Great Collectors and Their Ideas: Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo

Read our interview with the Turin-based collector and patron of contemporary art, who spends much of her time behind the scenes supporting artistic production and commissioning new artworks, from the November 2015 issue

By Mark Rappolt

Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo. Photo: Alessandro Trovati Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin. Photo: Maurizio Elia

After graduating in business studies and economics, Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo started collecting contemporary art during the early 1990s. She founded the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in 1995 and opened its current premises in Turin in 2002. She is active both as a collector and as a supporter of artistic commissions and production, paying special attention to young artists. As an active patron of the arts she sits on the international councils of MoMA and Tate and is involved with a number of other art institutions around the world.  

ArtReview: How did you start collecting: was it something casual that became something more?

Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo: It was casual. I graduated in economics, so my studies were very different. At a certain point of my life I went to London, which was really important for me because it was 1992 and a particular moment after the Gulf War. The galleries were very, very open to me. I spent one week visiting artists’ studios with Nicholas Logsdail [founder of Lisson Gallery]. My first studio was Anish Kapoor and then I visited all of the young British generation. For me, it was something unbelievable. I really discovered a new world.

AR: Why is it that you wanted to visit the artists? Had you seen their work?

PSRR: No, I wasn’t used to artists’ studios. But when I visited the first one, I really discovered the difference when you collect art. In my home, I used to have antiques and more traditional paintings, things like that. Obviously, in this case, you cannot always know the artist, and so what was, for me, very important and would change my thinking, was that with contemporary art you are able to get to know the artist. You can understand what there is behind their work. This is fantastic, and maybe for me it’s the biggest difference there is. If you don’t know the artist, you can obviously collect in the same way, but to know the artist, for me, was also important in order to start to think, to be something more than a collector, to be more part of this world. When you start to know the artist, to understand how difficult it is for them, you start to understand what you can do for them, to be involved in the production. Perhaps they have a fantastic project but they need money to realise the project, and so you start to think, ‘I can help you, maybe, to do that.’

AR: What makes you want to buy a particular piece? Are there certain themes that interest you?

For me the collection has never been a collection of names. It’s important to have the right work, the work that I think is interesting. I think that art has to be precise in the moment in which it’s produced

PSRR: A work has to give me some feelings. There are some works that you buy because you see the work and you want to have it in your collection. Other times there are works that need a little bit more time in order to understand what the artist wants to let us know. Generally I like to know what the work means, even if I’m not so attracted by work – I need content in a work, you know? In fact, when we have to hang work at home, it’s always difficult, because I never buy a work thinking of the size, the colour or the shape. So for me the collection has never been a collection of names. It’s not important for me to have all the Italian artists, all the Americans. It’s important to have the right work, the work that I think is interesting. I think that art has to be precise in the moment in which it’s produced.

AR: You talked before about wanting to make the collection public. Do you care much about what the public thinks about it? What do you think if they say, ‘Oh, this is terrible’?

PSRR: It does happen that they don’t like it, but that’s why at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo we offer the service of our mediators. I didn’t start with an art background, and I understood from the beginning that it was important to show our visitors a pathway: not to make art easy, but to help people understand.

AR: What do you hope they get from the experience? Do you think that it will make them more open-minded?

PSRR: Yes. Absolutely. I think that it’s important to start with children. That’s why we have an educational department. I think that we have to educate them from when they are very young, because when they are older, sometimes I understand it is more difficult. But we do also a lot for adults at the Fondazione.

AR: I guess if you were a public body, people might ask why you spend your money on this and not on, say, a cancer research facility or an eco-research facility.

PSRR: I’m in the board of Piedmont Foundation for Cancer Research, but I think it is important to think not only of the body but also of the mind. If we have a great heritage from the past, it’s because someone in the past did that. This is not only just art, but art also means tourism, people who come to visit us. I mean, economically speaking, it’s also important because in our region, 350,000 people are working in the cultural sector. So it’s work, it’s people that can live thanks to culture. But, for example, some years ago, when there was a quite difficult moment in the city, some journalists asked our mayor, ‘What is more important? A kindergarten or a museum?’ Obviously he said kindergarten, but that is the perspective of the public. It’s important to have kindergarten, it’s important to have good hospitals, it’s important, absolutely. But we are private. We are doing work that I think is important for society, and we are doing it with our money, with our time. I think that there are many other important things, but without culture we cannot live. I also think that, for a student, it’s important to study. Not only to study Greek, Latin, mathematics, but to study subjects more closely connected to creativity, because at the end, I’m sure that in a society in which there is attention to culture, there will also be, in the next generation, students that will have more success.

AR: What do you mean, in terms of creativity? I guess one argument would be that if you give people nothing, they’d be a lot more creative.

PSRR: Do you think so? No. I am sure that in a country that is more of a dictatorship, the artists might be more motivated to express themselves, but I’m not sure that if an artist is just alone in the desert, he can get all the stimuli to be creative: to live in a country in which you don’t see anything, you don’t know anything, you don’t have the education. I think education is important too. It’s not enough only to be creative; if you don’t know the past, then you don’t have the means to know the future.

AR: How have things changed since you started the Fondazione?

PSRR: Twenty years ago, the world was quite different. Obviously, to be living in Torino, to be familiar with the Castello di Rivoli there, helped me to move in this direction, because it had a lot of attention, with a lot of visitors, you know? The challenge, which we have not yet overcome, is to reach everybody. I’m sure you saw today, in the Galleria d’Arte Moderna, there were just foreign visitors. I don’t imagine that everybody in Torino will come to visit my foundation, but I think that if we start when they are young, we can have success. I remember once when I was there a visitor told me: “Ah, I’ve just come because of my son. I’ve never been in the Fondazione, it’s my first time in this place, but I came because my son wanted to come back to see the big sculpture in the Russian exhibition.” It’s important. It’s a small drop that, day after day, can also work.

It’s easier when you have exhibitions about what happens in other countries – China, Japan, Korea – people are interested in understanding what happens abroad. When you have a solo show it is more difficult. But mediation is important. At the beginning, we used to receive letters. People, at the beginning, said, ‘Fantastic, I cannot talk with my forty-year-old son at home. But I can come to the museum, I can talk with Eleonora [one of the Fondazione’s mediators].’ Sometimes I think we’re also therapists! But even in this case, I think that it’s important, you know, because you start to instil a sense of culture, of something that’s good.

I learned so much. Contemporary art changed my way of being, opened my mind, made me more tolerant, gave me the possibility to learn. And yes, if we can also help the economy, it’s fantastic

So this is why we do a lot of education, a lot of projects, and we have a lot of people: at least five people in the Fondazione are working on educational projects, more than the curators. I’ve been lucky. I’ve collected, I want to share my collection, I want to give that opportunity to everybody, because for me contemporary art has been so important. I learned so much. Contemporary art changed my way of being, opened my mind, made me more tolerant, gave me the possibility to learn. And yes, if we can also help the economy, it’s fantastic. It’s true, I might have another kind of charity, but if we think that all the museums in America – the Whitney, MoMA, even the Guggenheim – were born only in the past century, the people who founded them were successful at work and then started to work in charity, setting up museums. So now we have MoMA, the Isabella Stewart Gardner, the Guggenheim, the Whitney, and so I think that, in the end, it’s also important to do that.

AR: Now other people are opening foundations and there are more and more of these things happening. How has it changed what you do? Do you look at what other people are doing?

PSRR: Obviously the world has changed. When I started collecting, there was just London, New York and LA. Berlin had just started to become important, but not so much. It was a small world, fewer collectors than now. Now the world is global, it’s normal that there are many, many other collectors like me. They have the desire to not only be a collector but also to open a foundation. I know that this sometimes could be considered a problem, because this doesn’t help the public museums. Chris Dercon [director of Tate Modern] often talks about that: why should a collector open her foundation and not give her collection to a museum?

AR: Why don’t you?

PSRR: My space is more a kunsthalle than a museum. Our concept in Torino is not to show the collection. When I started 20 years ago, there were two kinds of institutions that were very important for me. One was the kunsthalle, the concept of having a space in which you invite artists, you produce work, you work with the artists. This is what happens in the Fondazione. The other was the FRAC, the concept of having a collection – because I started as a collector – but a collection that doesn’t need to have a space in which to be shown. A collection that you have in storage, but when you need some work you can show it, because it fits with exhibitions that the curators are organising. You can borrow, you can travel, your collection can travel, you can show it.

When I started, it was not glamorous, I mean, it was not like now. I always remember when we started going to Venice for the Biennale. There was just dinner in the restaurant, there were no parties like now. So I didn’t do it for that. I did it because I really wanted to be more involved in this world 

When I started, it was not glamorous, I mean, it was not like now. I always remember when we started going to Venice for the Biennale. There was just dinner in the restaurant, there were no parties like now. So I didn’t do it for that. I did it because I really wanted to be more involved in this world, I really understood that I was lucky that I could know the artists. I wanted to give back to people living in Torino. But maybe also, in the end, I like to have a collection and to show what is possible. I can’t say that I’m just a missionary, so I don’t want to exaggerate.

AR: In terms of the content, are there things you won’t be interested in? You have a Thomas Hirschhorn that includes the image of a dead body – many people would be uncomfortable about that.

PSRR: I think that it speaks about the moment in which we live. He’s one of the artists who, I think, is more precise, more attentive to what happened in the war. I think that art is absolutely not done to decorate our houses. Artists sometimes are able to give us a message and to talk to us about important things, so we have to pay attention.

AR: Is it hard to say no to artists?

PSRR: Ah, in the production. Yes, sometimes.

AR: If they say, ‘I want to charter a spaceship, go twice around the moon.’

PSRR: Sometimes it’s not easy, we have a lot of artists that present us with projects. Obviously we have to choose, we cannot show all the artists, we cannot commission all the work, produce all the work. But we try to do as much as we can.

AR: When an artist visits your home and you haven’t put their work out, do you have to go and find it?

PSRR: We do. In fact we change.

AR: Finally, what are the long-term plans for the foundation? In 50 years, will it still be here?

PSRR: I won’t be alive any more, but I think that the future of the foundation is obviously to maintain the place in Torino, because I think that we started here, but at the same time, to be connected to the world. Then, I really hope the collection can be maintained. If you maintain the collection altogether, you also represent a moment, a period; we can read the past century through the good artists that represented that moment in their work. 

This article was first published in the November 2015 issue.