At First Glance, Billionaire Maja Hoffmann’s Private Museum in Arles Looked Like Another Vanity Project. Then It Blew My Mind

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Frank Gehry’s steel tower sparkled in the blazing sun as I approached Maja Hoffmann’s private museum in Arles, France, two weeks ago. It looked like a mini Guggenheim Bilbao. Was this yet another ego trip by a gazillionaire? 

I needed not worry. 

Colorful tiles 3-D printed from algae, insulation material made with discarded sunflower stems, a wall of 4,600 crystalized-salt panels gleaming like diamonds, a giant double-slide by Carsten Holler, a scrumptious lunch in a restaurant designed by Rirkrit Tiravanija, the biggest retrospective of Diane Arbus—these are some of the things that knocked my socks off at LUMA Arles.

The 25-acre campus willed into being by the Swiss philanthropist is the newest attraction in the town better known for its Roman ruins and Van Gogh paintings. Situated on the grounds of the Parc des Ateliers, a 19th-century construction and repair site for steam locomotives, it includes eight buildings where art, science, design, and sustainable experimentation co-exist on unprecedented scale. (François Pinault’s art-filled palazzos in Venice seem like little baubles by comparison.)

 

Frank Gehry with Maja-Hoffmann. Photo ©Annie Leibovitz.

Frank Gehry with Maja-Hoffmann. Photo © Annie Leibovitz.

World-class exhibitions by international artists rotate seasonally. The latest batch, opening July 1st, includes a program dedicated to the late film director Agnès Varda (1929-2019) alongside new commissions by contemporary artists Rachel Rose, Theaster Gates, and Shahryar Nashat.

Several former warehouses have been refurbished by Selldorf Architects to be used as exhibition and performance spaces. The latest arrival is a hangar-size home for Atelier LUMA, the maverick innovation lab. It was designed by Brussels-based firm BC architects & studies and London’s Assemble, which demolished the old structure and then recycled it to build a new version. They are surrounded four restaurants, a skateboarding area, and a garden that has been miraculously cultivated in concrete (with a pond, frogs and all) by landscape architect Bas Smets.

I was a skeptic heading in. Many private museums and foundations are vanity projects to show off gluttonous art consumption by the mega-rich. And the Hoffmann-Oeri clan, whose fortune derives from Roche, a Basel-based pharmaceutical giant, is one of the world’s wealthiest families.

But I was on vacation in the nearby town of Roussillon with my husband and kids, and was curious to see what a $500 million art campus looks like.

 

Photo: Adrian Deweerdt

“It’s very unique,” said Simon de Pury, the auctioneer, tastemaker, and my fellow Artnet columnist, who has known Hoffmann for 35 years. “A lot of top collectors are building these museums around their collections, whereas hers is much more a laboratory where artists, scientists, and people from different walks of life come together and exchange ideas. And projects come out of it.”

From the free admission to its galleries and gardens to rotating residencies by chefs, artists, and designers, the campus abounds in instances of experimentation, generosity, and ambition that are rooted in creativity but fans out beyond the art world. Atelier LUMA, for example, now advises major companies and even foreign governments on sustainable practices in construction and design using agricultural waste.

Blazing in the Provence sun is a twisted steel tower, incongruously tall and futuristic amid dusty red-brick rooftops. Designed by starchitect Frank Gehry, the 10-story building rises from a round glass pavilion, inspired by the Roman amphitheater in the center of Arles.

The tower is the shiniest star of Hoffmann’s constellation of activities and patronage—the beacon of her philanthropy that radiates far beyond Arles. She is president of the Swiss Institute in New York and of Kunsthalle Zurich in Switzerland. She sits on the boards of London’s Tate and Serpentine Galleries, New York’s New Museum as well as the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. LUMA partnered with Art Basel last year to cofound Arcual, a blockchain company that aims to help artists and galleries benefit from soaring resale prices. Then, in back in Arles, she is the president of the Fondation Van Gogh, which was formally set up in 2008 by her father Luc Hoffmann, a wetlands conservation pioneer.

Hoffmann’s wealth can be traced to Fritz Hoffmann-La Roche, who set up his drug company in Basel in 1896, producing Sirolin, a cough syrup with orange flavor. Today, Roche is a global giant with market capitalization of $249.2 billion and annual sales of 63.3 billion Swiss Francs in 2022. Its flagship products include Valium and Tamiflu.

The Hoffmann-Oeri heirs held 75.1 percent of the company’s shares as of Dec. 31, 2022, according to Bloomberg. This year, one anonymous family member sold 2.35 percent of shares, Bloomberg reported, citing unconfirmed speculations that it was Maja Hoffmann, whose net worth of $5.96 billion ranks 416 on Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Giving back is the family tradition. Hoffmann’s grandmother launched the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation in 1933, named after her husband who died young in a car accident. Works from their collection by Alberto Giacometti, Salvador Dalí, and Max Ernst have been on a permanent loan at Basel’s Kunstmuseum.

“There’s a commitment that the family had in supporting culture,” said de Pury. “It’s ingrained in her.”

Hoffmann started LUMA, named after her kids Lukas and Marina, in 2004 in Zurich. She chose Arles for the expansion in part because she grew up in the surrounding region of Camargue, known for its salt production. Her father Luc Hoffmann left the family’s pharma business for conservationist work in the wetlands, establishing a research station and France’s first national park. He’s credited with its current population of great flamingoes and white wild horses.

“The conservation gene she inherited from her father,” said writer Linda Yablonsky, who knows Hoffmann. “She wanted to keep that up in her own way.”

 

That took 15 years and required major local political support. For many years the communist mayor of Arles was in her corner. When the Frank Gehry building finally opened in 2021 after pandemic delays, it was greeted with glowing speeches by the local and regional political brass.

“It’s not about simply writing a check,” de Pury said. “It’s very difficult to pull off what she pulled off.”

Along the way, Hoffmann also snapped up hotels and restaurants in Arles, making some locals describe her growing influence as “Majapoly,” recounted. One detractor, François Hebel, then a director of Rencontres d’Arles, a beloved annual photography festival in Arles Hoffmann had supported for years, resigned in protest.

“To my great sadness all the public authority people who were in charge at the time just sort of gave up because they were impressed that there was such generosity and they didn’t know how to cope with it,” Hebel told the in 2018. “It sort of crippled people.”

Rencontres d’Arles, which opens its next edition on July 3rd, has now a permanent space at LUMA Arles. The two institutions often partner up, the latest example being the current exhibition, “Diane Arbus: Constellation.”

With 454 black-and-white photographs, it’s the largest survey of Arbus’s work to-date. After her death in 1971, the only person authorized to make prints from the artist’s negatives was her student, Neil Selkirk. Fоr more than 30 years, Selkirk retained a single printer’s proof of every image he printed for the Arbus Estate. In 2011 he sold his set to LUMA, which is presenting it as an immersive installation this summer. Installed on metal armature and reflected by mirror walls, the works draw you into the artist’s mind, echoing and playing off one another, chaotic and perfectly framed at once.

An installation shot of “Diane Arbus: Constellation” at LUMA Arles. Photo: Katya Kazakina

Another exhibition, “Carrie Mae Weems: The Shape of Things,” expands on the artist’s show at the Park Avenue Armory two years ago. Both were curated by Tom Eccles of Bard’s Center for Curatorial Studies. It opens with a striking installation: A child-size piano and wooden chairs set on a small stage against a sprawling backdrop of blue sky with white clouds and the words “Remember to Dream.” Oversized megaphones are scattered throughout the space. Black-and-white film footage is projected onto large, curved screens (cycloramas). The exhibition coincides with another Weems survey, which just opened at London’s Barbican.

The new stunning home of Atelier LUMA displays maquettes and prototypes of various domestic and industrial objects created onsite from all kinds of bio-sourced waste in the surrounding Camargue area. Everything can be reused, it seems: a flower garden outside of the building was fertilized using human waste.

Many of the new products have been used in the Frank Gehry Tower. The tiles made of algae line the walls of the bathrooms. Local dyes and sunflower stems were used to weave the tapestry in the Drum Café designed by Tiravanija. Camargue’s famous salt is crystalized into glistening wall panels in the elevator lobbies on seven floors. (The latest experiments aim to use salt’s anti-bacterial qualities to make door handles.)

Bio-plastic objects made with algae by 3-D printing, front, and panels made with recycled sunflower stems and rice waste at Atelier LUMA in Arles. Photo: Katya Kazakina

“We are creating industries here,” said Tony Guerrero, my guide and old New York acquaintance, who presides over special projects, including feature film production, at LUMA Arles.

Since all kinds of major art world people now pass through Arles, Hoffmann leverages her fleet of hotels in town to make sure they have adequate accommodations—and has tapped artists to transform them into extensions of her museum. Jorge Pardo, for example, got a carte blanche for L’Arlatan. India Mahdavi, who recently completed a makeover of Villa Medici in Rome, redesigned Le Cloître.

“Each one is a work of art,” de Pury said.

Rates are surprisingly reasonable. A night at Le Cloître in July, the peak tourist season, goes for €214, compared with €2,000 at Villa La Coste, which is part of the sculpture park and vineyard Chateau La Coste.

“It’s not for some privileged group of insiders,” de Pury said of Hoffmann’s activities. “She is concerned about making art and culture accessible to the public at large. And that’s what’s so unique about it.”

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