After 38 years at Venice's Peggy Guggenheim Collection (PGC), 17 of those as director, Philip Rylands stands down this summer. Born in London in 1950, and with a PhD from Cambridge University, Rylands started out as the administrator of millionairess Peggy Guggenheim's home — and art collection — after her death in 1979. Located on Venice's Grand Canal, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni was converted into a museum in 1980. It houses one of the finest collections of 20th-Century art in the world, with a mix of Cubism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism and other movements.
Among the paintings on show are Picasso's The Poet, Magritte's Empire of Light and Jackson Pollock's Alchemy. Under Rylands' directorship, the PGC has become the most-visited museum of modern art in Italy, as well as the second-most-visited museum in Venice (after the Doge's Palace). A record 414,000 visitors passed through its doors in 2016. To cite two other of his achievements: in 1980 Rylands founded the Peggy Guggenheim Collection Internship Program, which has been a training ground for a host of museum professionals; and in 1986, the PGC took over organisation and management of the U.S. Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Now into his final weeks in charge, here Rylands discusses his relationship with Peggy Guggenheim, his favourite ever exhibition, and why Mark Tobey is the perfect artist to bow out with.
PHILIP RYLANDS AT THE PEGGY GUGGENHEIM COLLECTION, VENICE. PHOTO: DAVID HEALD.
Alastair Smart: Did you ever meet Peggy Guggenheim?
Philip Rylands: Yes, shortly after moving to Venice in 1973. We were both part of the city's Anglo-American community and were introduced by her friend, Victor Stanley, the vicar of Venice's Episcopalian Church. Peggy, for me then, was wrapped in the aura of celebrity, but it turned out she was both down-to-earth and modest about her accomplishments. She became a generous, uncomplicated friend.
AS: How different is the PGC now from when you started?
PR: In one sense it's the same. Visitors recognise the museum was Peggy's house - many come precisely for that reason; they enjoy the intimacy of its scale, and become imbued with her taste in art and the avant-garde times in which she prospered. The museum is dominated by her collection, and its mission is to celebrate her career as a gallerist, patron and collector. Our recent exhibition dedicated to Tancredi (the only artist, after Jackson Pollock, to whom Peggy offered a contract) is exemplary of this. In her day, though, the place was open only during the summer, for three days a week, for two hours - where nowadays the collection can be viewed eight hours a day, all year round. By acquiring, and expanding into, neighbouring properties, the PGC also now offers a café-restaurant, museum shops, space for temporary exhibitions, and a maze of sculpture gardens.
DAVID SEYMOUR, MRS. PEGGY GUGGENHEIM IN HER PALACE ON THE GRAND CANAL, 1950. © DAVID SEYMOUR/MAGNUM PHOTOS.
AS: What role do you feel the PGC occupies in Venice?
PR: It enjoys a high degree of affection — above all thanks to the members' programmes and educational programmes we offer, which are probably the best of any museum in Italy. The PGC is a key part of Venice's tourist offering — and this is important, given the dominance of tourism in the Venetian economy (only the Basilica of St Mark's and Doge's Palace have more visitors). More specifically, it is part of Venice's claim to be Italy's capital of contemporary culture. The city is uniquely well-endowed in this way. It is the size of a town really, yet boasts the Cini Foundation, the Bru-Zane and Querini-Stampalia Foundations, the Venice Biennale, the Pinault, Prada and Vedova Foundations, the Stanze del Vetro, the Espace Vuitton... The list keeps growing.
INSTALLATION VIEW OF INTERIOR GALLERIES AT THE PGC, VENICE. © PEGGY GUGGENHEIM COLLECTION, VENICE. PHOTO: ANDREA SARTI/CAST1466.
AS: Do you have a favourite art-work in the Collection?
PR: I do. Kandinsky's 1929 Bauhaus painting, Upward.
AS: Which famous figure was most memorable to show around?
PR: I remember that Kofi Annan and Sylvester Stallone (himself a keen painter) spent a long time in the museum and looked closely and intelligently at everything. They were also both very simpatico.
SCULPTURES IN THE GARDEN AT THE PGC. © PEGGY GUGGENHEIM COLLECTION, VENICE. PHOTO: DAVID HEALD.
AS: What have been the big challenges in the role?
PR: Space and money. The former is, to a large extent, limited. As for money, Peggy left no endowment for the museum. She was a woman of great intuitions, though, and one of them was to hand her house and collection over to her uncle's foundation (the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation). The management model it brought to the PGC, that of a private American museum, was in contrast to that of centralised public museums in Italy, and this was to our enormous advantage. The PGC would not be where it is today without the professionalism of New York's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum at its shoulders; and without the ability to fundraise and programme, free from political interference and dependency on public financing.
AS: What was your favourite PGC exhibition?
PR: The museum has mounted some 140 exhibitions, large and small, and it's hard to pick a single one. The PGC has frequently brought great American art to Venice, especially that of Peggy's epoch - by artists with whom Italians have been only superficially aware: Stuart Davis, Josef and Anni Albers, Conrad Marca-Relli, William Baziotes, Adolph Gottlieb, Robert Motherwell. It has done the same even for certain Italian artists, such as Giuseppe Capogrossi, Dadamaino, Paolo Scheggi, Rodolfo Aricò and Carlo Ciussi. If I had to single out one show, one which lodged in every exhibition-goer's glowing memory of great shows, it was the 2006 show dedicated to Lucio Fontana, which united for the first time his parallel series of 1961 works, inspired by Venice and New York. Appropriately enough, it followed its run here with one at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.
ALEXANDER CALDER'S ARC OF PETALS, 1941. © PEGGY GUGGENHEIM COLLECTION, VENICE. PHOTO: ANDREA SARTI/CAST1466. © 2017 CALDER FOUNDATION, NEW YORK.
AS: How exciting a place is the PGC during the Venice Biennale?
PR: The whole of Venice comes scintillatingly alive at the opening of the Biennale: it becomes the hub of the contemporary art universe, with its swarming gallerists, artists, directors, museum staff, collectors, writers, socialites. And I mean the whole of Venice, since the Biennale now spawns exhibitions and events throughout the city. Possibly my favourite years were those I was US pavilion project manager — in 1986, this meant working with Isamu Noguchi and Alanna Heiss, in 1988 with Jasper Johns and Michael Rosenthal and in 1990 with Jenny Holzer and Michael Auping.
MARK TOBEY, THREADING LIGHT,1942 © 2017 MARK TOBEY/SEATTLE ART MUSEUM, ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK.
AS: What do you have planned for your final summer in charge?
PR: A retrospective exhibition of Mark Tobey — Threading Light, which fits neatly into the PGC's tradition of bringing American artists to Venice whose work is insufficiently known. The dialectic between Jackson Pollock and Tobey (whose 'white writing' paintings are often cited as an important predecessor of Abstract Expressionism) makes this a show of particular relevance to the PGC. There's also a small exhibition of Surrealist paintings by Denmark's Rita Kernn-Larsen. Again there's a personal connection, as it'll be the first solo show of Kernn-Larsen's work outside Scandinavia since Peggy hosted an exhibition at her gallery in London in 1938. As for the Biennale itself, we're collaborating with the Baltimore Museum of Art on an exhibition by the contemporary Californian, Mark Bradford, for the US Pavilion.
© PEGGY GUGGENHEIM COLLECTION, VENICE. PHOTO: ANDREA SARTI/CAST1466.
AS: When is your final day? Do you think you'll be emotional?
PR: In mid-June. After almost four decades, it is hard to say how I will feel. Perhaps glad finally to have a break.
AS: What will you miss most about the place?
PR: The loyal friends who have worked for me here — and, of course, the masterpieces.