Inside the Life and Art Collections of Francesca Thyssen-Bornemisza

Simon Watson

Collector, activist, and philanthropist Francesca Thyssen-Bornemisza is using her far-flung assemblage of art spaces to take a stand on the environment.

To call Francesca Thyssen-Bornemisza an art collector is a bit of a misnomer. Although she has collected art for decades, following in the formidable footsteps of her father, the billionaire industrialist Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, the 61-year-old powerhouse is a producer, an activist; some might even describe her as an artist of sorts herself. 

Born and educated in Switzerland, she was one of London’s most celebrated party girls in the ’80s. In 1993, Thyssen-Bornemisza surprised all of European society by marrying Karl von Habsburg, grandson of the last Austrian emperor, and relocating to Salzburg, Austria, where they raised their three children. Now divorced and based in London, Thyssen-Bornemisza runs two foundations, TBA21 (Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary) and TBA21-Academy, a roving and experimental cultural nonprofit that commissions art and research focusing on marine preservation, which she cofounded with Markus Reymann, the current director.


Simon Watson

Although she follows the art world circuit of fairs and biennials, she also toggles between cruising the remote Pacific on her research vessel, the Dardanella, and TBA21-Academy — along with visits to The Alligator Head Foundation in Jamaica, formerly a family estate, now a marine preserve and science lab, where she recently added several guest houses for artist residencies. Within the art world at large, Thyssen-Bornemisza is a renegade, and part of a small but ambitious group of female impresarios who are rethinking the role of the patron. There is the Swiss-born pharmaceutical heiress Maja Hoffmann, who, a few years ago, took over a defunct industrial park in Arles, France, and turned it into LUMA, a cultural complex of exhibition and studio spaces. And there’s Alda Fendi, of the fashion dynasty, who established Fondazione Alda Fendi Esperimenti in Rome, a group of historic buildings housing galleries as well as apartments for artists and travelers. These women are not just collecting and commissioning but also engaging with contemporary art as a way to promote social responsibility and cross-disciplinary exchange. 

“It’s as if the world is too small for Francesca,” said the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, a longtime collaborator. “While everyone was getting complacent with how well things in the art world were organized, one always sensed with her that she was on a trajectory and had this sense of urgency.”

This year alone she has been involved in the opening of two ambitious cultural projects: Ocean Space, an ancient church reborn as a multidisciplinary cultural platform dedicated to ocean research and advocacy in Venice; and Lopud 1483, a 15th-century former Franciscan monastery on the Croatian island of Lopud, now an exceptional retreat center, available to small groups, that she has helped to renovate the past 20 years. 

On a visit to Lopud 1483 this past spring, I shared a water taxi with Åsa Andersson, a shaman from Lapland. She was there to oversee the design of some of the monastery’s gardens—a maze of meditative stations. Thyssen-Bornemisza likes to work with genre-spanning individuals, including spiritual healers, musicians like Sigur Rós, and architects like David Adjaye, whom she connected with Eliasson in 2005 to build a work for the Venice Biennale entitled Your Black Horizon, which is now located on Lopud. These unexpected pairings of personalities from outside the art world often add another dynamic dimension. In fact, Thyssen-Bornemisza told me that it was Andersson’s animistic worldview that helped push the Academy’s focus toward environmental issues. 


Simon Watson

When Thyssen-Bornemisza came across the Renaissance-era complex in the early ’90s, it lay in ruins. “How could such an architectural marvel, with so many layers of history, be left so neglected, for so long?” she wondered at the time. In 1996, the building was added to the World Monuments Fund’s list of endangered sites, which inspired Thyssen-Bornemisza to negotiate a long-term lease and to call in a series of restoration experts as well as a small architecture firm in Zagreb to help modernize it. 

Upon arriving, I entered a sun-drenched courtyard with a raised terrace surrounded by rooms including a small exhibition space showcasing centuries-old Franciscan medicinal recipes and tools. I saw an installation of Renaissance-era objects from Thyssen-Bornemisza’s family collection, alongside a mix of works including a Thomas Struth photograph of a crowd in the Vatican that hung opposite a monumental 16th-century tapestry depicting the Rightful Judgment. Bringing some of the family’s collection from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, in Madrid, to the monastery was an obvious mission for her. “One of the magical things about this part of the world is that much of the ecclesiastical architecture still contains original altars and sacred art, but hardly anything remains of traditional interiors,” she said. “I wanted to recreate an entire interior that included the decorative arts to give the visitors a feel for the Renaissance. Now the only reference people have for that time is Game of Thrones!” 

On the second floor, I peeked into five stylish bedrooms appointed with modern furniture created for the project by the Italian designer Paola Lenti. In the master bedroom, the words il duce were scrawled on the back wall in faded black paint, a remnant of Mussolini’s army’s presence in the region in the early 1940s. Thyssen-Bornemisza said that she was advised to clean it off, but she refused. “We can’t pretend things didn’t happen,” she said. “We should face history rather than erase it.”

Later she recalled that the best advice she had received was from the architect Frank Gehry. When she brought him to Lopud the building was still a ruin. He looked up at the sky through the hole in the roof and told her to leave it that way. She didn’t, but she embraced the idea of preserving all the layers of history. The result is a structure that has all the significance of an ancient space but with modern conveniences. Over the years, even during the renovation, Thyssen-Bornemisza would bring TBA21 and TBA21-Academy-related groups to the island for what she calls “convenings.”

“The last time I was there for a convening I heard the sound of a cod having an orgasm,” said Rasmus Nielsen, one of the three founders of Superflex, a Danish collective that creates art that questions economic and social systems. “It was a recording played by an ichthyologist. And then soon afterward there was a discussion of Middle Eastern politics in relation to the European Union. Being on Lopud is like being on a boat or a floating island. It has a very different kind of energy than the usual art-world conferences.” 


Simon Watson

What makes Thyssen-Bornemisza unique among collectors is that she invests a lot in the artistic process; in some ways, she is more interested in the journey than in the final result. The life cycle of a project commissioned by Thyssen-Bornemisza typically begins, she said, by “sensing an urgency in an artist who has a compelling story to tell.” In the case of Superflex, it started with several expeditions in the South Pacific on the Dardanella, during which they filmed and recorded underwater around Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai, one of the world’s newest islands. The artists started to imagine a world where humans have to leave their habitat because of rising sea levels. “Let’s say in a few hundred years there will no longer be humans there, but only fish,” said Nielsen. “What kind of architecture should we think about that considers both humans and fish?” 

After a three-year-long research phase, in 2020 Superflex will show its final work at Ocean Space in Venice. “I think of these spaces—Dardanella, Lopud, Venice, Jamaica—connected like a cultural atoll,” said Nielsen. “Francesca is spearheading attempts to redefine institutional practice. How will the Louvre of our age look? We need to create new places that supplement the old ones.” 

Chus Martinez, the director of the Art Institute at the FHNW Academy of Art and Design in Basel, Switzerland, explained that Thyssen-Bornemisza’s method of collecting “replaces market investment with social investment.” Martinez, who has led TBA21-Academy expeditions on the Dardanella, added: “Francesca, and some other women collectors of her generation, have discovered in art a fundamental aspect of our culture to enhance values, equality, environment, freedom. Too often we address climate emergency as a technical problem, but it is a cultural problem at its depth.” 

Shortly after visiting Lopud, I went to the Venice Biennale to attend a performance by Joan Jonas, which was part of a program to celebrate the opening of Ocean Space. Every chair in the cavernous ancient church was taken; Thyssen-Bornemisza, sitting in the front row, was greeted by artists and collectors. For the next 90 minutes, like some kind of divine oracle, the 82-year-old Jonas interacted with underwater video footage and rang bells and read the names of fish from a scroll. Although the acoustics of the church were problematic, the religious environment was a perfect backdrop for the performance and for Thyssen-Bornemisza’s almost spiritual belief in art. I remembered that Eliasson had told me that she believes deeply in the meeting of art and science. “Francesca knows that culture is a powerful muscle that can move things.” 

LOPUD 1483 is available for rent to small groups for events and retreats. lopud1483.com; +385 91 322 0104