Portrait of PATRIZIA SANDRETTO RE REBAUDENGO. Photo by Stefano Sciuto. Courtesy the artist.

The Commissioner

Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo

Also available in:  Chinese

As 21st-century collectors increasingly seek big returns on their art investments, leading to brand names and bland conformity, Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo remains committed to pursuing an individualistic path. On the day of my visit to her eponymous foundation, housed within an old tire factory in one of Turin’s former industrial neighborhoods, she had just arrived fresh off a plane from London. Warmly greeting me, she encouraged me to explore the works in “Capriccio 2000,” one of the three exhibitions hosted at the space featuring Italian artists born in the 1990s, and selected by three curators from Denmark, Greece, and the United Kingdom, who had taken part in the foundation’s curatorial residency program. 

Exuding old-world glamour reminiscent of Luchino Visconti films, Sandretto Re Rebaudengo was immaculately attired in a silk floral dress and a sculptural necklace of avocado-sized jeweled flowers. As she walked me through the 3,500-square-meter gallery and office space, she explained the importance of “Capriccio.” “These are artists who are rarely seen outside of Italy. My hope is that they will gain more visibility,” she remarked. In addition to the foundation’s other two concurrent shows—a huge installation by Ludovica Carbotta, whose work can also be seen in the current edition of the Venice Biennale, and an exhibition drawing from a tiny fraction of her family’s multimillion-euro, 1,000-plus-piece collection of global art—this latter exhibition is a rare opportunity to see her collection, which is normally not displayed here. 

Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, now 60, embarked on her art patronage journey in 1990. Four years prior, she had married into a prominent northern Italian aristocratic family, and soon became a mother of two sons. Although she grew up in a prosperous Turin family—her mother collected Sèvres and Meissen 18th-century porcelain—contemporary art was not part of her upbringing. After studying economics at the University of Turin, she was expected to join her father’s plastics manufacturing company—but in the early 1990s, her family sold the business. Sandretto Re Rebaudengo yearned to explore new territory, and so contemporary art became her passion.  

It wasn’t a huge jump. Turin had been Italy’s artistic center since the 1960s, and was home to many pioneering artists associated with the Arte Povera movement. She initially purchased a few Arte Povera works, but explained, “that wasn’t part of my own history.” Through collector friends she was introduced to gallerists in Europe and the United States. Among them was Nicholas Logsdail, the founder of London’s Lisson Gallery. During one of her regular visits to London, where she would religiously attend museum and gallery exhibitions, Logsdail took her to the studio of a then up-and-coming artist named Anish Kapoor. That 1992 meeting was a turning point in her life. She evolved from a collector of art into a participant in the artistic process, acting as a sounding board for artists’ ideas as well as providing the financial means to realize those ideas. When I pressed her to recall how she felt on that first studio visit, she reflected: “I didn’t know anything about art and I found it very intimidating. Here I was in Anish’s studio, with these strange sculptures made of blue, yellow, and red powder. When I gathered the courage to ask him a question, he replied without any judgment. I never thought about this before, but if Anish hadn’t been so kind and generous with me, I probably would not have the foundation today.” 

In 1997, Sandretto Re Rebaudengo established her foundation in her husband’s 18th-century family mansion, Palazzo Re Rebaudengo, in the Piedmont village of Guarene, approximately 40 kilometers from Turin, which displays mainly large-scale works from the family collection. She was ahead of the curve. Unlike many collectors today, she rejected the idea of creating a private museum to exclusively display her family’s cultural trophies and instead envisioned a space for experimentation, following the model of a German kunsthalle. This vision was informed by two influential curators: Ida Gianelli, the director of Castello di Rivoli, which in the 1990s was the only museum of contemporary art in Italy; and the New York- and Chicago-based Italian art critic and curator Francesco Bonami, who served as the foundation’s artistic director for 19 years. 

From the outset, the foundation’s mission was to support young artists from around the world through collecting their works, providing exhibition opportunities and commissioning new pieces, along with nurturing the appreciation of contemporary art in Italy—at a time when cutting-edge art was not as visible as it is today—through cultural education programs. After a five-year search for a building that could accommodate ambitious installations, she opened the foundation’s second space in 2002 in the former tire factory where it is today. In 2020, she will launch the third location of her foundation in Madrid, where she spent part of her childhood. The Spanish branch will have the same remit as Guarene and Turin, focusing on young artists.

Beyond the spaces, Sandretto Re Rebaudengo has also commissioned more than 100 projects, many for major international exhibitions, including  Doug Aitken’s video installation Electric Earth (1999), which debuted at the 48th Venice Biennale, to more recent projects, including the second chapter of Wael Shawky’s video trilogy Cabaret Crusades (2010–15), which debuted at documenta 13; Marwan Rechmaoui’s 2015 installation of rejuvenated concrete pillars for the 14th Istanbul Biennial; and the first chapter of Ian Cheng’s new-media Emissary trilogy (2015–17). Realizing that support was also needed for curators, Sandretto Re Rebaudengo also launched an international curatorial residency program in 2006, based on recommendations from university art faculty from around the world. This October, Independent Curators International in New York will honor her with the Leo Award (named after the legendary gallerist Leo Castelli). 

Ultimately, Sandretto Re Rebaudengo’s participation in the artistic process is an extension of her love of collaboration. In addition to sitting on numerous museum boards, she actively seeks partnerships. In 2014, she formed an alliance of 14 Italian private art foundations, and in 2018 co-launched the annual Future Fields Commission in Time-Based Media, awarded jointly by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo. Last year, the Rockbund Art Museum (RAM) in Shanghai and Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo cooperated on an exhibition exchange program. Pieces from the family collection selected by the RAM team traveled to Shanghai, and Amy Cheng and Hsieh Feng-Rong’s exhibition featuring 15 artists from across Asia opened to audiences in Turin. 

In today’s world, where monopolies rule and competition is stifled in many aspects of life, including the art world, embracing collaboration is exceptional, especially among aggressive collectors. “I’m not competitive by nature,” said Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, who radiates optimism and Italian simpatico in person and in her work. “Only through collaborating can we accomplish a lot.”

SUBSCRIBE NOW to receive ArtAsiaPacific’s print editions, including the current issue with this article, for only USD 95 a year or USD 180 for two years.  

ORDER the print edition of the Sep/Oct 2019 issue, in which this article is printed, for USD 20. 

E-flux David Zwirner SOTHEBY'S