Maja Hoffmann had been reluctant to erect a tent next to her Marcel Breuer house overlooking Lake Zurich. She wanted nothing to deter her dinner guests—a mix of A-list artists, curators, dealers, and collectors—from roaming the grounds, as they had in years past, to take in the Jean Prouvé swing set and the sizable sculptures by Paul McCarthy, Gary Hume, and Willem de Kooning. But with a chilly shower in the forecast this past June, she could delay no longer and the tent went up.
Hoffmann, 56, is among the contemporary art world’s most influential patrons, though chances are you haven’t heard of her. An activist-philanthropist, she prefers to work behind the scenes, plunging into the nitty-gritty aspects of art making. “She’s a producer of extraordinary projects that wouldn’t get done without her help,” says the collector and globe-trotting tycoon Jean “Johnny” Pigozzi, a regular houseguest of Hoffmann’s in Zurich. “She has the money, she has the energy, and she does everything herself.”
Invitations to Hoffmann’s annual dinner in Zurich—the unofficial kickoff to Art Basel, the ne plus ultra of contemporary art fairs—are highly coveted. Hoffmann, dressed casually but elegantly in a silk Lanvin top and pants and a black blazer, warmly chatted up the players who poured in. Her brown hair hung loosely around her face, accenting her thick eyebrows and striking green eyes. Befitting her no-frills style, she looked as if she’d gotten ready in a hurry. (She usually wears sneakers, albeit by Balenciaga or Lanvin.) While London’s Tate Gallery director Nicholas Serota, über curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, auctioneer Simon de Pury, and collectors Don and Mera Rubell mingled inside sipping prosecco, art stars Urs Fischer, Doug Aitken, Douglas Gordon, and Peter Fischli braved the rain on the patio next to the pool. Others toured the pristine modernist home, where a massive mushroom sculpture by Carsten Höller took over much of the living room.
A pharmaceutical heiress (her family founded Hoffmann-La Roche) with a boho streak, the Swiss-born Hoffmann is often described as a collector, but she considers herself an “enabler,” she told me on a drive to Basel the day before. “I don’t really want to own things. That’s not my focus. I want to make things happen.” And make them happen she does—in Zurich and just about everywhere else. As the founder of the LUMA Foundation (named for her kids, Lucas, 16, and Marina, 13), she supports art, film, and environmental programs around the world—at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, the Venice Biennale, the Serpentine Gallery in London, and Human Rights Watch in New York. She is president of Zurich’s Kunsthalle, a vanguard showcase for art, and vice president of Basel’s Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation, whose formidable collection was started by her grandparents and is now housed in Basel’s Herzog & de Meuron–designed Schaulager museum, a warehouse and study center. Hoffmann is also a board member of New York’s New Museum and London’s Tate, heading up its international council and funding its film program; and she is a key backer of the ongoing cultural program in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. »