«Giuseppina Panza & The Panza Collection»

Von Julieta Schildknecht

Giuseppina Panza shares with us her memories, impressions and the knowledge she inherited from her father the great art collector Giuseppe Panza, Count of Biumo. In a period of 40 years, Giuseppe Panza created one of the most important worldwide collections of minimalism, american abstraction, post-minimalism and environmental art.

«My name is Giuseppina Panza, I am the second child of Giuseppe and Giovanna Panza di Biumo and I have four brothers. We grew up with contemporary art because my father started collecting when he was newly married with my mother. As far as I can remember, the decor of my house was constantly changing because of art installations. Those three dimensional art works introduced us to art. To grow with such surroundings is something very special. You don’t realise as a child that you are different from the others but somehow we were. To grow up with so many contemporary installations made by people with different backgrounds than the people we were used to live with has broaden our horizon. I really started taking part of what was happening in the house when I became a teenager. My friends at the time, wanted to visit us to see what our father collected. That’s when I started visiting galleries, becoming more aware of when an artist would come to our house.
What really changed my life? It happened in the 80’s when I first went with my father to the United States. I went because my mother couldn’t accompany him. We made a tour throughout the US, to NYC, St Louis and then LA. That’s when I first understood what my father was doing when traveling to America. That helped me have a better access to my father because at home he was always closed in his studio or at work in Varese. We had our Lives and our activities and couldn’t completely understand his activities as a collector. That perspective changed after spending entire days meeting artists, gallerists, collectors and art critics on my first trip to the US. It was an entire different experience. It also helped change my opinion on the collection. For us Children, the collection was something taking our father away from us. We were a bit frightened and jealous and didn’t like listening much about the collection.
After some years, on a Sunday afternoon, my father asked me to help him because he didn’t have much time to take care of all the archival material. My husband agreed to let me go for half a day because my children were grown-ups. That was my husbands decision and not mine. I did try, and started helping and realised once you start working with the collection there would be no return path. I liked the experience. In the beginning my brother Giovanni had divided the material that was in a draw of my Father’s desk according to the name of the artist. Almost everything was mixed together. We had to catalogue all the photographs that had not been put together, it was a huge mess. I was mainly taking care of all decisions. With the exception of one of my brothers who didn’t finish his art degree, none of us studied art nor pledged for an university degree. Still we inherited this amazing art collection and we make sure it is accordingly administrated and seen by many people not only in Varese but worldwide».
– Julieta Schildknecht: Are you talking about the 80’s or 90’s now?

– Guiseppina Panza: I am talking about the 80’s beginning of 90’s.

– JS: And your father was still alive, right?
– GP: Oh, yes! He passed away in 2010.



– JS: He was then working with you…
– GP: He was with me but not really working together. He gave me the materials and asked me what I could do to catalogue all. In a way I was taking care of the entire collection because he had a different system. His way of sorting his collection was putting on a big sheet of paper, write the initials of the artist like MR for Mark Rothko and so on. He would put on top of the first work of the artist together with the year when it was made and the dimensions, the photographs related to the art piece, where he bought it, the date he bought the art piece and how much he spent with its purchase. He also wrote the name of the gallery where he purchased the art piece and the year he bought the work.There was already some kind of archival system that I had to follow in a way. But to find everything was kind of difficult.



– JS: Is this material with the Getty?

– GP: Now, all the material related to the first part of the collection and the second which is at the Guggenheim, is at the Getty. We sold that part to them. It is a nightmare because in Italy, anything is a big bureaucracy due to taxes and mainly Customs. When the bureaucrats saw the value of our archive they declared that we were selling art. It wasn’t possible for them to understand that only papers (the plans) had that value. That intrigued them. We had to re-open every crate, every box, every folder with the number of customs. They finally realised it was only papers. Finally that part went to Getty.



– JS: Why did you decide about the Getty?
– GP: They came to us.



– JS: How many people were involved and who, the son or the daughter?
– GP: I don’t think someone from the Getty family. We were approached by people from the Institute.


JS: An american art-historian.
– GP: Yes, but I don’t remember exactly who approached us. Later we had relations with Salvatore Settis and many other people working there.
– JS:Apasswordisrequiredtoaccessthearchive?
– GP: No. We don’t need that. We keep copies of the original documents. What we considered important, if we need something, we ask them. We have an index of what was in the folders. Nothing complicated. The Getty archive is also good for students.



– JS: Did you inherit that passion your father had for collecting?
– GP: Luckily not like him. I collect a little bit with my husband but not so broadly.
My father had a passion for culture that was spread throughout everything, not only art but philosophy, history, art history, physics… I am not like him. I am more materialistic, more physical, I like to organise. I prefer to think less and do more. This is the difference.



– JS: Are you travelling a lot representing the collection?

GP: Yes,I have to and I try to do it as much as I can.



– JS: Are you tending more towards the technical part of the Collection?
– GP: Yes, I talk about what I know. I dedicate my time to the collection and I meet a lot of people on behalf of our collection. I cannot speak about philosophy but I know what contemporary art means.



– JS: Did you meet some of the artists?
– GP: I met yes, many of them. Many of previous collections came to our house in Varese when I was young, and some I met after, while traveling with my parents. I met almost all of them. We went to their studios, we visited their exhibitions and some of them became real friends.



– JS: …and you can understand their work as well
– GP: Of course! maybe on a different way than my father. He went very deeply inside the work of artists he was collecting.
I’ve heard a conversation between Phil Sims and my father. He was speaking, and Phil Sims was looking at him pondering about what my father had said of his work from a perspective he hadn’t think of before.



– JS: How about that situation with Donald Judd which made me really curious? The inside perspective…
– GP: A subject that made the whole world curious. My father collected many of his artwork. Some was just the project. There is this certificate that allowed my father to reproduce the artwork in Italy under Judd’s supervision or somebody from their studio. My father reproduced many of his art pieces. The artworks were approved by his studio’s people. The problem started with the wooden sculptures because Judd was complaining about the quality of the wood which was too perfect. The screws were too visible. He didn’t want them to be made the way my father was making. When I went to a Symposium at the Guggenheim and I compared the original piece to what we have produced… our piece looked like furniture and Judd’s like one of his sculptures. My father was right and wrong at the same time. Judd transformed the case into a nightmare.
He was very angry at my father… even though he was his only collector at the time. Michael Govan was trying to settle things between the Guggenheim which once sold his artworks and the artist but unfortunately Judd died before this affair was settled. Now there are nine works in wood and steel that will never be reproduced again. A lady during Guggenheim’s symposium for Panza Collection’s PCI suggested a new settlement between Judd’s hires and his Studio worker executing the art pieces. Guggenheim turned the idea down.



– JS: It was a time when many artists didn’t have enough financial means to execute their projects. They were selling certificates licensing collectors to reproduce their art pieces...
– GP: Probably. It was also a question of either shipping heavy metal sculptors to Italy or having them made in Italy without high transportation costs. My father always said that Judd was complaining so much because he needed money and he wanted to remake the pieces to gain some profit. Judd had back then just divorced from his wife. It wasn’t a good time for him. I think those cumulative instances were driving him out of his context. There is the exchange of angry letters between both my father and Judd… some of which I read. He had trouble with other collectors and the Guggenheim. My father however remained his biggest collector. He complained mostly to my father who was very smart but tough whenever he would make up his mind. Both were wrong and both were right. I believe if communication would flow between the two, the issue would have been settled.



– JS: How is it to be Giuseppe Panza’s daughter or better said, inherit such an important post-war collection?
– GP: It is difficult sometimes. I like it very much but sometimes I would like to make something different but I can’t. I am proud of working with the Collection, as mentioned before, being his only daughter, I believe my parents never thought I could be the one to lead or run the collection.



– JS: Do you represent the Panza collection worldwide?

– GP: Yes.



– JS: The Panza Collection represents a moment when american artists became international. Your father was the first collector to bring American art to Europe, right? What made him decide to invest in American art?
– GP: Yes, but since he didn’t share much we had to ask people working with him or read his books to find out what he was thinking. He went to the United States in the beginning of the 50’s.



– JS: He came to Switzerland during the 40’s…
– GP: Yes. He was too young and his father didn’t want him to go to the war. He stayed in Switzerland until the end of the war. He returned to Italy. In the 50’s he spent three months traveling for work around South America, Argentina and Brazil and decided to visit the US before returning to Europe. Instead of flying back to Italy, where his fiancée (my mother) was waiting for him. He traveled from East to West across the United States for almost a year. Contemporary art wasn’t then part of his agenda. I believe it wasn’t yet a point of interest for him. After the War, they lived in Varese not in Milano and there he met Guttuso, he met Baj, Tavernari… they were part of the inteligenzia in Varese. Probably around that period he started becoming interested in art. After a year and a half he married my mother and both started building our collection. The prices were quite different at that time and little money was already something. He bought his Rothkos for U$ 1’000. It was a considerable amount for that time. My father started with Italian artists then went to Paris where he met Pierre Restany. Through him he became acquainted with many contemporary artists like Jean Fautrier, Antoni Tàpies and others. His taste changed when he saw their first Franz Klein. At that point he sold all his precious Vedova and Meloni collection. From Franz Klein on, he started knowing more about Abstract Expressionism and the rest is what you can experience in our impressive collection.
Our house in Varese is privileged with a lot of natural light and the spaces are very linear and pure in spite of its Baroque period construction. Everything my father installed in the house is beautiful and has a combination of different historical periods. From the Rothkos to the Rauschenbergs to the monochromatic paintings everything is beautiful. It is a
special house but this relation between old and contemporary has always been something my father loved to use when he was exhibiting his collection.
We made once an exhibition at Castello delle Albere in Trento. I mention it as an example of how buildings from different periods can interact and our collection was always beautifully installed in such striking environments.
When I first entered MOCA, with our collection on their walls, it took me a while to recognise our paintings because I had the impression they lost part of the importance they had when they were hanging at our home. Probably I looked at them in a different way. I don’t know… When you go into Museums, sometimes artworks loose some of their power because of museum’s neat and anonymous rooms. Their paintings also become less important when in those rooms. From my perspective, if you look at those artworks and paintings installed in spaces that have a history, they acquire more meaning and more importance, they are different.




– JS: So the house in Varese became later a museum…
– GP: Villa Panza? Yes, it is a museum now. We donated the house to FAI, which is a private foundation in Italy and they opened Villa Panza to the public in 2000. The first floor and the ground floor are exhibition spaces. They are usually part of the Villa as they were already installed by my father with works from our collection. There are stables with some artworks from our collection which are removable to transform the spaces in exhibition spaces. Sometimes they also use the first floor for own events.



– JS: The collection is travelling a lot, right?
– GP: Our collection yes but not the one from Varese. FAI could loan the artworks that are in the house but otherwise they belong to Villa Panza.



– JS: And are you travelling as an ambassador to the collection?
– GP: (laugh) I try to do that. When it is necessary, Stefano calls me and tells me I have to do it, I agreed.



– JS: How are you working with the galleries and the museums? There were a lot of donations, your father sold many of the art pieces! He rescued the value of american modern and contemporary art when it wasn’t even recognised by the americans. One could denominate it art roots… and you are representing him further.
– GP: Yes, my father loved american art because he understood that in Europe after the two world wars the art world was a little bit depressed, a little bit without power, without energy and nothing really new was coming out of their art world. On the contrary, in America, art was so strong, so powerful, so full of energy. American art world represented of course this energy. He collected mainly american art, he showed it first in Varese, I remember many americans coming to Varese to learn about their minimal art. Museums didn’t know anything about minimal art. They discovered that school in Varese. Marc Payot said he realised he would work with contemporary after visiting Villa Panza. It was and will remain as a place that changes many peoples ideas about contemporary art. Throughout the years my father was collecting so many artworks that he had to find a place for them otherwise he had no room for storage. In the beginning they were by the hundreds and soon after thousands… and they were quite big.
The first part of the collection went to MOCA because they were already out of Italy and because they had to be given in loan to Düsseldorf but since they were building the Mönchengladbach Museum they were late with their exhibition schedules. My father had to take a decision… Bring back the artwork or sell them abroad.
Luckily he met Pontus Hultén whom he knew since a long time, who told him about the new museum. They needed a collection because they didn’t have any. He was MOCA’s director and managed to convince the board that Panza Collection had master pieces and it
would be best to start the museum with one of the best collections. He sold the first part of the collection to them.
Then he found the Guggenheim museum for minimal art at the end of the 80’s. Through his relationship with Michael Govan and Tom Krens – and I think that Micheal Govan is the one who convinced Tom Krens to purchase the collection for the Guggenheim.
We sold the collection to Buffalo, to the Albright-Knox, to the Hirschhorn and to SFMOMA and donated some works in Italy. All the sales were made with a bigger interest focused on distributing 150 pieces to one Museum, 300 pieces to another one always using the lowest price values rated by Sotheby’s and Christies divided in two. We didn’t get wealthier because of those sales but we built a good name. The goal was to have them for future generations.



– JS: Do you feel partly responsible for opening alleys in different Museums in America?
– GP: Yes, I feel proud when I see Panza Collection mentioned on their rooms. In Italy things went differently. My father tried to sell the collection first to Rivoli because part of what could have gone to MOCA would possibly go to Rivoli for very little money. It was the 80’s, it was all american art, and America was seen as the enemy. Torino was a city that wanted to protect the Arte Povera artists, so they refused our collection. There were also many projects around Milan but they all failed. We tried then to donate 70 works to Sassuolo but it is also very difficult there. Everything is difficult in Italy. Everyone whenever you want to make a donation, or make a gift, is difficult. Italy is a very provincial country. When you speak about art, they want to have the Italian art. If you want to be part of a museum most of the time it has to be from Italian precedence. Why and how can you do that? It is impossible. Art belongs to the world and it isn’t about only one country. My father thought art belongs to everybody and has to go to the globe. When he donated Villa Panza in Varese, he donated everything: artworks, furniture, everything in the house. He made sure he was donating the best pieces to Varese – to future generations in Varese.




– JS: One can see how the Villa Panza is integrated to the environment of Varese. Usually private museums suffer with maintenance and are neglected. Many times, there is hardly any provision for its cultural life or even salaries to its employees.
– GP: We always tried to convince our father to open the museum ourselves. He knew how costly it is to have a private museum. The initial idea was to connect the Guggenheim with the city of Varese. The city didn’t agree financing the initiative. UCLA started the idea of making a University Campus abroad. Both projects failed. FAI was a good option and they are trying to do their best.



– JS: How do your children relate to the Panza Collection?
– GP: My son works with me. He worked during some years at MART in Rovereto and the Fondazione Lercaro in Bologna. I asked him to come to work with me. A new generation was required. Sometimes it’s a challenge because he is brilliant and intelligent. My first daughter, who used to live near Genova and moved near Milano, works in the field of Geriatric. My youngest used to teach yoga. It could be great to have her as part of the team because she has the similar spirit and wit of my father. She is very philosophical. There are nephews and nieces also interested in working with us. We have a family business with a big family. I work with my sister in law, my elder brother’s widow, my son and the cousin of my husband who is a very close friend of mine.



– JS: Are you curating and administrating or just administrating?
– GP: We do everything. Now one of the reasons we started the partnership with Hauser & Wirth is to expand. If we had remained by ourselves we wouldn’t have managed any expansion. The taste from the art world is so different from our collection that we need more structure to promote our artists. Hauser & Wirth is the right gallery to work with Panza Collection.



– JS: How are you relating to auction houses?
– GP: Well, Christie’s usually made our art collection evaluation. It was difficult because they didn’t know some of our contemporary artists. We worked with Christie’s and Sotheby’s. My father bought just a couple of pieces at auctions. He preferred to visit artists studios directly. This was our routine when traveling. First studios, then galleries, then back to the studios and then back to the galleries… it was really amazing to see the artists emotionally excited and anxious to have our visits because they knew if my father liked their work, he would buy many art pieces.
It does good to listen to comments of how our visits and purchases changed their lives.
I think what differentiates Panza Collection from other collections, is its collecting system, its fil rouge. The spirit in which my parents collected has remained the same from the very first to the last artworks they bought.



– JS: When did he stop collecting, in the 90’s?
– GP: He continued collecting until 2010 but in the end he bought Italian artists.



– JS: Was your Mom still collecting after his death?
– GP: No, she decided to stop. Until his death, she followed him. She agreed on what my father was doing but without her support he would not have done so much. The collector, however, was my father. Panza Collection has his spirit.



– JS: There are some footages where he shares how he regrets not collecting certain artists. One of them is Andy Warhol.
– GP: My father had to stop twice due to financial trouble. In those periods where he didn’t collect, he missed the production of some artists at a determined timing. When he started
collecting again, the artists prices had raised so much… He had a policy: he wouldn’t spend more than U$ 10’000 per painting. The Budget was that and he was missing many artists of that period who didn’t come into the collection because when he started collecting again, they were to expensive.



– JS: How was it with exchanging art pieces?
– GP: Sometimes he exchanged with the gallery: he bought one and saw another artwork that would interest him but this happened in rare occasions. In my case, what I buy I keep. I don’t exchange.



– JS: How do you relate to the artwork once is gone from your Collection?
– GP: Once is gone is gone. We don’t have all the works at home. We therefore don’t miss them because we don’t see them. If I should sell what I have in my home, I think I would miss it.



– JS: But if you go to the museum and you see it like you were talking before in a different context?
– GP:I know, if I go to a museum and I see our works I am proud of that and I am happy that they are there. When I went to MOMA and there were the two Rebus by Rauschenberg, one of them belonged to us… I immediately remembered how the painting was at my home and how I used to always interact with that painting. Those artworks that I used to live with I do miss a little bit.



– JS: How do you see yourself, as a viewer or former owner of the artwork? How is that relation?
GP: I see myself as the viewer. I don’t miss them anymore. I have other works that are at home.



JS: What would be the ideal in terms of collecting work? What would you suggest to other collectors?
GP: Buy what you like and don’t look at the market. Don’t necessarily spend a lot of money. Just buy what you like and what you want to have at home.



JS: How is the intuition in terms of the art piece?
GP: I think this is up to you. I think that you have to look at things more than once. What my father used to do is correct. He bought a small piece, he hanged at home, he looked at it for a while, and if he liked that artist, then he would learn and get familiar with that artist, and if it made sense to him, he started collecting.



JS: Did he have a limit?
GP: No limit. In fact from some artists he had over a hundred pieces. JS: Is the persistence important? Somehow persistence is important because you see the different phases and the artist’s history along her/his life. Since every period has a different texture, different colours, different dimensions, it makes you reflect… Phil Sims for instance, when he was in NY he painted greys, browns, dark blues. In New Mexico he painted green, red, yellow, light blue, different colours because the light was so important. The texture of the paintings was absolutely different. Now that he is getting older he is painting with a bigger brush and not horizontal and vertical but mostly horizontal. Look at the history of the artist and understand his work production over the years. Which is most interesting then just purchasing through art advisory.



– JS: How are you sharing your knowledge?
– GP: I am taking part in some Symposiums and Master classes or through interviews
where I like to share about our work as collectors. Sometimes it is very difficult and sometimes easier. I am shy therefore I prefer to speak in front of people I don’t know. I am often invited to speak when there are exhibitions in Varese. I always get emotional when I speak about my father.



– JS: To close this interview, what would could you share, something you never said about Giuseppe Panza?
– GP: I am happy to share some interesting facts.
My father was somehow difficult and at the same time a simple person. It was difficult for my four brothers – that relationship between sons and a father with such a strong personality. As for me, his only daughter, it was a fantastic friendship. My father and I worked together in Lugano during many years and we shared similar views. The ideas we had were almost the same. I remember once he wanted me to write a complain letter to a minister. I refused to do it and explained who would have to deal with it once he would pass away. He asked my cousin and we had to discuss it again. A few days latter he could accept the reason not to send the letter. I followed his ideas up to a certain point in spite of having lots in common but not agreeing in everything.
Another important fact:the biggest Dan Flavin collector structured his Collection, the Panza Collection, to remain active and functional along the years even after his death. We are happy and proud to safeguard his passion.