Tucked away on a side street in London’s Bloomsbury district is a disused milk depot with a new occupant: the multimillionaire art collector Frank Cohen.
Manchester, England-born Cohen, ranked one of the world’s top 200 collectors by ArtNews in 2009, today opens the Dairy Art Centre with associate Nicolai Frahm. The venue will put on three free exhibitions a year. The first is a solo show by the Swiss artist John Armleder, who deserves to be better known, Cohen says.
Self-made Cohen sold his stake in the home-improvement retailer Glyn Webb in 1997. He won’t confirm that the sale netted him 25 million pounds ($38 million). His eclectic collection of almost 2,000 works includes art by Jeff Koons, Tracey Emin, Stanley Spencer, Subodh Gupta and Ai Weiwei.
“I’m opening this space because of my passion for art,” says the jovial aesthete, 69, sporting quirky frames and wearing pinstripes over an untucked shirt. “It’s a place for the public to come into, enjoy, hang out, and see things they would never see anywhere else in London.” It’s non-commercial, he says.
“You can’t spend your whole life worrying about how everything’s got to make money,” says the man known as “the Saatchi of the north” (a reference to collector Charles Saatchi), in a Manchester accent.
Shortly before opening, the space -- which still looks like a large dairy -- is crowded with builders and art students completing Armleder’s brightly colored murals.
Other collectors have found exhibition venues costly. Billionaire Francois Pinault stopped programming shows at Palazzo Grassi in Venice, and Saatchi sought U.K. government help to run his Chelsea gallery.
“This place is manageable, we’ve worked it out, and we can fund it ourselves,” Cohen says. “It’s not bang in the center of the most expensive property in the world.”
Frahm, 38, an art adviser and scion of a Danish coffee-making dynasty, says the Dairy will spotlight lesser-known names because “it’s a bit boring to show the artists that everybody knows.” There’s no cafe or bookstore for the moment.
The duo tour artist studios around the world and now have similar collections.
Cohen is someone “very energetic” who “loves to get things done immediately,” says Frahm, who views himself as “a little bit more calm,” and says, “I think we even each other out very well.”
Cohen dismisses a U.K. newspaper headline labeling him a billionaire. Yet he won’t disclose his worth -- “I never like talking about money.” Since 1997, he’s “done other things: bits of property, bits of deals.”
To help fund the Dairy, Cohen in February sold contemporary works -- mostly by artists who are no longer active -- at Paris’s Pierre Berge saleroom.
“Everyone tries to refresh their collections,” he says.
A previous exhibition space he set up in Wolverhampton (near Birmingham, U.K.,) had trouble attracting visitors because of its location.
A collector of coins and cigarette packets in his youth, Cohen caught the art bug courting his future wife in the 1960s. Her father was an antique dealer who, whenever Frank appeared, sold him a print by L.S. Lowry or Russell Flint.
“I had about 200 of these prints. I thought, ‘What do I want all these bits of paper for?’” Cohen says. “So I started to look into originals.”
For years, he collected modern British art (including Lowry), and initially shunned the Young British Artists. He owns no Damien Hirsts -- “I sort of missed the boat with Damien” -- except a heart-shaped spin painting Hirst gave him for his wedding anniversary.
He’s now expecting a Koons steel sculpture, an orange “Balloon Monkey” which he says is taking five years to produce.
Cohen hopes his daughter and son, who work for the Gagosian Gallery in London and New York, will keep the Dairy going after him.
“I want them to be charitable,” he says.
The Dairy Art Centre opens tonight with an inaugural exhibition of works by John Armleder at 7a Wakefield Street, Bloomsbury, London WC1N 1PG.
Information: http://dairyartcentre.org.uk. or call 44-20-7713-8900.
(Farah Nayeri is a writer for Muse, the arts & leisure section of Bloomberg News. The views expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)
Muse highlights include Ryan Sutton on New York dining, Jeremy Gerard on New York theater and Rich Jaroslovsky on technology.