When the Prada Foundation unveiled its landmark building in Milan last year, it set new standards for museums worldwide. Much like art itself, the structure encourages original thought; it’s a place that embodies the foundation’s aim toward constant reinvention

The opening of the Fondazione Prada (Prada Foundation) was one of the highlights of 2015. In the weeks leading up to the May 9 inauguration, and for many weeks after that, Italian and international media were abuzz with Prada: the fashion house’s inimitable sense of style, the foundation’s extraordinary collection, the architecturally splendid structure and the fascinating art shows set inside the new building. But what some people may have missed is that the Prada Foundation had been in existence for over two decades, staging art shows since 1993 in such places as disused churches and abandoned warehouses.

Developing an Artistic Aura

It was fitting, perhaps, for the newly created Prada Foundation to focus on works by an Italian artist for its first exhibition. In Milan, in 1993, the foundation presented some of the most significant works by Eliseo Mattiacci, who forms part of the Arte Povera movement. The successful inaugural show was followed by many more, which, over the course of the next two decades, included exhibitions by the likes of Anish Kapoor, Carsten Höller, Steve McQueen, Nathalie Djurberg and John Baldessari. The Prada Foundation also sponsored special projects for the city of Milan, such as Laurie Anderson’s Dal Vivo/Life, an exhibition based on a performance in collaboration with the San Vittore prison, and Dan Flavin’s permanent installation for Santa Maria Annunciata in Chiesa Rossa church. Flavin’s magical work — featuring green, blue, pink, golden and ultraviolet light as the church’s sole source of illumination — is still on view to this day.

Expanding its scope beyond Milan, the Prada Foundation organised solo shows in Venice, focusing on such artists as John Wesley and Thomas Demand, as well as group exhibitions like 2014’s Art or Sound. Internationally, the Prada Foundation is remembered for various cutting-edge art happenings, including Foujita. A Japanese Artist at the Teatro alla Scala, held in 2003 at the Prada Aoyama Epicenter in Tokyo; Carsten Höller’s The Double Club, staged in London in 2008 and 2009; Turn into Me, which took place at the Prada Transformer in Seoul in 2009; and Francesco Vezzoli 24h Museum at the Palais d’Iéna in Paris in 2012.

A Permanent Home

Prada isn’t the only fashion house to have developed an impressive art collection in parallel with its fashion offerings. French fashion label Louis Vuitton, for example, holds an art collection of its own. The Louis Vuitton Foundation is located outside Paris and showcases artworks from the 20th and 21st centuries in a stunning space designed by Frank Gehry. There’s also the François Pinault Foundation in Venice and the Aïshti Foundation in Beirut. The common thread that links all of these institutions is that each displays its art offerings in a distinctive building designed by a renowned architect.

For its permanent home, Prada also tapped a famed institution: OMA, the architectural firm led by Rem Koolhaas. “After more than 20 years of staging exhibitions around the world, my husband said he thought it was about time we do something permanent in Milan,” Miuccia Prada, head of her eponymous label, told The New York Times, explaining why she’d spearheaded the new project.

For Prada, OMA reinvented a distillery dating back to the 1910s and located in Largo Isarco, in the southern part of Milan. Previously named Società Italiana Spiriti, the former distillery comprises seven existing structures, including warehouses, laboratories and brewing silos, plus three new structures, including a museum for temporary exhibitions, a transformable cinema building and a tower, known as Podium, Cinema and Torre respectively. The entire compound spreads over 19,000 square meters. OMA restored the structure and juxtaposed it with new glass, aluminum and concrete buildings. “Here new and old confront each other in a state of permanent interaction,” Koolhaas told the New York Times. “They are not meant to be seen as one.”

The Cinema is one of the Prada Foundation’s highlights. The space hosts movie screenings and live performances. In mid-2015, for example, the Cinema featured a special documentary created by film director Roman Polanski for the foundation’s opening. The documentary explored the sources of inspiration behind Polanski’s films by analysing the movies that most influenced him, including Citizen Kane (1941) and Great Expectations (1946). “I hope that sharing these experiences with those who wonder why I dedicate myself to cinema may help them not only to better understand my work but, also, to revisit great old movies that have been somehow forgotten,” Polanski said of his documentary. In early 2016, the Cinema hosted Flesh, Mind and Spirit, a festival of 15 films selected by Oscar-winning director Alejandro González Iñárritu.

Children Are the Future

In its new permanent space, the Prada Foundation also created an attraction just for kids. Named Accademia dei Bambini, the project was developed by a group of young students from the École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Versailles, under the guidance of their teachers Cédric Libert and Elias Guenon. The idea was to have a space that could shift and change, depending on the programmes being developed at a specific time. Since its opening, the Accademia has presented free activities and laboratories conducted by educators, artists, scientists and directors, who enlighten children about various topics, and at the same time remain open to learning and applying new skills, as suggested by the children in attendance.

Dreaming Over a Cappuccino

A fantasy-laden, retro-flavoured café, Bar Luce, was conceived by filmmaker extraordinaire Wes Anderson, who sought to recreate the feel of a traditional Milanese coffeehouse. Anderson preserved the structure’s original architectural details, including the arched ceiling, which was inspired by the vaulted glass roof of Milan’s iconic Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. For the décor, Anderson turned to his short film Castello Cavalcanti, furnishing Bar Luce with pastel-hued seats, colour-blocked Formica tables and veneered wood wall panels shimmering with aesthetics gleaned from 1950s and 1960s Italy.

Reflecting on his design for Bar Luce, Anderson said that the place is intended “for real life, and ought to have numerous good spots for eating, drinking, talking, reading, etcetera. While I do think it would make a pretty good movie set, I think it would be an even better place to write a movie. I tried to make it a bar I would want to spend my own non-fictional afternoons in.” Although Bar Luce is part of the Prada Foundation, it is also intended to become a neighborhood hangout — not just a café patronised by museum guests.

Here to Stay: Installations

Then, of course, you have the Prada Foundation’s magnificent collections of artworks. As in most respected art galleries, there are temporary exhibitions as well as permanent installations. One of the most noteworthy is an intriguing work by Robert Gober and Louise Bourgeois, created inside the Haunted House. Named for its eerie feel, the Haunted House is part of the former distillery. It has now been restored, complete with a gilded external surface and big windows that emphasise the house’s connection to the external landscape and adjacent buildings.

On the upper floor of the house, Gober has combined some of his older works, like Untitled, an oversized Farina box created in the early 1990s, with new projects, like Original Model for Top Floor of the Haunted House, created in 2014. Gober uses common objects to invent hybrid items, like the recently completed Corner Door and Doorframe, which appears to be dislocated and alienated in spite of its familiarity. An installation by the late Louise Bourgeois on the lower floor contrasts with Gober’s work. Her Cell (Clothes), completed in 1996, consists of a circular design made from doors and iron gates, as well as sculptures fused with Bourgeois’ personal belongings.

Another permanent installation comes courtesy of Thomas Demand. Back in 2006, the artist used a postcard depicting a grotto on the Spanish island of Mallorca to create a haunting photography project. He used 30 tons of grey cardboard to replicate the rock chamber, stalactites and stalagmites that populate the Spanish grotto. For the Prada Foundation, Demand went back to his milestone project and came up with Processo Grottesco, which translate to Grotesque Process and which documents his grotto photography from start to finish. In addition, Demand reconstructed an actual grotto, on the underground level of the Prada Foundation’s Cinema, for visitors to experience its beauty first-hand. One of the most fascinating aspects of Processo Grottesco is that Demand turned to an existing place — the grotto — to create an artwork that’s ultimately unreal — and perhaps even surreal — in its mysterious and chilling connotations.

Temporary Adventure

Initially scheduled to run until January 10 of this year, the inaugural exhibition of the Prada Foundation was extended until April 17 due to its great popularity. Entitled An Introduction, the show highlighted the different inspirations that drove Miuccia Prada and her husband Patrizio Bertelli, CEO of Prada Group, to launch the Prada Foundation. The artworks that were on display — including large-scale installations by John Baldessari and Nathalie Djurberg — formed a connecting timeline between the past, present and future of an existential adventure. Through the works displayed within the Sud gallery, visitors were invited to understand the artistic passion of Miuccia Prada and Patrizio Bertelli, a passion that has come to define their lives and their actions.

Beginnings and Endings

The second temporary exhibition at the Prada Foundation opened in early February and is scheduled to run until June 19. Focusing on the work of Polish artist Goshka Macuga and entitled To the Son of Man Who Ate the Scroll, the exhibition is set in three foundation spaces: the Podium, the Cisterna and the Sud gallery. Macuga, who juggles the roles of artist, curator, collector, researcher and exhibition designer, works in various media, including sculpture, installation, photography, architecture and design. Her work at the Prada Foundation examines time, beginnings and endings, collapse and renewal, as Macuga questions the importance of “the end.”

Macuga collaborated with Patrick Tresset to create Before the Beginning and After the End, an installation on the Podium’s upper floor that takes a look at the evolution of humanity and hints at its possible collapse. The installation includes five tables, each featuring a paper scroll covered with sketches, texts, mathematical formulas and diagrams drawn by Tresset’s system Paul-n. Then there’s a sixth table on which robots of the series Paul-A draw in real time for the whole span of the exhibition.

In the Cisterna, Macuga showcases one spectacular work consisting of 73 bronze heads depicting 61 larger-than-life figures, including Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Martin Luther King, Karl Marx and Mary Shelley, all connected by bronze poles. It’s a sort of imaginary encounter between some of contemporary history’s greatest thinkers.

Stolen Moments

L’Image Volée, (The Stolen Image) is the newest of the foundation’s shows. This group exhibition, which opened on March 18 and runs until August 28, is curated by German sculptor and photographer Thomas Demand. Over 80 works by 63 artists from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries are on display at the Nord gallery, all of them linked by the concept of originality: do artists always stand on someone else’s shoulders? Have they always referred to existing imagery to create their own work? What is conceptual inventiveness and how does it fit within the culture of copy?

The exhibition includes commissions by the likes of John Baldessari, Oliver Laric and Sara Cwynar, and is accompanied by an illustrated book with essays by Russell Ferguson and Christy Lange, and short stories by Ian McEwan and Ali Smith.

A City’s Many Faces

Milan has long been a global centre for fashion and design. Some of the world’s top fashion and furniture brands are based in this dynamic northern Italian city. But it wasn’t until the Prada Foundation opened in 2015 that the city became a major international destination for contemporary art lovers as well. The massive Prada arts complex is unique in all of Italy, and it is destined to have a lasting impact on the nation’s current arts scene, while creating an artistic legacy for many generations to come.

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Creative Issue #36, pages 90-97.