A matter of taste: an interview with Arjun Waney
The revitalised Arts Club has gained works worth £3m, a film star-inspired makeover and a nightclub
By Georgina Adam. From Frieze daily edition
Published online: 15 October 2011
Venture capitalist Arjun Waney, backer of acclaimed restaurants such as Zuma, Roka and La Petite Maison, is one of the new owners of London’s venerable Arts Club in Dover Street, founded in 1863. His main partners are father-and-son property investors Alan and Gary Landesberg, with film star Gwyneth Paltrow also owning a small chunk. The club—which was, shall we say, “tired”, but housed in an elegant 18th-century building just off Piccadilly—relaunched last month after a radical £10m makeover. The über-chic refit was supervised by Paltrow in collaboration with architect David d’Almada. Around £3m has already been spent on the art which includes pieces by George Condo, Albert Oehlen, John Baldessari, Tomás Saraceno and Allan McCollum.
The Art Newspaper: Why did you buy The Arts Club?
Arjun Waney: My background is in the restaurant business, and I wanted to start a brasserie, as I felt this was an area we were missing out on. We have Zuma, which is Japanese—and there are now Zumas popping up all over the world [in locations including Hong Kong, Istanbul, Dubai and Miami]—and La Petite Maison. There is no better location than this, and we had the idea of making a brasserie with a nightclub downstairs. We were confident that it could be profitable… and that the food would be good.
But you wanted to keep the character of the club; for instance, by creating a new art collection.
Yes, I did. And I’m convinced there is an opportunity to create jobs in England by educating younger English-born people who want to study different areas of the arts, design and craft. A percentage of the profits of the club will go towards this. At my age  one isn’t motivated to make more and more profit, but rather to make a contribution. So we are giving a platform to emerging artists with four exhibitions a year, curated by our adviser Amelie von Wedel, who is also responsible for the collection. And we will continue to acquire art; that’s an integral part of what we are doing.
Where did the impetus to form this collection come from?
The driving forces were my daughter Devika and my nephew Jai, who runs Zuma in Hong Kong. They both have shares in the club and said we should buy art. They put up the money so the art actually belongs to them, but it is on long-term loan to the club. Our other restaurants don’t have art, but we’re getting the bug, and we intend to start doing more in La Petite Maison.
Are you a collector? What was the first work you bought?
I do not come from a collecting background: my parents couldn’t afford art. My first purchase was a blue and white Ming vase I fell in love with in a Hong Kong antiques shop. I offered the dealer $70,000 and he kicked me out of the store. But I went back four or five times, and finally I bought it for $110,000. It’s now in my home in the south of France. I won’t say I have a passion for art, but I have also bought traditional thangkas from Nepal and works by Indian artists such as M.F. Husain and Tyeb Mehta.
Has the experience of the Arts Club made your taste evolve towards more contemporary art?
It definitely has. In the next few years, I think I’m going to be investing more and more, especially in up-and-coming young English artists. I want to support the arts in this country. If you live in a country and make money, I think it’s obligatory [to] support the arts, particularly in today’s financial climate.
You also founded a charity in India.
My daughter is chairman of the Savitri Waney Charitable Trust, and we do an enormous amount of work in rural India on curable blindness and mother-and-child healthcare. If you have a double cataract there, you lose your sight, and then the family may turn you out; the depth of poverty there is such that they can’t afford to keep someone who can’t work. We raise money through Zuma event dinners and I contribute a lot.
The Arts Club had a membership of around 700 before you bought it. How is that evolving, and what is the reaction of the “old” members, some of whom were reportedly not happy with the change?
Overall, they love it. We have transformed the garden and added a cigar bar as well as the nightclub downstairs [headed by music producer Mark Ronson]. It’s busy and lively and the food is much better. Membership is increasing by some 30 people a day. We have an advisory board which includes the London collector Anita Zabludowicz, the dealer Harry Blain and the fashion designer Stella McCartney.
Your restaurant empire is global: are you going to expand the Arts Club elsewhere?
Yes, I have plans to expand. Dubai and also somewhere in the US. We are thinking about New York, but that’s a highly competitive market—or maybe Miami, which would enable us to attract a Latin American as well as a US clientele.
The Arts Club is showing work by Theaster Gates until 8 January 2012. Its collection is open for viewing from 9.30am to 12pm on Wednesdays and Saturdays
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