Major Collector Lonti Ebers and Delfina Foundation Director Aaron Cezar on Why Artist Residencies Are As Important As Ever
Lonti Ebers is among the world’s most respected collectors, having appeared on the ARTnews Top 200 Collectors list every year since 2017, while amassing holdings that include the work of pioneering women artists like Alice Neel, Sturtevant, Carolee Schneemann, and Carol Rama, as well as that of David Hammons, Jack Whitten, and Ryan Trecartin. In addition to collecting, Ebers is a major patron, serving on the boards of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, and on the European Committee of the Tate Gallery in London. Ebers announced plans in 2018 to create Amant, a center in the Bushwick neighborhood in Brooklyn featuring art studios and exhibition spaces, and offering two residency programs, one in Italy and one in Brooklyn.
Aaron Cezar is founding director of the Delfina Foundation, a London-based nonprofit he helped create in 2007 with longtime UK arts patron Delfina Entrecanales to promote artistic exchange and creative practice by means of residencies and public programming. The organization succeeded Delfina Studios, launched as a residency program in the 1980s by Entrecanales, who died earlier this year. Cezar has made the residency program one of the most closely watched in the world. He organized the opening week and closing weekend performances for the 2019 Venice Biennale, and served on the jury for the 2020 Turner Prize.
To discuss their artist residency programs and general thoughts on the art world, Ebers and Cezar joined ARTnews for an interview via Zoom this past summer.
ARTnews: What was the impetus for starting your respective residency programs? What gaps did you see in the art world that prompted their creation?
Aaron Cezar: There are two chapters of Delfina, as it were: Delfina Studios, which started in 1988, and then Delfina Foundation, in 2007. That’s where my journey began. We can’t tell the story of our organization without talking about our founder, Delfina Entrecanales, who was not a collector in the traditional sense. Her most famous saying was “I collect artists, not art.” Her collecting impulse was from interactions with people and relationships that she had with artists and other creative people. In the late ’80s, when she started Delfina Studios, it was because [she perceived] a lack of vision for artists in the UK. This coincided with the YBA [Young British Artist] movement, when British contemporary art was starting to come into its own on the world stage. At that time, there weren’t a lot of resources for artists and very few international exchange opportunities, so Delfina Studios provided [them]. Among the first group of artists ever supported was Urs Fischer, Mark Wallinger, Keith Tyson, and Sonia Boyce, who won the Golden Lion at this year’s Venice Biennale. It [provided] space for artists to develop their practice, their networks, their ideas.
In 2007, at 90 years old, Delfina retired, and that is where my part of the story begins. Initially, [the program] focused on international exchange, primarily between East and West, and we grew beyond that, looking at engagement with artists all around the world, particularly from the Global South. At this point, the market had grown tremendously for contemporary art. There were concerns about how artists should relate to the market, how they find their space, and how they continue to nurture their careers in light of different kinds of pressures that come not only from the market but also from their community. Delfina’s desire for setting up residencies for artists was a very simple one: providing a space where artists could find community and engage with international communities.
Lonti Ebers: There are many similarities, but the fundamental difference would be that, while Delfina declared that she didn’t collect art, I do. But I also see the need for artists to find a place where they can create their community, especially given market pressures. As a collector, I could have created a collection space, but I wanted something that would be distinct from my collection. In a place like New York, I think the need is significant for a residency program because of the costs of living and working. I also wanted to provide a forum and an environment for artists who could come from all parts of the world. We emphasize multidisciplinary practices. We emphasize research-focused work, and we really try to create an environment where artists can cross-pollinate. While we have the residency program in New York, we also have a significant exhibition program and public program at Amant. They all contribute to creating a cultural nexus in New York.
Cezar: Like Amant, we’re very much centered on research, providing opportunities for artists to interrogate creative hunches or explore an area of their practice that they haven’t yet been able to tap into.
ARTnews: You both mentioned bringing together artists from different parts of the world, particularly from the Global South. Why has that been such an important aspect of what you do?
Ebers: It’s important because they’re often less likely to have the resources. We pay for their travel, we give them living expenses, and we give them workspace, plus we offer them opportunities to make connections—things that will be helpful for their work and for their careers. But we can’t pretend that we can help everyone. We can’t—but we do try to focus our attention.
Cezar: In the case of London, which is quite similar to New York, we are a former empire. Because of the colonial history of the UK, we have been part of so much trauma that a lot of the world has experienced historically. There’s a lot to learn from artists working in different contexts and truly being able to have a global conversation in London at a time when it feels like there is heightened nationalism and polarization—when it feels like there’s not an opportunity to have a gray space because everything has become so black and white. Artists can show us different dimensions to how we can understand the world around us. The important aspect is ensuring there is a global conversation that isn’t based on some of the problematics of cultural exchange, which are often based around cultural differences rather than similarities. It’s not just about providing voice, but also listening at the same time, and providing space where we can have honest conversations.
ARTnews: Why did the two of you decide to operate a form of open call to select artists?
Ebers: The open call, in theory, allows anyone to apply. In our first year, we had over 1,500 applications for 12 spots. Now, we have to cut it off at the first 800, which tells you something about interest and need. There are a lot of factors: [at] what level is somebody in their practice, what is an ideal combination of artists.
Cezar: Delfina is similar: 75 percent of our artists are selected through an open call, and the other 25 percent come through a nomination process. Just like Lonti said, we can be completely inundated with applications. What’s interesting is that it’s a way of understanding what’s happening in the world. You’re getting little windows into people’s thinking, their very specific context in rural Indonesia or an urban metropolis like São Paulo. You’re getting a snapshot of what artists are thinking about right now, and what they’re most concerned about. As an organization, we try to think programmatically about how to respond to those concerns. The open call process, as unwieldy as it can be, is trying to offer widespread opportunities for those who may not come to us by nomination. We’re looking at the artists’ portfolios, but we’re also looking at how they will respond to the context of London and take advantage of all the resources that the city has in terms of archives, libraries, museums, galleries. We’re looking at who hasn’t had the biggest opportunity, where this residency will make a big shift to their career. It’s not just about hosting—it’s about supporting.
ARTnews: Artist residencies are often in idyllic, pastoral places, like Amant’s space in Italy. London and New York are obviously not that. Why bring artists to two of the world’s largest art capitals?
Ebers: It’s hard for anyone to crack into New York, getting access to other professionals there. It would be difficult to do on an individual basis. Knowing how to access all the resources of an urban environment is much harder for somebody who’s new to that environment. I’m here now in Italy. This is a much more contemplative, individually driven work time for the artists versus New York.
Cezar: We’re in a house in the center of London, a two-minute walk from Buckingham Palace. It’s a unique location. It’s important not to be on the periphery. Our other neighbors are 10 Downing Street, ministerial offices, think tanks. We often use the analogy of Delfina being an artists’ think tank. That’s forced us and the artists to consider the role that art plays in society, and the potential for creative practices and creative thinking to shift perspectives. Like Lonti said, a place like London can be very difficult to navigate. Our role as an institution is to enable connections, to make it easier to break down barriers. Every two or three weeks at Delfina we do a “family lunch,” where we bring together collectors, patrons, academics, and museum directors to eat with our artists. Also, the artists cook, so it’s home cooking. It’s a sharing of knowledge all around a dinner table. We want to enable these kinds of conversations at Delfina that then, I hope, ricochet out.
Ebers: We also really try to highlight gatherings. We made a point—and I have to say it was partly thanks to Aaron—that we expanded our common space in New York because we hadn’t planned for it to be as significant a space as it is now.
Cezar: I remember looking at the floor plan and saying, “Where are we going to eat or hang out?”
Ebers: It’s great because we actually use that a lot. It’s a welcoming space that’s conducive for socializing and talking. The garden is now growing.
Cezar: Delfina, being in a house, has a domestic feeling, so the notion of hospitality is central to how we operate as an organization. And with it being a house, there isn’t massive production space, so we encourage the artists to think of London as their studio. In London, you can find all kinds of facilities—dark rooms, kilns, recording studios. It forces an engagement with the city that would not happen otherwise, if they had studio spaces where they might just stay sheltered.
ARTnews: Delfina also launched a residency program for collectors in 2017. How are collectors part of this ecosystem?
Cezar: “Collecting as Practice” explores the politics, psychology, and philosophy of collecting. We’re looking beyond art as simply an object with commercial value, and instead what is the social value of art and the role of collectors within society, just like we explore the role of artists in society. The residency program came out of our witnessing interactions between artists and collectors at family lunches. It was always a bit awkward at first because, typically, artists didn’t know how to speak to a collector. A lot of collectors we engage with think of themselves as part of a whole ecosystem. They are cross-pollinators of ideas and resources. I use this analogy of them being butterflies and bees in the art world. So how can we create more worker bees and give more visibility to collectors who are doing radical things? It started very simply by inviting collectors to spend time living in the house alongside artists for short periods—one to two weeks. We identified collectors who weren’t traditional, like Haro Cumbusyan, who collects film; or Lu Xun from Nanjing, China, who collects architecture; or collectors who were interested in their relationships with artists like Daisuke Miyatsu, whose house was designed in conversation with Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster. The program evolved to inviting collectors who had areas of research they wanted to explore, anything from starting their own foundation, to reconsidering what their current foundation is doing in terms of grantmaking, to exploring the gallery ecosystem and how to support small-scale galleries to secure their role in the ecosystem.
Ebers: We don’t plan to do programming focused on collectors. I’ve determined that I want to keep my collecting separate. But I think as an idea—and certainly as a practice—[engaging] collecting makes sense for Delfina.
Cezar: Ensuring that the residency program is in fact divorced from the collection is significant. It is about your interests as a collector in supporting the ecosystem, but it’s not about using your collection as the impetus for the programming itself. These two things are related but separate. There are a lot of residency programs that have been set up by collectors in the last few years that are very centered around personal interests. Amant has independence in terms of how they select artists. Lonti is involved, but there is a jury process and an open call that allows artists to find their way into the program. Someone like Lonti, who would inspire other collectors, is the model.
Ebers: I find it such a different mindset collecting and being engaged in what I would call a broader philanthropic venture. I also have my involvements on the board of MoMA, which are significant.
ARTnews: How do you see your role as a collector in terms of patronage? Is patronage an important part of what collectors should be doing?
Ebers: People in general should care about what is happening in the rest of the world, so from that standpoint, yes. To me, there’s such a big difference with collectors today. People call themselves collectors who are what I would describe as more buyers than collectors. I think of a collector as someone with a long-term commitment being driven by serious engagement. Right now, [only] people who are going to engage philanthropically are motivated by that. If people have the resources, they should engage in what is meaningful to them. But I don’t think we can demand that, just like we can’t demand somebody who’s buying art to be a collector. I can only speak for myself, but I’ve always been very conscious of these different activities. I don’t think the fact that I buy something is necessarily philanthropic. It helps the artists. It helps the dealer. It helps, in theory, the art world, but that isn’t something that I would describe as strictly philanthropic. I think philanthropy really takes much more selfless engagement.
ARTnews: Did Delfina have similar motivations at the beginning?
Cezar: Delfina was unique, particularly in the UK, in that she offered no-strings-attached support. She did not ask for any artwork, but because it was no-strings-attached, there’s always this suspicion around why. Why would you set up the space and not benefit from it? For her, it was the relationships with the artists—like, “I’ll spend a few minutes with a painting, but I’ll spend a lifetime with an artist.”
Ebers: I’ve had to answer the same question: “What’s the catch?” There isn’t any, actually. It’s curious because people see the art world as so driven by some sort of benefit.
Cezar: Often, collectors are driven by ego. Sometimes I think ego is important because you need a drive and a purpose for something to happen. You need someone who’s going to push forward. But ego can also get in the way.
ARTnews: It’s hard to ignore the market at this moment, but both of your residency programs are trying to get artists to slow down, to not necessarily think about the production of objects, but to think and do research.
Ebers: The market itself can be such a demanding and onerous presence on an artist’s practice. You see graduating exhibitions, and the artists are all being signed up, and they’re having to produce for their first solo show. It doesn’t really allow time for artists to think about their work. Yes, they’re making, but they’re not given much opportunity to slow down. That’s the nature of the art market and
the nature of what the measure of success in the market is now, which is very much about commerce.
Cezar: That definitely rings true with what we’re trying to do: give time and space to artists to take a break, to take a breath to reconsider their position in the world. The art market has become relentless and all-consuming. But the art market is also part of an ecosystem, so we need to encourage a healthier relationship with it. We want to encourage artists to sustain themselves and their practice, so we try to acknowledge good examples. As nonprofits, we’re pouring a lot of resources into developing talent, to go off and do some good in the world. But sometimes, we are exploited as a nonprofit institution by, let’s say, a gallery. One of my most deflating experiences has been seeing a project that was developed at Delfina, which we put a lot of resources into, suddenly end up at a fair, without any acknowledgment. It would have been a nice gesture, to acknowledge us. But at the same time, I had to step back and think, Well, actually, what is our role? Our purpose is to support the artists—we did that.
Ebers: We had a couple of tough Covid years. We had to make a lot of compromises on multiple fronts, so some disappointments emanated from that. I’m very happy to say that this year we really have an excellent group. One fundamental difference between collecting and operating a residency program is, one is an object and one is a person.
Cezar: Running a residency is not easy because you’re dealing with individuals who all come with their own quirks. But being able to see them grow as a result is energizing. And it’s not just about the transformation that’s happening to them, but the transformation that’s happening to you at the same time.
ARTnews: How are you looking toward the future—the next 5, 10, 15 years for your programs and beyond?
Ebers: Because we’re so new, I’d like to see some documentation of what the artists produce further down the road, maybe an exhibition that includes past residents. I’d like to see more memorialization, like through production of a catalogue. I know that I don’t want to grow the residency itself because it’s intimate right now, and it seems to work well.
Cezar: With Delfina’s passing, we’ve been reflecting on the incredible impact that she made, and now we’re planning for the future beyond her, to carry forth her legacy. Structurally, we are building our board of trustees, looking to acquire a building in central London to secure the organization, and set up an endowment—very ambitious plans. Programmatically, what we’re starting to test out is supporting artists in the context that they’re already working in. Recently, we’ve had applications from artists for specific projects they want to realize. When we look at those projects, we feel that they need support back home alongside an engagement with London, where they can use London to amplify their work and make professional connections. So we started funding an artist in the Congo and an architect in Syria to do research on the ground in these two contexts, but it also includes a short residency in London. We’re rethinking how we support artists because supporting artists where they are can be what they most need.
A version of this article appears in the 2022 edition of ARTnews’s Top 200 Collectors issue, under the title “Artful Lodgers.”