Photo: Attilio Maranzano/Courtesy Fondazione Prada.

Photo: Attilio Maranzano/Courtesy Fondazione Prada.

Astrid Welter 


ince its founding 20 years ago, the Fondazione Prada has become one of the strongest, most groundbreaking private art institutions in the world. For 18 of those years, Welter— its project director for the past five years—has shepherded the program, working with artists including Laurie Anderson, Steve McQueen, and John Baldessari. In 2011, she helped organize the opening of the Fondazione’s Venice location, and over the past few years has overseen the planning of its new Milan venue, designed by Rem Koolhaas and his Rotterdam-based firm, OMA. The just-opened Fondazione campus, on the site of a 1910 distillery, features roughly 120,000 square feet of exhibition space, including a theater, a Wes Anderson–designed bar, and a library. Here, Welter discusses the Fondazione’s new spaces, her multidisciplinary approach, and why fashion won’t likely be a part of the institution’s programming anytime soon


Run me through the Fondazione Prada’s new campus.


It’s the regeneration and transformation of an existing industrial area. It was built from the early 20th century on as a distillery. Over the course of the decades, a number of buildings were added. When Mrs. Prada and Mr. Bertelli proposed to Rem Koolhaas to do a permanent headquarters for the Fondazione, they offered him the area to rebuild it new if he wanted. But he took the challenge to integrate it into the existing architecture. He decided that he would keep all these typologies of spaces, a variety of different environments, to which he’s adding three new buildings: No. 1, a podium, which is going to host mainly temporary exhibitions; it’s a very sophisticated building in terms of technology. The second is an existing building he reengineered and rebuilt in the form it was before; it’s becoming a cinema. The third new building is this nine-story, 60-meter-tall tower, which will finish later this year; it will host a restaurant and gallery spaces.


What was your involvement in all of this?


This project has been in the knowing hands of OMA. It was announced in 2008, so there has been a dialogue in terms of our necessities, which do not always correspond to the architects’ desires. I say this in terms of really practical aspects. The creative side was really this dialogue between Mr. Koolhaas, Mrs. Prada, and Mr. Bertelli. From our perspective, it was really accompanying the process and making sure the future uses were reflected in the decisions.


How did you initially get involved in the Fondazione?


The Fondazione was very young. It had existed for four years, and for two years as the foundation, which was founded in 1995. I was working in the exhibition office of the city of Milan after graduating from university. I happened to meet Mr. Bertelli while I was operating as a freelance cultural manager, and he invited me to work at the Fondazione in exactly the year that I knew the Fondazione was going to do something extremely interesting: the Dan Flavin project at Chiesa Rossa.

I came in exactly when the Fondazione had been approached by the Dia Foundation in New York and the Flavin estate—because Flavin had conceived this project for a church in Milan and died days after finishing it. Dia, the estate, and Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, a collector who was very close to Flavin, thought the Fondazione had manifested an interest in sculpture and American art—the shows we’d done were David Smith, Anish Kapoor, Michael Heizer. They thought the Fondazione would be the new institution that could take this project up. We realized it, donated it to the church, and it was installed by his estate. Michael Govan, who was then the director of Dia, was curating this operation and the exhibition in our spaces, which opened at the same time. The next year, Laurie Anderson came in with a crazy project. Then Walter de Maria. It went on and on. It’s now been a long-term collaboration for me, and it’s always been very worthwhile. It was irresistible.


You’ve worked with so many artists while at the Fondazione, including Tom Sachs, Francesco Vezzoli, Nathalie Djurberg, and Carsten Höller.


Let’s talk about Carsten Höller’s “Double Club” in London. We’re proud of this. We literally set up this nightclub in London with him. This is a typical Fondazione situation: Carsten Höller had done an exhibition with us in 2001, “Upside Down Mushroom Room.” He stayed on friendly terms with Mrs. Prada. With many of the artists we feature, there are long meetings and discussions about how to do some of these crazy projects. Some have been very challenging. Carsten said to Mrs. Prada at a certain point while they were together in Paris, “I imagine I would like to do a collaboration that’s half-Congolese, half-Western.” She just said immediately, “Let’s do it.” This is a quality in Mrs. Prada’s awareness and attitude. She says, “Okay, you want to do it? We’ll do it.” There’s a very encouraging aspect in Mrs. Prada, being the president of the Fondazione, toward encouraging artists to dare to think something that seems too complicated can be done. The project was quite an adventure: finding a location where we were able to open something for a short period of time—it was meant to be six months, but became nine because it was so immensely popular. It came down to Mrs. Prada and our team sitting down and asking, “How much should a pint of beer cost in this place?” We didn’t charge entrance, and people came in masses.


So how much did a pint of beer cost?


I think £3.50.


It seems like your team overcomes a lot of creative hurdles. Tell me about the 1999 Laurie Anderson project, “Dal Vivo,” which looked at a prison detainee.


She couldn’t do it in New York. She wanted to do it with Sing Sing—no permission. She was on her way to do it in Austria, and then in Austria it couldn’t happen because it turned out that it’s forbidden by law for the image of a prisoner to be seen outside prison, because this project was the virtual escape of a prisoner sitting inside of a prison and being beamed virtually, three times a day, to the Fondazione. It was really tricky. [Editor’s note: Anderson ended up documenting Santino Stefanini, a detainee of Milan’s San Vittore prison.]

Another time, Mrs. Prada and our team discussed how, without having major engineering problems, to fill 25,000 liters of liquid silicone of minus-20 degrees into an aquarium. And if the flowers should go in before our after. There’s a quality of a very open-minded approach. We give artists the freedom they need.

Photo: Bas Princen/Courtesy Fondazione Prada 

Photo: Bas Princen/Courtesy Fondazione Prada 

There was a 2001 exhibition, “Works in Progress,” on projects for Prada by OMA and Herzog & de Mueron. What’s the relationship between architecture and the foundation? And where does Prada the brand come in?


This was exactly the moment when Mr. Bertelli and Mrs. Prada had commissioned Herzog & de Mueron and OMA for Epicenters. This was when the Epicenter idea came up. Herzog & de Mueron was doing the Aoyama building in Tokyo, and OMA was doing the first Epicenter in the U.S., on Broadway in New York. We just happened to understand the materials and process for this was really fascinating. While the projects were already agreed upon, the Fondazione organized a presentation. International architects still remember this show because it was absolutely mind-dazzling. We had this 1,500-square-meter exhibition space that was divided between the two studios. There were these two worlds.

The Fondazione later contributed to Prada Aoyama, on the top floor, an exhibition we arranged with the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. It was the beginning of the Fondazione looking at these Prada spaces. We started in New York to work with the store on cultural programming, which led to the fact that we started to work with the Tribeca Film Festival—which then came to Milan in 2004, the first-ever Tribeca Film Festival abroad. Then, in 2009, we did the Transformer building in Seoul, this really ground-breaking, utopian, and revolutionary project of Rem Koolhaas. It’s a pavilion that can rotate and be used at different times for different purposes. It was a shared territory that led to a film festival curated by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu; a show of Nathalie Djurberg’s work curated by the Fondazione; and a collaboration with architecture students in Seoul.

Architecture and design has a kind of loose but constant presence here. Now we’ve faced the fact that we’re going to operate in an extremely architecturally characterized space. I’m sure there will be people who will come here mainly for the architecture.


I’ve noticed that in galleries and museums we’re starting to see fashion presented as art a lot more. Is fashion something you’d consider showing?


No, Mrs. Prada and Mr. Bertelli definitely do not want to have fashion come into here. Prada is very capable of looking after itself—look at the Pradasphere; there’s already a sophisticated representation of the fashion world around Prada, and the Fondazione should not have that. If in three years we should do something linked to fabric—we shouldn’t say, “Astrid said we would never do anything fashion-related”—there might by cultural or necessary urgencies to look at. There’s no desire to use our platform to showcase something that’s linked to fashion. If you take fashion as a broader discourse, there are many artists involved with contemporary attitudes, but the Fondazione should operate as it always has operated: with a very different purpose, with a really sincere intention that this is an instrument of research.

When they set this up in 1993, there was no discourse about art and fashion. But this link is clearly understandable because the fashion industry has very much to do with the formal aesthetic and philosophical concerns of art in society. This is why it seems so clear now that these are two businesses that are close to each other. The Fondazione team knows our colleagues at Prada, but we’re separated as experts in art. The Fondazione is made possible by Mrs. Prada and Mr. Bertelli, but it stems more out of their curiosity and wish 20 years ago to kick off with something they weren’t even yet aware of. It was becoming quickly relevant in Milan to have a private foundation. There wasn’t a private foundation here yet. There was not yet Fondazione Nicola Trussardi. There was not yet Hangar Bicocca. Mrs. Prada and Mr. Bertelli set out in this very idealistic way for the sake of art, for the sake of research, right from the beginning, with in-depth publications, strongly independent and wishing to leave this territory for research, art, and experimentation. The seriousness of this intention is now more evident than before. The Fondazione is really establishing a center for art and culture.


What’s your working relationship with Mrs. Prada and Mr. Bertelli? How do you decide which art or artists you want to show?


Mrs. Prada and Mr. Bertelli are both very knowledgeable about art. Everything has always kind of been possible with the total participation of them. They are the decision makers, but on the other hand, there have been, in the past, occasions—because of research the Fondazione was going into, like video art, for instance, around 2004 and 2005—that it became more evident that as an institution it was proper to look at one artist rather than another. It has not been a totally arbitrary strategy. The Fondazione is going to operate, especially now, as a structure that has a core team in Milan, and with other guest curators. Mrs. Prada and Mr. Bertelli will be absolutely willing to have this plurality of voices for autonomous developments of content that are good for the space.


Film is so central to what the foundation is doing. One of the opening exhibitions is “Roman Polanski: My Inspirations” [through July 25], and Wes Anderson is designing the Fondazione’s bar. How do you see the connection between film and architecture manifesting itself here?


I could not necessarily say that there’s a link between cinema and architecture. This is a space that comes out of a long dialogue with architecture and design. It happens to be designed by a very important architect with strong conceptual views. I would say that architecture and the Fondazione goes more to the question of what the spaces designed by OMA will mean for the art, and where they will overlap.


Tell me more about how OMA’s vision fits the needs of the Fondazione.


We’ve been working with Thomas Demand and Robert Gober, and both artists had dialogues with the architect about the spaces hosting their installations. But at a certain point, we might want to show an artist, and they and the curator of the show will have to live with how the architecture is done. Another artist we’re working with, I’m really curious to know, when he has come back to Milan and seen the finished project, which space he will pick, because the typologies are very wide. The generosity of this project from the architectural side is that it has generated this situation, and now the users—artists, the Fondazione, curators, Roman Polanski—will see what good use to make out of it. There will continue to be dialogues in the future with OMA. I foresee a long, interesting, inspirational collaboration with the firm to make things possible here.



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