30 Aug 2018
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Sharing a Passion for Art

In a private museum in the Netherlands, the collection of a lifetime is open for all to see
by Deborah Blagg

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Photos by Richard Bolger

Joop van Caldenborgh (AMP 71, 1975) crossed the world many times in three decades as founder and president of the Netherlands-based Caldic Chemie, BV, an international distributor of compounds for industrial, health, and food industries. Wherever he traveled, he took advantage of opportunities to pursue a lifelong passion for collecting modern and contemporary art—and not just paintings, drawings, and photographs.

Among the several thousand pieces of art van Caldenborgh has collected over the years are installations so massive or uniquely configured that they can be displayed only in a museum. So, a few years after his retirement from Caldic in 2006, on the site of a historic country estate surrounded by 100 acres of forests, meadows, and sand dunes on the Netherlands’ west coast, he built one.

Museum Voorlinden opened in 2016 with King Willem Alexander of the Netherlands in attendance. The name Voorlinden (literally “in front of the Linden”) has been associated with the surrounding landscape since the 16th century, but the museum’s architecture itself is decidedly modern. Walls consist of planes of stone and glass that maximize daylight in the galleries, which include spaces that accommodate the larger pieces in van Caldenborgh’s permanent collection, such as “Open Ended,” a steel sculpture by American artist Richard Serra that is 13 feet high and nearly 60 feet long, and weighs 216 metric tons.

Attention to Detail

“I wanted people to have a special experience here that combines art, nature, and architecture,” says van Caldenborgh, who chairs Voorlinden’s board and spends five or six days a week at his office in the museum, about an hour’s drive from Amsterdam. The tranquil setting and gardens, featuring plants chosen for their structure and color, are an integral part of the experience. Visitors can come just to stroll or picnic on the grounds.

Creating that same close-to-nature ambiance inside the building required imaginative technology and painstaking attention to detail throughout a three-year design and construction process that van Caldenborgh describes as “a hassle, but also an enormous amount of fun.

“It’s a very precise building,” he elaborates. Lighting is a case in point. “The exhibition spaces have a glass roof and vellum ceilings. Light comes in through 150,000 small tubes on the roof, each with a diameter of 12 centimeters. They are cut so northern light can come in directly, but southern light is broken up to enter at an angle. It creates a nice, quiet light during the day.” At night, exterior illumination through the white vellum recreates a sense of daylight inside.

Other features of the building were designed to immerse visitors in a contemplative experience. Ceilings and walls are deemphasized and there are no exit signs, smoke detectors, or visible security cameras. “There is nothing to distract people from looking at art and enjoying art,” van Caldenborgh says, “and that’s what I hope they will do.”

Never Say Never

Van Caldenborgh’s own enjoyment of art began early. “When I was a boy, I bought something that could hang in my room,” he recalls. “When I was first married, I would bring home something that was the right size to hang over the couch.”

After founding Caldic in 1970, his art collection expanded quickly, as visits to museums and galleries intensified his interest in the work of prominent artists, such as Serra, Ellsworth Kelly, Damien Hirst, and Tracey Emin, as well as talented newcomers. Some of the works were exhibited at Caldic’s headquarters in Rotterdam and the firm’s other locations. “I enjoyed having pieces in places where I spent so much of my time,” says van Caldenborgh, who employed an art staff at Caldic to manage exhibits. “The art also set an image for our company and became a company-wide source of pride when we gave tours to visiting suppliers or customers.”

By the 1990s, however, the scale of his collection became a little overwhelming.

“I knew I was buying pieces that I couldn’t hang in the house, nor in an office building, nor anywhere!” he recalls. In 1995, van Caldenborgh installed some prominent pieces in a sculpture garden near his home, where visitors today can enjoy guided tours and afternoon tea. But the idea of building a museum didn’t take shape until 2010, several years after he turned over Caldic’s leadership to his son Olav (AMP 169, 2005), who now serves as managing director. (Caldic was subsequently acquired by Goldman Sachs in 2017).

“Journalists and friends would ask, and I always said ‘no, never!’” he relates. “There are already enough museums.” A 2010 public exhibition in Rotterdam of selected pieces from his collection helped change his mind. “It was so much fun that I said, ‘We should do this more often.’” Groundbreaking for the museum took place three years later.

Collecting and Sharing

A museum director manages exhibits and oversees daily activities in Voorlinden’s 20 galleries, library, educational space, auditorium, conservator’s studio, and museum shop. As chairman of the board, van Caldenborgh is guided by his business experience and prior service as board chair of both the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam and The Hague Municipal Museum.

“As a private museum, we don’t get government funding,” he notes. “It’s a lot like running a business; you have money in and money out. We employ 140 people who have to be paid. But with ticket sales, the museum shop, restaurant, and help from our supporters, we are self-sustaining.”

Van Caldenborgh’s collection consists of a mind-boggling array of paintings, prints, sculptures, videos, and permanent and temporary installations that range from a working elevator the height of a human ankle by Italian sculptor Maurizio Cattelan, to a 4.5-by-9-meter-long kaleidoscopic passageway by Chinese artist Song Dong. A regular on the ARTnews list of the top 200 collectors in the world, Caldenborgh says he isn’t done yet. “It’s hardly ever out of my mind,” he notes.

Sharing his love of art is a key motivation. While he sometimes arrives at Voorlinden before opening to enjoy a few moments alone in the quiet galleries, van Caldenborgh says an even better perk of his job is the chance to act as a tour guide. “It’s fun to entertain people, to talk about why you bought a certain piece, where it came from, what your ideas are about it, and to see their own reactions.

“Sharing art within the proper environment is very meaningful at this time in my life,” he continues. “When I see people going through the museum with smiling faces—and even coming back several times—I am happy.”

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