Interview with an Art Collector: Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo

Turin-based Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo is not only a passionate collector but also a devoted lender of her works. She talks to Hettie Judah as preparations are under way for an exhibition, in Rochdale, of a selection of works by women artists from her collection.

Among the more surprising works of art installed in Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo’s Turin home is the lifelike figure of a woman, formally dressed but tucked in a foetal position and tied inside a large plastic bag. The sculpture – by the New York-based artist Josh Kline – was commissioned for the 2016 exhibition ‘Unemployment’ at the Sandretto Re Rebaudengo Foundation’s museum, its second building, in a post-industrial district of Turin.

Eerily realistic and also disturbing, Kline’s sculpture is not an easy work to live with, but that doesn’t bother the Turin-born collector and patron, who last year celebrated the 20th anniversary of her eponymous foundation’s first building, Palazzo Re Rebaudengo, just outside the city. Art has been a consuming passion since the early 1990s, and one in which she is supported by her husband, the renewable-energy magnate Agostino Re Rebaundengo, and, increasingly, by her two sons.

‘I have to say that I never thought to buy work to decorate my walls, to have at home,’ says Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, whose contemporary art collection now extends to nearly 1,500 works, alongside a collection of 3,000 historic photographs.

Instead, she has allowed her tastes to be guided only by what she sees as the significance of a work or series within an artist’s overall career. ‘Even when I started to buy, I bought works that were very important for the story of the artist and not for the fact that I could live with them.’

Telling Herstory

This summer, Sandretto Re Rebaudengo will be opening her collection to the British curator Mark Doyle for the exhibition 'Herstory: Women Artists from the Collection of Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo' at Touchstones Rochdale.

Key works by some of the leading female artists of the past four decades – among them Nan Goldin, Mona Hatoum, Sarah Lucas, Shirin Neshat, Paulina Olowska, Cindy Sherman and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye – will provide a departure point from which to explore issues including body image, sexual identity, gender stereotyping, prejudice and the abuse of power.

Also on show will be art, objects and archival material from Touchstones’ own collections that reflect the struggle to represent work by women and artists of colour in British gallery programmes in the 1980s and 1990s. These include work by 2017 Turner Prize-winner Lubaina Himid, photographer and multimedia artist Lorna Simpson and artist, photographer and curator of Ghanaian and Scottish heritage Maud Sulter.

Sandretto Re Rebaudengo first met Doyle in 2015 when she was invited to participate in ‘Going Public’, an initiative that, with Art Fund support, exhibited works from leading private European collectors at public sites around Sheffield. Works from the Sandretto Re Rebaudengo collection – among others by Maurizio Cattelan, Jake and Dinos Chapman and Fiona Tan – were shown at the city’s cathedral.

She says she has always collected in some form or other – first pillboxes, as a child, and then American costume jewellery as a young woman. She bought her first four works of art in Italy, paintings from the 1950s and 1960s by Carla Accardi, Tano Festa, Mario Merz and Salvatore Scarpitta. They fomented an obsession: she became an avid reader of art catalogues and books, learning all she could about the field.

Britain has a special place in Sandretto Re Rebaudengo’s heart. It was a trip to London in 1992 that she credits as a transformative moment that came with the ‘great opportunity to meet some gallerists, such as Nicholas Logsdail from Lisson Gallery, and Jay Jopling [White Cube]’. Through these gallerists she had a direct route to the artists: ‘It was so important for me, visiting studios with artists such as Anish Kapoor and Julian Opie – this really changed my life.’

Collecting and supporting artists

It was from this point that Sandretto Re Rebaudengo started collecting at scale, acquiring works by Kapoor, Opie, Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, and the Chapman brothers. Her tastes were guided, too, by early encounters with directors of some of Britain’s major institutions, among them Nicholas Serota at Tate and Iwona Blazwick of the Whitechapel Gallery.

Works by British artists became one of five strands in a mushrooming collection, alongside works by women, art from Los Angeles and Italy, and photography. ‘To begin with my collection grew out of my friendships with artists who were approximately my age. I was interested in the way artists from my generation saw the world in which we were living.’

In 1995, the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo was established to run alongside the collection under the artistic direction of curator Francesco Bonami. Rather than an acquisition body per se, the foundation works with living artists, commissioning and supporting the creation of new works.

In 1997, the foundation staged its first exhibition at the Palazzo Re Rebaudengo in Guarene d’Alba, an 18th-century manor in the Roero hills in Piedmont. In 2002 Sandretto Re Rebaudengo opened the Centro per l’Arte Contemporanea – a 3,500sq m art space open to the public – on an abandoned industrial site in Turin.

Bonami, a prominent and often provocative curator and commentator, remained with the foundation until 2014. ‘We are still very good friends. Francesco has a powerful vision and a very good eye,’ says Sandretto Re Rebaudengo.

For her, the primary aim of the foundation has always been to support artists. Her commitment to the production of new and innovative works has led to the foundation’s involvement in some of the most audacious and memorable works of this century, among them Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s 2006 film Zidane – a portrait of the French footballer filmed across the duration of a single match.

Sandretto Re Rebaudengo actually seems to relish the challenge of a near-impossible project. In 2015 the foundation offered the entire exhibition space to Argentinian artist Adrián Villar Rojas for a work called Rinascimento (Renaissance). ‘Adrián produced a huge, fantastic work with 109 big stones that came in eight trucks from Turkey to Turin,’ the collector recalls. ‘We demolished the wall. We gave him all the space and he installed the stones and on each he created a sculpture with every kind of food – cheese, ham, real vegetables – so it created nostalgia, as they used to do in the Rinascimento through the paintings.’

While Sandretto Re Rebaudengo recalls Rinascimento as ‘a fantastic exhibition, and a fantastic experience for me, for my team, for my mediators,’ she does concede that the work came with its challenges, not least the very low temperatures required to maintain the work over its four-month exhibition period.

The transition, within a decade, from nascent collector to the head of a major cultural venue was a response to a general lack of spaces dedicated to contemporary art in Italy at the time. In the 1990s, when Sandretto Re Rebaudengo started collecting in earnest, there were almost no public institutions showing contemporary art in Italy.

‘We should not forget, in fact, that the first national museum for contemporary art, the MAXXI in Rome, only opened in 2010, so Italian private institutions have played an important role in supporting artists and bringing contemporary art closer to a wider public,’ she explains. ‘I’m lucky because I live in Turin and we have Castello di Rivoli. But in 1992 there was a lot to do in Italy. The lack of institutions, the idea to support art, to show my collection, gave me the idea for the fondazione.’

Using art to educate

Having studied economics and business rather than art, Sandretto Re Rebaudengo appreciates learned expertise, hiring recent graduates as ‘mediators’ for each exhibition. If the foundation’s first aim is to support artists, education comes a close second: ‘I really believe in the role of contemporary art, obviously, but also a collection can be an important tool to explain life, to give good advice, to let us think. Art is a great way to give us the opportunity to understand a little bit more about the world.’

The collector says that she particularly appreciates Touchstones’ commitment towards community engagement and the public programme of workshops and activities that are scheduled to involve the visitors.

While still in its planning stages at the time of writing, the aim is to use 'Herstory' as a platform to engage with vulnerable local women – among them refugees and single mothers – and LGBTQ groups working with young people in the community. Education is a cornerstone of the foundation’s work, too, in Turin. Some 20,000 children and young people – from kindergarten to college age – engage with the education department each year along with their teachers and families.

With the foundation’s space in Turin largely dedicated to exhibitions of new and commissioned works, Sandretto Re Rebaudengo’s home has remained the primary exhibition site for works from her collection. This is likely to change in 2019, however, when the foundation opens a new 6,300sq m gallery space in Madrid, located in the city’s Matadero arts complex in the former slaughterhouse area. In the meantime, works continue to be lent around the world for exhibition.

‘I have always lent my works of art to other museums and institutions,’ says Sandretto Re Rebaudengo. ‘I only have a moment of dismay when I have to remove them from my home. Later, however, it gratifies me to see them exhibited in other spaces and to know that anyone can enjoy them.’

Herstory: Women Artists from the Collection of Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo is free to all, 28 July to 29 September, at Touchstones Rochdale.

This feature was originally published in the summer 2018 issue of Art Quarterly, the magazine of Art Fund.

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