The art of giving

Exploring the world of collecting and philanthropy with Maria Manetti Shrem
by Fabio Marzari

Florentine, born amidst the tumult of the Second World War, passionate about art, culture and music since an early age, this extraordinary lady of art has managed to preserve the enchantment of her mature years while maintaining the vivacity of an ever-attentive and inquisitive outlook.

All too often, Venice is relegated to the role of stage and little more, a container city for mass tourism, though in fact, there’s no limit to how much it can surprise us if we know where to look. There’s enough people around that love Venice for what it is, and show it respectfully. Take last May’s auction at Sotheby’s New York, for example, a charity auction held on a Picasso, Femme nue couchée jouant avec un chat, and a Fontana, Concetto Spaziale, Attese of 1968. The collector and philanthropist in question is Maria Manetti Shrem. Born in Florence during World War II, Manetti Shrem developed an early interest for art, culture, and music. She worked in fashion throughout her life and established her own brand in Europe first, and in the Unites States after, where she moved to in her thirties. Her import business, Manetti Farrow, was essential in establishing the presence of Gucci, Fendi, Mark Cross in America. Parallel to her business, Maria Manetti Shrem always nurtured her interest for art, music, opera and befriended Jeff Koons, Olafur Eliasson, Peter Gelb, Renée Fleming, Plácido Domingo, Andrea Bocelli, and Nadine Sierra, to name a few.

Loving your neighbour
I firmly believe that the art of living is the same as the art of giving. Never in my life have I been happier than the moment when, twelve years ago, I decided to dedicate to philanthropy, literally ‘love for mankind’. I love to support talent in the fields of education, music, art, and medical and scientific research, especially concerning geriatric medicine and neuro-degenerative disease, as well as initiatives to help children and those in need. I was born in Florence on the day Mussolini signed the Pact of Steel with Hitler, pushing Italy and a whole people into World War II: poverty, death, fear, uncertainty. Since childhood, and thanks to my family, I understood the importance of empathy and love for our fellow human beings, though only later in life did I meet Buddhism, and I worked on compassion and detachment from materiality. I want to give back what I had while I’m still here, not after I’m gone. I have already enjoyed art with my husband, Jan Shrem, who is as much a self-made man as I am a self-made woman. We used to maintain a wonderful estate, Villa Mille Rose in Oakville, I’d say the most beautiful of the whole Napa Valley. I designed it with Tuscany in mind, and filled it with art. I took notice of how some trustees worked after the death of some friends, and it made me think of the joy of living, and of the joy of giving.

Pablo Picasso, Femme nue couchée jouant avec un chat – Courtesy Sotheby’s

The Manetti Shrem Museum of Contemporary Art
Five years into the life of our Museum at UC Davis, Artnews included us as one of the 25 best museums of the last 100 years. I owe my connection to UC Davis thanks to artist and philanthropist Margrit Mondavi, who in 2011, offered me the chance to turn a barren, abandoned lot into a monument to the future: the Manetti Shrem Museum of Contemporary Art. Today, the Museum embodies the art heritage of a university that employed artists such as Wayne Thiebaud, William T. Wiley, Robert Arneson, Manuel Neri, Roland Petersen, Ruth Horsting, Mike Henderson. This is, in fact, the most important teaching museum of America. Since 2020, I have also been supporting the California Art Studio at the College of Arts, allowing artists and curators to hold their master classes here. In the 1960s, the best art colleges in America were Yale and UC Davis. We want UC Davis to be back where it belongs, and we are right on track to do that. every year, four graduates are picked for an exchange with the Royal Drawing School. We recently hosted curator Cecilia Alemani and for the next fall, we programmed a series of classes with Catherine Goodman, artist and founding director of the Royal Drawing School. We are also evaluating other projects with the department of fashion, design, and textile art. On June 18, for graduation day at UC Davis, I have been given the UC Davis Medal for my philanthropy. Beside me were my dear friends and fellow philanthropists Robert and Margrit Mondavi, painter Wayne Thiebaud, Bill Clinton, and the 2020 Nobel laureate Charles Rice. My parents would have been proud, wouldn’t they?

Where does love for the arts come from
The value of culture means the world to my husband and me. Specifically, my life changed because of the education I received, as a child, thanks to an uncle of mine, Marcello, who encouraged my mother to leave me in school, and not make me work like other girls had to. Uncle Marcello saw something in me. My mother took his advice, contrary to what basically every other family did, and invested in the talents of one of his four children, which gave me the education that fed my passion for knowledge, travel, discovery, and so on. I had a private tutor: Flora Cascio, also a Sicilian. Flora gave me an excellent education, which meant I could easily transition to school, and to the workforce later.

Lucio Fontana, Concetto Spaziale, Attese – Courtesy Sotheby’s

I fell in love with opera at 15, when I saw Renata Tebaldi starring as Mimì in Florence. That night, opera entered my life forever. On the last December 3, I celebrated my fifty years in America with the San Francisco Opera, who performed the Traviata and honoured me with the Spirit of the Opera for my ongoing contributions to this admirable cultural organization, founded a hundred years ago by an Italian, Gaetano Merola, and other opera lovers. That night, San Francisco City Hall was illuminated in red, white, and green!

The birthplace of Italian Renaissance is Florence. I identify the origin of the modern Italian fashion industry with the memorable show by Giovani Battista Giorgini at Palazzo Pitti. It was February 12, 1951. In the 1960s, I founded my first fashion business in Florence, and in nourished it with the beauty of a unique city. Italy has an immense craftsmanship heritage, everybody acknowledges this. Even King Charles, a personal friend, maintains that these centres of excellence must be supported for their uniqueness and abilities. For their 2020 runway show in Florence, Dolce & Gabbana invited me, as well. They said I was the reason for their choice of holding the show in Florence in the first place. I was a bit scared because of the pandemic, but when Dolce told me that thirty-five craftsmen contributed to their project, I had no doubt. I flew straight to Florence. I was that enthusiastic about their choice.

A movie on your life
Years ago, I asked Mauro Aprile Zanetti, also an Italian-born San Franciscan, to write a biopic on my life, which built upon a Renaissance sentiment – my very Florence and the cultural background it gave me – and California dreaming – my San Francisco and the American dream, which I was able to live and share with many, many people. I’d like to tell the story of how often I reinvented myself since childhood, and how I left it all in Florence and started anew in a new country. I have always kept on dreaming with determination and resilience. I have always lived life in its wonderful fullness, illuminated by the beauty of opera, art, friendship, and love. In fact, I want to motivate the younger generations to live their lives as protagonists: dream big, have no fear, never quit, and know how to reinvent yourself. I would also like to show other wealthy people how much good can one do for mankind by sharing even a little amount of what you have. You can make the world a better place right here, right now. No need to wait.


Featured image: Maria Manetti Shrem – Photo Gianmarco Rescigno