Jeanette Bonnier 1934-2016

Art was essential to Jeanette Bonnier. She followed and understood the work of the artist; she was their friend and supporter. She consumed and discussed art throughout her life, with great compassion and fervent views, ever eager to stay abreast of the latest art on the scene, to learn how young artists were working and developing. She was an enthusiastic collector, always maintaining a very personal and individual relationship to the pieces she selected. Jeanette Bonnier had an unusual grasp of the vulnerable place artists access in the creative process, and just how essential it is to unabashedly support them, to dare to believe in unformulated ideas.

Jeanette Bonnier’s great involvement in the art world found its natural outlet in the foundation she established in 1986, in memory of her daughter Maria, who tragically lost her life in a car accident at a young age. Since then, the foundation has awarded annual grants to young Swedish artists and built up a collection of their works.

Having founded Bonniers Konsthall in 2006, Jeanette Bonnier served as the chairwoman of the gallery’s board. The exciting and simultaneously challenging task of establishing a new art institution was enabled by her support and courage. It is unique indeed to witness such a devoted and uncompromising venture into contemporary art, a push to experiment with unchartered territory in such a steadfast manner. Jeanette Bonnier invested that belief in me and then backed it up with her engagement and involvement throughout the process. We maintained an ongoing dialogue on art and the gallery, which her direct manner, impassioned presence and involvement infused with a distinctive energy and drive. She encouraged artistic risk-taking and was always curious to hear my thoughts on ways to develop and alter the gallery. At this precise point in time we are entering into the final stages of an entire building remodel, which Jeanette Bonnier both initiated and supported, despite her failing health. Once the remodelled gallery is opened to the public, we will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the foundation and exhibit the comprehensive collection of art the foundation has built up. A book tracing the foundation’s work will also be published alongside the exhibition. The book opens with an interview I recently conducted with Jeanette Bonnier, in which she whole-heartedly discusses her relationship to art and her work with the foundation. Due to her passing, we have decided to first publish that interview here on our website.

There is a great void left behind in Jeanette Bonnier’s passing. She will be deeply and sorely missed.

– Sara Arrhenius, Director, Bonniers Konsthall

Sara Arrhenius: Why don’t we start at the beginning. Can you explain the initial concept behind the grant?

Jeanette Bonnier: The grant has its origins in a very tragic event. My daughter was killed in a car accident at the age of 20. She was my only child, and naturally I had an incredibly difficult time coming to terms with her death. One of my first thoughts was that I must create a foundation in her name. I wanted her memory to live on, and it became a natural step to create a foundation awarding grants to young artists. She was an artistic individual and studied architecture, painted and sketched. Establishing the foundation was an obvious conclusion. I am incredibly happy and grateful that I started the foundation, that the grant has taken on a life of its own and is now respected and appreciated. On a personal level, it has brought me much joy. I have come to personally know many of the grant recipients, and a few have become very dear friends of mine. This work has brought a profound level of purpose and contentment to my life, above and beyond what I envisioned when we first established the foundation – it has become so emotionally meaningful for me. That is how the foundation came about.

SA: In this way your daughter Maria inspired the intention behind the work of the foundation, and informed the types of artists the foundation would support. Please tell us a bit about her and the art scene in 1980’s New York City, of which she was involved.

JB: She attended Columbia University, where she was accepted at the age of 17, which was rather remarkable. But she was incredibly talented and artistically inclined. In the 1980s, the entire art scene was centred around Soho, where she lived in a small loft apartment in a run-down building on Thompson Street. She spent her time in the company of other artists, such as Keith Harring and Kenny Scharf, and they exhibited together. She said, “Mom, you must meet this guy Keith, visit his home and see his work. He draws on everything; there isn’t a single square meter he hasn’t drawn on.” There was an incredibly hectic nightlife in Soho at the time; club after club after club, which only quietened down with the arrival of AIDS, which ended that way of life. There was one specific nightclub that Maria frequented called Area. Area was unlike Studio 54, which all the society types frequented, and was rather a place for the younger crowd, and apparently even Madonna was once a part of this scene. Warhol used to head to Area; he was constantly attracted to youth culture. All of the walls at Area were painted by artists, and every month the entire club was decorated according to a certain theme. Maria worked at the club, and once she stood in the coat room dressed in a frightful flowery dressing gown with curlers in her hair. The next time she sat inside a glass box wearing a corset, actually pretending to be a whore. People who saw her there had no idea that she was reading a book under the table and was studying architecture.

SA: There was a unique energy, an unusual exchange between art and the club scene at that time.

JB: Yes, absolutely! There was a large cinema that was turned into a nightclub, where the big-time gallery owners, such as Leo Castelli, held all their industry dinners and parties. Life downtown was completely dominated by art and people working in the art world. As varying manufacturing industries had been housed in those buildings, they were not considered legal residencies, but artists lived there all the same. The first gallery owner to move into the area was Paula Cooper, and then Leo Castelli, Ilona Sonnabend and Mary Boone followed suit. But time changed that precedence. Wealthy individuals bought the buildings, fashion stores moved in, and the unique atmosphere that previously prevailed disappeared, and artists began moving away. It was more or less a special time that lasted for a 10-year period.

SA: What would you say is the biggest difference between the New York art scene of the 1980s and the scene there today?

JB: Money has altered everything. These days, money takes precedence over the art; this was absolutely not the case in the 1980s. At that time art took the upper hand; money and auctions arrived on the scene later on, and at this point in time the art world has much more to do with buying and selling than the art itself. The question becomes: what impact does this have on art? That question can be considered at length, I think.

SA: Do you have any memories from the first jury meetings?

JB: I remember the first meeting very well. At that time parties were thrown in bare, abandoned warehouses. After Maria’s death, her friends threw a warehouse party in Värtahamnen, a shipyard in Stockholm with many abandoned buildings. Swedish punk rock band Imperiet played, and everyone was drunk to varying degrees. In a slightly ceremonious fashion, I stood before the microphone on the stage, but none of the grant recipients – Eva Löfdahl was one of them – could be found anywhere. They were intoxicated and had disappeared into the party atmosphere. I found it quite wonderful and just as it should be – no order whatsoever, with everyone wandering about, feeling free and open. These days people get dressed up and attend posh functions and events, everything so ceremonious, so prim and proper. The foundation’s early days were quite the opposite.

SA: How were the grant recipients selected?

JB: It functioned much in the same manner as it does today, but in the beginning it wasn’t as structured as it is now. We had a board consisting of a few relatives and friends of Maria’s. Today we have a professional board and 30 years’ experience.

SA: So from the foundation’s very inception, it was possible to apply for and be awarded a grant?

JB: We didn’t just sit there and decide on our own. From the very beginning, artists could apply. I remember when Karin Mamma Andersson was awarded a grant. We were attending the same theatre show at Elverket in Stockholm, and I slid her the envelope there and then. I’m not entirely certain when we began the luncheons at Manilla, but it must’ve been after around 10 years or so.

SA: The grant has absolutely no conditions, which is quite unusual. An artist can do precisely what one desires with the money, and is not required to present any end accounting. Has this always been the case?

JB: Yes, this freedom has always been in place. I put it like this: “They can spend it all on booze if they so desire. We are not to get involved in what they do with the money.” I honestly have no idea if other grant-giving organizations require applicants to declare what they intend to do and not do. Artists now send in long missives where they describe what they intend to do with the money. I’m not concerned with that in principle – they are free to do as they wish.

SA: Did the applicants write as much in the beginning?

JB: Not at all. I recall Annika von Hausswolff sent in a picture of a naked woman laying on her stomach in the water. I found the image so incredibly wonderful and felt compelled to award her the grant, but the rest of the jury was not of the same opinion.

SA: And you surrendered?

JB: I did.

SA: Rather unlike you.

JB: Yes, but that was quite some time ago and one becomes stronger with age. It was then I decided that I should have the power of veto, as I did not wish to relive that experience ever again. We also awarded a grant to something called Läderfabriken (Leather Factory), a studio collective that also ran a gallery. It no longer exists but to me that is not the point. It was an interesting concept at the time.

SA: When you and I looked through some old footage, we saw that when the grant was first introduced, artists, filmmakers and writers were invited to apply.

JB: Right, precisely.

SA: When did that change?

JB: Rather quickly actually, as we soon came to realize that it was impossible to include everyone. I personally think this was a pity. We also contemplated including artists from outside of Sweden, but then decided that it would be difficult to look through so many applications.

SA: The foundation now has 30 years of experience behind it, and you have been there at every step along the way. If you were to look back at the artists who have been awarded grants throughout the years, can you think of any changes or tendencies that have developed in the Swedish art world?

JB: The first thing that stands out to me is that there are now many more female artists. There have even been a few years when there were more female artists, and this is a major shift. The artist’s gender is no longer an issue, as it once was.

SA: If I’m not mistaken, you changed the applicant age limit from 30 to 35.

JB: When we first began at the end of the 1980s, there were no grants available for young artists. We awarded grants to individuals who quite often were still attending art school, which was rather innovative at the time. There are now many grants available for young artists, but when we began it was much more unusual.

SA: Then there are always discussions at grant committee meetings regarding whether support should be given to young, unestablished artists or to those who have already exhibited their art.

JB: It is now common for young artists to be picked up earlier than in the past, and signed onto galleries and given exhibitions and so on. This is a big change. When the foundation first began, grant recipients were more often than not completely unestablished.

SA: In my recollection, all the grant recipients from the foundation’s early years came from the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm. These days artists have been educated at many different schools, including at institutions abroad.

JB: Absolutely. This has to do with the fact that we live in a much more global world, where today’s technology abolishes the boundaries that once existed. In theory, we should begin to look further afield than just Sweden. Unfortunately I think this presents a challenge on an administrative level.

SA: Are there any particular individuals who have been especially important to the grant, whom you would care to mention?

JB: There are certainly those with whom I have a special personal relationship. If you look over the list of grant recipients, you notice that we awarded grants to artists very early on in their careers who then went on to become significant names in the field of art, such as Karin Mamma Andersson, Martin Wickström, Cecilia Edefalk and many other renowned contemporary artists.

SA: I find it so wonderful to see that nearly all the artists to have been awarded a grant are still creating art. That in itself – regardless of how famous they are – I find personally to be fantastic. It is no small feat for an artist to create a feasible way of making art, and I believe that the grant has been a meaningful entrance into the art world for many.

JB: Looking back over the past 30 years, I believe we have had an impact. I also believe that quite early on, we had a knack for picking out that which has proven to be, if I can now use the buzzword, ‘sustainable’ – everything these days is expected to be sustainable!

SA: Any thoughts on the future of the grant?

JB: This is certainly a question that must be contemplated. I undoubtedly wish to push things one step further. After 30 years, I would like to expand the grant in some way or form. At this point in time, I’m not certain what this means but we will figure it out little by little.