How business magnate Nicole Bru takes up the gauntlet,defies arts funding cuts
The Named Businesswoman of the Year in 1994, the French-born Dr. Nicole Bru is as shrewd as she is poised. In an interview prior to the launch of the 2015-2016 concert season at the meticulously restored Palazzetto Bru Zane in Venice, Italy, DeluxePad sat down with the woman who contributed to the development of a major pharmaceutical group, only to pay it forward as a patron of the arts.
Woman of science
Ms. Bru’s fortune was estimated between 200 and 300 million Swiss francs by Bilan Magazine’s Top 300 Wealthiest List in 2014. Long fascinated by the scientific avenues that seek to result in the alleviation of human suffering, she took over research at the family-founded and owned Union de Pharmacologie Scientifique Appliquée (UPSA) before assuming the directorship alongside her late spouse, Dr. Jean Bru. During the five years that Nicole Bru sat as chairman of the UPSA Group, turnover doubled. Bristol Myers Squibb acquired her shares in 1994, and she reinvested that in the development of the Halisol Group, an investment management firm based in Luxembourg — again doubling its value. Today, Ms. Bru ranks on Challenges Magazine’s Top 10 Wealthiest Women in France list.
Woman of culture
What she is doing with that is reminiscent of some of the world’s greatest cultural philanthropists. As governments squeeze the arts in alarming funding cuts, Ms. Bru, retired in Geneva, Switzerland, is using her business acumen to power an impressive research and dissemination project for French Romantic music. Italy was in a death grip of governmental funding cuts back in 2009, with only 0.9 percent of GDP being spent on recreation, culture, and religion, according to Eurostat. It would plummet to 0.6 percent in 2011, before seeing an uptick in 2013 to 1.4 percent. The restoration of patrimony was Ms. Bru’s priority, as it touches on all areas of culture. “We had been interested in Egypt, but didn’t find a project that fell in line with what we were looking for. Then I remembered Venice, and a passion shared by my late husband to give back to a city we loved. I began looking for a place to restore.”
She had been a mélomane at heart long before that. “I remember listening to Alexander Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia and Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, and feeling them transport me. Science and art are complementary; the former gives us an understanding of the world, the latter is expressive of it. But science is limited by the knowledge of our day, while art is expressed spontaneously. My late husband’s declaration — that we should do something for Venice, to give back to the city in some way for all the beauty it had given to us — was but a spark to light a fire already built within me.”
Water in a time of drought
Founder of the Fondation Bru in Geneva, Ms. Bru contributes to education and research through a range of programmes that includes but is not limited to the first French-speaking engineering school in China, schooling for children and education for women in Morocco and Burma, and education through sport in Switzerland.
She had been looking for a cultural niche where there was an obvious lack of Maecenas. Well off the beaten tourist track, she acquired the Casino Zane in 2006 to the tune of nine million euros, now Palazzetto Bru Zane, and pumped four and a half million euros into restoration. “The building was in a disastrous state,” said Ms. Bru. “It took 18 months of work to restore the palazzetto to its former splendour.” Originally completed in 1697 by the Zane family as a place of divertissement, pleasure, and, most importantly, music, the palazzetto and adjacent library were covered in stunning marmorino stuccowork and frescoes. “I didn’t know that it had been built and dedicated to music when I bought it. Consigning the palazzetto to the rediscovery of the French Romantic musical heritage was one of the most moving experiences of this project.”
French Romantic music in La Serenissima?
Having supported the French Baroque conductor, Hervé Niquet, in his revival of Baroque musical masterpieces and their recreation on period instruments, she turned to him for direction. “Hervé advised that we do the same thing for French Romantic music that we’d done for Baroque,” said Dr. Bru. “I was daunted by such a broad scope of interest, but that’s what we did.” Now, the palace is a laboratory of art and trial, and where other movements to fund the arts through crowdsourcing pop up only to wane in defeat, raising significantly smaller and less effective budgets, Palazzetto Bru Zane is a musician’s paradise. A comfortable budget is set annually that allows for a series of projects to be realized and music disseminated internationally. In-house recordings, books with audio CDs, and a concert series that takes the music beyond Venice and into some of the most opulent venues worldwide are some of the activities carried out by a staff of 15 persons (including music specialists) at Palazetto Bru Zane, which constitutes a substantial part of Foundation Bru activities.
Return on a heavy investment
Her reward? “Discovering wonderful works that I did not previously know. My field of musical knowledge has grown considerably, and that is the greatest return on this investment. It’s very costly to undertake a project like this, and the risk that the public will dislike it is always very present. After seven years, I can tell you that this project has been successful, and that an obscure musical repertoire is being experienced by a great number of people.”
We asked Ms. Bru if after seven years and against all odds, she feels funding culture is still worth it. “Not only is it worth it, it is imperative!” she said. “There is a disinvestment on the part of the State with regard to art and we need individual Maecenas to get even more involved. The need is growing and we must make up for what the State has stopped giving. We need people who are committed to the arts. Culture will diminish, and humanity with it. A distressing example of this is what is happening in the Middle East: destroying ancient art with sledgehammers. That is Barbaria. Man in his accomplishment must be an artistic creature.”
For more information on concerts in Venice and worldwide: www.bru-zane.com
For more information on Foundation Bru in Geneva, Switzerland: www.fondation-bru.org
Article by Allison Zurfluh