The Rolla Collection: Living with art

I have been so fortunate to been able to visit my Uncle Phil Rolla and his lovely wife Rosella many times over the years. Phil, my dad’s brother, was born in California but moved to Europe in the early ’60s to pursue his dream of applying his engineering degree to the boating industry, at the time centered along the Mediterranean. Ultimately, he establish a business designing and manufacturing the best boat propellers in the world, each handmade and a work of art in their own right.

Since selling his business, Phil, along with Rosella, has kept very busy, mounting bespoke installations at Borgovico 33, their exhibition space in Como, Italy, more commonly known as “The Church”, and establishing a museum,, in their community of Bruzella, Switzerland, dedicated to presenting work from their extensive photography collection. Their home, a veritable museum of contemporary art and design, is, surprisingly, a former Swiss customs house. Among the literally hundreds of pieces, there is one prevailing theme – it’s all deeply personal. I wanted to take some time and share Phil and Rosella’s thought on art, their collection, and their greater contributions to their community, so I interviewed them over lunch during my visit last week.

Following is part one, which focuses primarily on their personal collection, and the Church in Como. Part two, forthcoming, will focus on the photography collection and museum.

KR: How did you acquire you first piece and what was it?

PR: We had art from local artists for many years, but our first real acquisition was in 1997 in New York when we went to see the Rauschenberg show and after the show, a retrospective, I had found in Artforum the name of Glenn Dranoff so I called this guy and I say “I want an original Rauschenberg piece, not a lithograph, but the most I can spend is $25,000” and he said “let’s make a deal!” And so we did and from there it was all downhill.

When you a make a working alliance with a dealer who you believe in and trust, then your scope is to acquire things, then it becomes possible.

KR: How can you tell if something is “good”? What do you consider “good”?

PR: I consider good what I like. So if it means something to me, then it’s good. That’s my simple way of judging.

KR: Does the work speak to you? Or can it be a pretty object that you respond to?

PR: No, it has to speak to me. If it’s just a pretty object, then it’s not enough.

KR: How has your professional life influenced your taste and collecting? Between the photography, art, and sculpture in your collection, there is definitely an industrial theme.

PR: Really it could be the other way around that what I liked seeing influenced what I liked doing. So it’s not that I bought the artist because it reflected something I was doing, it was someone like Donald Judd, after seeing his stuff, it reflected the way I did my product afterward. I knew about his work, what his theory was, what his feeling was for materials, and so on.

KR: So seeing a Donald Judd perfectly constructed stainless steel box, influenced the way you made your propellers?

PR: Yes, my product had to have the same integrity, and I really worked at making the product that way. It wasn’t boxes, of course, but it was something else, also made of stainless steel, but it had to have that feel of material integrity that everything was respected in the way it was done.

Donald Judd, Untitled, 1989 and Untitled, 1986

KR: But your fabricators were in house, right? Typically Judd sent his designs out to be built.

PR: Yes, but that was for other reasons. The technology and the product were tightly integrated in the production, so you had to have it in house. Donald Judd went to outside suppliers, because he wanted to prove that art wasn’t in the hand of the painter but was in the idea of the painter.

Walter De Maria, Large Rod Series: Circle/Rectangle 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 1985

KR: Do you have any advice for young people who are interested in art but maybe don’t have a lot of means to start collecting?

PR: First, educate yourself as much as you can by reading in Artforum or what ever else you want to read about art, really inform yourself. And look at as much stuff as you can so you really know what you like. You can start out liking something, then see something else that you like more. You don’t want to get married twelve times in your lifetime, so you have to really decide what you like. Then, if you go look for it, you’ll find it. And then you find what you can afford, but you will, in one form or another. You can still find Rauschenberg prints, very nice ones, for $3000. But know what you want, and what you like, that’s the most important thing.

Rachel Lachowicz, Chuck Close

KR: And how would you go about buying it?

PR: Ah, you go to auctions, or find a secondary market dealer like Glenn Dranoff. You don’t go to Gagosian, because you can’t afford Gagosian, right? Also, if you decide you like something like Rachel Lachowicz (responsible for the large Chuck Close portrait in eye shadows) you can go direct, or go to the gallery that represents her, and she could probably make you a good deal. Someone like her is not famous enough that the gallery would give you anything less than a fair price. At the end of the day, you shouldn’t be ashamed to shop.

At the beginning of the ‘60’s I didn’t have a cent. But you could have bought fantastic art for nothing at that time too.

KR: That could have been too much for you at that time. One hundred dollars for a Rauschenberg could have been rent!

PR: There’s something that puts you over the edge, where you realize that this is something, and you have to respond. And it’s that attitude where I really have to take my hat off for someone like Conte di Panza (a Milanese nobleman who very quietly amassed a contemporary art collection to rival Charles Saatchi and Eli Broad). He realized this is the stuff of the future and he bought it when it was still accessible. He was very lucky to have hooked up with Leo Castelli at the right time. But he did realize what was the right stuff.

KR: But didn’t Saatchi realize that too? He goes and buys out entire shows of graduating art school students.

PR: Well, by buying out these shows, a lot of it gets thrown away. You either buy what you think is the best and will work for you or you buy everything that’s out there, throw 90% away and keep the 10%. That’s what Saatchi does, he sells a lot of stuff, gets rid of it. Saatchi’s is not a love affair type of collecting. I believe in the love affair type of collecting.

RR: He started when art was already a business. Conte di Panza, when he did it, it was not, in the ‘50s and ‘60s. It was just the love of the art. When Saatchi got into in the ‘80s it was already a business.

KR: Do we have Charles Saatchi to thank for Julian Schabel’s career?


RR: And Damien Hirst!

PR: But that’s not a love affair. A real collector never thinks if it doesn’t work out, I’ll just sell it or throw it away.

KR: Rosella, we cannot discount your contributions to this collection. How did you get involved with art?

RR: I studied art, and I lived in London for 5 years, so I had the privilege to live in a city where art was very accessible, with museums and galleries and openings. And then when I came back to Milano, I was actually working with photography, and I went to see this show in Torino about American art, with Rauschenberg and Stella and loved it. And next year I met Phil and found out we had been to the same show. We were both exceptionally surprised by that, so that’s how it started. And then I was doing photography work for Phil for a publication he was doing about his work and I had to look into his archive and then he invited me to a show, and that was it.

KR: A new career?

RR: (laughing) Well, it became a career.

Rosella Rolla at work

KR: Would you consider yourself the curator or co-curator of, the photography museum?

RR: Yes.

KR: And you ran the “Church” in Como? (Borgovico 33 was a cultural association that installed shows in a de-consecrated church.)

RR: I think my biggest contribution to the Foundation (the Rolla Foundation, the entity where the art collection resides) is I like to do things in a professional manner. You don’t open a museum and run it like a personal hobby. When Phil started saying we needed a space for photography, it was true as the house was running out of space and you ddin’t get to see it all the time. Now more people will. He probably wanted to buy the space and go down there sometimes with his friends and look at his collection but for me that doesn’t work. You have to open it to the public. It’s also our contribution to the community and all the other people who want to come and visit the collection. There are a lot of people who are interested to see it. Because at the end of the day, if you want to learn more about art, it’s not all about museums. Most of the lesser known stuff is in small galleries or private collections. And so it’s a privilege to see a private collection, because you don’t see the same stuff in museums. Because we have so many photography friends coming to the house to see the collection, and they invite curators or museum directors, it’s nice to see it in a space that’s like a little gallery or museum. You can appreciate it more and you can also study about the featured artist. Putting together a show, you have to go buy all the books about the artist, read a biography of the artist, and so on. You probably buy something because you like the artist, and you don’t know that much about the artist. But if you do a show, then you have to study about it. And that’s part of the process.

PR: If you go to a private collection, or a collector’s house, and he shows you his collection, you’re looking at his love affair. So it’s very unique because it’s very personal. When you go to a museum, you’re looking at things that have been bought to put on display, so they are not so much as love affairs as they are calculated aesthetic statements. So the thing with access to a private collection, you really get into the guy’s, or her, mind.

RR: There’s a third dimension even. It’s like when you go to Villa Panza to see the installation of the Dan Flavins or something, you know you’re walking into Conte di Panza’s life. And you wish you could see more because now most of the work is in a storage room or it’s being sold to museums.

KR: As far as the church space in Como, you’ve presented some very famous artists who’ve had some major museum retrospectives. Can you tell me some of the artists you’ve featured there and what the intention of that space was?

RR: The Church had nothing to do with our collection, otherwise it would be limited because we would show just what we liked and intent was not to do that. We chose projects with a committee. The intent was to go to a certain subject. We started with a local photographer, Pino Musi, who was from Como but because he was living and working in Paris, he was not well known here. Through his work he did research on a famous architect from Como named Giuseppe Terragni. A lot times we have a connection with Terragni because every architecture student in the world comes to Como to visit his work. Como is not just a lake, there’s something else that makes it special and important. But the city itself does not do much to promote this fact.

KR: Was Tirragni the “Fascist”architect? (Como was the home of the Fascist party.)

RR: He was not a Fascist himself, but he did work for the Fascist party and he built the Casa del Fascio, which is the building where Mussolini’s party was based. So because of that connection, that first show was very important.

We tried to promote young artists too. But they always had to work with that space, it was a difficult space. It was a de-consecrated church, and it’s not easy to deal with a church because it’s a strong space itself. If the art doesn’t fit with the space, the result would be weak, so they had to deal with the space. And that was already a challenge for us. There was a natural selection of work, because sometimes the work just didn’t work.

In 2004, it was the 100th anniversary of Giuseppe Terragni’s birth. We decided to invite Dan Graham (a famous artist in his own right who just had a Los Angeles MOCA retrospective) to install a special project because we knew he came to Como from time to time because he admired Tirragni’s work, he wrote about it, and mentioned it in many interviews. Luckily we know his gallerist in Italy, Massimo Maninni, and we invited him to come and do something at the church. He decided he was more ambitious than us, as we wanted a project for our space, but he proposed that it was more important to do a public project in front of the most famous building by Terragni, the Casa del Fascio. He made a 6m x 6m pavilion in stainless steel and two-way mirror glass called “Half-Square/Half-Crazy” which he said is “a little bit like me and a little bit like Terragni.” Because at the end of the day, Dan Graham is kind of a crazy personality, but is very precise and he knows exactly what he wants and although he doesn’t design himself, he only sketches, he will decide exactly how big, what the materials will be, and so forth. It was a hard experience, and an expensive one too and as it turned out really temporary!

KR: There was a bit of a natural disaster, right?

RR: Oh yes, but the disaster came because we were trying to make the installation permanent but the city of Como is not very interested in public art or us, so they didn’t sponsor us. But we did manage to find a group of collectors brave enough to buy the piece from Dan Graham because up to that point we had only produced the piece, we didn’t buy it, and for Dan Graham that’s a completely different number! We could not fix or bolt this pavilion on the square where it was placed because it’s a monument and it was classified as a temporary installation by that time. So a wind of more than 100km, which we did not calculate for, came and destroyed it. Not just the pavilion, but it destroyed a lot of things in the city. That was the most horrendous day of my life because I was called by the City Hall people screaming, “Oh my God! There could have been a child in the Pavilion!” And then they stopped because the next day in the newspaper there were reports of hundreds of accidents in the city that were worse than ours. We were insured, and luckily the piece had been standing for six months and we documented the construction with a video and a nice catalog which is now distributed all over the world.

KR: Don’t you think that event adds to the mystique of the piece, especially since it was intended to be a temporary installation?

RR: Yes, most of Dan Graham’s pieces are temporary, especially in public spaces but then they get acquired by a collector and then you don’t see the work anymore because it’s in a collector’s garden. Dan Graham doesn’t like that actually. And he wanted that piece to become permanent. Maybe he’s happier now that it’s gone!

KR: In closing, can you comment on what it’s like to live with art and how it improves your daily lives?

PR: I couldn’t imagine living without it.

RR: For me, you live in this house everyday, and you should get used to what you have on the walls, there’s no day that does not go by that I don’t see something in a different way, or discover something else or think oh, maybe I can move that here or there. And I don’t think that happens with furniture. After a while you get used to it. But with the art, it always gives you something to think about.

3 thoughts on “The Rolla Collection: Living with art

  1. Dear Kristine,
    It was very nice and interesting reading your different writings related to your visit in Ticino and Italy. We are good friend of Phil & Rosella and we were sorry not have been able to meet you whilst you were around. I have the pleasure of knowing Phil since more then 35 years but most recently since retiring I had more time to see each other more often and appreciate now nearly on a daily basis both Phil and Rosella friendship and learning every day when visiting their house the pleasure of living with art.
    Hope to see you next time you come to Ticino
    Enjoy the rest of your European trip

    Carlo & Beverly Ortelli

    • Carlo & Beverly, thank you for the nice comment! I’m sorry I didn’t meet you on this trip, but hopefully on the next.

      All the best, Kristin

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