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Cy Schnabel: "San Sebastián has all the ingredients to become an artistic destination".

Cristina Altozano, ELLE, October 6, 2022

















New Yorker Cy Schnabel, son of the painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel and the designer and former model from San Sebastian, Olatz López Garmendia, welcomes us to Villa Magdalena, where he presents a new exhibition in his art gallery. In addition to telling us about his facet as a curator and gallery owner, he reveals his "favorite tips"; for the capital of San Sebastian.


Cy Schnabel (New York, 1993) grew up surrounded by artists thanks to the cultural environment of his parents, visiting galleries, museums and hoarding exhibition catalogues. Although he studied Political Science, attracted by the interdisciplinarity offered by the degree, it was almost inevitable to dedicate himself to this world. He spent the confinement during the pandemic in Villa Magdalena, the family home in the capital of San Sebastian, a typical farmhouse from the 1920s on the slopes of Mount Igueldo, the work of the architect José Martínez de Ubago. After having lived all his life in big cities -New York, Mexico City-, he gave a change of direction to that cosmopolitan life, decided to stay here and embark on a new course. 


Why did you decide to settle in San Sebastián?


I saw a unique opportunity to open an international gallery in a city that doesn't have a contemporary art scene. He wanted to reinforce the cultural life of San Sebastian with a project that would bring international artists to the city. However, I also work with many Spanish artists. I knew it would be a challenge because there is not a strong base of local collectors, however, in this global digital age it seemed feasible to me because of how connected we are through social networks and the creation of virtual platforms.on-line


This city has all the right ingredients to become an arts destination: a major film festival, world-class restaurants, the jazz festival, the Chillda Leku museum, Cristina Iglesias' new permanent installation, Hondalea, on the island of Santa Clear. Cibrian, another young gallery that opened in 2018, shows mainly international artists. It's 40 minutes from Biarritz, where Lucy Chadwick, longtime director of Gavin Brown's New York firm, opened her Champ Lacombe gallery in the summer of 2021. Bilbao is nearby and attracts a global art audience with institutions from around the world. renowned as the Guggenheim and the Museum of Fine Arts - where the former director of the Padro Miguel Zugaza has taken charge since 2017 and has reinvigorated the museum. Carreras Múgica, one of my favorite galleries in Spain, is also based there. In addition, the airport is very well connected to the rest of Europe.


What was the final trigger?


Accustomed to living in large metropolises, settling in a smaller place, with a better quality of life and a slower pace, seemed like a necessity to me. Despite that shocking unpredictable period that was the pandemic, I was lucky enough to spend the initial confinement at my mother's house, surrounded by nature and near the sea. It was perfect. I saw many movies, I read a lot, I became a better cook and I finished a text about the work and life of the artist Alejandro Garmendia, my uncle. I found a balance and personal structure that was missing in New York. My mother's house is very inspiring and I have many memories. After a hard period I wanted to replace the sad and traumatic moments with something creative and positive. I always dreamed of having my own space where I could exercise the freedom to select artists and show my sensitivity towards art, my own critical gaze. Writing is an important aspect of my approach as a gallery owner as well; I write all my press releases and consider them more like essays. It brings me closer to the artists, there is a rich exchange of ideas that adds more substance to the exhibitions. I like to write because it is a more analytical and conceptual exercise. 


How would you define Villa Magdalena?

It is an art gallery. I have worked directly with all the artists I have exhibited so far, except for Miroslav Tichý who passed away in 2011. Almost everything I exhibit is for sale. However, I never thought of Villa Magdalena as something that I was going to make money with, it was simply an opportunity to present works by artists that I liked in a unique space and to be able to write about what was exhibited. There were no strategic or calculated decisions when selecting the artists, I simply let myself be guided by my eye and my intuition. I knew that this was my best bet because, ultimately, it would distinguish my taste and way of thinking from other gallery owners and curators.


Villa Magdalena was born from my multicultural identity as a New Yorker and someone who spent part of his life here in San Sebastian. I always perceived San Sebastián as my second home, and that allowed me to feel comfortable settling here and opening a gallery. New York initially sparked my interest because of the art exposure I had through my father, and the access to amazing museums and galleries the city has to offer. I spent a lot of time looking at art alone, reading, listening to other people and not feeling safe enough to express my own opinions. In the fall of 2020, I felt like all those past experiences were paying off because I finally had something to say. It was then that I decided to open Villa Magdalena and start curating exhibitions. 


Who took care of the decoration of the house?


My mother and father did. These are my mother's comments on the general concept of the interior design of the house:


My intention was always to preserve the soul of the house, recreating the austerity and elegance that I perceive in the DNA of the historic architecture of the Basque Country.


Colors are fundamental for me, and in this case the intention was to compensate for the gray skies characteristic of the north. The furniture is simple, rustic, most of it comes from small antique dealers from all over the region, especially from the French Basque Country, combining everything with elements that come from my travels through Morocco, Indonesia, India that give a touch of exoticism to the atmosphere. general of the house


It was built by José Martínez de Ubago in 1920, an architect who built many houses in the same area. It offers the typical image of a neo-Basque house.


What makes it different from a traditional art gallery?


It is not a space of white cubes. Most galleries have a clear hierarchy with many roles designated for different employees. I alternate between curator, writer, gallery director and seller. My intention is to try to participate in all aspects of the gallery.


The fact that it's connected to my house allows me to bring friends, family, and some visitors afterwards, which makes for a more intimate experience. For my exhibition openings, I invite visitors to the garden and pergola above the exhibition space. Sometimes I also cook, all of which is an important part of the gallery experience as well. Most of the time I welcome visitors and I think this bridges the gap that can be felt between the art and the public in many galleries. People find it comforting to be able to talk to me directly. I want it to be as unpretentious as possible.


Who and how can visit it?


Admission is free, all kinds of visitors are welcome: from a more uninformed public in general such as children, to older people, artists, other types of art lovers, collectors... really anyone who is curious enough to come to visiting us is welcome. In the last two years, people have mainly requested appointments through email, Instagram or whatsapp.

Why did you choose this formula?


I decided on the private tour for a couple of reasons. The gallery opened its doors in the middle of Covid and I wanted to avoid the restrictions that applied to galleries and museums open to the public. Furthermore, Villa Magdalena is not located in a central location in the city; Being located in a hilly residential neighborhood, there is very little foot traffic, so it makes less sense to leave the doors open for a certain time waiting for visitors to stop by. Finally, as the space is connected to my house, I felt that this formula allowed me to control the situation without my privacy being invaded. I wasn't worried that people wouldn't know what I was doing because I thought it was unique enough to grab their attention. I knew that I had to do all possible exhibitions and that more and more people would come because in San Sebastian people usually find out about things by word of mouth.


You studied Political Science and you are a writer, although you grew up surrounded by artists. Was devoting yourself to the world of art inevitable?


Perhaps it can be said that it was inevitable. I decided on Political Science when I was at Bard because I wanted to learn about the relationship between governments and individuals, it gives you some awareness of the history of mankind and how it varies in different regions. It's a dark story for the most part. It introduces you to a series of concepts that help you understand the situation in different countries. You learn about the success or failure of international institutions like the UN and the World Bank, the political legacy of colonialism and free market economies in the so-called developing world. Reading books like Clash of Civilizations by Samuel P. Huntington was very eye-opening and thought-provoking. I also thought about studying history, but Political Science is a very interdisciplinary degree, covering history, human rights, economics, anthropology and sociology to a lesser extent, so I thought it would cover all my academic areas of interest.


Although at one point I considered majoring in Art History at university, I found Political Science more challenging because I've been surrounded by art and artists all my life. Growing up with my father, his art collection, and his cultural background was an art history lesson in itself. Naturally, I visited art galleries and museums, and began to create a library of art books (exhibition catalogs and artist monographs) so that I could do research on my own. I knew that I was very likely to pursue a career in art because of the time I spent looking at and thinking about art. I took a couple of Art History classes at Bard College and really enjoyed them. I attended a master class on the study of 20th century art with Alex Kitnick, a frequent contributor to Artforum and other prestigious art publications.


Some recent texts that I have written and that have been published were for my father's recent individual exhibition at the CAC Málaga, and two essays for monographs dedicated to the artists Matías Sánchez and Milko Pavlov

How do you select your artists?


I try to make as many studio visits as possible. Traveling within Spain and to New York, Berlin, Mexico City or Paris is always very constructive when selecting artists for my gallery. Villa Magdalena is closed during the winter, so that is usually when I have more time to organize trips, visit artists and plan exhibitions for the following season. Many of the artists I have exhibited and would like to exhibit in the future I know personally and have seen their work in person. When you see things in person or spend time in an artist's creative environment, it's always a very clear moment, you can properly judge things and really see what resonates.


Who can we see soon in Villa Magdalena?


In October we will have work by Lucy Mullican (1994, New York), an emerging artist based between New York and Berlin who studied at the Glasgow School of Art. Lately he is making watercolor-based paintings on wood panel. Visitors will be able to see some new large and small format examples from this series at our next exhibition. Right now, I mostly work with mid-career artists; I think it2s important for me to work with artists of my generation with whom I can evolve over time. I have known Lucy since we were children, she is a close friend and we have always understood each other in a very natural way. She describes her practice as "Representation of the spirit"

What is your favorite corner of the house?


The garage at the entrance of the house where I have the gallery has always seemed impressive to me. From the outside it looks like an ancient fortress. I also like the living room terrace a lot. 


What memories do you keep of San Sebastian?


My grandmother Charo and my great-aunt Antonia were always excited to be with us. As children, when we came in the summer or occasionally at Christmas or Easter, we spent most of our time with them. Unlike New York, here we could go out at night and come home later than usual, which made us feel independent. Eating rich was the norm, which is no surprise in this part of Spain. Going to remote villages in the countryside to eat in an old Basque farmhouse or in a cider house was always a special plan. I practiced a lot of surfing with my brother; thus we met many of our local friends. We went to the beaches of the coast from Zarautz to Hossegor in France. I was very close to my cousin and uncle, both of whom had the ability to reinvent everyday life with alter egos and fictional settings. They were fun characters who loved to talk about art, music and movies. Unfortunately, they are no longer with us.

My father painted many pictures in his studio in San Sebastián, the space that I converted into my gallery. In this particular studio he worked a lot with portraits - he called this series Resin Portraits - which ended with a layer of this material and sometimes white abstract forms were also added. In these works I liked the contrast between the meticulous representation of each person's face and the freely painted ancient costumes that he invented from his imagination. The enigmatic white marks that he added at the end disfigured parts of the painting. It always seemed to me that he was inspired by the old Spanish masters, such as Velázquez and Goya. I think that makes it very special.


When friends from abroad come to visit you, what is the essential visit-route, the one that never fails and cannot be missed?


Go for pinxtos in the old town. A lunch or dinner at Elkano in Getaria. Spend the day in the French Basque Country and visit Saint Jean de Luz, Guethary, Bidart and Biarritz. Drive along the coastal road from Getaria to Zumaia and then stop at Asador Bedua in Zumaia. Visit Chillida Leku, the museum of the sculptor Eduardo Chillida. Take the boat to see the Cristina Iglesias installation on Santa Clara Island and then eat at La Rampa in the port. Make the excursion from San Sebastián to Passages through Mount Ulía. Visit the Sanctuary of Arantzazu. Have a drink at El Polvorín bar, at the top of Mount Urgul. Go to the Iruin cider house in Zubieta. At night, have a drink in Plaza de la Constitución, in the bars near Reyes Católicos or Plaza de Easo.


What is it that usually catches your attention?


The microclimate. There are times when several seasons occur in a single day. One day in March 2018, it snowed in the morning, then the sun came out for almost the whole day and all the snow melted, in the evening there was a big storm. It is a city with a dramatic light that does not stop changing.


How is your day to day in San Sebastian?


In the morning I go shopping, I usually stop at the butcher or fishmonger, at the greengrocer, and then I buy bread and breakfast at the bakery. When I get home I work for a few hours and then I go for a run and go into the sea before eating at home. After lunch I keep working until 7 and go for a bike ride or play basketball on these courts by the sea. At night I meet up with friends in the center or in the old town for dinner and I usually go to a pintxos bar and drink something.


And a day off? How you relax? What are your hobbies?


When I have a day off, the ideal is to spend the day surfing somewhere in France like Guethary, Bidart or Anglet. Before heading back to Spain after a long day of surfing, it's nice to stop in Biarritz and have a drink at the Port Vieux.


A secret hideaway in the city


The English cemetery of Monte Urgull


What is your favorite skewer?


My favorite pintxo is the gilda; you can find it in almost any bar in the city. My favorites are the Ganbara, the Antonio bar, the Tamboril and Casa Néstor.


An essential place not to be missed?


The Arantzazu Sanctuary, one hour from the city.


What attracts you to Basque culture?


Basques seem very loyal to me. They don't open up to you immediately, however once you become friends you feel there is a trust that cannot be broken.


Do you often go to your father for advice?


We have always had a very healthy dialogue when we talk about art. There is a rich exchange of ideas, he has an encyclopedic knowledge. My father has always been a great source of information and respects my ideas. I think he trusts my ambitions as Commissioner. It was an honor to be the author and co-curator ofSchnabel and Spain: Anything can Be a Model for a Painting, an exhibition consisting of 23 paintings made from 1997 to today, which showed his paintings in the context of Spanish painting and the evolution of his artistic production during this period.


Do you get together frequently with the whole family?


We are 7 brothers of different ages and it is difficult to see us all together often, although they are always very special occasions. I'd say 1 or 2 times a year at most.


What is your next project?


I have spent a lot of time in Mexico City since 2016. I did the first Villa Magdalena exhibition outside of San Sebastián there this past winter 2022 during the last edition of MACO when my close friend Javier Estévez from the Mascota Gallery took me in and let me show one of my artists in one of the rooms of his space. It was a solo exhibition by New York-based Korean artist Mie Yim (Seoul, 1963) of new works on paper. I would like to continue planning exhibitions in Mexico City. Right now I spend there 3 or 4 months a year.

Prensa | Cy Schnabel: ‘San Sebastián tiene todos los ingredientes para convertirse en un destino artístico’ | Villa Magdalena

Photo: Pablo Sarabia

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