Sarvisalo is a small and fairly remote island off the east coast of Finland. Despite – or perhaps because of – its unpromising location, it is set to become a spot on the global art map. Such is the art brigade’s restless search for novelty that before anything has even been officially unveiled, groups from American museums have booked in a visit.
The island is home to the latest art project of Anita Zabludowicz and her Finnish husband, businessman Poju Zabludowicz. The pair, who began collecting modern and contemporary art in 1995, have a converted Methodist chapel in north London in which they rotate their 3,000-strong collection. Two years ago the decision was taken to turn the scene of their summer retreats into an “art park” across a series of plots dotted throughout the 11 square mile island, and have begun to install sections of the collection into “art barns”. They have also commissioned artists such as Matthew Day Jackson and James Ireland to create works for outdoor sites. For an island that has a winter population of 200 – and only one shop – it is probably the greatest change since the arrival of the motor car.
The complete project will be launched in summer of 2012. But the first commission has already been unveiled: a small holiday cottage that has been given a new skin by the British artist Richard Woods. He has covered the structure in sheets of metal imprinted with a pattern inspired by a stone-clad house in east London. With its shocking yellow and pink design, it’s a take on the idea of an urban house borrowing the rural tradition of stone cladding and bringing it back to its rustic origins. Inside, there are paintings of bricks where one would expect to see a picture of an idyllic landscape. Looking at it for the first time off the drawing board, Zabludowicz is visibly thrilled: what the locals think of it is as yet unclear.
The idea of bringing (sometimes very) raw art to Sarvisalo came to Zabludowicz after a visit to Naoshima, the tiny Japanese island that is dominated by Tadao Ando’s contemporary art museums. As she says, “I thought it was going to be Shangri-La, but I was shocked by how dull and masculine it was. These massive monuments seem to have been plonked down in this beautiful island. It was very overwhelming. I thought, we can do this in Finland but we can do it our own way and work with the nature of the island.”
We are sitting on the terrace of a wooden house overlooking a small bay built 21 years ago by her husband. This does seem like Shangri-La and it is intriguing that the Zabludowiczs have decided to open up their retreat to the world. Cynics could pigeonhole the initiative as another form of one-upmanship, a riposte to other billionaires who have built vast architectural structures as a living legacy. But the Zabludowiczs are trying for another way of working with art and artists, which, if not entirely new, is an interesting modification.
For a start, the family believe in using existing buildings, rather than channelling funds into architectural statements, and the aim is to show the art to people who have not seen such works before. One of the “galleries” is an old boat shed that contains an eclectic mixture of Korean, Japanese and Chinese art bought by Zabludowicz on a recent trip.
“None of these artists has ever shown in Finland before,” confirms Elizabeth Neilson, who has been the curator of the Zabludowicz Collection for five years. “One of the terrible things about a collection,” she adds, “is that lots of work is in storage: this is a way that it can get seen.”
Providing access to the work is paramount but Zabludowicz clearly feels it is her duty to look after the artist as well, rather in the way of an old-fashioned publisher. In her view, “Owning work is a responsibility. You are affecting the lives of artists by buying their work but you also have to mentor the artist. You can’t just leave them. They should have an after-care service. I suppose it’s a kind of a maternal thing – especially with the young ones. Once you buy the second piece, it’s a huge commitment because 10 years down the line we will still be supporting them.”
Zabludowicz, the only child of a Newcastle businessman, had no background in art. “At that time, there was nothing fulfilling me culturally. Just work and discos. I’m very Geordie.” She began collecting art after giving up her job as an interior architect and having her first baby. “Poju and I went to New York and saw a show called High and Low and decided there and then to collect art. But I researched for about four years before I bought a thing. I found it very intimidating and dealers were very reluctant to sell pieces to me as well. Now I realise what is at stake, I know how to be forceful or you will miss the great piece because of some horrible person.”
The easiest way in was to buy work by an artist who was no longer living, so Zabludowicz’s first acquisition was a small Ben Nicholson. She remembers, “I was so nervous that I bid against myself. Then Poju bought a Matthew Barney photograph and the floodgates opened.” The collection is particularly strong in British art and west coast art, art photography and video. (She was an early pioneer in collecting video art: Neilson remembers that when she arrived as a curator, her first job was to separate Gillian Wearing’s tapes from Cinderella Story.) Sixteen years on, Zabludowicz is knitted into the arts establishment: she is a trustee of Tate and sits on the board of Camden Arts Centre.
The night before, at a banquet to honour Woods’ house, I’d asked her if the collection was about “dynasty” – Anita and Poju have four children ranging in age from 13 to 20.
“No, it isn’t,” she said. “It’s about the whole adventure of it. Of being able to create something from beginning to end and being able to live with it forever. It’s wonderful because the artists become your friends and part of your family. I couldn’t work with an artist that I’ve found difficult. We haven’t had any horrible people.”
This takes us on to the island’s residency scheme, which allows artists to come to Sarvisalo and create what they want. On my visit, apart from Woods, artists included Ed Atkins, Michael Dean, James Ireland, Josh Tonsfeldt and Rachael Champion, who was scoping out a site as part of a bigger commission. As Neilson explains, “We cover travel and accommodation and food – and we put in a small amount for production in the hardware shops. We ask for a small piece to enter the collection – a drawing or a collage.”
This year, five artists are scheduled to work in Sarvisalo and the long-term plan is “that people can come, see art and stay and the island can become a hub for discussion”. The artists can’t believe their luck: indeed, some of them said they kept waiting for the catch but couldn’t find it.
It has been often noted how private patrons have stepped up a gear from owning work to hang on their walls (and then to leave to a museum) to building their own museums to house their collections. But there are other developments. Patrons themselves are now commissioning works, often custom-made for particular spaces. Day Jackson’s work – he describes it as a tomb – has been directly inspired by a site behind one of Anita’s barns.
Another beneficiary of the Zabludowicz patronage, Woods, sees it as a return to past centuries when courts would have their own artists and composers. As he says, “Private patrons have got a freedom that public art commissioning bodies don’t. Public art has become a victim of ticking particular boxes. If you are only pleasing one person, it’s easier.”
Art has been, of course, used successfully by public bodies as a lever for turning round a city – think Bilbao – but now it seems that even this sort of cultural tourism is in the domain of a private patron. Once Zabludowicz’s project is up and running at full throttle, Woods is in no doubt: “The art in Sarvisalo is going to change the type of people who come here. It is being used as a social engineer.”
Lucinda Bredin is arts editor of The Week and editor of Bonhams Magazine