A conversation with Nancy Olnick and Giorgio Spanu

“The success of a museum is not measured by the number of visitors the museum welcomes, but by the number of visitors to whom it has taught something. Also, the success of a museum is not measured by the number of objects the museum shows, but by the number of objects that people might perceive in their human environment. The success of a museum is not measured by its extension, but by the amount of space the public will be able to reasonably cover in order to benefit from it. This is the museum.” Thus, in 1978, the French museologist Georges Henri Rivière identified the characteristics a museum should have in order to be defined with this name (La Muséologie selon Georges Henri Rivière, Paris: Dunod 1989, 7, the translation from the French is mine). Rivière passed away in 1985, but if he could visit Magazzino Italian Art today, he would consider it as an exemplary application of his teaching. Magazzino Italian Art is an exhibition center dedicated to Italian art, strongly wanted, conceived and built by spouses Nancy Olnick and Giorgio Spanu in Cold Spring, about 60 miles North of New York, which opened on June 28th, 2017.


Nancy Olnick, a New Yorker, is from a real estate family. Her parents, Robert and Sylvia Olnick, also owned a collection of artworks including, among others, masterpieces by Willem de Kooning, Joseph Albers, Robert Rauschenberg. Nancy initially had an interest in American Pop Art, while Giorgio, born in Sardinia first moved to Paris and later to New York, has always had a keen interest in European art, especially in the researches by Paul Klee and Jean Dubuffet.


After their encounter, in the late 1980s, the spouses Olnick & Spanu expand their artistic interests and start to purchase numerous Murano glasses, precious ceramics by artists such as Fausto Melotti, Lucio Fontana, Guido and Bruno Gambone, as well as jewelry by artists, and artworks by 20th century’s international authors.


The decisive turning point is when Sauro Bocchi, owner of a gallery in Rome, advises them to visit the Castello di Rivoli (Turin), that is the privileged “showcase” of the research by the Arte Povera movement, which had its own propulsive center in Turin itself. For Nancy and Giorgio, this is a revelation: Giovanni Anselmo, Alighiero Boetti, Luciano Fabro, Jannis Kounellis, Mario Merz, Marisa Merz, Giulio Paolini, Giuseppe Penone, Michelangelo Pistoletto and Gilberto Zorio become their new “heroes” and the main subjects of their following purchases.


Some of these purchases are immediately destined to the Olnick Spanu beautiful country residence, which was designed by the Spanish architect Alberto Campo Baeza, in Garrison, NY, and was completed in 2006. The Olnick Spanu Art Program begins in 2003 on the grounds of that same residence. It is a residency program that, every year, supports the creation of a site-specific artwork by an Italian artist. From the creation of a private property, home of site-specific artworks by Italian artists, to the idea of an exhibition space open to the public for the promotion of Italian art, it is but a short step. After the purchase of a former industrial building in Cold Spring and, after entrusting the architect Miguel Quismondo with the building’s upgrading and the building of an annexed space, Magazzino Italian Art has gradually become real. Magazzino, directed by Vittorio Calabrese, from Irpinia, Italy, aspires to be a place entirely dedicated to Italian Contemporary Art, focusing initially on the Arte Povera movement, but also destined for more recent artistic researches. At the same time, Magazzino aims to be a cultural and educational center where students and scholars can take advantage of its archive, rich events programming, and in-house library featuring over 5,000 publications. In short, it is a highly desired and entirely self-financed structure (it is not a foundation), with clear museum intentions, meaning what Rivière defined “the museum” 38 years ago.


Although Nancy Olnick and Giorgio Spanu own one of the most important private collections of Italian contemporary art in the world, we cannot define them as collectors, but rather patrons (in Italian: mecenati). Etymologically, "collector" (from the Latin “colligere”: to collect) designates someone who solely collects objects of the same species in a systematic way and in large quantities just for the sake of owning them. Instead, the “mecenate” is someone who carries out cultural promotion activities by protecting, promoting, economically supporting the artists and the men of culture, and welcoming them to his own homes so that they can develop their research. Mr. and Mrs. Spanu are similar to Caius Maecenas, from whom the “mecenate” noun derives: as Caius Maecenas, the first Minister at the Ottaviano Augusto court created the “Mecenate’s Circle” in order to welcome the most eminent men of culture at that time, Ms. Olnick and Mr. Spanu have always followed and promoted artists, often  commissioning them site-specific artworks and supporting their exhibitions, publications and projects.


I had the privilege of meeting Nancy and Giorgio, as well as visiting both the exhibition space in Cold Spring and their residence in Garrison. If you spend a few hours with the Olnick Spanu’s, you can immediately understand that the propelling force behind their many activities in art are: an endless enthusiasm about the already realized projects and about those still ongoing, attention to every detail, a very strong pride of their Italian identity, an authentic will to put themselves fully at the service of the artists and more generally of the art, and a strong desire to support, promote and share the art. By doing so, Nancy Olnick and Giorgio Spanu realize what, according to Ezra Pound, the “mecenate” has always done: “If a mecenate purchases from an artist who needs money (needs money in order to buy tools, time, food), so the mecenate places himself on the same level as the artist, he is building some art in the world; he creates.”


Magazzino Italian Art, Cold Spring, NY. Courtesy Magazzino Italian Art, NY. Ph. Marco Anelli © 2017


How, when and why did you begin to be interested in the Arte Povera?

In the late 80s, we began to stay in Rome regularly, thus, at the beginning of the 90s, we gradually got close to Italian art. As we were wishing to expand our knowledge on this subject, we asked some advice from our friend, the owner of the contemporary art gallery Studio Bocchi. Sauro Bocchi suggested we should visit the Castello di Rivoli. At that time, at the Castello di Rivoli there was an exhibition where the artwork Amore e Psiche (1981) by Giulio Paolini was exhibited. We fell in love with Paolini’s oeuvre. When we came back to Rome and when Bocchi asked us what artist had made the biggest impression on us among those exhibited at Castello di Rivoli, we answered without hesitation: “Giulio Paolini!”. Straight after, we purchased his masterpiece Il cielo e dintorni (1988) and later other works. Moreover, not many years ago, at a fair in New York, we saw Amore e Psiche by Paolini in the stand of the Mazzoleni Gallery (a gallery located in Turin and London); that is the artwork that we had seen at Castello di Rivoli. By the following day it was ours! However, during our visit at Castello di Rivoli, we had the opportunity to know and appreciate the researches by Giovanni Anselmo, Alighiero Boetti, Pier Paolo Calzolari, Luciano Fabro, Jannis Kounellis, Mario Merz, Marisa Merz, Giuseppe Penone, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Gilberto Zorio. Then, when we came back to Rome, Bocchi showed us a dozen artworks by them: thus, our collection of Arte Povera began.


In fact the first exhibition at your Magazzino Italian Art will be dedicated to Arte Povera. But how will Magazzino be architecturally structured? You have always given great relevance to the architecture since the conception of your residence in Garrison…

The architectural project of Magazzino was commissioned to the Spanish architect Miguel Quismondo. Miguel has created a radical, compact architecture which is very much dedicated to art. In fact, he immediately understood that we wanted a container which would be able to respect the content, leaving the artwork as the only main characters.

Actually, it is a pre-existing building: an L-shaped factory, initially a gathering center for the farmers in the Hudson Valley, then a milk pasteurization center, and finally, in the 1980s, a manufacturing center for printed cards for electronics, then a manufacturing center for rugged computers for the military. After we bought the factory  in 2013, we decided to add a concrete space. The entrance hall and a small corridor join the pre-existing building with the new monolith. Therefore, the resulting internal cloister will be dedicated to seminars, events and an open-air cinema in the summer, just like an Italian piazza, while on the outside grounds we want to set up a sculpture garden: the first two sculptures will be respectively by Domenico Bianchi and Giuseppe Penone; and the first was created especially for this occasion.


Giuseppe Penone, Unghia e marmo (Fingernail and Marble), 1988. Courtesy Magazzino Italian Art, NY. Ph. Marco Anelli © 2017


The first exhibition hosted at Magazzino is dedicated to Margherita Stein ...

Yes. We think to leave the exhibition on view for at least a year and a half, maybe two. A collage donated by Giulio Paolini and the Christian Stein Gallery will introduce the exhibition because it represents Margherita Stein.

Unfortunately, we did not have the opportunity to meet this extraordinary gallerist, but Nancy fell in love with her because she shares the same tendency to protect and promote the artists. Moreover, many of our Arte Povera artworks were previously owned by Margherita Stein or otherwise had passed through her gallery. Although we did not have the opportunity to meet her personally, in a certain way Margherita Stein knows us very well!


On the occasion of the exhibition which artists and artworks are on view?

Stracci Italiani (2007) by Michelangelo Pistoletto will be displayed at the entrance. Pistoletto conceived it for our house in Garrison when he was our guest; we wanted to own a work by him as a “guide” for young Italian artists invited to participate in the Art Program. Hence the idea of the Italian flag made of rags: for many years, it was the emblem of the Garrison house, and now it will become Magazzino’s emblem, where the Italian identity is very strong. Moreover, one of the famous white fins by Pino Pascali will be exhibited, and the first commissioned work specifically for this exhibition space will be presented on the occasion of the opening: a lead work by Remo Salvadori titled Nel momentoIn addition to other works by Pistoletto and works by Luciano Fabro, Mario Merz, Marisa Merz, Giovanni Anselmo, Jannis Kounellis, Pier Paolo Calzolari, Giuseppe Penone, Gilberto Zorio, there will also be: a room entirely dedicated to Giulio Paolini, where the version of Saffo (1981) used by Margherita Stein as the head  of her bed will be on view; a tribute to Boetti which is represented by the exhibition of  a group of his works created during the 70s; a room dedicated to three artists also included by Margherita Stein in her collection, Remo Salvadori, Domenico Bianchi and Marco Bagnoli.


Exhibition view at Magazzino Italian Art. Artworks: Luciano Fabro, Efeso II, 1986, [Hanging Center]; Luciano Fabro, Due nudi che scendono le scale, 1987-1989, [Far Left]; Alighiero Boetti, Caterina e Alighiero, 1989, [Far Left Wall]; Michelangelo Pistoletto, Sfera di giornali, 1966-1996, [Left]; Michelangelo Pistoletto, Sfera di giornali, 1962-2009, [Left Wall]; Michelangelo Pistoletto, Art International (ritratto di Maximilian von Stein), 1968, [Right Wall]; Mario Merz, Che fare?, 1968-1973, [Right Floor]; Michelangelo Pistoletto, Adamo ed Eva,1962-1987, [Far Right]. Courtesy Magazzino Italian Art, NY. Ph. Marco Anelli © 2017


Are these three artists also part of the Art Program?

Yes, they are part of the ten artists invited to participate in our project: Giorgio Vigna, Massimo Bartolini, Mario Airò, Domenico Bianchi, Remo Salvadori, Stefano Arienti, Bruno Esposito, Marco Bagnoli, Francesco Arena and Paolo Canevari. The first artist of the Art Program has chosen for himself; or rather, the Art Program was born thanks to him. This is our friend Giorgio Vigna who, during his stay in Garrison, was fascinated by an old water cistern in our property. We covered this cistern with a concrete slab, and Vigna convinced us to place an artwork here specifically conceived by him: we agreed.

The Art Program was born thanks to our acquaintance with the artists, but it is also inspired by Giuliano Gori, the creator of the Fattoria di Celle (Santomato, Pistoia, Italy) and by H. Peter Stern, the founder of Storm King Art Center, that is the first environmental sculpture park in the USA. Moreover, also our great friends the designer Massimo Vignelli and his wife Lella Vignelli were very important and huge mentors to us.


Exhibition view at Magazzino Italian Art. Artworks: Mario Merz, From Continent to Continent, 1993, [Center]; Jannis Kounellis, Senza titolo, 2001, [Left]; Jannis Kounellis, Senza titolo, 1986, [Right]. Courtesy Magazzino Italian Art, NY. Ph. Marco Anelli © 2017


Will Magazzino also host some exhibitions by emerging artists?

After the closure of the exhibition on Margherita Stein, the space which is now taken up by the works by Marco Bagnoli, Domenico Bianchi and Remo Salvadori will be dedicated to young artists, even unknown ones. We want Magazzino to be not only the house of the Italians artists in New York, but also to support American artists who are inspired by Italian art and by Italy.

The first non-Italian artist to be sponsored by us is Beacon resident Melissa McGill for the project titled The Campi that was recently presented in conjunction with the Venice Biennale at the historic Venetian residence designed by Carlo Scarpa, Casa Scatturin, and at the Gallery Giorgio Mastinu Fine Art in Venice. Moreover, we would like to create a registry where the artists can sign up so that we can eventually support them through technical assistance. The idea is also to set up a prize money for the winner, which is not going to entail the creation of a work of art or a sojourn in Garrison; it is purely aimed at giving the winner financial support.


Exhibition view, Magazzino Italian Art. Artworks: Giulio Paolini, Saffo, 1981, [Center]; Giovanni Anselmo, Senza titolo, 1990, [Left]; Alighiero Boetti, Clino, 1966, [Right]; Alighiero Boetti, Mazzo di tubi, 1966, [Far Right]. Courtesy Magazzino Italian Art, NY. Ph. Marco Anelli © 2017


At Magazzino there will also be a library: how will it be structured?

The library will be devoted only to the books concerning our collection, therefore related to the artistic researches developed from the mid-forties to the present. To begin, we bought about 5,000 volumes and a scanner that will scan very rare volumes in order for them not to be ruined by people flipping through their pages.


Exhibition view, Magazzino Italian Art. Artworks: Gilberto Zorio, Stella, 1978, [Left]; Gilberto Zorio, Stella, 1991, [Right]. Courtesy Magazzino Italian Art, NY. Ph. Marco Anelli © 2017


What will be the first meetings and events organized by Magazzino?

We have already scheduled an architecture conference: it will be held at the Cervantes Institute in New York because the architect who designed Magazzino is Spanish. Also, at the Istituto Italiano di Cultura, in conjunction with the Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò and the New York University we will organize the presentation of the book by Marco Anelli. He is an Italian photographer and he photographed the different stages of the building process of Magazzino, the men who built it, and the exhibition space itself. We will also organize a temporary exhibition of these photographs.


Exhibition view, Magazzino Italian Art. Artworks: Luciano Fabro, Eos (L’Aurora), 1998, [Center]; Jannis Kounellis, Senza titolo, 2003, [Back Wall]; Luciano Fabro, Basta la vista, 1988, [Right]. Courtesy Magazzino Italian Art, NY. Ph. Marco Anelli © 2017


How will it be possible to arrive at Magazzino?

We suggest to arrive by train as we have two shuttle vans that will pick up visitors at the Cold Spring Station (where the train from New York arrives every hour), and will bring them to Magazzino, and vice versa. We are also negotiating with the city council in order to let the municipal trolley service stop at Magazzino. We would like to encourage cheaper and more sustainable transportation such as carpooling and the train. Moreover, entry to Magazzino will be free, but it will have to be booked in advance.


Remo Salvadori, Germoglio (Sprout), 1988-1989. Courtesy Magazzino Italian Art, NY. Ph. Marco Anelli © 2017


What are your dreams about the future of Magazzino?

We want to point out that we are not a foundation, not even in the tax field; we are two individuals who have decided to share their privately-owned works of art of which we have always considered ourselves to be their temporary guardians. For this reason, we want Magazzino to carry on with us and even after us. We wish that, where the first experience of organized art school in America (the Hudson River School) was born, the first organized center of contemporary Italian art in America will develop. We prefer contemporary art because we are not afraid to live our contemporaneity; indeed, we are proud of it—it could not have existed without the history behind Italy and has always influenced our artists. Moreover, although we respect the lovers of foreign art, we are Italian and we are not ashamed of this. We want the visitors to understand and spread the message: Italian art has not stopped at the Baroque period; it is also contemporary. We want to achieve this by means of a simple and accessible language for everyone.

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