Maja Hoffmann Is Renovating an Old Rail Yard with Annabelle Selldorf

The philanthropist's LUMA Foundation is building a new home in the French city of Arles.

Ask philanthropist and collector Maja Hoffmann what excites her the most about the art center her LUMA Foundation is building in the southern French city of Arles, and she may say that she’s excited that the plans for the complex include Annabelle Selldorf–designed renovations of a cluster of old rail yard buildings.

“They’re horizontal spaces, which are amazing in size, really unique,” she says.

But wait. She’s also thrilled to see the finished tower by Frank Gehry, which is now under construction. Though she cites its architectural references—the hills around Arles, the Roman ruins scattered throughout the city, and Vincent Van Gogh, who spent many years in the region—the building, Hoffmann says, is entirely new for the city. “[It] comes like an apparition,” she says. “It will be our brain and our hub.”

Which takes her to what happens inside the cultural center, and the programming she’s excitedly devising with a group that includes curators Hans Ulrich Obrist, Tom Eccles, and Beatrix Ruf, as well as artists Liam Gillick and Philippe Parreno. “We brainstorm a lot,” she says, “and suddenly, when the projects come, we really focus.”

Hoffmann speaks slowly and carefully, but she does so with gusto. She pings from one thing that excites her to another, pulls people into her orbit with reflexively collaborative commentary, and spins from art to activism and back out again. Her philanthropic activity ranges from Human Rights Watch to the Palais de Tokyo; her plans for LUMA Arles, which will, by the time of its completion in 2018, include artists’ studios, exhibition spaces, archives, and residencies, each similarly sprawling and ambitious.

As a third-generation art collector—Hoffmann is the vice president of her family’s collection, the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation—she says she’s less interested in owning art than in working generatively, as a producer. She serves on the acquisitions committee of the Tate and her family collection. “My collectors’ pulse is completely fulfilled,” she says. “I’m interested in seeing things happen, and seeing things being born.”

These things, of course, are connected to collecting; Together with Beatrix Ruf and Swiss collector Michael Ringier, she’s recently launched a new program called POOL, which enables young curators to mount shows drawing from artworks in private collections. Still, she does sleep with works in her bedrooms in London, Arles, Zurich, and New York. “I like smaller, more intimate pieces, like artist drawings or collages, that can follow me from house to house,” she says of works by artists such as Peter Doig, Jean Tinguely, and Rosemarie Trockel.

Part of Hoffmann’s goal for Arles is to generate multidisciplinary conversations accessible to a broader audience, drawing on her varied interests and connections. She envisions conversations and festivals that can link art to the environment and human rights. “Art can have a more immediate language,” she says, “which I hope has an efficient impact on younger generations.”

As the complex nears completion, programming solidifies, but she explains it’s still being defined. Until then, she is hardly sitting back. Says Hoffmann: “You don’t actually need walls to do something.”

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