The art world has changed beyond recognition since the indomitable Italian patron Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo started out collecting contemporary art 30 years ago. “There was no internet, there were hardly any art fairs and not so many collectors,” she says. “I went to my first Venice Biennale in 1992. Even then, there were not many people—and certainly no yachts and no parties.”
Today, she is celebrating 30 years of collecting with an exhibition of more than 70 of her key acquisitions at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence (Reaching for the Stars: from Maurizio Cattelan to Lynette Yiadom Boakye, until 18 June). Speaking at the opening last week, and typically fizzing with energy, she recalls the moment she decided to start collecting contemporary art, during her first trip to London in 1992.
“British art was my first love,” she says, recounting how a collector friend from Turin introduced her to Lisson Gallery’s founder Nicholas Logsdail—who, in turn, took her to see Anish Kapoor in his studio. “It was my first studio visit. The floor was full of these small works covered in yellow, blue and red pigment. The sight has stayed with me for more than 30 years,” Sandretto Re Rebaudengo says (these pigmented sculptures had earned Kapoor the Turner Prize a year earlier). “Then we visited Julian Opie in his studio and a young Jay Jopling, when White Cube was still on Duke Street.”
Sandretto Re Rebaudengo recalls how she asked Logsdail what she should buy. He replied in no uncertain terms: “I can’t tell you that. Listen to your head and go with your heart.”
It’s advice that has served her well. The collector has a tendency to buy difficult art—not small decorative pictures to hang in domestic spaces, but sprawling installations and politically charged works. Much of what she has acquired has been ahead of any art market trend, particularly when it comes to female artists, who she estimates make up more than 50% of her collection. As she puts it: “From the beginning I never thought about size. I always thought that a work should be strong and talk about something political or social.”
Her cutting-edge bent was perhaps a reaction to what came before her. Sandretto Re Rebaudengo grew up around art, but mostly traditional works. Her mother collected Sèvres and Meissen porcelain and educated her and her brother in Old Masters. Despite their differences in tastes, the title of the Florence exhibition, Reaching for the Stars, is a nod to Sandretto Re Rebaudengo’s history and family crest, which features three stars and the Latin motto “Robur ad astris”, which translates as “the power of the stars”.
Noble beginnings are also highlighted in the exhibition’s first room, titled God Save the Queen. Here, Sandretto Re Rebaudengo pays homage to her first encounters in London and the YBAs she began collecting early on. Alongside Kapoor’s 1,000 Names (1983) are two pieces by Damien Hirst: The Acquired Inability to Escape, Inverted and Divided (1993)—an enormous installation of an upturned office chair suspended in glass next to a packet of Silk Cut cigarettes and a used ashtray, acquired from Jablonka Galerie in Cologne—and Love is Great (1994), a big butterfly painting purchased from White Cube.
“Both works are about the circle of life, death is part of our life,” Sandretto Re Rebaudengo says matter-of-factly. Though she notes how the butterfly painting was created—by attracting the insects to the canvas with shimmering paint where they would get stuck and die—is at odds with today’s sensibilities. “There’s so much more awareness around animal rights,” she points out.
Each room in the exhibition is arranged by themes such as identities, material matters, mythologies and bodies. To whittle down a contemporary art collection numbering more than 1,500 works into these tight groupings has been an ambitious undertaking by the Palazzo Strozzi’s director Arturo Galansino. Five photographers including Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth and Jeff Wall are gathered in one gallery, a number of the works taken from Sandretto Re Rebaudengo’s own bedroom. “They are the last things I see at night,” she says. Another room is dedicated to works by Italian artists including Maurizio Catellan (many of them acquired from the London-based dealer Laure Genillard), Paola Pivi and Lara Favaretto.
Beyond the collection
In 1995, not long after that first trip to London, Sandretto Re Rebaudengo established her foundation; “I knew from the beginning I needed to share my collection,” she says. In 2002, she opened a minimalist purpose-built warehouse in Turin, designed by Claudio Silvestrin, where she began to show new commissions. “When I started collecting and talking to artists, I understood there was a real need for a space like this in Italy, particularly with the lack of public institutions for contemporary art,” she says. Sandretto Re Rebaudengo also shows part of her collection in a family-owned 18th-century palazzo in Guarene, Piedmont.
Next year, during the Venice Biennale, she is due to launch another venture, on the Venetian island of San Giacomo, which is being developed as a space to produce artistic projects, and to host research and discussions on culture more broadly. One of the first works to be installed on the island will be a 15m-tall sculpture by the Polish artist Goshka Macuga. Initially conceived for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square in 2021, when Macuga found out her proposal had not been accepted she approached Sandretto Re Rebaudengo to help realise the project. GONOGO was unveiled for the first time in the internal courtyard at the Palazzo Strozzi last week.
Sandretto Re Rebaudengo’s unwavering support for living artists is what sets her apart as a true patron. With the help of her son Eugenio, she is now looking to a new generation including Avery Singer, Ian Cheng, Josh Kline—though she rarely, if ever, sells works to make way for new commissions. “I don’t believe in mistakes—everything I have bought is important,” she says.
“In a certain way, a collection is your life, it connects your biography to that of the artist and their work. My collection is a map of my encounters and dialogues. It’s really my story, my life.”