Modern patronage. Fashion for art

Prada, Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Fendi ... The world’s patrons of international fashion houses and their private museums for contemporary art.

Patronage in the art world isn’t something that just appeared a few years ago. A couple of centuries back, there were already places in Europe where wealthy and noble families funded artists and creatives. In the Italian Renaissance between the 15th and 18th centuries, rich clans such as the Medici family in Florence or the Torlonia family in Rome engaged painters, writers and architects like Michelangelo, Pico della Mirandola, Angelo Poliziano, Sandro Botticelli or Leonardo da Vinci and supported them in every possible way. Not forgetting the Catholic church and the Vatican, which acted as cultural patrons, too.

Today’s patrons are big companies and private investors, and they help public institutions to support the world of artists and creatives. As art became more than just a private investment and hobby for corporates and philanthropists, companies started to collect art extensively. Within the last ten years, a number of international banks and insurance companies have founded private collections. Some of them have opened their own private museums, too. But there’s hardly a sector that has attracted as much attention with its sponsorship of the arts and public architecture as traditional European fashion houses.

In winter 2015, Rome’s famous Trevi Fountain was reopened after a complex restauration. Roman fashion house Fendi financed the project to the tune of two million euros. The “Fendi for Fountains” project saw the brand become the main sponsor for this project, as the city of Rome lacked the financial resources. A few months later, in July 2016, Fendi marked its 90th anniversary by staging one of its most stunning fashion shows ever on a clear plexiglass runway across the restored Trevi Fountain. In September 2016, the Spanish Steps, one of Rome’s most famous sights, was reopened after some months. Bulgari, a traditional Roman jewellery brand, invested 1.5 million euros in cleaning and restauration work. Meanwhile Italian shoemaker Tod’s is providing 25 million euros for the restauration of the Colosseum.

But besides these acts of modern patronage, where political debates with the public government about cultural budget are on the daily agenda, some founders of big European fashion houses are focused on collecting contemporary art and presenting their collections to the public. To this end, star architects have built precious, extremely modern museum buildings in cultural cities like Milan, Venice or Paris.

“What’s the difference between working for a private institution and a public one? Working in a private institution gives you many financial possibilities and more intellectual freedom. Fondazione Prada combines these ideas.” Astrid Welter

Milan’s luxury brand Prada is one of the world’s most renowned high fashion companies. Miuccia Prada, the head of the company, and her husband Fabrizio Bertelli are well known for their great interest in collecting contemporary art and for their philanthropic engagement with the cultural sector. In 1993 they founded Fondazione Prada, an institution dedicated to contemporary art and culture that is completely independent of the brand’s fashion department. In 2011 Fondazione Prada reopened an abandoned historic palazzo at the Canale Grande in Venice. Ca’ Corner della Regina was restored in collaboration with the city of Venice and is one of Fondazione Prada’s headquarters, hosting a big show every summer.

“What’s the difference between working for a private institution and a public one? Working in a private institution gives you many financial possibilities and more intellectual freedom. Fondazione Prada combines these ideas,” says Astrid Welter. The German art historian was the programme manager of Fondazione Prada until December 2019 and has been working for the foundation for more than 20 years, having started her career with an exhibition project that showed works by deceased American artist Dan Flavin in a Milanese church in 1997.

In spring 2015, Fondazione Prada opened its impressive art centre in an old industrial area in the south of Milan. Famous architect Rem Koolhaas and his OMA studio have built a huge 22,000-square-metre compound that includes several exhibition spaces, a campus and a unique tower painted in gold. And in April 2018 the 60-meter tall “Torre” building opened. “Milan is a small city but very precise,” Astrid says. “It’s full of architects, fashion, design, advertisement and publishing houses. And it has a very cosmopolitan character. All of this demands a contemporary art programme, but there is no public institution for contemporary art,” she complains. “In Milan, it’s private institutions that provide the contemporary cultural programme.” Besides Fondazione Prada there is the Pirelli Foundation with its HangarBicocca and the Fondazione Trussardi. They all offer a programme of first-class contemporary art.

Fondazione Prada presents solo exhibitions of contemporary artists such as Goshka Macuga, Theaster Gates or Louise Bourgeois, and it hosts big group shows curated by international curators like Germano Celant or German artist Thomas Demand. It has a large cinema for screenings and retrospectives, offers workshops on art, philosophy and architecture, hosts performances and displays Miuccia Prada’s huge private collection of contemporary art. Unsurprisingly, Prada hosted its recent fashion shows in one of the industrial buildings inside the Fondazione’s grounds. “Since the beginning, the presidents have strictly divided the foundation from the corporate business,” Astrid says. “We work completely independently and have a scientific mission. And since 1995, our curator Germano Celant has enriched us with his knowledge and unique perspective on art history.” Astrid works in a small team and manages all the programmes that Fondazione Prada runs in Milan, Venice and abroad.

“Art for all. That is the mission I have, and it is my vision for the cultural programme I coordinate.” Hans Ulrich Obrist

As a matter of course, private museums financed by wealthy industrial families or companies have more opportunities to present and support art. But do their programmes have an educational mission, or do they serve mainly promotional purposes? Swiss curator and artistic director of London’s Serpentine Galleries Hans Ulrich Obrist embraces all new private models of museums, galleries and art spaces. As one of the art world’s most active and best known figures, Hans Ulrich has worked for both private and public institutions. “I think you can’t compare all the different models of private and corporate institutions,” he says, “because each works in its own way. Sometimes the content is dependent on the funders or the financing companies, and that can be problematic.”

Compared to a bank or an insurance company, fashion houses produce physical products they sell to the customers. They don’t really need a museum or a publicly accessible private collection as an image-promoting move. But some high fashion brands have philanthropic presidents whose intention is to present their art to the public. Since there is plenty of money in the fashion industry, the big companies can afford to build astonishing museums and exhibition spaces and provide a diversified programme. At the Serpentine Galleries in London, Hans Ulrich is able to provide free admission thanks to private and public funding. “Art for all. That is the mission I have, and it is my vision for the cultural programme I coordinate.”

In Switzerland, the pharma industry and banks are the modern patrons. Companies like Roche, Credit Suisse and UBS own amazing private collections and have built their own museums to present them. In France, private magnates and global luxury enterprises are the modern philanthropists of the art world. Luxury brands Cartier and Louis Vuitton have chosen to establish foundations for culture and contemporary art in Paris. Fondation Cartier was founded in 1984 by Cartier. Designed by architect Jean Nouvel, the foundation’s museum is located in the 14th district of Paris. Fondation Cartier, which works as a non-profit and is independent of the jewellery brand, presents shows of established and young upcoming artists. The main collection consists of more than a thousand works by 300 artists from all periods.

Famous luxury and fashion brand Louis Vuitton of course has its own private foundation for art, too. Fondation Louis Vuitton started in 2006 as an art museum and cultural centre funded by the luxury group LVMH. It is part of LVMH’s long-term promotion of art and culture. The museum’s main collection consists of works owned by the company and its CEO Bernard Arnault. It includes works by famous artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Sarah Morris and Jeff Koons. In addition to domestic exhibition and cultural spaces called Espace Louis Vuitton in Tokio, Venedig, Peking, Seoul and Munich, Fondation Louis Vuitton inaugurated massive new headquarters in 2014. Designed by American star architect Frank Gehry, the new building is located in Paris’s 16th district inside the Bois de Boulogne park. The building is the foundation’s first artistic statement. Financial support from LVMH offers a massive degree of freedom for the foundation’s programme and projects. In the last two years, Fondation Louis Vuitton has devoted itself above all to evolving trends in art and to contemporary creation. It has become a unique space for contemporary, historical, architectural and intellectual exchange and a centre for modern art.

“There’s always the question of what the benefit is for the arts and for society". Hans Ulrich Obrist

Today there are more than 300 privately funded contemporary art museums in the world. In Europe, it is mostly private collectors and big corporate businesses who have opened their own museums to give a philanthropic insight into their collections. In recent years they have been joined by big fashion companies. Fashion and art are very close; designers and CEOs working in the fashion industry often have a strong interest in contemporary art. In comparison to public institutions, privately funded museums often have more money to support young artists and are more experimental in how they coordinate their programmes. Unfortunately, private museums like Fondazione Prada, Collezione Maramotti and Fondation Louis Vuitton might one day be seen as rich competitors to public institutions with their limited finances, if they copy the public museums’ programmes and cultural missions. But luckily these new models are elaborate, professional and enriching spots for contemporary art. Obrist is curious about these new institutions and how they will act in the art world’s future. “There’s always the question of what the benefit is for the arts and for society,” he says.

Fashion is accessible to everyone, while sadly art sometimes still has an elitist appearance to many people. New private collections funded by traditional, philanthropic fashion houses help to make art accessible for all.