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Interview: Collecting Couple - Andrea and Manuela Billè on Their Collection

Interview: Collecting Couple - Andrea and Manuela Billè on Their Collection

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Interview: Collecting Couple - Andrea and Manuela Billè on Their Collection

Andrea and Manuela Billè, Image courtey of Manuela Billè

Singapore-based couple Andrea and Manuela Billè are avid art collectors who have been growing and developing their art collection over many years. Their passion for art first began in Rome, with the acquisition of a piece by Greek artist Jannis Kounellis. From this first abstract piece by Kounellis, their collection grew and evolved to include several surrealist paintings and figurative sculptures, encompassing a wide variety of subject matter and themes. Below, Andrea and Manuela share more about how they developed their diverse art collection, their perspectives on the art world in Southeast Asia, and how they continue to stay connected to the art world despite the Covid-19 pandemic. 

'Untitled' by Janis Kounellis, 2005, Image courtesy of Manuela Billè

Tell us about how your collecting journey began; how did it come about and what first pieces or artists stoked your interest?

We were both born and spent our adolescence in Sicily, a wonderful island in southern Italy, where everything speaks of millenary history and great culture. Therefore, art, culture and love for beauty have always been an integral part of our lives. Our families before us collected antique art, they were the ones who introduced us to this wonderful world. 

It happens, however, that one day in Rome, the city where we met and then married, we came across an exhibition by Jannis Kounellis, a leading exponent and key figure of the “Arte Povera” movement, we were breathless, we got excited, we fell in love with his works, and after 15 days a work by Jannis Kounellis was hanging on the wall of our house.

It was an imposing work, which expressed great force but for us it was also very romantic, those long strips of black ink on drawing paper held together by a cord of iron and lead, it represented at the first sight the symbol of the family that we were just forming and were about to enlarge.

We could certainly define the purchase of the first work by Jannis Kounellis, as the beginning of a passion and a love for contemporary art that continues to grow enthusiastically to this day. A passion that after so many years continues to grow daily alongside our relationship as a couple, we continuously exchange our points of view, feelings and ideas before taking decisions about which artists we should follow and possibly add to the collection.

After Kounellis, in our years in Rome, we bought works by other already established contemporary artists including Ilya Kabakov, Agostino Bonalumi and Zhang Huan who during those years held a performance at the Capitoline Museums, called "My Rome".

In 2011, for business reasons we moved from Rome to London, where immediately thanks to one of our dearest friends, an important collector of contemporary art, we were introduced to several galleries, numerous artists, and collectors, including a couple of art consultants, who today we consider our close friends. From that moment we began to study, to follow the artists from an early stage of their career, to visit their studios, to get to know them personally and to support them. We also started to travel around the world, visiting many international art fairs, until the Covid crisis.

'Three Figure Ballerina Bust' by Kevin Francis Gray, 2017, Image courtesy of Manuela Billè

'Three Figure Ballerina Bust' by Kevin Francis Gray, 2017, Image courtesy of Manuela Billè

Your art collection is extremely diverse and comprises pieces with a wide range of styles and subject matter. Could you share more about your collecting style and what you look out for? 

It is true that our collection is composed of very different works of art, I imagine because life has led us to travel a lot and to live-in different continents trying to draw from each culture the most beautiful expressions of art.

For instance, we collect both paintings and sculptures and among our favourite sculptors we can highlight Kevin Francis Grey and Kathleen Ryan.

Their sculptures are totally different aesthetically but what both have in common is the immense joy they give us as we enjoy their unique experimentation and exploration of materiality and techniques.

I would call ours a reverse journey, we started collecting already established artists such as Jannis Kounellis, Ilya Kabakov and Agostino Bonalumi, and then focused mainly on young emerging artists or mid-career artists. 

They are the ones we support, and we love to see their constant growth and evolution.

We approach each artist without any preconception of taste, we love to range in their various forms of art that are nothing more than various expressions of beauty, but this path always has a common thread for us, love at first sight, the uniqueness of emotion their work provokes in us.

'Bad Cherries (Legs)' by Kathleen Ryan, 2020, Image courtesy of Manuela Billè

'Bad Cherries (Legs)' by Kathleen Ryan, 2020, Image courtesy of Manuela Billè

Are there any specific themes that you are drawn to?

We tend to collect artists of our generation, we turn more often to figurative rather than abstract art, although our collection includes abstract artists like Loie Hallowell whose works touched us profoundly. Pure magic!

'Hung (up)' by Loie Hollowell, 2016, Image courtesy of Manuela Billè

What are some of your key collecting criteria when scouting for artists? What is your discovery process like?

Our daily investigation into the art world and our constant search for new artists means daily training of our eyes that before the pandemic was realized through the frequent visit of artists studios, galleries and art fairs , through which we had the opportunity to discover works by extraordinary artists, including Cinga Samson, Derek Fordjour, Daniel Crews-Chubb and Angela Heisch.

'Flowes 2' by Daniel Crew Chubb, 2020, Image courtesy of Manuela Billè

As an expat in Singapore, how have you found the art scene in South East Asia? What are some of the pros and cons you have unearthed in your time here?

In 2017 we moved from London to Singapore. The two years before the pandemic were very fascinating, discovering new cultures and ways of life different from ours is always amazing. The first thing we did as soon as we arrived in the city was to become friends of STPI, we had met Emi Eu and Rita Targui, several years earlier at Art Basel Miami, they welcomed us like old friends.

Singapore is a city rich in important international collectors but with a focus on art from Southeast Asia and mainly focused on established artists. It was thanks to the visits of local galleries and participating in numerous "House Calls", real art tours inside the homes of collectors, that we began to know and appreciate the world of Southeast Asian contemporary art.

Singapore then, being so close to Hong Kong, which for energy reminded us of London, allowed us to have a full immersion in Asian Art that was unfamiliar to us.

And in fact, since we live here our collection has been enriched with works by extraordinary Asian artists, including Cui Jie, Do Ho Suh and Maria Farrar.

'Pinked' by Caroline Walker, 2019, Image courtesy of Manuela Billè

With the art world deeply affected by the pandemic in the past year and a half, how have you stayed connected to the art world?

The pandemic has been a hard blow, forcing us to experience art exclusively on screen has not been easy, you must have very trained eyes and know well how artists work to understand if that body of work you are interested in is well executed or not.

Like all those who love art, it is not easy to give up the emotion of experiencing art firsthand, but despite everything we have not lost heart, we have adapted to these great changes and even in times of pandemic we have not stopped our continuous research.

Indeed, as a couple, it was the passion for art that allowed us even through frequent zoom calls with artists and collector friends located all around the world, to overcome this terrible historical moment without great trauma.

'Ibhungane' by Cinga Samson, 2020, Image courtesy of Manuela Billè

How do you see your collection evolving over time? Where would you like it to be?

Every day we dedicate a few hours to our collection and the more the collection grows the more time we invest in it. Investing like us in emerging artists is always a big bet, maybe only some of them will succeed. But for us the criteria are always the same, buying only what we like and art that we strongly engage with, then if the artist will be also internationally successful it will be a double satisfaction.

We have a child to whom we are trying to pass on the same passion for art, and it is to him that we want to leave our cultural heritage so that like us he can increase it and hopefully pass it on to future generations.

'Camelot' by Derek Fordjour, 2017, Image courtesy of Manuela Billè

What advice would you give to new collectors embarking on building their collection? How should they start and what should they look out for?

To all those who want to approach the world of art we recommend, get carried away by what you have inside your heart, let yourself be excited by what your eyes consider beautiful but especially in the early stages be guided by those who have made art a profession, by those who study art every day, it will help you to refine your taste, very often it will clarify the path to take but above all, it will help to avoid making mistakes that can be very expensive.


Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.


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