Maja Hoffmann is on the 2017 list of the ARTnews “Top 200 Collectors.” For more information about the list, click here.
On a Saturday night several months back, Maja Hoffmann was holding court at Lucien, a tin-ceilinged, golden-hued bistro in the East Village in New York, flanked by blue-chip artists, museum directors, globe-trotting curators, decorated academics, and other art-world denizens. Hoffmann, who was born in Switzerland and travels the globe as a billionaire patron indifferent to the fussy customs of her tribe, lives part of the time in a residence mere steps away on East First Street. By no means standard for the surroundings, it’s a large 19th-century schoolhouse hidden from the sidewalk out front. Hoffmann bought it more than 20 years ago, when it was a run-down relic surrounded by crack dens.
Walking into Lucien that night was like stepping into any one of the many chic boîtes in art-world ports of call. Serpentine Galleries artistic director Hans Ulrich Obrist, one of the most familiar of taste-making curatorial mavens, was stationed at one table. Liam Gillick, the artist, professor, curator, and hyper-connector, was having a cigarette outside. Asad Raza, an artist whose conceptual work would soon be on view in the Whitney Biennial, was at another table with Tom Eccles, who formerly helmed the Public Art Fund and is currently director at the Center for Curatorial Studies and the Hessel Museum of Art at Bard College. Nearby were Rachel Rose and Ian Cheng, two of the most celebrated young artists in the country and, as it happened, also a couple.
All of those assembled were there for Hoffmann. They had gathered previously at her house, and they were engaged now in a kind of ongoing dialogue that has become integral to Hoffmann’s own LUMA Foundation. Established in 2004, LUMA is a sprawling, borderless, and well-funded enterprise that encompasses projects that spring from the mind of its founder. Among its initiatives thus far are wide-ranging symposia in international locales, a collection-swap endeavor called POOL, the youth-centric curatorial outfit 89plus, and many other itinerant initiatives, some extending beyond art into the realms of environmental awareness, education, and human rights.
LUMA has roamed for the past decade-plus, but it will soon occupy a real home. In Arles, France—a storied city in the south whose history dates back to ancient times—Hoffmann has dreamed up a sprawling 20-acre campus with 100,000 square feet of exhibition space built within former manufacturing plants. Already up and running after renovation by Selldorf Architects, some of the structures—La Grande Halle, L’Atelier des Forges, and the main exhibition space, La Mécanique Générale—will sit among parks designed by Belgian landscape architect Bas Smets. And then there is the centerpiece: a glistening building of Frank Gehry’s design, with surfaces defined by his signature twisted-metal silver undulations, that will tower 200 feet above the town when it opens in 2018.
The construction project is LUMA’s looming pinnacle, and years of toil with French bureaucrats and cultural gatekeepers have attended Hoffmann’s first real foray into the public sphere. Though recognized as one of the world’s great art collectors and patrons, and a board member of nearly a dozen museums, Kunsthalles, and universities, she is extremely private—enough so that it was strange to see her on open display at a teeming bistro in New York. More appropriately, given her character, at a certain point in the evening, with an ever-younger crowd of skateboarders and models amassing at Lucien for dinner well past midnight, I looked over to her table, and she was gone.
In June, I visited Hoffmann in Zurich. She was wearing sunglasses on a perfectly clear, bright afternoon in her hometown, or at least one of her hometowns. She was relaxed and, at 61 years old, showed no sign of fatigue from being in the middle of a travel schedule for the Grand Tour—the rare confluence of the Venice Biennale, Documenta, Skulptur Projekte Münster, and Art Basel—that might have exhausted any patron.
High on her list of priorities was LUMA Arles—an undertaking conceived in a spirit shared with the kind of production-intensive or time-based artwork it is meant to support. LUMA Arles will be a new kind of arts institution, Hoffmann said—a “museum of the 21st century.”
“As a child, I remember [Arles] functioning as an industrial town, and all of a sudden it was gone,” Hoffmann said of the manufacturing hub where she spent much of her childhood. Her father was a conservationist and ornithologist, and her mother was a countess, born to Russian nobility who fled St. Petersburg during the Bolshevik Revolution.
“I’m sure I have got all this in me—all this history in Arles,” she said. “And this helped define the project. When you see a space and it touches you, all these elements come together. If there [had been] no space in Arles, would we have done it? Maybe not.”
We were sitting at a picnic table on a rooftop terrace at the Löwenbräukunst, a 19th-century brewery that was gutted and turned into an arts complex in 2012. The expansive space houses two outposts of the gallery Hauser & Wirth, Galerie Eva Presenhuber, a dozen other art spaces and bookstores, and the Kunsthalle Zurich. As president of the Kunsthalle, Hoffmann was a driving force behind the building’s transformation. Once the arts complex opened, she also established LUMA’s own local branch, known as LUMA Westbau, on two of its sprawling floors.
We were joined by Simon Castets, director of the Swiss Institute in New York, and Obrist, both of whom help run the LUMA-supported curatorial practice 89plus, which showcases artists born in or after 1989. There was a related show up at LUMA Westbau, and after an opening and a performance, there would be a dinner at Hoffmann’s mansion overlooking Lake Zurich in advance of the annual Art Basel fair in the neighboring city 50 miles to the west. Invitations to the event were so coveted that the director of a nearby gallery with an opening that night approached Hoffmann to say he would like to attend her party—in lieu of the fete for his own shop.
For many, the next day would begin with a zippy hour-long train ride to Basel, a city informed by Hoffmann’s birthright within a family that has played an integral role in many of Switzerland’s cultural and scientific revolutions. In Basel, the name Hoffmann appears on street signs, buildings, trucks, advertisements, museum donor lists, and historical plaques—all of them signaling a foundational Swiss family. Hoffmann’s ancestor Hans Hoffmann became a Swiss citizen in the late 15th century. But the family’s true mark on the city came at the end of the 19th century, when Maja’s great-grandfather Fritz Hoffmann-LaRoche started a pharmaceutical enterprise, F. Hoffmann-La Roche & Co., that would become one of the largest healthcare companies in the world and help make Basel a European pharmaceutical capital even today.
In the 1960s, the company played a pivotal role in a confluence of vital postwar trends incubated along the Rhine River. Midway through the decade, it introduced a drug that would forever alter the contemporary psyche and bring wealth to many a Swiss pharmaceutical kingpin: a member of the benzodiazepine family that would come to be known as Valium. The economic windfall it generated in Basel collided with a collective civic life wherein increased income and free time—and, perhaps, medicated happiness—led to a newfound appreciation for contemporary art.
With the backing of a company that today is worth $220 billion, Hoffmann-LaRoche’s son Emanuel began collecting artwork that became the basis for the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation, which fast-tracked Basel to become one of Europe’s leading hubs for art. The foundation supplied works to institutions such as the Kunsthalle Basel and the Kunstmuseum Basel, and it funded the Museum für Gegenwartskunst, the first museum in Europe devoted exclusively to art made after 1960. Since 2002, all work from the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation not held by other institutions has been on view nearby at the Schaulager, the Herzog & de Meuron–designed private arts center established by Emanuel’s granddaughter, Maja Oeri. (Maja Hoffmann, who is Oeri’s cousin, sits on the Schaulager’s board.) Such was the milieu in which, in the early 1970s, three ambitious art dealers who wanted to open a fair to rival Kunstmarkt Köln cultivated Art Basel, now the world’s leading art bazaar.
By that time, Maja’s father, Luc Hoffmann, had defected from the family business of pills and paintings and began to devote his life to ornithology. He moved his wife and children to Arles, in marshy wetlands in the south of France, where the bird-watching is world-class. But millennia of human intervention had cracked the fragile ecosystem, and Luc Hoffmann decided it was up to him to save it. He opened the Tour du Valat, a research station, in Arles, and, along with cofounding the World Wildlife Fund, established the MAVA Foundation, a program that promotes biodiversity in Europe and Africa. He named it after his children—Maja, André, Vera, and Daria.
It was here that Maja Hoffmann wanted to build the headquarters of LUMA—named after her own children, Lucas and Marina. “Arles is a small town, but it has a big territory with the wetlands and a network with all the Mediterranean,” Hoffmann said. “The environment and culture [are] not so often mixed in a way that is interesting for people who do culture-only or environment-only.” Combining the two—the cultural world and the natural world in which culture transpires—is an important project for Hoffmann, who grew up with both. “This is the moment,” she said of LUMA Arles’s impending completion, “when it’s going to come together.”
Unlike foundations that are beholden to a board of directors, LUMA is financed by just Maja Hoffmann. She gave €100 million (around $117 million) of her own money to fund the project in Arles, for which she oversees operations with a so-called “core group” of five advisers: Eccles, Gillick, and Obrist, as well as Philippe Parreno, an artist who lives and works in Paris, and Beatrix Ruf, who helmed the Kunsthalle Zurich for 13 years before becoming director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 2014. “Two artists, three curators—it’s an experimentation,” Hoffmann said.
“If anyone proposed this as a model, you’d think they were nuts,” said Eccles of an arrangement that could easily lead to power plays and palace intrigue. “But the opposite happens. It really works. We fight and then make up, and we usually leave Arles agreeing on the way forward.”
LUMA’s formative history predates any talk of a project in Arles, but the relationships within the core group run even further back. “Everybody has known each other much longer than ten years,” said Obrist, who originally met Hoffmann 30 years ago, when he was a teenager visiting his first Documenta in Kassel, Germany.
Eccles, for his part, said he met Hoffmann a little more than a decade ago. “I had no idea who she was,” he said. “She was completely invisible on the internet—quite the inverse of what she is today. She said, ‘Would you like to come to Zurich?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ And she said, ‘How about next Tuesday?’ ”
“You know [how] you say that you met someone at a dinner—it never happens like that,” said Gillick. “People who really care about contemporary art—they tend to find you.”
The idea for an art center in Arles had been in an embryonic state for years, more a subject for conversation than plans for a concrete space—a museum in theory more than bricks and mortar. Even when Hoffmann took Eccles to see the models that Gehry had devised, it was unclear if it was a serious venture or a flight of fancy for an heiress with seemingly limitless funds.
“Maja doesn’t like it when I say this, but for the first four or five years I was working on this, I had no idea whether it would happen,” Eccles told me. “It could have stopped in a blink.”
Once the core group was established, they began to develop a rhythm to reverse-engineer what a museum could be, breaking the idea down to basic principles and building it up again. The ability to conceive a museum from scratch gave LUMA a particular advantage—Eccles likened old institutions to oil tankers but said that, unlike his point of comparison, LUMA can turn on a dime. Gillick discussed his ideas for the institution in terms of the interplay between time-based work and the duration of exhibitions—such that work can be defined in part by how long it is on display. Unlike a museum in thrall to the vagaries of a public hungry for fleeting and eminently Instagrammable work, LUMA Arles has a chance to assume a new position as if it were a grand artwork of its own: a meta-exploration of the theory of the museum itself.
“From the get-go,” Obrist said, “it was always this prefiguration of an art center, to connect art to other disciplines. It’s like a think tank.”
The origination of LUMA, Eccles said, is similar to the development of the Dia Art Foundation in the 1970s, when oil money from Texas funded a new kind of organization that could create a stable of artists and provide them with funds to realize audacious visions. “You start out with a very utopian idea, where everything’s possible,” Eccles said.
As in the early years of the artist-oriented Dia, LUMA favors creators of a very particular cast—in this case, artists whose practices explore modes of production. Among Hoffmann’s recent acquisitions are Jordan Wolfson’s chain-controlled Colored Sculpture (2016), the meta-photography of Wolfgang Tillmans, and mini-factories by Olafur Eliasson. And ideas for presentations to come include vigorous artist-run exhibitions that can instruct as much as they entertain, as exemplified by a show last year in La Mécanique Générale: “Systematically Open? New Forms for Contemporary Image Production,” which was curated by Walead Beshty, Elad Lassry, Zanele Muholi, and Collier Schorr.
But LUMA Arles aspires to be more than just a display of Hoffmann’s holdings. “She’s invested in the thing itself being in production, be it a show or a book or a performance or an artwork—or the creation of an art center,” said Ruf.
The core group adopted a similar approach for its operations, wherein the goal is to construct a new kind of institutional practice predicated on ideas of construction. The brain trust was not initially prepared, however, for swells of local opposition that threatened to stall the process. First, there was the general unease that some in Arles feel about Hoffmann, whom the local press has dubbed the “Princess of Arles” in a less than admiring way. Some locals resent that she is not from France, and some French culture ministers resent that she wants nothing to do with official arbiters in Paris.
The first plan for the main building in Arles was exhibited at the biennial International Architecture Exhibition in Venice in 2008, with early designs to raise a pair of Gehry towers in the center of the city. But when blueprints went before the French National Commission for Historical Sites and Monuments in 2011, the request received a resounding no on the grounds that the two structures would overshadow the bell tower of a historic church and disturb buried Gallo-Roman sarcophagi.
Two years later, after eliminating one of the towers and moving the other away from the place of worship, the plans were approved. Still, skepticism remained. In one report, residents wondered “where will this giant Monopoly game end?” and claimed Hoffmann was “buying the city with cultural projects.”
Then there was tension with the Arles-based photography festival Les Rencontres d’Arles, which has been the town’s leading cultural offering since 1970. After a period of peace between the stalwart institution and Hoffmann during which she took a seat on the photo fair’s board, the relationship turned testy in 2014, months after Hoffmann paid €10 million (about $11.6 million) for land in the Parc des Ateliers, where a bulk of the photo festival’s exhibitions go on view each year. Hoffmann stressed that she would allow the fair to rent its regular space from her, which, along with other exhibition spaces, would be spiffed up by the architect Annabelle Selldorf and thereafter be associated with LUMA. But Rencontres director François Hebel insisted that such an arrangement would limit the photo fair’s independence. He accused Hoffmann of scheming to push the fair away from its photography-focused approach and working to delay its own plans to open an international center for photography.
In an interview in the British Journal of Photography, Hebel claimed the Parc des Ateliers land had been “stolen,” remarking, “for four years I’ve been trying to warn the local and national authorities.” In early 2014, Hebel resigned, and the culture minister of France, who had visited the grounds with then president François Hollande, issued a statement criticizing LUMA for having caused the departure of the beloved director.
When asked this summer about the various issues with the government and cultural institutions in Arles, Hoffmann sighed. “It’s more about taking action or not taking action,” she said. “You know, there is talking—the think tank—and conceptualization, and you could leave it as an unrealized project. But, in this case, we started to manifest it, one step after another.”
Hoffmann has won over many of her opponents. In addition to smoothing over tensions with Rencontres d’Arles by offering suitable space in the refurbished Atelier des Forges and promising autonomy to the fair, she turned the town’s mayor into a staunch LUMA supporter, hosting him at press conferences and bringing him along as she traveled the world evangelizing for her future museum. In time, a new trajectory was set for LUMA Arles to continue toward its planned completion in 2018.
“Outside of government, I don’t know who would do this,” said Eccles. “The vision is bigger than building a cultural center—it’s about the transformation of the region.”
Hoffmann and her team officially broke ground in April 2014. Hervé Schiavetti, the mayor of Arles, said at the time that the postindustrial city with unemployment higher than 10 percent could use the €100 million ($117 million) investment to help create jobs.
In the years since, relations around town have improved. In July, the most recent edition of Rencontres d’Arles opened, with support from LUMA. Visitors to the photo fair could check out construction progress on the new museum, and pictures of Gehry’s twisty spire started appearing on Instagram, the monument-to-be having advanced enough to make for alluring selfie bait. The rest of the design stood poised to impress, with shimmering silver scales wrapping around the swirling futuristic tower and a wispy rock formation that could disappear like a mirage into a clear sky.
In May, LUMA opened an Annie Leibovitz show in the Grande Halle, the foundation having recently acquired the photographer’s archive, and the New Museum in New York, of which Hoffmann is a board member, held its Ideas City conference in the Parc des Ateliers. Both helped support the argument for Arles as an important stop on the art-world circuit—right between Paris and St. Tropez.
Back in Switzerland in the midst of the Grand Tour this past summer, on the rooftop of the Löwenbräukunst, Hoffmann surveyed Zurich, the city that her family’s business had helped usher into modernity. Then she gathered her things and went to a café next door, where she stood onstage by Obrist’s side as he introduced a performance by the young Chinese artist Zou Zhao that was part of a show for 89plus.
“I’d like to thank Maja for the partnership—really, from day one,” Obrist said, as Hoffmann stood silently.
Zhao’s performance included singing about something called the “Apology Embassy,” an imagined research institute that works with the public sector and individuals to produce sophisticated, sincere, and well-crafted apologies.
Later, with all the evening’s local openings over, the select few invited to the party at Hoffmann’s home took cars outside the city limits at sunset, down a winding road that hugs the edge of Lake Zurich before arriving at a driveway at the base of a secluded hill. There, rising above the lake, stood the estate: massive and minimal both, a Marcel Breuer–designed Brutalist masterpiece in gray and white set atop deep green grass and, below, water in aquamarine. Wraparound windows let guests peer into a living room filled with artworks by Rirkrit Tiravanija, Karen Kilimnik, and Richard Prince and furniture by George Nakashima, Jean Royère, and Jean Prouvé. Outside, partygoers nibbled on Iberian ham while walking around lawn sculptures by Paul McCarthy and Willem de Kooning.
As the evening continued, Hoffmann grabbed a microphone to address the crowd, many of whom were heading out soon to Art Basel. She had already hopped on the microphone twice before, to greet her guests and then almost bashfully to ask them to come to dinner. But the modesty must have been at least a bit of a front for a woman with the vision to build an iconoclastic foundation and a museum to call its own. Or was it?
“And now is my last time on the microphone,” Hoffmann said, ceding the spotlight and ducking back down to her dusk-lit table. “Goodbye from me!”
A version of this story originally appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 86 under the title “Maja’s Way.”