Art wears Prada


(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 1 2016)

Milan is leading in fashion and design with modern art playing a somewhat lesser role - but that was until Fondazione Prada started to care. The foundation is funded by the luxury brand bearing its name but emphasizes independence from the business as it aims for a cultural dialogue in the second largest city of Italy.

It may seem surprising at first, a humanistic and altruistic approach under the umbrella of a prestigious fashion house. Fondazione Prada however, remains authentic as it has a convincing personal touch. Benefactors are Miuccia Prada Bianchi, CEO of the luxury brand and her husband, Patrizio Bertelli. Both share responsibility in the success of the fashion label. The couple have held art exhibitions for over twenty years. Previously in empty warehouses or disused churches, since May last year they have found a permanent home in Milan. The foundation has cooperated with Rem Koolhaas’ Office for Metropolitan Architecture in transforming a former industrial complex into an amazing cultural centre. Today, on a 19,000-square-metre area, it houses over 900 works from the Prada collection, installations and exhibitions. The private collection however, is the centerpiece of the complex which is open to the public seven days a week.

The refurbishment of the former gin distillery from 1910 lasted seven years. Three buildings were created entirely new, seven were partly transformed. Modern materials are concrete, glass, aluminum and steel. The surfaces of the new structures, called Museum, Cinema and Torre (tower), form a harmonious contrast to the old premises. The connection of opposites is described by Koolhaas as a ‘permanent interaction of an ensemble of fragments’. It reflects the old and the new in often carefully designed spaces that give the complex the character of a campus.

This homogeneity during simultanious heterogeneity according to Bertelli is much needed as well as answers to the concerns of the Fondazione Prada about being a gallery, a museum and a foundation. All in one. Its functions are supported by the versatility of the premises. So Cinema actually can be transformed by steel sliding doors into an open air theatre. 

The original buildings have gone through a transformation. The ‘ghost house’ - so christened by Rem Koolhaas for the sorry state of the original building - has become a distinct highlight. A typical worker's house from the outset, it is now a residence that would embarrass those of thorough royalty. Its facade is covered completely with 24-carat gold leaf. The work was done by artisans who, with traditional crafts, have created something incomparable. In the long run Miuccia Prada expects the facade to have the same patina as can be seen on ancient golden statues.

There are many references to be found of history in the midst of the modern age. The Prada collection may consist mostly of modern and contemporary art, its first exhibition already formed a bridge to the classic era with a combination of antique statues and modern replicas on display. Loans came from the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the British Museum in London. The foundation takes its enlightening role seriously and is taken seriously. To this purpose there is also a ‘Thought Council’ consisting of curators, scholars and historians all contributing to keep the Prada couple current with the arts.

Culture in relation to space plays a considerable role at the newly created centre. The first film to premiere in the cinema was specifically created by Roman Polanski for the Fondazione Prada. Inside the complex, large, sometimes almost empty warehouses alternate with small and intimate settings. Il Studiolo, a preserved women’s chamber from the 15th century, has already been used in works by Gerhard Richter, John Baldessari and other modern artists. Currently it takes some interventions from Goshka Macuga who in 2008 was nominated for the Turner Prize. An actress reads texts in Esperanto and symbolizes the ceaseless thirst for universal knowledge.

A confrontation with the quest for knowledge is an inherent concern of the Fondazione Prada. For Miuccia Prada “art is there to express ideas and a visions”. In the Milanese building complex these are given space. A place was created where “people can live with ideas”, said Prada who interprets culture as something which can answer “political and even existential questions”*.

The foundation specifically seeks to appeal to young people. On the grounds are a library and an academy for children (Accademia dei Bambini), designed by students of architecture from Versailles who collaborated with a pediatric neurologist. For the adults a highlight is Bar Luce, furnished by Hollywood director Wes Anderson. He says he wanted to create a place where he himself would like to be and could “write a script”. Its décor are fifties and sixties-styled coloured tables which alternate with blankets decorated with a tapestry patterned after the Milan Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. The bar can be entered from the street and as such remains an integral part of the neighbourhood.

The openness of privacy is also reflected in individual exhibitions. The so-called Galleria Sud is the former laboratory of the distillery and the venue of the exhibition “An Introduction”, the result of a dialogue and years of friendship between signorina Prada and curator and art historian Germano Celant. He coined the term arte povera in the 1970s as a counterpart to pop art from the United States. 20 years later he would become the director of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. At the Fondazione Prada, he is the Artistic Director and one of the alternating curators.

One constant force is Miuccia Prada, who, through her close connection with artists, exercises a big impact. Among her friends are Briton Damien Hirst and German photographer Thomas Demand. The latter allows the foundation to attend a group exhibition that explores the stolen picture (l`image volée) this March. Demand’s idea is that all original images are ultimately based on original examples. This is particularly evident in his photography, for which he creates elaborate scenes and entire worlds all to be destroyed after the shoot. Only for Prada, Demand has made an exception and retained his set for the photo Grotto. In the Fondazione processo grottesco (grotesque process) now has its own space.

The image and the process of making the world fit to the idea that culture helps us understand ourselves and the changing world in which we are living believes Miuccia Prada. In this context, we come full circle to the fashion world. For her most recent collection, that of autumn/winter 2016, she is exploring the history of women and gives the old a disturbing modern twist that, however, provides a deeper meaning, much like the Fondazione Prada.

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Picture credits © Delfino Sisto Legnani Studio, Courtesy Fondazione Prada


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