The exterior of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection

Karole Vail Returns Home to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection

By Edward Behrens
Entering the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice can feel like you’ve discovered a secret. The garden at the centre of what was the collector’s house feels like an extraordinary sanctuary and yet there it is, on the Grand Canal, part of a collection that, as director Karole Vail says, “is not just a few masterpieces, it’s really the whole of the history of 20th-century European and American Modern art."

V ail has been the director for two years and despite the fact that she has known the museum since she was “a tiny girl” – she is Guggenheim’s granddaughter – the collection is “still providing surprises." This combination of surprise and comprehensiveness within a personal palazzo is what makes the Peggy Guggenheim Collection such a success. The museum consistently receives over 400,000 visitors a year.

Director of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Karole P. B. Vail. Photo: Matteo de Fina.

Despite this popularity, the museum doesn’t rest on its laurels, sitting, set in aspic, on the banks of the canal. For Vail, the collection is a “living organism." “It still has to be dynamic,” she says. To that end, under Vail, the museum has become a place of subtle shifts. “I must move objects around. I do it as much as I can without taxing the staff too much,” she says. By rearranging things in this way, Vail is able to “enjoy seeing new relationships between the artworks." Displaying all 11 Pollocks from the collection together was just one such successful rearrangement.

Installation shots of works by Jackson Pollock, in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection
Installation shots of works by Jackson Pollock, in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Photo: Matteo de Fina © Peggy Guggenheim Collection.

While Venice can feel like the preserve of tourists, there is a local community along with schools, residents and other art institutions that form an important part of the public for the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. The museum takes part in Venetian week, when it is open to any resident of Venice for free. As Vail puts it, “We have school groups coming in virtually every day.” They also “collaborate and engage with local schools from Venice and the Veneto." Engaging with a local audience is often trotted out as a vital role for any institution, so much so that it has become almost a trite truism. For Vail, however, it remains important:

“Because they’re the future audience and any of them might not have the possibility to get to know Modern art. We have to do our part to make sure that they do get acquainted, they understand and they feel that it’s really part of their everyday life.”

As the director of a museum in Venice, it is impossible not to engage with the Biennale, the largest gathering of art and artists in the world. It is also, since 1948, tied peculiarly to the legacy of Peggy Guggenheim, when she took over a pavilion vacated by Greece. She showed Cubism, Futurism, Abstraction and Surrealism in the wake of World War Two and exhibited artists such as Pollock, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still for the first time outside America. This radical inclusivity transformed the way people looked at the Biennale and took stock of the possibility of art in the face of what the Nazis had decreed was legitimate.

  • Jean (Hans) Arp, Head and Shell, c. 1933 Jean (Hans) Arp, Head and Shell, c. 1933
Images from left to right: Jean (Hans) Arp, Head and Shell, c. 1933. Courtesy: Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn / © Jean Arp, by SIAE 2019. Jean (Hans) Arp, Three Disagreeable Objects on a Face, 1930. Courtesy: Museum Jorn, Silkeborg, Denmark. Photo: Museum Jorn, Silkeborg © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn / © Jean Arp, by SIAE 2019.

This year, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection has got in early, opening its exhibition The Nature of Arp, a look at what the museum calls “the achievements of Jean Arp," in April before the madness of the Biennale descended on the city.

It is a particularly appropriate exhibition for the Peggy Guggenheim Collection to show. As Vail says, “Arp was the first artist to enter Peggy’s collection and to really remain in her collection.” Vail describes Arp “as one of the most interesting, diverse artists of the 20th century." “He went beyond boundaries. He was a great collaborator. He believes in the power of nature.” He is also “one of my favourite artists."

The interior of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection
The interior of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Photo: Matteo de Fina © Peggy Guggenheim Collection.

This feels like typical Vail. Using a favourite to quietly reintroduce an audience to someone who might not have been given his due and, in so doing, ensuring that she is promoting “great art, regardless of nationality, regardless of gender” and showing that the artists Guggenheim collected, living in this home in Venice, “are very much relevant to today."

WATCH: Tim Marlow's Must-See Museum Shows: The Venice Biennale's Best Installations, from America to Ghana

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

More from Sotheby's