Discovering new ways to support young artists during a turbulent year
‘I believe that collecting is part of my DNA,’ says Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo. As a little girl, she recalls observing her mother as she collected antique Sèvres and Meissen porcelain, and remembers copying her in the way that children do: ‘I used to collect small pillboxes, all catalogued and passionately numbered in a small exercise book.’
It was not until 1992, however, that Patrizia’s now decades-long love affair with contemporary art was ignited. It was that year, during a trip to London which she describes as ‘fundamental’, that she visited many of the city’s top museums and galleries, and – most importantly – met a lot of artists. One particularly memorable experience was visiting the studio of Anish Kapoor, who has since become world famous. ‘Seeing his powdered pigment floor pieces in red, yellow and blue was a very important moment in my life,’ Patrizia says, ‘a moment of change, of developing a different way to think about art.’
She returned to Italy, having established close relationships with many artists and gallerists, and three years later set up her own foundation, the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo. From the beginning, it offered something new. ‘At that time in Italy there was a lack of institutions dedicated to contemporary art,’ she says. Indeed, alongside the Castello di Rivoli, the Fondazione was one of the only such institutions back in the early 1990s.
Initially, Patrizia’s collection was very ‘generational’, she says, meaning that ‘it grew out of my friendships with artists of my own age’. However, even as time has passed and the Fondazione has become both more highly regarded internationally and more established throughout the art world, she has continued to support the younger generation of artists, ‘a new generation,’ as she puts it.
The Fondazione does this in a number of different ways. Firstly, it simply commissions lots of new works, inviting artists to present their next project as part of its exhibition programme. Secondly, when artists come with ideas, it helps them realise their vision and produce their next piece. And thirdly, it gets involved in the production or co-production of works to be featured in major international exhibitions, such as the Venice Biennale. Across these three activities, it has worked with young up-and-coming names as well as titans of contemporary art, such as Steve McQueen.
Right from the start, Patrizia used her influence and the platform that the Fondazione afforded her to reshape the art world. One thing she is particularly passionate about is dismantling the gender inequality in the art world, when it comes to the representation of women in galleries and museums. As a result, Patrizia has invested a lot of energy into promoting women artists. Back in 2004, for example, the Fondazione devoted an entire year to women across its exhibitions, publications, and talks programme.
Similarly, she has always been eager to experiment with new media and new ways of thinking about art and has been attracted to those artists who are pushing the boundaries of new media in their work. As early as 1999, the Fondazione helped Doug Aitken to produce a video installation work called Electric Earth, which went on to receive the International Prize at the 48th Venice Biennale. This early adoption of video as an artistic medium finds its corollary today in the Fondazione’s championing of digital art. In 2015 it also commissioned the first chapter of Emissaries by Ian Cheng, a solo exhibition devoted to a series of live simulations that changed and evolved endlessly, which were created by artificial intelligence. ‘I believe that contemporary art plays an essential cultural, social, critical and political role,’ says Patrizia. ‘I’m interested in artists who are able to capture the present and to anticipate the future.’
For artists and arts institutions, the future right now is as uncertain, as difficult to anticipate as it has ever been. The pandemic has forced many galleries and museums, including the Fondazione, to close their doors. Yet the Fondazione is a perfect example of how agility and innovation can turn crises into opportunities.
In the first lockdown in 2020, an online platform was created that connected artists, curators, and audiences, presenting online works by the artists who took part in the Waves Between Us exhibition, a way to explore an alternative map of the exhibition and its themes. The Fondazione through its Education Department also stepped up its work in the digital realm during the pandemic, with an e-book designed to explain the world of contemporary art, available in Italian and English, as well as a series of content for home tuition, from video lessons and workshops to podcasts.
Moreover, the Fondazione’s long-standing support of emerging artistic media has also proved helpful. ‘We wanted to continue to support artists and to share art with our audience, so using digital resources seemed the best way to do it,’ says Patrizia. ‘Since the pandemic we’ve started making digital commissions that we published on our website – this is not something we did before.’
Outside the pandemic she has noticed a shift in the art world. ‘The pandemic gave artists, but also institutions, the opportunity to reflect and concentrate on new ideas to develop,’ she says. Although she points out that many artists were already concerned before the pandemic with the ‘technological revolution and the digital transformation of the human condition’ the pandemic has also ‘undoubtedly increased the interests for the digital realm, or the kind of art that works well on a screen.’
As for the pandemic itself, when does Patrizia think we will see the first great artworks that tackle the pandemic as a subject? ‘In my opinion, it’s still too early to truly value and understand the impact of the past 12 months on art production, in terms of aesthetics and of topics addressed,’ she notes. ‘We will see in the near future how artists will process the psychological effects of this traumatic experience.’
Other effects of the pandemic on the art world, however, are already coming into sharper focus. For Patrizia, one topic that stands out is travel. ‘The art world used to be frenetic,’ she recalls. ‘I used to travel from one part of the world to another to participate in fairs, visit exhibitions, and be present at the meetings of the numerous boards and councils I’m a member of.’ The pandemic has given her and her colleagues an opportunity to reflect on that. ‘Limitations on travel are a necessity at the moment, but it could also soon turn into an ethical choice, too,’ she notes. ‘This is a good opportunity to rethink our way of working, moving and being in the world to maybe make positive changes to our previous habits.’
For the Fondazione, specifically, Patrizia has clear plans. Top of the list is the continued development of a Sculpture Park in Guarene d’Alba, not far from Palazzo Re Rebaudengo, an 18th-century palazzo in the Roero hills of Piedmont that is the Fondazione’s second Italian home. The San Licerio Sculpture Park, which will open to the public in the summer of 2021, is situated on astunning Nebbiolo vineyard there and will house multiple site-specific sculptures by artists from all over the world chosen by the Fondazione. As Patrizia explains, the park ‘is our contribution to the wonderful landscape of the Langhe-Roero, part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site,’ providing visitors with a call to ‘explore and reflect upon the delicate relationship between nature and culture’.
The next goal is to ‘give a home’ to the Fundación Sandretto Re Rebaudengo Madrid, a Spanish offshoot that was set up in 2017 and for which Patrizia has been keen to find a permanent venue. At the same time she believes that the Fondazione will s trike ‘a new balance’ between in-person and online events and programming, so as to increase ‘accessibility to the works, exhibitions, workshops and debates’. Because the pandemic has in many ways reignited the purpose of the arts. ‘Museums and institutions, especially those recognised worldwide, must continue to question their role within the community and society,’ says Patrizia. ‘And in this historic moment, their function will be increasingly important.’