Interview with Hilary Weston: Grimm in Florida

The importance of meditation, mirages and tuning out.


The Whitechapel Gallery in London teamed up last year with one of the wealthiest families in Canada in an unusual public-private partnership; the East End institution launched a three-year initiative with a non-profit, privately owned space, the Gallery at Windsor in Vero Beach. It is around 140 miles north of Miami and is owned by the Toronto-based retail magnate Galen Weston and his wife Hilary. They are known for their philanthropic work; the Weston family foundation, the W. Garfield Weston Foundation, donated $15m to the Ontario Science Centre in 2003 and $20m to the Royal Ontario Museum in 2004, among many other gifts. The gallery forms part of the private Windsor oceanfront community, a 416-acre Florida “village by the sea” on a barrier island between the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian River.

The arrangement

Three solo non-selling shows will be held at the Gallery over three years. The programme launched last year with an exhibition devoted to the Brazilian artist Beatriz Milhazes. This month, the second show in the series opens with works by the Transylvania-born twins Gert and Uwe Tobias (9 December-4 April 2013). “Their work is symptomatic of a return to a handmade method of production and incorporates traditional storytelling… it will feel as if the Tobias brothers present the dark Central European forest of Grimms’ fairy tales,” says Iwona Blazwick, the director of the Whitechapel Gallery. The collaboration brings the London gallery to the attention of US patrons as well as much needed funds. “The Whitechapel receives a consultancy fee of £60,000 per year, with all costs covered for the delivery of three shows over three winters,” says a spokeswoman for the gallery.

The Art Newspaper: Do you describe yourself as a collector, entrepreneur or philanthropist?

Hilary Weston: Art is art—it survives because of patrons, whether in deepest Florida or the East End of London; the Whitechapel gallery is in the most dense, edgy location, the sirens never stop. The important thing is that people get to see the works. Besides, I don’t see myself as a collector in the true sense. Philanthropy is important and we’re privileged to be able to support worthy causes in different ways, in art, literature and outreach work. Neuroscience is also a new area for us; art is [just] one aspect of our activities.

How did the Gallery at Windsor operate before the Whitechapel Gallery came on board? Did you show works from your own collection?

Yes, we have always been very interested in works on paper, and initially collected early French and Italian Renaissance drawings. The gallery has now been open for ten years. Our first exhibition, launched by our daughter Alannah in 2002, was devoted to Christo and Jeanne-Claude; we collaborated with the Vero Beach Museum [of Art] on the show. It felt like we struck up a real conversation with the artists as a result of working together. We have held exhibitions of works by Peter Doig, Ed Ruscha and Alex Katz.

How did the collaboration with the Whitechapel Gallery come about?

I am a member of the International Advisory Board at Sotheby’s, and the Whitechapel organised a fundraising event there, where we bought a few works. We met Iwona for the first time at the sale. To my mind, she is one of the most important directors working today.

How did visitors react last year to the work of Beatriz Milhazes?

It was very exciting and seemed appropriate as she is a Latin American artist, and Miami is a hub that links the US and South America. Significantly, she was the first female artist we had shown at the gallery.

Why opt for the artists Gert and Uwe Tobias this year? Did their technical and thematic approach appeal to you?

Two years ago at Art Basel Miami Beach, we discovered the work of the Tobias brothers; people at the fair were generally very taken with the pieces. We ended up buying one of their triptychs and two other works. The works were already committed to exhibitions in Europe so were not delivered to us until a year later. At that time, Iwona did not even know that we had their works in our collection.

When we met to discuss the future direction of the Gallery, the twins were at the top of both our lists. Iwona described the brothers’ artistic practice, how they layer and place pieces on the canvas, almost like a silent dance. The brothers share a rich folkloric history that inspires them. At first glance, the work grabs you, then you delve in and see a darker side, which possibly derives from the twins’ cultural history. It is good that the show will travel to the Whitechapel [in April]; it’s nice to give the artists added value.

Do you collaborate with any Florida-based museums, for example, through partnerships with the Gallery, or as a museum trustee?

No, but I’m on the board of the Royal Ontario Museum.

Have you decided which artist you’ll show next year as part of the Whitechapel partnership?

We haven’t decided yet but I’m toying with the idea of sculpture. Ceramics are also fascinating.

• “Gert and Uwe Tobias” is open by appointment at the Gallery at Windsor (9 December-4 April 2013)