Interview
Art Basel in Miami Beach

Collector's Eye: Ella Fontanals-Cisneros

She tells us about the Barbara Hepworth in her bathroom and her regret at not sitting for Warhol

The collector Ella Fontanals-Cisneros Photo: Mauricio Donall; courtesy of the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation

Cuban-born Ella Fontanals-Cisneros grew up in Venezuela and started collecting in the 1970s after she married her then husband, the Venezuelan billionaire Oswaldo Cisneros. “I was first caught by the work of Venezuelan artists,” Fontanals-Cisneros says. “When I got married and began traveling through Latin America with my husband, I started looking at, and collecting, the work of artists from Latin America in general.”

While still known primarily as a collector of Latin American art, Fontanals-Cisneros tastes have since broadened and her 3,000-strong collection has four strong themes: Latin American Geometric Abstraction, contemporary video art, Modern and contemporary photography, and, more generally, international and Latin American art.

In 2002, Fontanals-Cisneros established the non-profit Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation (Cifo), centred on the Cifo Art Space in downtown Miami, to promote Latin American artists to a global audience. The foundation has given more than $1.5m in grants to more than 120 Latin American artists and many pieces from the collection are on long-term loan to institutions including London’s Tate Modern and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid. On 6 December, Cifo opened a show of three major figures of Cuban geometric art: Loló Soldevilla, Sandu Darie and Carmen Herrera (until 4 March).

The Art Newspaper: What was the first work you bought?

Ella Fontanals-Cisneros: I was very young when I bought my first painting: La Quema by the Venezuelan painter Tomas Golding.

What is your most recent buy?

Works by the Italian artist Loris Cecchini, the French-Algerian Kader Attia and the young Cuban artist Noel Leon.

What is your preferred way of buying art?

I enjoy visiting artists’ studios and seeing their process before committing to a purchase.

What is the most valuable piece in your collection?

If you are talking about money, it has been the Concrete artists from Brazil and, of course, other international artists as well, especially pieces by Carmen Herrera, Lygia Clark, Sandu Darie and Lolo Soldevilla. We know that all contemporary artists’ works have gone up in value, but there are also many pieces that I consider valuable, even though the prices haven’t gone up, because they are very dear to my heart.

If your house was on fire, which work would you save?

This question is so difficult because I am so connected and attached to all my wonderful art. It would be a tough choice.

Warhol asked me if I wanted my portrait done… regrets, regrets

If money was no object, what would be your dream purchase?

A painting by Rothko.

Which artists, dead or alive, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

Jesús Rafael Soto, Carmen Herrera, Gustavo Pérez Monzón, Robert Motherwell and Anselm Kiefer.

Which work do you regret not buying when you had the chance?

Andy Warhol asked me if I wanted to have my portrait done, [but] I was too young and could not understand what he was doing… regrets, regrets.

What is the most surprising place you have displayed a work?

The collection has been displayed in many parts of the world, but personally I had a problem seeing the works displayed in my bathroom. However, I have now overcome this problem and now have works by Barbara Hepworth and Leonardo Drew [in there]. The colouring was part of the reason that I hung them there, but they are also two artists whose work I appreciate very much.

What’s the best collecting advice you have been given?

When I was young, I had a friend, Otto Atencio, who was much older than me and a big collector. He told me to always buy the best piece by the artist you love.