“The spirit of patronage has been very much lost, and that saddens me”

Antoni Vila Casas

Retrat d'Antoni Vila Casas © Flaminia Pelazzi

Antoni Vila Casas (Barcelona, 1930) has long donated part of his fortune to philanthropic projects. The foundation he set up has two directions: in the social-health-related field, linked to his profession as a pharmaceutical industrialist (in 1960 he founded Laboratorios Prodes, the forerunner of the holding company Prodesfarma, which merged with Laboratorios Almirall in 1995), and the field of art, which he is passionate about. He has a network of three museums: a photography museum at the Palau Solterra in Torroella de Montgrí, a sculpture museum in Can Mario in Palafrugell and a painting museum in Can Framis in Barcelona, as well as the city’s largest exhibition hall, the Espais Volart. His patronage does not end here: he promotes travelling exhibitions and finances festivals, universities and museum institutions.

Antoni Vila Casas usually meets the press at his foundation’s headquarters, in the Eixample neighbourhood, but he has to make an exception this time around because he is at home recovering from a year in which he has suffered a number of health issues, including the damned coronavirus. He receives us in the living room of his penthouse, near Turó Park, comfortable but not luxurious, lined with works of art in the classic bourgeois taste, in contrast to the more than 3,000 pieces by contemporary artists that his foundation holds. It is mid-July, and Vila Casas, despite feeling weak and speaking softly, gives us an emotional conversation (shedding tears and cracking smiles), which interweaves personal stories, his vision of the city and the country, a declaration of unconditional love for Catalan culture, and even an enlightening confession: he has one last project to carry out for Barcelona.

You got here five minutes early. I was doing exercises with the physio [the photographer and I bumped into him in the lift]. He comes every day at eleven o’clock.

I spent the whole time gawping at this splendid Modest Urgell you have behind the desk in your office.

They put it up for auction for five million pesetas and I told them that, given its huge size, they had no chance of selling it. And we made a wager: if they didn’t sell it, I would take it for three million. And that’s what happened. Back then it was cheap, now it would be expensive. It’s no longer worth three million. All this [he makes a horizontal circle with his finger to go round all the walls in the room, brimming with Catalan paintings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries] has fallen a lot in price. The one next to it is also an Urgell, which belonged to my mother-in-law. Most of the paintings I have here belong to the family, and I still have to think about how they can pair with those in the foundation. The furniture too; that piece over there was from my grandfather’s office, and I’ve moved 21 times!

I imagine you must have paintings by your father too. He passed away when you were very young, but you always keep him in mind in interviews and remember those Sundays when he used to take you to visit galleries.

I’m the fourth of five siblings, we had to be shared out between a lot of us. I do indeed have some of his works. I was left without a father when I was 11. Firm. He taught me how to behave. He’s one of the people I’ve loved most in my life. We lived on Carrer Casp, and I studied at the Jesuit school on the same street. They instilled a form of behaviour and conduct in me that I have always followed: when I go to bed I examine my conscience, what I have done well and what I have done badly that day, and what I can improve. I am 91 years old and I still think every night about what I can do the next day that can help the country [the tears are still falling]. I cry because I am soft. Coronavirus has affected me. When I talk about the things that I really appreciate and that have made me happy, I get really emotional.

How are you feeling?

Since 14 January, I’ve been feeling a bit rough. I was admitted to Vall d’Hebron hospital for 40 days. Followed by four months in bed. Besides, I fell in the most stupid way possible. I’ve got one leg out of action. Now, when you leave, I have to go to the dentist. And the day after tomorrow, to the cardiologist. I can tell I am not well.


All three vaccinations. The doctor told me: “I don’t want to lead you on: what you’ve caught is like flipping a coin. If it comes up heads, you’ll recover, but if it comes up tails, you can tell your wife to buy a plot of land to bury you in”. I was treated very well at Vall d’Hebron and they were always straight with me. Public health care is a treasure.

What did you think about in hospital?

It coincided with the preparation of the exhibition of the tapestries in tribute to Picasso [created by artists from all over to support him in the wake of the right-wing extremist attacks on his work during the late Franco years], and I took care of every detail. I bought the entire collection from Jani Figueras’ children, who had part, but not all, of it in the dining room of the Mas de Torrent hotel. When he opened the hotel, I told him that if he ever wanted to sell it, I would buy it from him. When he died, his children came to see me: “Is that what you said to our father?” If I say something, I always keep to it. But I didn’t know that there were 400 tapestries! And they requested a large sum from me. I paid for them over three years. It the truth be told, I had to push them to put on the exhibition in my own foundation. “A few tapestries?”, they said [making a disgusted face]. Listen, they have a history that shows that, in Franco’s time, artists who didn’t belong to the regime didn’t sell anything. Picasso was a communist, Miró was a communist... Dalí did sell, because deep down he was a Franco supporter. Franco never helped painters who were genuinely talented, especially not those from Catalonia. And this is still the case today. Well, Picasso wasn’t Catalan, but he trained here.

Do you accept that people say that you are the last great Catalan patron of the arts?

That’s not true. The only thing I’ve done is spend money on what I like [he cries]. I have to like it, that’s for sure. If I don’t like it, I don’t buy it.

So, name me another patron who is as committed.

There are others. ”la Caixa”... The motivation behind patronage is to protect and showcase the value of our culture, and that this spirit has indeed been lost. And that saddens me. Today people only want to make money. But in my case, with no children... Because what my friends’ children want is to live well, like their parents. Not having children has given me total freedom to do what I wanted without harming anyone.

You saw that the Miró Foundation was at a low point and you put a million euros on the table without asking for anything in return. I remember you said that you were doing it to encourage other people to follow suit. How many have followed in your footsteps?

None! Some have donated 25,000 euros... It saddens me. Because, for me, Miró is the best Catalan painter.

And you ended up buying one a few years ago. I’ve seen it in a room at the entrance to the apartment.

Yes, under a Dalí that I also bought not long ago. It’s a small Miró. I don’t know which anniversary my wife and I were celebrating and we went to Paris... [he cries]. Sorry, I’m feeling low. In Paris, I was telling you, I took part in an auction for the first time. And this Miró came out. Did you notice that it looks like it says “A Vila”? I bid three times. But it was cheap.

Your second life began in 2004, when you were diagnosed with cancer and were told you only had two years to live. The Can Mario museum in Palafrugell, the second one you opened, was under construction and you weren’t sure if you would see it finished. It’s now 2022 and I know that you are contemplating another project you wish to carry out in Barcelona.

Yes, but I can’t tell you about it. It’s a really big one. And now I don’t know if I’m up to it. I find it daunting even though I’ve got everything I need to be able to carry it out: the building, which is important, and the content to put inside.

Let’s leave it here, for the time being. Your foundation was founded in 1986 with a focus on the field of health. Without ever having pushed that aside, because it continues to invest in research and in public health – in Vall d’Hebron – there was a moment when you decided to make a resolute commitment to art. Why?

One, to help artists who were starting out; two, to bring back the careers of artists that nobody remembered; and three, to devote myself to what I am passionate about: sculpture, painting and photography. And four, obviously, also to encourage interest in art in society. I started with a small museum of 33 sculptures in Pals [his permanent second home]. But what happened? People who wanted to visit it came to my house and asked me to accompany them. I spent the whole time walking [he laughs]. Then I bought the Palau Solterra in Torroella de Montgrí, which started out as a museum with a bit of everything and ended up dedicated exclusively to photography. A historic building. All my museums are located in spaces that have been something. Starting with the foundation’s headquarters, the modernist Casa Felip on Carrer Ausiàs March. But the first headquarters was on Carrer Calàbria, a small flat where President Jordi Pujol now has his office.

Tell us about that.

When he fell into disgrace and they took away his office on Passeig de Gràcia, he rented the concierge’s quarters in the building where he lives. You walked down the street and saw him there in the back... It broke my heart and I told him that this couldn’t be, that I had this small 80-square-metre flat and that I would let him have it. Paying rent, because it belongs to the foundation and it wouldn’t look good: 150 euros. He also pays the electricity and water bills. He went with Marta [Ferrusola] and all his children to see it, and they thought it was fine. And it’s still there. What has been done against Catalonia and against the Pujols has no name. Maybe someone twisted his arm a bit, but him... nothing at all. And the party treated him very badly. I love him very much. And now he loves me too, of course, because I helped him. When he was in charge and we met, he left me hanging and went off with others. Because Pujol was so Pujol.

In Pals, I understand you now have a museum with all the medicines you made, which you show to your friends. If you were asked to choose one, which one would you choose?

Diazepan Prodes, the anxiolytic, which is still called that. Diazepam, with an m, is the generic drug. You can’t use Diazepan, with n, because it’s a brand name I registered. A friend of mine, Raúl Díaz-Varela [Kern Pharma], bought it.

And you take Diazepan?

Since I manufactured it, in 1964, every day. I still take it today. And it works well for me. It helps me sleep and relaxes my neck.

How do you see Barcelona?

In a very bad way. We had a good mayor in Xavier Trias. I wish we had him again. What Barcelona needs is a person who wants the city to shine more brightly. And what we have is a mayoress who has destroyed Poblenou with superblocks – it’s a neighbourhood that will be marvellous when it’s finished – and who supports squatters. I had a flat on Avinguda Gaudí occupied by squatters for seven years! And they put up an eight-metre banner in front of it saying “Vila Casas, the bastard, won’t give us a room”. A disaster.

Retrat d'Antoni Vila Casas © Flaminia Pelazzi Portrait of Antoni Vila Casas © Flaminia Pelazzi

You are a staunch pro-independence activist, a rara avis of the Barcelona haute bourgeoisie. After everything that has happened, how do you think the situation should be set right?

I am an advocate of independence, yes. ERC is not pro-independence. What ERC wants is to beat Convergència, or Junts. The current issue is that there is no leader. Only one, Carles Puigdemont. He is pro-independence. And he will suffer. They will make him suffer. I mentioned to you earlier that the spirit has been lost. The change of company headquarters is proof of this. Even ”la Caixa” has left. ”la Caixa” is no longer ”la Caixa”, it’s something else. I would never have done that with my company. All this saddens me. The marriage between Catalonia and Spain does not work. Catalonia has no place in Spain. The king and queen who married were from two countries at the opposite ends of the world. Castile had always conquered land to grow and expand. Catalonia turned towards the sea and focused on trade.

You say you see no chance.

Not now, not ever. Spain will never let us be independent. Never in a blue moon. And here, in Catalonia, people who have money want nothing to do with it.

You have a lot of money, and well, you believe in it.

I’m not the only one. There are also professionals, such as doctors, lawyers, and so on. But the wealthiest people don’t. They don’t feel it; they haven’t experienced it. All of the former manufacturers were. What is happening in Catalonia is really, really sad.

You love the Cançó per a en Joan Salvat-Papasseit by Joan Manuel Serrat, especially when he says: “I el que pensin de mi no m’interessa gens” [And I couldn’t care less what people think of me].

That’s how it is: I don’t care what people think of me, that has never concerned me. I am satisfied with what I do. I have friends who I know appreciate me. But there are also lots of people who think I’m crazy. “It’s typical of Vila Casas”, they say [he cries]. Look, I’m getting so tired of crying that my tear ducts will dry up [he laughs]. Art is an illusion like any other. At Can Framis I opened a room dedicated to bullfighting, which outrages all those who say they understand art. I like bullfighting and, what’s more, I claim it is Catalan culture. Barcelona is the only city that has had three bullrings at the same time. And, in the times of Philip IV, bullfighting took place in Barcelona, not in Madrid, where it didn’t even exist.

You have a reputation for austerity.

I live well, but I don’t boast about anything. Or only about buying works of art.

What’s the last one you bought?

The painting prize we give, won by Rafael G. Bianchi. I couldn’t present it to him because of my state of health, but I voted for him. Apart from that, not long ago, I bought a number of works by Guim Tió, Magda Bolumar, Jaume Sans... Until 2030, with or without me, the foundation will continue making acquisitions to close the circle of a century of Catalan art. 1930 is the year I was born. The problem I have now is that I am short of storage space.

You have given a great deal of thought to the foundation’s future without you. And you are sure you want it to continue your work.

I will leave everything to the foundation. I already told you that I have no children. The only thing I have to worry about is my wife living well. The board of trustees has been instructed to follow the founder’s policy. I don’t want them to deviate from it, and I have made this clear in the articles of association. I know that many things could be done better, but we exceed our means and ambitions. If you are not sparing, you’ll eventually pay the price.

Many public art institutions would like to have the 3.5 million-euro budget the Fundació Vila Casas enjoys.

The authorities don’t spend what they should spend on the MACBA, on the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya... And then you hear people say: “Madrid really is beautiful”. Well, because Madrid spends the money from all over Spain. Here they say they’ll give us ten and they give us one. It’s a disgrace. I am very critical of Ada Colau’s city council, as you have seen, but I also recognise that she has got some things right. For example, by not allowing the Hermitage museum to be built. Where they want to build it, in the port, is absurd, because tourists will go from the boat to the museum. And so they’ll say they’ve visited Barcelona. Come on.

Does encouraging someone to start an art collection take a lot of money?

Not a lot, no. You end up spending it over the years, I’m telling you. You don’t need a lot of money, what you need is the desire to do it. When I was a child I did. I used to collect vials of typhoid vaccine. I filled them with water and I dyed them with watercolours. I also made a collection of card weighing machines, another one of fish scales, grain scales, meat scales, etc. Listen, earlier you asked me about this new project that I’d love to carry out, and which I told you is so ambitious... If I can do it, it will be for the city of Barcelona. And I’ve already let you in on too much.

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