Preparing the inaugural exhibition of the Villa Heleneum, Vittoria Matarrese presents the cornerstones of her project for this venue to our journalist Anaël Pigeat.

Anaël Pigeat : What has been Bally’s connection with art since its creation?

Nicolas Girotto: The current activities of the Bally Foundation fall within Bally’s long history with the art world: the corporate archives testify the multiples collaborations with artists ever since the creation of the House, in 1851, at the initiative of the founder Karl Franz Bally, who was a visionary in his way of building and developing the brand. He built schools and parks for his workers, besides celebrating their birthday every year. Thus, Bally is a company in which innovation has always played a major role. As far as artistic collaborations are concerned, there were many in all fields, for example with illustrators, photographers and architects such as Werner Bischof or Gunther Sachs. In the 1930s, the great architect Mallet-Stevens also designed a shop in Paris, and another in Rouen, and there was an unfinished project with Le Corbusier. More recently we have worked with Andrée Putman,  with David Chipperfield and Casper Mueller Kneer Architects.

How did the desire for a home for the Bally Foundation come about?

Vittoria Matarrese : The Bally Foundation exists since 2006 and has always aimed to promote art and culture. Several months ago, a new period began, as the Foundation obtained a fifteen-year lease from the Lugano city council for the Villa Heleneum, then Bally’s CEO, Nicolas Girotto, decided to give the Foundation a broader sphere of influence and a real home.

What is the past of the Villa Heleneum?

VM: The Villa was built by Hélène Bieber, fascinating and not well-known figure. It seems that she was a German dancer living in Paris, who wanted to create a cultural and artistic salon in the spirit of the Monteverità community, and whose architecture would be inspired by the Petit Trianon in Versailles. We know very little about her life. The First World War prevented her from completing her project and she left for the United States and for Spain. We found a few letters, and the deed of title to a Picasso painting belonging to her, La Mujer Azul, which is now found at the Reina Sofia in Madrid. This rather particular Villa, the pink colour of the facade and the trim around the terraces do evoke the Petit Trianon, and “V”s and “H”s are engraved onto the gates at the entrance, giving quite a classic look to the whole. But the central salon is extremely modern, with a large bay window overlooking the lake. Unfortunately, Hélène never really lived there and subsequently, the site became a piano school, where Martha Argerich gave her classes; then a Dalle Molle institute, for studies into the precursors of artificial intelligence; a theosophical society; and very recently, a museum of extra-European cultures, the MUSEC.

What do you expect from this venue in the years to come?

NG: Over the past fifteen years, the Foundation had the mission of supporting Swiss artists or artists living in Switzerland. Today not only we must continue and develop this mission, but through this new incredible location we will offer a very dynamic program featuring two major exhibitions per year as well as temporary exhibitions. Moreover we will be organising talks and workshops based on environmental issues, being also the main theme of the first exhibition. Starting from 2024, we are planning to host artists in residency for several months at the villa in order to create a regular presence of young artists locally, with more informal presentations, meetings and in-situ projects.

Which role will the Bally Foundation play in the region, both isolated and in the heart of Europe?

VM: First, we are only an hour away from Milan. And locally, there are a lot of strong realities. The MASI, Museo della Svizzera Italiana, for instance, does great art-history research work. There are also a certain number of private collections that are accessible to the public, such as the Giancarlo and Danna Olgiati Collection, which is shown in an extension of the MASI, from which I borrowed a work by Rebecca Horn for the inaugural exhibition, and which has one of the finest collections of futurist artists in the world. Lugano was where Harald Szeeman lived and now there are many modern and contemporary art collectors who live around here.  There is also the LAC, a centre of art and performing arts which has a musical and live program of a very high level and lastly, Lugano is also a city with remarkable architectures, from Mario Botta to Herzog and De Meuron. In terms of my own ambitions for the space, I would like to establish the Foundation’s activities within the register of the latest emerging artists, as I have always done.

You previously occupied several roles at the Palais de Tokyo, where you notably developed the performance programs. Will you preserve the same spirit?

VM: Yes and no! Before the Palais de Tokyo, I was working in Villa Medicis and I think that each place has his own soul. Gradually, I was given responsibility for the live shows and performances.
In Lugano, first of all I wish to reconnect with the lake and with this territory, that has a very dense past and is full of so many languages. Nature has a strong presence: it seems – and I’m starting to research on this – that a whole section of the gardens of the Villa Heleneum were made in the 70’s by a former MI6 secret agent who inspired Ian Fleming’s James Bond character… This will probably be a future exhibition project. On the other hand, it was unthinkable for me to use a subject other than this “Unknown Lake” for the inaugural exhibition, intended as a back-and-forth between the landscape and our subconscious, with the house acting as a membrane between us and the lake. This project also sets the tone for the future programme, with collective exhibitions during the spring-summer season, and mainly monographs for the autumn-winter season. Besides a parallel programme with talks and performances, in 2024 I also hope to launch a programme of international artistic residencies connected with the territory, its real or more mythological histories, as well as a programme of in-situ artworks in the park, with the complicity of the city of Lugano.


What will be the role of the Bally Artist Award in its renewed version?

NG: The Award has evolved a lot over the last few years, and will continue to do so naturally. Initially, the Bally Foundation was mainly supporting artists living in Ticino. After 15 years, we are expanding our reach throughout all Switzerland, inviting MASI, the Museum of Italian Switzerland, as a partner in this project. Thanks to the complicity of a committee of professionals from the art world, we are no longer awarding a prize to a work but to an artist, who will be exhibited in the Museum location at Palazzo Reali and whose work will be acquired by Bally and will become part of the MASI’s collections. I believe that this prize has now become a reference in the whole region.