This article is part of our special coverage of the Art for Tomorrow conference in the Italian cities of Florence and Solomeo.
FLORENCE, Italy — Walk into Palazzo Strozzi, a 16th-century palace in the heart of Florence, and now, among the classical columns and arched windows in the courtyard, you’ll find a multi-storey rocket. The rocket, “GONOGO”, by Polish artist Goshka Macuga, is the most voluminous work – but not the only one in the spotlight – in an exhibition celebrating a collector who tries to draw attention to the art and artists of Today.
“Contemporary art,” said Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, “is the best tool we have to make our world a little more understandable.” That conviction has led her to become one of Europe’s most prominent collectors, as well as a patron of living artists and an evangelist of contemporary art.
The Palazzo Strozzi show ‘Reaching for the Stars’, which runs through June 18, celebrates the 30th anniversary of her collection. This week, Ms. Sandretto Re Rebaudengo also presents her views on how collectors can empower culture in a panel at the “Art for Tomorrow” conference here in Florence, hosted by the Democracy & Culture Foundation, with DailyExpertNews.
“Today’s patrons have a duty to society to involve the public in art,” said Ms. Sandretto Re Rebaudengo. “Art is not just for decorating our homes. For those of us who can afford to buy and commission art, we need to share it with the world.”
The Palazzo Strozzi exhibition features more than 70 selections from Mrs. Sandretto Re Rebaudengo’s 1,500-piece collection as evidence of her taste, which has often been a benchmark of contemporary art movements. Fittingly, then, the show feels like a tour of recent art history, complete with everything from early works by young British artists Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas and the humor of Maurizio Cattelan to the resurgence of figurative painting in works by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Michael Armitage.
There were few institutions in Italy dedicated to contemporary art when Ms. Sandretto Re Rebaudengo became a collector some 30 years ago, but she has tried to change that by providing art over the decades.
Today, art collections are often viewed as investments or status symbols, with works of art often ending up in private homes or locked away in freeport storage, never to be seen by the public again. In recent years, however, a handful of collectors have followed Mrs. Sandretto Re Rebaudengo’s lead and shared their collections, opening venues such as the Fondazione Prada and the Pinault Collection to the public. These institutions increase access to contemporary art and help shape today’s art canon – just as museums such as the Uffizi and the Guggenheim did in the past.
If art is essential to broadening our understanding of our time and ourselves, then collecting a collection can be seen as an undertaking that carries with it enormous opportunity and perhaps responsibility. “A collector who is going to count today,” says Arturo Galansino, director general of the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi and curator of the exhibition, “must leave the ivory tower and create this kind of collaboration for the greater good of society.”
“Not everyone can buy art, but everyone can go to a museum and see art,” Ms. Sandretto Re Rebaudengo said in an interview after a dinner to celebrate the show’s opening, describing her life’s work. “I’ve been lucky enough to get to know and dialogue with artists, and I wanted to give back to the artists and to others.”
Ms. Sandretto Re Rebaudengo’s formula — a non-profit foundation with the aim of presenting contemporary art to the public, a unique approach to buying art and a commitment to finance the creation of new works of art — has made her a decisive player in the art world and a benevolent favorite among artists.
“The artists are like my children,” she said. “I want to help them advance their careers and build networks so their voices are heard and their work is seen.” When she started collecting in the early 1990s, the young talents were her contemporaries, but now the artists are the peers of her real children. “Some artists even call me mama,” she said. She smiled warmly at this.
Just as female artists are underrepresented in the art world, so are female art collectors. “It’s very beautiful for me to be here and find a woman running the show,” said Ambera Wellmann, a Canadian painter whose solo exhibition is now on view at Ms. Sandretto Re Rebaudengo’s foundation in Turin, Italy. “There are a whole range of collectors who collect artists based on popular opinion and reputation, but Patrizia has her own taste and has been collecting women before it was popular to do so,” Ms Wellmann said, citing early purchases from Cindy Sherman and Catherine Opie.
Born into an industrial family from Turin, Mrs. Sandretto Re Rebaudengo studied business and economics, but discovered a passion for art during a trip to London and Anish Kapoor’s studio. She brought home new artworks and a new vocation and in 1995 founded the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo. Soon after, she and her husband, Agostino, a renewable energy mogul of aristocratic descent, transformed a family palazzo into a museum space in Guarene.
Mrs. Sandretto Re Rebaudengo opened an extension of the foundation in Turin with extensive exhibition galleries. Her foundation in Madrid works according to a different model, organizing itinerant shows in the Spanish capital, such as one, currently, in the library of Ateneo de Madrid, featuring the forest landscapes of the Brazilian painter Lucas Arruda. The collector has made it its mission to exhibit primarily young artists, and its institutions welcome thousands of students each year.
In 2018, the couple acquired an entire island in Venice – San Giacomo in Paludo, an abandoned military station; it is now under construction as a foundation outpost.
“With Patrizia, you know that your work will be seen, that it will not stagnate,” says Ms. Macuga, the Polish artist behind “GONOGO.” Her missile, after its mission at Palazzo Strozzi, will make its home on San Giacomo as a sentinel visible to passing boats. The piece, like the artist’s monumental woven tapestry for the 2009 Venice Biennale, was produced with the sponsorship of Ms. Sandretto Re Rebaudengo.
Such works would be prohibitively expensive and complicated to fabricate without a supporter like Ms. Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, who has endorsed creations by artists such as Alicja Kwade, Doug Aitken, Josh Kline, Rachel Rose and others.
“There aren’t many private collectors willing to do this kind of work,” Ms. Macuga said. Buyers today are often consumed with “investing and trying to make more money than they already have, but this is the basic level of collecting,” the artist added. “It’s another thing to bring art into the real world where you put the work to work – to educate and inspire people.”