Patronage in the art world isn’t something that just appeared a few years ago. A couple of centuries back, there were already places in Europe where wealthy and noble families funded artists and creatives. In the Italian Renaissance between the 15th and 18th centuries, rich clans such as the Medici family in Florence or the Torlonia family in Rome engaged painters, writers and architects like Michelangelo, Pico della Mirandola, Angelo Poliziano, Sandro Botticelli or Leonardo da Vinci and supported them in every possible way. Not forgetting the Catholic church and the Vatican, which acted as cultural patrons, too.

New Art Patrons and Their Museums

Today’s patrons are big companies and private investors, and they help public institutions to support the world of artists and creatives. As art became more than just a private investment and hobby for corporates and philanthropists, companies started to collect art extensively. Within the last ten years, a number of international banks and insurance companies have founded private collections. Some of them have opened their own private museums, too. But there’s hardly a sector that has attracted as much attention with its sponsorship of the arts and public architecture as traditional European fashion houses.

In winter 2015, Rome’s famous Trevi Fountain was reopened after a complex restoration. Roman fashion house Fendi financed the project to the tune of two million Euros. The ‘Fendi for Fountains’ project saw the brand become the main sponsor for this project, as the city of Rome lacked the financial resources. A few months later, in July 2016, Fendi marked its 90th anniversary by staging one of its most stunning fashion shows ever on a clear plexiglass runway across the restored Trevi Fountain. In September 2016, the Spanish Steps, one of Rome’s most famous sights, was reopened after some months. Bulgari, a traditional Roman jewellery brand, invested 1.5 million Euros in cleaning and restoration work. Meanwhile Italian shoemaker Tod’s is providing 25 million Euros for the restoration of the Colosseum.

But besides these acts of modern patronage, where political debates with the public government about cultural budget are on the daily agenda, some founders of big European fashion houses are focused on collecting contemporary art and presenting their collections to the public. To this end, star architects have built precious, extremely modern museum buildings in cultural cities like Milan, Venice or Paris.


New Milan venue of Fondazione Prada, Architectural project by OMA, Photo: Bas Princen


New Milan venue of Fondazione Prada, Architectural project by OMA, Photo: Bas Princen


Milan’s luxury brand Prada is one of the world’s most renowned high fashion companies. Miucca Prada, the head of the company, and her husband Fabrizio Bertelli are well known for their great interest in collecting contemporary art and for their philanthropic engagement with the cultural sector. In 1993 they founded Fondazione Prada, an institution dedicated to contemporary art and culture that is completely independent of the brand’s fashion department. In 2011 Fondazione Prada reopened an abandoned historic palazzo at the Canale Grande in Venice. Ca’Corner della Regina was restored in collaboration with the city of Venice and is one of Fondazione Prada’s headquarters, hosting a big show every summer.


Astrid Welter, Photo: Delfino Sisto Legnani

“What’s the difference between working for a private institution and a public one? Working in a private institution gives you many financial possibilities and more intellectual freedom. Fondazione Prada combines these ideas,” says Astrid Welter. The German art historian is the programme manager of Fondazione Prada and has worked for the foundation for 18 years, having started her career with an exhibition project that showed works by deceased American artist Dan Flavin in a Milanese church in 1997. “When Miucca Prada and Patrizio Bertelli founded the Fondazione in 1993, they wanted to start in Milan. But times were tough in Milan back then: politics, corruption, the Mafia…” Welter adds.

In spring 2015, Fondazione Prada opened its impressive art centre in an old industrial area in the south of Milan. Famous architect Rem Koolhaas and his OMA studio have built a huge 22,000-square-metre compound that includes several exhibition spaces, a campus and a unique tower painted in gold.“Milan is a small city but very precise,” Astrid says. “It’s full of architects, fashion, design, advertisement and publishing houses. And it has a very cosmopolitan character. All of this demands a contemporary art programme, but there is no public institution for contemporary art,” she complains. “In Milan, it’s private institutions that provide the contemporary cultural programme.” Besides Fondazione Prada there is the Pirelli Foundation with its HangarBicocca and the Fondazione Trussardi. They all offer a programme of first-class contemporary art.


The full feature by Moritz Gaudlitz is published in PLATEA Issue 03 Winter 2016/17, available online and at selected stores and newsstands worldwide.

Photo Courtesy Fondazione Prada and Fendi