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Ziba Ardalan de Weck on five years of London’s Parasol Unit

“It’s much more satisfying than buying paintings”

In the past 15 years, non-profit art foundations funded by affluent patrons have become firm fixtures in the landscape. Parasol Unit in east London, a significant addition to the field, founded in 2005 by Ziba Ardalan de Weck, celebrates its fifth anniversary. The foundation has been responsible for the solo London debuts of several international artists, including Belgian Michaël Borremans (2005) and Armenian Armen Eloyan (2007). It mounts three solo exhibitions and a group show annually, with its current exhibition devoted to Japanese artist Tabaimo (until 6 August).

The Art Newspaper: How have your collecting tastes fed into your vision for Parasol Unit?

Ziba Ardalan de Weck: My husband Pierre [de Weck, head of private wealth management at Deutsche Bank] and I started buying prints and editions when we were young. I have works by Luc Tuymans, Chris Ofili, Peter Doig, Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman, but none of these artists have been shown at Parasol Unit, which is a charity so I am extremely careful and bound to certain rules. We have certain policies—for instance, if you show a work here, you cannot sell it for two years. In any case, when you start working as a curator, that taste for collecting diminishes. Parasol Unit is about taking risks and you develop a different attitude to art.

I actually don’t have that many pieces, around 100 works. I never think about rushing to an art fair. I see a work of art and I always think about [mounting] an exhibition, I don’t think about how I’m going to acquire it. Artists have given me some works through friendships. I don’t want to be considered as a collector. I work so hard and want to be known for what I’ve done. It’s great to be able to live with works by Kirchner or Léger, but somehow I don’t think I deserve them.

TAN: Were you schooled in art history?

ZW: I’m Persian and was educated in Switzerland, where I completed my PhD on the structure of molecules in 1974. These molecular parts, with their projecting limbs, always reminded me of sculptures by Joel Shapiro or Alexander Calder. Because of this affinity, my initial interest in contemporary art was in sculpture. I went to the US for a year to do post-doctoral work in science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but I realised that my creative side needed to come out and switched to an MA in art history at Columbia University in New York. I began at the Whitney Museum on a voluntary basis in 1981 and was lucky enough to be taken on by curator Lisa Phillips [now director of the New Museum in New York] as her curatorial research assistant until 1983. In 1984, I guest curated the exhibition “Winslow Homer and the New England Coast” at its Fairfield, CT branch, leaving in 1985 to be director at the Swiss Institute a year later. Every year we did one week of performance or dance organised by young Swiss choreographers, which put us on the map. I also felt strongly that we had to produce publications; exhibitions come and go but publications remain.

TAN: This continues at Parasol Unit…

ZW: Publications are extremely important. Ours include several essays and reflect many different points of view. I hope they’re a little different from commercial gallery publications. Commercial galleries have become very powerful, especially during the boom, holding high-quality exhibitions in amazing spaces. But you’d be surprised how much artists look forward to shows in non-profit spaces because there’s no pressure to sell their works.

TAN: What relationship do you have with dealers?

ZW: I don’t really work with them that much. In any case, until 2008, I only showed foreign artists that were unrepresented in London, but I wasn’t even aware of this. And then I put on a show by Darren Almond but I didn’t go through White Cube [Almond’s dealer], I went to Darren himself. The same thing happened with Charles Avery. I visited his studio. I really work with the artists directly. That is the beauty of the job; you don’t make money from the works. This space does not have an agenda. It’s about the artists, there is no material interest.

TAN: So how is it funded?

ZW: This two-floor gallery space, that used to be Peter Doig’s studio, is mine, I bought it in 2004. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, especially in a city where I didn’t know anyone in the art world. The space was dilapidated and the plan was to renovate it to museum standards with climate control, a proper lighting system, etc. I refurbished the building and put it at the disposal of the charity free of charge. I have put reserve funds in the bank and the space operates on this basis. It’s no longer our money, it’s with the Charity Commission. Even if I left the country, I couldn’t take the money out. But it’s so much more satisfying to do this than buy ten paintings, for instance; you see something happening. We are using our reserves slowly, which means that one day there might not be any more money. I don’t think Parasol Unit will last forever. We shouldn’t exist forever; somebody else should do something else.

We do not get any Arts Council funding for operating costs, only for certain projects, usually for around £5,000. It’s minimal in light of our annual £1m budget, but we are very thankful. We have also received bursaries from foundations including the Henry Moore, Stanley Thomas Johnson, Mondriaan and Sasakawa. We have an advisory board that meets twice a year, which includes myself, Pierre de Weck, Dieter Schwarz [director of the Kunstmuseum Winterthur], Oliver Barker [senior director of contemporary art at Sotheby’s] and Massimo Tosato [vice-chairman of global asset management firm Schroders].

TAN: So there are no in-house commercial streams?

ZW: We only ask artists to make print editions. We pay the production costs and if we sell every single edition, we might make £3,000. We do have a condition that if a work on show is sold, we ask dealers to offer 10% of the sale to the charity—but we have never received anything.

TAN: Do you believe that the kunsthalle concept on which the space is based, such as mounting temporary exhibitions with a small staff, is still the way forward?

ZW: Yes, the kunsthalle concept that “small is beautiful” means that you can react to artistic developments of the time much more quickly. I have no intention of buying the building next door [Victoria Miro Gallery]. There is something very special about running a smaller institution [Parasol Unit measures 900 sq. m in total]; you get closer to the artists. You can decide what you want to show without consulting a committee. I can put on an exhibition here within six months. And there’s no power structure as I don’t need to promote myself in my own space.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘“It’s much more satisfying than buying paintings”'