Gucci’s Tom Ford: The Man Behind the Biennale

In late March, SoHo gallerist Sean Kelly sent a package of information about one of his artists via courier to Santa Fe, N.M. The package was delivered to Tom Ford, the creative director of the Gucci Group N.V., who was taking time off from a nasty takeover battle to visit his ailing grandmother in the town where he grew up.

The package contained information about Ann Hamilton, an installation artist from Columbus, Ohio, who had been chosen to represent the United States at the 48th Venice Biennale from June to November. Mr. Kelly was asking Mr. Ford to help underwrite Ms. Hamilton’s piece, called Myien (Greek for mystery), which would turn the United States Pavilion, which resembles Monticello, into a work of art itself for the first time. Mr. Ford had never met Ms. Hamilton and did not collect her work. But Mr. Kelly had an angle that he thought would appeal to him.

“I pointed out that here he was, an American and head of an Italian company, and here we had an American artist who was showing in Italy,” Mr. Kelly told The Observer . Mr. Kelly had made up two lists of prospective angels: one of information-age moguls; the other of fashion people.

The timing could not have been more propitious. Mr. Ford was just about to successfully fend off the takeover attempt by Bernard Arnault, chairman of LVMH Mo√ęt Hennessy Louis Vuitton, and could have been searching around for a symbolic gesture. For a mere $100,000, Mr. Ford, 38, and Gucci had found one.

Mr. Ford’s $100,000 helped pay for 24 electric motors that sift and release a fine fuchsia-colored powder that runs down the interior walls of the pavilion and a panel of Braille text translated from Testimony: The United States, 1885-1915 , a book of poetry by Charles Reznikoff. It also went toward a 90-foot wall of rippled glass set in a framework outside the pavilion; the pavilion is supposed to appear to melt or disintegrate when seen through the glass.

With Myein , Ms. Hamilton addresses violence and racism in America in a highly oblique manner that has left many people who have attended the exhibit perplexed. On loudspeakers, her faint voice can be heard reading the pleas for healing issued by Abraham Lincoln in his second Inaugural Address. But only those who read the lengthy (non-Braille) wall text that accompanies the exhibition can fully understand what the show is about. Many have left the four-room pavilion complaining about the fuchsia-colored dust that got on their shoes. Myein has not been panned, it has been ignored-which in some ways is worse. On June 12, The Herald Tribune weighed in with a major review of the Biennale that did not even mention the U.S. Pavilion. Writing in The New Yorker , Peter Schjeldahl said that Myein made him “dizzy.”

Mr. Ford and Gucci also sponsored Vanessa Beecroft’s Show , a one-night performance piece staged on the ground floor of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in April 1998, in which 20 beautiful models posed in various stages of dress for two and a half hours. Some of them were naked except for a pair of Gucci stilleto mules. Others wore beaded Gucci bikinis. The tie-in with Gucci and Mr. Ford was much clearer in its sponsorship of Show , but that exhibition was just as controversial as Myein .

Mr. Ford, who divides his time between apartments in Paris and Florence, and socializes in Los Angeles and Santa Fe, where he also owns homes, has been a peripatetic figure who has not stopped long enough to leave a lasting impression since arriving at Gucci in 1990. Like celebrity collectors David Geffen and Steve Martin, Mr. Ford now seems to have found a place for himself in the art world. He has gone about it with the cunning of Andy Warhol, an early role model. He seems to be attracted to exhibitions that bring him some extra frisson and he has tried to assert some control over them. When Mr. Ford came to the Biennale in June, he arranged for Wolfgang Tilmans to photograph him with Ms. Hamilton, a diminutive, sensibly attired woman who keeps her gray hair cut in a pixie and does not wear Gucci clothes. They will appear in the September issue of Index , artist Peter Halley’s magazine, with an interview with Mr. Ford and Ms. Hamilton.

The list of people willing to put money into 25 art as difficult as Myein is not very long. The total cost of the project was $650,000. Mr. Kelly and the two co-curators, Katy Kline and Helaine Posner, were able to raise the rest from 53 private donors including the president of the Museum of Modern Art, Agnes Gund,and her husband, Daniel Shapiro, and Jo Carole and Ronald Lauder. For Mr. Kelly, who has yet to sell Mr. Ford an Ann Hamilton installation for one of his homes, being able to get Mr. Ford and Gucci to sponsor the exhibition was in itself a triumph. And for Mr. Ford, maybe one day his portrait with Ms. Hamilton will prove to have been prophetic.