Artwork Archive collector Yoram Roth on what drives his passion for art and life.
Meet Artwork Archive collector Yoram Roth. Yoram is a creative entrepreneur, investor, artist, father, and art collector. Born in Berlin, Yoram studied art under acclaimed photographer Larry Fink at Fordham University, at a time when New York City was still gritty, raw, and full of potential.
The city left a lasting impression and Yoram’s been chasing down that creative energy ever since. After founding a techno music label in Berlin (D’Vision) in the 90s, and working in Los Angeles as an investor and hotelier, Yoram threw himself into his own photography practice. He’s since exhibited with esteemed galleries such as Camera Work, published three books, and sold out shows in Milan, Paris and elsewhere.
Currently, Yoram is taking a sabbatical from his art practice and focusing on his other creative enterprises, many of which are fundamentally artistic and cultural in nature. This includes NeueHouse, a private work and social space that fosters creative connections, as well as Yoram’s most ambitious project to date, “the world’s largest museum for photography” – Fotografiska.
NeueHouse and Fotografiska are both part of the recently-formed CultureWorks, a development platform for culture, experience, and hospitality brands. Fotografiska currently has spaces in New York, Stockholm, Tallinn (Estonia), and plans to open in Berlin in 2022 (in an iconic building that was previously a notorious artist squat, formerly known as Kunsthaus Tacheles). Fotografiska is a hybrid of sorts – part-museum, part-immersive experience, accentuated by carefully curated and seemingly nonstop programming comprised of multiple rotating exhibitions at each location, classes, artist talks & panels, book launches, DJ sets, sound baths, of-the-moment chefs and cuisine, and more.
Fotografiska works directly with artists to realize ambitious shows with a high level of cultural crossover. This past year, Fotografiska NY worked with iconic photographer Andres Serrano to mount Infamous, “a visual exploration of the long history of deeply rooted racism in the United States,” according to Fotografiska’s website. The museum is also working with the Black Artist Fund and is currently showing Naima Green’s portraits and video art, which celebrate “Black and POC centered queer histories” (through April 18, 2021 in New York).
We sat down with Yoram to discuss his background, his creative interests, and how he hopes Fotografiska will impact the cultural landscape.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’re a collector and business owner, but you’re also an artist. What has your art practice taught you?
For three years I studied under Larry Fink at Fordham University, and he taught me a lot. He really taught me how important hands are. He was not a cynical or snarky person. He was actually somebody who really saw a lot of commonalities between people. It’s interesting, at the time he was shooting a lot of high society events in New York at the various balls and so on; but then he would also go home to rural Pennsylvania and photograph his family, and he would shoot the way that the hands rested on the table or rested on each other’s shoulders, and so on. And he found that common ground about how people communicate with each other.
So this idea of looking at the world through how people use their hands to communicate and the gentleness in it, and the concerns and the fears that you can see — you can read people better through their hands than through their faces — I got that from him. And then, at a certain time in my life, I thought, “All right, I want to get back into photography.” So I did.
I got a studio and I started making art, but the next step was this internal monologue of questions like, “Okay, so how does the art world work? How do I sell art? How do I show in a museum? Well, you’re nobody, you don’t get to be in a museum. Wait, why not? How do you get a gallery? How do you get into a group show? How do you show at an art fair?” And so I became the entrepreneur again and I just decided, “I can figure this out.”
You have to start by asking these questions. I think it helped that I was quite mature at that point. Had I been a 20-year old coming straight out of art school, I would not have had the patience nor the self-confidence to admit that I didn’t know.
I think art is one of the most entrepreneurial undertakings there is.
There really is no business plan, there is no path that says, “Hey, here is the rulebook.” You know, there are thousands of other kinds of businesses where you sort of understand the rulebook, but with art, it’s completely insane. It seems like whatever path has been done before is the one path that isn’t an option. So you have to kind of go and figure that one out on your own.
That’s very true. At Artwork Archive, we also believe that all artists are entrepreneurs. How have your experiences as an artist and collector informed your vision for Fotografiska?
I think that most art is a very solitary effort and that can be very isolating. I believe the fact that artists get to appreciate feedback is one of the things that makes Fotografiska so wonderfully successful. We provide a platform for artists to come and show their work, and then to engage with the audience as much as they can and/or want to.
We are also a team of people who really understand exhibitions and the photographic art world. But the fact that I’ve had the opportunity to work in both business and the arts, I think, has given us a clear path towards trying to reinvent the museum.
I believe there are two kinds of museums that dictate the landscape so far. And I really do believe that they are noble and pure-hearted in their intent, but the fact that they have made mistakes along the way is also very real. I really do genuinely believe that people who work in the museum industry do it for the love of what they do. And I think that, if you talk about the big museums — especially art museums or history museums — they have to take a 100 to 200-year view. They are slow-moving beasts, and that’s appropriate. They have to take a very, very long view.
I also think, however, that a certain tenured curatorial approach has developed, in which curators may not necessarily tap into what resonates with the audience that they’re supposedly serving. My belief is, if you’re talking about a major museum, it’s usually defined by the city in which it’s located. So it should fulfill, amongst other things, its educational responsibility to the community in which it resides.
If you are putting on shows that are super “inside baseball,” in their art geek-ism, so-to-speak, then it’s hard for a broad audience to connect with the subject matter. But if you think of outstanding exhibitions, like when the Met put on an Alexander McQueen show or when the Brooklyn Museum did a David Bowie show, that’s when you suddenly open the museum up to another world where different people are coming in, and then they discover things. And I think that matters.
Community matters and culture works. You will hear me say that sentence a lot.
The other kind of museum is usually driven by private collectors. And again, I really hold those people in very high esteem. The idea that somebody has spent a lifetime collecting really interesting art, and that they’re financially in a position where they can acquire pieces that clearly work within a certain context that they’re trying to document and define, I have a lot of admiration for such collectors.
And if they invest in a wonderful building, and then share their art with the public, well, that’s just awesome. But again, it’s driven by one person’s vision. And it’s not necessarily driven by the goal of appealing to as broad of an audience as possible.
If you had to point to one private art museum as the so-called gold standard, which one would you choose?
I would point to the Boros Foundation, and to what Karen and Christian Boros have done for Berlin. That feels like a very specific vision towards art: they’re focused on a certain period in time and on a particular group of artists that they’re committed to, and they’ve revitalized an important building (a former bunker), and they didn’t have to do any of this stuff! They could have just lent their art to other state museums, but they didn’t.
I look at those kinds of things and say, “That’s great, that made a city better, that made a movement define itself.” I love that. But that’s not somebody whose job it is to try and bring in hundreds of thousands of visitors a year.
Would I call Christian a visionary? He is, absolutely. And, by the way, what he’s done for the city of Berlin now by putting together this show at Berghain while everything is shut down, just showing Berlin artists….that’s somebody who’s committed and we owe somebody like that a great debt of gratitude.
Berlin is your hometown and you’ve invested in a series of cultural enterprises and iconic Berlin staples (Clärchens Ballhaus, Exberliner Magazine, etc.), but your family also has a complicated history with the city.
My family kept having to start over. You know, we are German Jews. I was born in Berlin. My father was born in Berlin, and my grandfather was born in Berlin. We owned real estate. My great grandfather was killed by the Nazis along with many other family members. My father and my aunt were able to leave the country. They fled to Nice, and then to Palermo, and then to Alexandria, and then ultimately to Tel Aviv. Everybody else in that family was killed.
When we came back, we got some properties back, but they were all in Prenzlauer Berg, which was in the East. So then that became property of “the people” (meaning The State) under the communist regime. We finally got it back in the early 1990s, after reunification.
Essentially, the Nazis took everything from us, but then we got it back, and then the communists took everything from us, but then we got it back. So, there’s a certain level of entrepreneurialism in the family. And resilience.
Berlin is an important city for artists, but it’s changed a lot in recent years. What are your thoughts on the city’s ongoing transformation?
I’ve always had an eye on Berlin and am always trying to understand how the city moves and how the city lives. What I think a lot of Berliners are learning now — that people in other large cities have already learned — is that gentrification, with the exception of a few cities, is not necessarily a bad thing.
Things move around and they redistribute. A neighborhood that was once totally run-down and dangerous comes up and blooms. But then, ten years later, another neighborhood comes up and that other neighborhood becomes less glorified. I think that’s normal and that keeps things exciting. I don’t think you can pour amber on a city and hope to keep it locked in place forever.
Berlin still gives artists and creatives the time and the space that they need to work. New York has neither nowadays and that’s killed a certain energy. I met with a friend recently that I knew from back in the day in New York named Walt Cassidy. He was one of the club kids and goes by Waltpaper, and he’s put out a book about the whole era.
Fotografiska is hoping to mount a show that covers that scene, because it really set off so much about personal sexual identification — everything up to cosplay, the drag scene, and so on. So much culture came out of that era and it’s really interesting, but I didn’t realize it at the time because I was young and I just thought that’s how the world worked.
As a collector, what have you learned about the art world?
The art world is very small. And it’s truly, ultimately about people. Every gallery, no matter how big a machine it seems to be, is actually just run by one person, and everything (and everyone) else is just there to facilitate that. And it’s the same with art collectors.
Collectors are just people who love art, and they’re actually usually creative themselves, but they’re not artists. They have a real appreciation for artists and they put together these incredible collections, but, ultimately, a lot of it is driven just by personal relationships and by personal drive.
There’s so much art and so many galleries and so many fairs, that you sort of get to a point where you ask yourself, “Okay, what do I really like?” Part of what I really like are these specific galleries and these specific artists, whom I get to spend time with on the fair circuit and whose openings I go to, and who I support as they progress and develop and eventually get brought into museum collections. I really love that about the art world.