also partly a pragmatic distinction, as an entrepreneur and a businessman; I think that it's extremely difficult to actually invest in art. It doesn't behave like other asset categories.
BLC: Given your background in humanitarian initiatives, did people question why you didn't decide to invest in other aspects of infrastructure (building wells and schools)? It seems to be a criticism that is leveled at people who are involved in the arts, as if art is a frivolous pursuit.
RD: I find that a very easy critique: the two things I'm most involved in, is conservation and the visual arts. Particularly where I work with artistic projects, people ask me why don't I support children and the homeless and the poor, which to a lesser extent I do, but it's a very complex subject. I mean, I am appalled at what people like Maria Miller say ¯ our current culture secretary ¯ that the government should only support arts ventures where it has an economic impact. I think that is a disgraceful thing to say. Having said that, the fact of the matter is obviously that the arts is part of an economic sector, and so supporting the arts is not devoid of wider economic positive impact. But on a more fundamental level, I think that art is as important a part of human life, as food and shelter and clothing are.