Why private ‘art islands’ are the new status symbol of the super rich
When your art collection is worth many millions, you need somewhere secure, remote and private to enjoy it. Ideally, an island, where all sense of normal time and place is suspended, allowing for contemplation – and, for its owner, no small feeling of pride.
An ‘art island’ features prominently as the location for the hit 2022 Netflix film Glass Onion, but in real life, too, it has become the ultimate trophy among wealthy connoisseurs.
Recently it was reported that the Russian fertiliser billionaire and majority owner of AS Monaco Football Club, Dmitry Rybolovlev, is among those taking their collections offshore. The oligarch is said be building a resort on Skorpios, the Greek island that he has owned since 2013, partly to house his many art treasures – at a reported cost of $200 million.
The pleasures of an island gallery – whether secluded or open to the public – are well established among the international art set. ‘When you take the boat and travel to the island, there is something happening in your mind: you are open to new ideas, new thoughts,’ says Charles Carmignac of Fondation Carmignac, whose family collection resides in a villa on the Mediterranean isle of Porquerolles. ‘You are not in an agitated mood as you might be when you find yourself in the centre of a city.’
Charles is the son of 75-year-old Edouard Carmignac, one of France’s most successful – and most glamorous – asset managers. He was once dubbed the ‘rock financier’ by Le Figaro after he booked the Rolling Stones for a performance at a private party in 2012.
But Edouard loves modern art (particularly Roy Lichtenstein) just as much as he does the company of rock stars. In fact, he has partly dedicated the family’s philanthropic foundation, of which Charles is now director, to sharing its collection with everyone.
In 2017 the Fondation Carmignac acquired Villa Carmignac and its estate, which it converted into a gallery with 2,000 square metres of exhibition space. It offers an intense meditative island experience (‘a special relationship with all forms of life,’ says Charles) for a modest entrance fee.
Porquerolles, a swift shuttle-boat ride from the French southern coast just east of Marseille, is a slice of forest in the sea. Lush, dense trees cover much of the land on this mere 7km by 3km island, the most westerly of the Iles d’Hyères and a national park owned and managed by the French government.
The Villa is a listed site, and it provides an ethereal experience for both the island’s 300 residents, and the 6,000 visitors who arrive daily in the height of summer. (Many tourists may recognise the Villa Carmignac from Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 film Pierrot le Fou, which was partly filmed here.) This summer, the Fondation will show 80 works including pieces by Peter Doig, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Auguste Rodin. The exhibition is called The Inner Island – ‘a mise en abyme [work placed in the centre] of the insular location’ – a knowing reference to its location, and the effect of viewing art in an isolated place.
This fashion for colonising islands can be traced back to 2017 and the opening of the enormous Louvre Abu Dhabi, which led the way in both ambition and scale. The low-slung lattice dome structure was designed by the superstar French architect Jean Nouvel on the 27 square kilometre Saadiyat Island in the Persian Gulf, 500m off the coast.
Another is Naoshima, the Japanese island in the Seto Inland Sea, which has drawn a cluster of art galleries and where visitors may view everything from Monet water lilies to Kusama pumpkins (one famously got washed off the Naoshima pier by a typhoon in 2021). Before taking over at Porquerolles, Charles visited this pearl. ‘My father says your mind is cleaned by the boat trip,’ he says. ‘And I could feel it in Naoshima.’
In the Balearics, Hauser & Wirth Menorca, a sprawling gallery on Illa del Rei, an island in Mahón harbour, opened in 2021. Next year Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, one of Italy’s most prominent art collectors, will debut a cultural centre on the remote Venetian island of San Giacomo. Its curatorial focus will be environmental themes, in her words: ‘a laboratory for ecological reflection’.
Some collectors, like Rybolovlev, prefer to keep their island art experience a more private affair. His daughter Ekaterina bought the lease to Skorpios, an island in the Ionian Sea once home to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, 10 years ago via a family trust; there is nothing to suggest that, once completed, it will be open to travellers.
Rybolovlev is a controversial figure whose art collection came to public attention in recent years thanks to an ongoing feuds and series of international lawsuits with his French art dealer, Yves Bouvier, which became known as ‘Monaco-gate’.
At various times his splashy collection has included works by Mark Rothko, Henri Matisse and Auguste Rodin. (He once owned Modigliani’s Nu Couché au Coussin Bleu, a work at the centre of the legal action in 2015 against Bouvier on the grounds that Rybolovlev thought he had overpaid for the painting.)
The Skorpios resort is likely to be a rarefied, highly exclusive and, if it opens for bookings, expensive affair – nothing like the relaxed Villa Carmignac, or the hippyish vibes of Hauser & Wirth Menorca. Snøhetta, the glitzy Norwegian architectural company, has been hired to build the resort; the firm is best known for Oslo’s futuristic opera house, which opened in the city’s harbourside in 2008 – a building not unlike a Bond lair.
But even if their styles and visions are wildly different, Rybolovlev may find himself facing at least some of the same practical difficulties of art-island life as the Carmignac family.
The climate crisis and the increasingly unpredictable weather conditions it brings, for example. In the south of France, Charles describes unexpected ‘storms and tempests’ that set back deliveries of fragile artworks, when the waves around Porquerolles became too big to allow safe transportation by boat. ‘Some work had to be brought by helicopter,’ he says. ‘And we are very close to the sea, which means the artworks are exposed to salt air – you can taste it when you drink our wine – so the work sometimes needs special protective patinas.’
For private individuals, the whole point of island living is to enjoy greater control and security, says Edward de Mallet Morgan, head of international super-prime sales at the global real-estate agent Knight Frank. According to de Mallet Morgan, who recently clinched a deal to sell Horse Island off the west coast of Ireland for £5.8 million, demand is particularly strong in the Caribbean and Bahamas.
The benefits of island ownership are increasingly appealing in an age of pandemics, escalating socio-political tensions and economic uncertainty. ‘It’s incredibly safe. And if you want the freehold you have the opportunity to really create a dream home and environment,’ says de Mallet Morgan. During the pandemic, the private island market ‘went bonkers’, he says. Clients were in fierce competition particularly for those islands already equipped with landing strips for private jets and marinas for yachts. Valuable works of art are, of course, also safer from thieves. But practicalities tended to stymie those aspirant island owners in search of a secluded place to enjoy their art collections.
‘You have to think very carefully about the climate, the location, the security,’ says de Mallet Morgan. For example, if the island already has a property on it, ‘are all the rooms properly air conditioned and climate controlled, will there be power cuts? To protect the fabric and integrity of paintings and sculptures, you have to be very careful.’
Often, adds de Mallet Morgan, the problem of preserving an art collection becomes too complicated. He has seen island homeowners end up turning to specialist companies to replicate their artworks instead. ‘You can have the originals in safe storage but you can enjoy something that looks like what it is. It’s a thing.’
Perhaps, then, island art galleries are better suited to those organisations with specialist conservation skills, bigger budgets and plenty of time, such as foundations and private galleries.
Hauser & Wirth in Menorca is a good example. Because the tiny Illa del Rei is relatively close to the harbour at Mahón, a 15-minute ferry ride away, there is little difference in the risk to artworks on the island from those in the organisation’s other properties, says Mar Rescalvo, director of the island gallery.
Rescalvo talks not teams of curators wrestling with paintings in storms, but of the Spanish island’s ‘magical vibe’ – a seductively wild backdrop, with the restored arches of the naval hospital and the rambling remains of a sixth-century basilica to show off large-scale works over 1,500 square metres by the likes of Louise Bourgeois, Joan Miró, Franz West and more.
‘Our challenge is more working out what to place around the existing architecture, to find the balance between history and contemporary work,’ says Rescalvo. ‘Sometimes heritage doesn’t work with ambition.’ The gallery has leased a specialist art vessel with flat platforms to carry precious pieces to and from the island more smoothly.
Like Charles Carmignac, she talks rapturously of ‘that journey that gives you time to disconnect and reconnect’ with a serene boat ride away from the mainland. Nevertheless, the project has taken several years to complete and Hauser & Wirth says it has no plans to open any more outposts on islands just yet.
Over on the Dalmatian Coast near Dubrovnik, another island-based philanthropic art and heritage renovation project is attracting attention – though it’s better described as an exclusive luxury estate for hire, rather than a public gallery. It is, however, packed with priceless art.
Lopud 1483 is a Renaissance-era former fortified Franciscan monastery on the northern tip of the car-free Lopud island. The building was derelict for 200 years, rescued only in 2006 – by which point it and its fortress needed almost complete reconstruction.
Francesca Thyssen-Bornemisza, the 64-year-old art collector and scion of the Swiss industrialist family, who in the 1980s studied at St Martin’s School of Art in London, is the force behind the project, and its creative director. Unusually, the building is still owned by the Franciscan order, though permission has been granted for Thyssen-Bornemisza to oversee renovation works and open its doors to guests.
‘The roof was gone and the upper floors had rotted away,’ she recalls of taking on the property. Out went monastic cells, in came five luxury suites and 40 works from the Thyssen-Bornemisza family collection, from medieval treasures to modern pieces.
She has also installed works from TBA21, the contemporary art collection in Madrid she founded in 2002. Tapestries, furniture and paintings, including a sombre 1527 portrait of 22-year-old Anna Dürer (wife of the German artist Hieronymus Flaischer), are scattered about the place for guests to enjoy.
They are joined by contemporary portrait photographs, by Thomas Struth and Rineke Dijkstra, which Thyssen-Bornemisza has hung as counterparts to the old masters.
Thyssen-Bornemisza says the monastery’s latest iteration as a private luxury retreat is a way of continuing its role as a sanctum for contemplation and culture. Even in its dilapidated state, she says the monastery ‘still had an incredible spiritual resonance’.
But the refurbishment has taken almost 20 years. In one of her earliest visits to the ruin, Thyssen-Bornemisza arrived with Frank Gehry, the Pritzker-winning architect behind the Bilbao Guggenheim, in tow.
‘He looked at me, and he said, “With this building, you need to really take your time.” His point was very clearly that one needs to not only love a building, one needs to know it, and that is the amount of time you need to spend to really understand a structure – especially if you’re revisiting its purpose, from being a monastery to luxury estate.’
Are there less demanding ways to exhibit art on islands? Rather than a massive renovation project, one quicker, cheaper option is to focus instead on portable installations and temporary exhibits.
That has worked well for the city of Helsinki, which this year holds its second Biennial on the former military training island of Vallisaari, a 20-minute ferry trip from the city’s Old Market Hall. It is a wild island with a delicate and protected ecosystem.
It was almost too successful. In the Biennial’s first year, the island drew nearly 150,000 visitors to see works by 40 international artists for free – more than the city had anticipated. ‘It was still a slightly Covid-y year, so they were mostly local. But this year we are expecting many more international visitors,’ says Jonna Hurskainen, the event’s head of production.
This year, artists such as Keiken, the London-Berlin digital media collective, and Dineo Seshee Bopape of South Africa will take part, but some work will be shown in the city’s main art museum and other public venues on the mainland to reduce the impact on island wildlife.
And what of the locals? How do island inhabitants react when a philanthropist arrives with big ambitions to transform the local ruin into a mega-gallery tourist attraction, with boatloads of visitors and the international art set trailing in his or her wake?
Lopud, Vallisaari and Illa del Rei were all uninhabited, so the problem did not arise. But Porquerolles was – and still is – a place where people live and work. Charles Carmignac says relations were delicate at first between his family’s foundation and Porquerolles’ residents.
‘They were scared. There was suspicion and fear. They love the island, and in the autumn and winter [out of season] it’s very special,’ he says. ‘When a big project like ours arrives, it can change the things they love.’
To win over the islanders, the foundation and its architects set up a stall in the village square, explaining what they wanted to achieve.
‘Not a big architectural gesture nor an intimidating institution, it’s more welcoming people to a collector’s house,’ he says. Islanders would be entitled to free passes to the galleries.
And Villa Carmignac has limited the number of visitors to 50 people per half-hour to assuage concerns. ‘Alone in front of an artwork is how we would prefer people to experience it, anyway,’ says Charles.
In time, he says, suspicion has eased. ‘They felt the benefits commercially, and financially. And Villa Carmignac has changed the type of visitors to the island, which was mostly a beach scene before. Now it’s a cultural island.’
Not all island gallery plans work out. For the island city of Pingtan in south-eastern China, MAD Architects in 2013 proposed a strange, vast art gallery shaped something like a giant stingray.
At more than 40,000 square metres, it would have been the largest private museum in Asia. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it has remained a proposal.
As for those who still aspire to own an art gallery on an island, perhaps the most useful thing is to assume the worst, most complicated and ruinous events could happen and probably will: delays, opposition – maybe even a touch of ridicule.
‘People on the outside told my father he was crazy, that he would never do it, it was too complicated, the rules were too strict around protected sites,’ says Charles Carmignac.
‘If you touch a branch or a tree or a piece of the ground, you will have to get authorisation…
‘But once we opened, people said our job was too easy. This island is so beautiful. And now it is so full of tourists.’