Platform: Artist's retreat

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 28, Autumn 2011

Page 44

Platform: Artist's retreat

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 28, Autumn 2011

Page 44

Platform: Artist's retreat

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 28, Autumn 2011

Page 44

Platform: Artist's retreat

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 28, Autumn 2011

Page 44

Sarvisalo is a small island off the east coast of Finland. It would be pushing it to say it was untouched wilderness, but as one has to fly to Helsinki and then drive for 90 minutes, it certainly falls into the category of remote. However, despite – or perhaps because of – its unpromising location, it is set to become another spot on the global art map. Such is the art brigade's restless search for novelty that before anything has even been officially unveiled, groups from American museums have already booked in for a visit.

The island is home to the latest art project of Anita Zabludowicz and her Finnish husband, Poju. The pair, who began collecting modern and contemporary art in 1995, already have a converted Methodist Chapel in Kentish Town in which they rotate their 3,000-strong collection. However, two years ago the decision was taken to turn the scene of their summer retreats into what can only be described as 'an art park'. The family bought a series of plots dotted throughout the 11 square mile island, and have begun to install sections of the collection into 'art barns'. They have also commissioned artists such as Matthew Day Jackson and James Ireland to create works for outdoor sites. For an island that has a winter population of 200 – and only one shop – it is probably the greatest change that it has encountered since the arrival of the motor car.

The complete project will be unveiled in summer of 2012. But last month, select artists from the UK and curators from Helsinki were invited to the unveiling of the first commission: a small holiday cottage that has been given a new skin by the British artist, Richard Woods. He has clad the structure in sheets of metal imprinted with a pattern inspired by a stone clad house in Hackney. With its shocking yellow and pink design, it's a take on the idea of an urban house borrowing the rural tradition of stone cladding and bringing it back to its rustic origins. ("I like the idea that someone might drive past and think that this is just excessive DIY," says Woods, looking approvingly at his handiwork.) Inside, there are paintings of bricks where one would expect to see pictures of an idyllic landscape. Looking at it for the first time, Anita Zabludowicz is visibly thrilled with it; what the locals think of it is as yet unclear, but it certainly makes a statement of intent. The idea to bring (sometimes very) raw art to Sarvisalo came to Zabludowicz after a visit to Naoshima, the tiny Japanese island that is dominated by Tadao Ando's contemporary art museums. "I thought it was going to be Shangri La, but I was shocked by how dull and masculine it was," she says. "These massive monuments seem to have been plonked down in this beautiful island. It was very overwhelming. I thought, we can do this in Finland, but do it in our own way that works with the nature of the island."

We are sitting on the terrace of a wooden house, built 21 years ago by her husband, that overlooks a small bay. This does seem like Shangri La and it seems intriguing that the Zabludowiczs have decided to open up their retreat to the art world. You would think that with the constant dealings with the collection – Anita readily admits that it is a full-time job – the family would want a break from art. It seems not. Moreover, in that way that the art world clusters, gallery owners Iwan and Manuela Wirth have bought a house across the bay.

Cynics could pigeonhole this initiative as another form of one-upmanship, a riposte to other billionaires who have built vast architectural structures as a living legacy. But it seems that the
Zabludowicz Collection attempts tohave another way of working with art and artists, which, if not entirely new, is certainly an interesting modification.

For a start, the family believe in using existing buildings. Rather than channeling funds into architectural statements by, say, Hadid or Pei, the collection is presented in airy converted barns and the overriding aim is to show artworks to people who have not seen the works like this before. One of the 'galleries', for instance, is an old boat shed that contains an eclectic mixture of Korean, Japanese and Chinese art bought by Anita on a recent trip. "None of these artists has ever shown in Finland before," confirms Elizabeth Neilson, who has been the curator of the Zabludowicz Collection for five years. "Finland is on the flight path to Asia and so there is quite a strong connection. Also, one of the terrible things about having a collection is that lots of work is in storage and this is a way that it can get seen."

Providing access to the work is paramount, which is why the space to show it on the island must seem so tempting. But Anita Zabludowicz clearly feels it is her duty to look after the artist as well, rather in the way of an old-fashioned publisher. In her view, "Owning work is a responsibility. You are affecting the lives of artists by buying their work, but you also have to mentor the artist. You can't just leave them. They should have an after-care service. I suppose it's a kind of a maternal thing – especially with the young ones. Once you buy the second piece, it's a huge commitment because 10 years down the line, we will still be supporting them."

Zabludowicz, the only child of a Newcastle businessman, had no special background in art. "At that time, there was nothing fulfilling me culturally. Just work and discos. I'm very Geordie." She began collecting art after giving up her job as an interior architect and having her first baby. "Poju and I went to New York and saw a show called High and Low and decided there and then to collect
art. But I researched for about four years before I bought a thing. I found it very intimidating and dealers were very reluctant to sell pieces to me as well. Now I realize what is at stake, I know how to be forceful or you will miss the great piece because of some horrible person."

The easiest way in was to buy pieces from a dead artist at auction, so Anita's first acquisition was a small Ben Nicholson. She remembers, "I was so nervous that I bid against myself. Then Poju bought a Matthew Barney photograph and the floodgates opened." The collection is particularly strong in British and West Coast art, art photography and video. (She was an early pioneer in collecting video art: Neilson remembers that when she arrived as a curator, her first job was to separate Gillian Wearing's tapes from Cinderella Story.) Sixteen years on, Anita is knitted into the arts establishment: she is a Trustee of the Tate and sits on the board of Camden Arts Centre.

The night before, at a celebratory banquet to honor Woods' house, I'd asked her if the collection was about 'dynasty' – Anita and Poju have four children ranging in age from 13 to 20. "No, it isn't," she said. "It's about the whole adventure of it. Of being able to create something from beginning to end and being able to live with it forever. It's wonderful because the artists become your friends and part of your family. I couldn't work with an artist that I've found difficult."

Which takes us onto the island's residency scheme that allows artists to come to Sarvisalo and create what they want. On my visit, apart from Woods, artists included Ed Atkins, Michael Dean, James Ireland, Josh Tonsfeldt and Rachael Champion, who was scoping out a site as part of a bigger commission. As Elizabeth Neilson explains, "We cover travel and accommodation and food and put in a small amount for production in the hardware shops. We ask for a small piece to enter the collection – a drawing or a collage. We don't ask for much." This year, five artists are scheduled to work in Sarvisalo and the long-term plan is "that people can come, see art and stay and the island can become a hub for discussion". The artists can't believe their luck; some of them said they kept waiting for the catch, but couldn't find it.

It has been often noted how private patrons have stepped up a gear from owning work to hang on walls – and then to leave to a museum – to building their own museums to house their collections. But there are other developments. As a beneficiary of the Zabludowicz patronage, Richard Woods sees it as a return to the 18th or 19th century when courts would have their own composers. As he says, "Private patrons have a freedom that public art commissioning bodies don't. Public art has become a victim of ticking boxes, whereas a number of great 'follies' are the result of a patron being bloody-minded and demanding. If you are only pleasing one person, it's easier." Of course art has been used successfully by public bodies to help turn round a city – think Bilbao – but now it seems that even this sort of cultural tourism the domain of a private patron. Once Anita's is up and running at full throttle, Woods is in no doubt: "the art in Sarvisalo is going to change the type of people who come here".

Lucinda Bredin is Editor of Bonhams Magazine.

A version of this article appeared in the Financial Times
.
The next exhibition at the Zabludowicz Collection is a solo show of US artist Laurel Nakadate from 29 September - 1 December. 176 Prince of Wales Road, London NW5 3PT

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