A View of Italy
A View of ItalyBill Weiller Brings Italian Art to Northwest FloridaBy Wendy O. Dixon and Lilly Rockwell
Italy is home to some of the world’s great artists, poets and sculptors. You’ve heard of its grandest art cities — Milan, Rome, Venice, Naples and Florence. But it was in the ancient capital of the Etruscan empire — the city of Arezzo — where Bill Weiller, a 72-year-old retired businessman and art collector from Seagrove Beach, came to work as an apprentice in an old art studio.
Arezzo, situated in the southeastern part of the Tuscany region, still looks much as it did during the 13th century. Its ruins date back a couple of thousand years before Christ. The medieval village is now a small city with 100,000 people.
The ancient studio in Arezzo where Weiller apprenticed contains works by some of Italy’s most illustrious artists, including Renaissance master Michelangelo and Giorgio Vasari, a 16th-century painter and author of the first work on art history. Weiller, a millionaire, soon found himself sweeping floors and cleaning cobwebs out of corners. But in addition to the more menial tasks, he and his wife, Ada, were able to spend months working on an art restoration project that would produce lucrative results for the studio.
Meanwhile, the Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science in Tallahassee — known to locals as the Brogan — was trying to come up with a way to diversify its revenue source during a very tight economy. Weiller, who had never heard of the Brogan, would soon become a valuable partner in the Tallahassee museum’s efforts to bring a world-class art exhibit to Northwest Florida. He saw potential in the restoration of Italian art that he hopes will lead to an enterprising result for the struggling Tallahassee museum.
The Brogan will open an Italian art exhibit in March 2011, showing 56 Italian paintings from the 16th through 18th centuries. Nine of them will receive restoration work as part of the deal.
The paintings are coming from the Brera Museum (Pinacoteca di Brera) in Milan, Italy. That’s thanks, in part, to Weiller.
“It’s Milan’s most outstanding museum,” says Weiller, who lives in Seagrove Beach near Seaside when not working in the art studio in Italy. “The Brera is recognized as one of the major art collections in the world.”
It is an especially noteworthy coup for the Brogan because the Brera has never shown an entire exhibit anywhere in the world.
Weiller is working with the Brogan to bring the exhibit, which he hopes is the beginning of many international exhibitions in Northwest Florida.
Trish Hanson, chief operating officer for the Brogan, says Weiller’s involvement in the project has opened doors to the international art community.
“He has been a wonderful resource for us,” Hanson says. “He has really stepped up with his involvement, from not knowing anything about the Brogan to really being a champion for this project.”
An Art Lover from the Start
Weiller’s family came to the United States from the region formerly known as Yugoslavia and settled in Manhattan, where he was exposed to art on every street corner and in every café.
“My mother was an artist and, living in New York, whether you like it or not, you are always seeing things. It’s eye candy, a different type of beauty than (Northwest Florida),” he says. “I would take my dates back then to the Metropolitan (Museum of Art) because they had the cheapest cafeteria and they looked great. You take (art) for granted there. New Yorkers don’t even go see the Statue of Liberty, tourists do.”
Weiller attended the High School of Industrial Arts (now the High School of Art and Design), known for its design programs in illustration, architecture, fashion design, graphic design, digital photography and video technology. Fashion designers Calvin Klein and Marc Jacobs are famous alumni, as are legendary singer (and painter) Tony Bennett, photographer Steven Meisel and actors Harvey Fierstein and Lawrence Hilton Jacobs.
“While I had some talent — I could do a drawing — I didn’t have any original talent,” Weiller says.
He went into the Army for a couple of years, then to New York University before transferring to Columbia University on scholarships.
“Because nobody else applied for them, not because I was so smart,” he says with a chuckle.
While attending Columbia, Weiller worked as a night manager at the Delmonico Hotel on Park Avenue in New York City, where he encountered an up-and-coming band called the Beatles in the early 1960s.
“I didn’t have a lot of time for popular culture,” he says. “I got this phone call from some guy across the Atlantic line who said, ‘I want to make a reservation for the Beatles,’ and I said, ‘What is that?’ He might as well have said ‘a reservation for the roaches.’ Keep in mind, most people didn’t know (who they were) except for 13-year-old girls. So I had them spell out their names, and they wanted like six rooms. It was a big deal.”
When the Beatles arrived, Weiller took a glimpse from a window in the Delmonico.
“As far as the eye could see, there were people,” he recalls.
The British pop group was about to make history on the popular variety program “The Ed Sullivan Show” with its debut performance in the States. Weiller escorted the small legion of press around and was accidentally hit in the face by a photographer. When Beatles manager Brian Epstein heard about the incident, he asked for Weiller to come up to the suite where Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Harrison and John Lennon were staying.
“They apologized for me getting hurt, and I said, ‘That’s fine.’ You know, what are you gonna say?” Weiller recalls. “And Ringo signs one of his shirts for my niece. We gave it to the poor girl, and she took it to school and nobody believed her. They were considered to be like Jesus Christ incarnate.”
Business Ventures and Art Adventures
After getting married and having children, Weiller and his young family moved to Rome, where he ran the European division of an Atlanta-based chemical company. Within a couple of years, it was the most profitable division of the company worldwide.
“I chose Rome because it’s got the lousiest work environment but the best quality of life,” he says.
Weiller later became the CEO of Purafil, a manufacturer of air purification systems based in Atlanta. That job would open doors into Italy’s world of art. Purafil manufactures air quality systems that remove odorous, corrosive and toxic gases. Though the company’s customers included pulp and paper factories, it also protected valuable artifacts in the Netherlands, the Sistine Chapel and in Washington, D.C.
“I put the company in the museum business only because, when you go overseas, you can work with a refinery, semiconductor facilities or a museum. Which is better? The museum is a $100,000 job, the refinery is a million-dollar job. But I’d rather see the museum. There are more interesting people. It wasn’t a big money-maker, but it was really cool.
“We did the Sistine Chapel (in Rome), so we got some press,” he says. “They wouldn’t have written about us if we had done it for BP.”
Weiller sold the company in 2005 to retire and pursue his passion for art more fully.
He read an article in an Italian magazine about three women who lived in Arezzo, a small city he’d never heard of before, who restore paintings. He went to meet them.
“I walk into the studio and see a figure of Christ — Byzantine art,” he says. “I’m looking at paintings that predate Renaissance art and names that I remember studying in school. And they’re scattered all over.
“Impulsively, I approach the women and say, ‘I would like to work here,’ and they say, ‘Well, you have to go to school and get a doctorate in fine arts, you have to go to restoration school.’ But I say again, ‘I’d like to work here.’”
Weiller and the women worked out a simple agreement. They paid him nothing, he paid them nothing.
Weiller restored major works of art by Giorgio Vasari, a painter, historian and writer who lived in the mid-1500s and is credited with inventing the study of art history. As he worked, Weiller learned that the restoration process is not for the impatient. It can’t be hurried.
Paintings on wood are checked for termites and rotting, then covered with Japanese rice paper for protection. The extensive process of preparing and cleaning a canvas can take weeks.
“You can see the holes in the canvas from burning candles,” Weiller explains. “So you take gesso (a fine chalk) and fill up any holes, but you have to do it so that it’s flat. Then you take a scalpel and carefully raise the edge so it’s perfectly level with the surface of the painting.”
Most of the old paintings show evidence of hundreds of years of exposure to candles and humidity. Usually, 50 percent of the painting has to be restored.
“You don’t want it to look like the original,” he says. “You want to show the difference, because one day they may have new techniques (for restoration), in which case they know exactly where to go. The art history background is important, because you need to know what other paintings did this artist do, when, where. It’s like detective work.”
Pointing to a portrait titled “Madonna and Child” (Madonna al Bambino), originally painted in the late 1500s, Weiller says, “This was a piece of crap when I started. I thought, why bother with this one? To my surprise, this is what came out.” The finished product shows a serpent at the bottom that wasn’t evident before. “I was very proud of that one, even though I was under their perpetual supervision.”
It was Vasari’s “Pala Albergotti,” featuring the assumption and crowning of the Virgin, along with smaller paintings surrounding it that got Weiller thinking about involving the Italian community in the restoration project.
“Here’s (Saint Lucia, patron saint of the blind), her picture is always the same, she’s with a plate with two eyes on it, and the eyes are looking at you,” he says. “Another saint has a tooth hanging out, and so on.”
Weiller suggested that the art gallery get the paintings of the saints adopted, using the theme in the painting to target various contributors — an optometrist for the Lucia, a dentist for the portrait of Saint Apollonia, the patroness of dentistry, and so on.
“They said, ‘No, you don’t understand, we just don’t do that here,’” he says. “In Italy, people do not do that, it’s not part of the social fabric. Restoration, public things, are all done by the government because you pay high taxes. I said to them, ‘Let’s try it.’”
Though the gallery was resistant at first, the idea of using money to restore works of art without the government’s help led to an unexpected success.
“They ended up doing something incredible for Italy,” Weiller says. “They raised more than enough money to pay for this, and they did it at the level of higher than 10,000 euros” (currently about $12,800 in U.S. currency).
Bill and Ada Weiller financed the major portion of the Vasari painting while convincing the gallery to adopt out the smaller panels and facial portraits.
The Brogan and Brera Connection
Back stateside in Tallahassee, the Brogan has always had difficulty meeting the demand of its operating budget, says museum director Chucha Barber.
“We have struggled since our inception,” she says. “There was a belief that when we built it, people would come and it would be all right. There wasn’t a plan for where it would get its operating funds year to year, and it’s difficult to do so.”
Each year, the Brogan has to find a way to bring in between $1.2 million and $1.5 million in revenue to support its operations. And every year, Barber says, she isn’t sure where that money will come from.
“We make projections each year based on history,” she says. “But I can tell you we don’t always live up to history when we are in the greatest recession since the Great Depression.”
Traditionally, the museum has financed its operations from a buffet of financing options. Contrary to what most people think, the Brogan and most other museums couldn’t survive on donations and admission fees alone.
Reaching a critical point in its survival, the Brogan turned to Atlanta-based Convergent Nonprofit Solutions for advice.
“The truth was, if the community did not want to support the Brogan Museum, we needed to know that,” Barber says.
Convergent conducted a survey of Tallahassee residents.
“We learned, first and foremost, the community does really want this Brogan Museum,” Barber says.
But the community had suggestions for improvement. Tallahasseeans wanted to see the Brogan reach out to neighboring communities more, partner with other cultural organizations, and bring in more big, blockbuster exhibits such as “Bodies.” This exhibit featured actual human bodies preserved without skin so that viewers could learn about the human body, from the skeletal and muscular system to fetal development.
“They want us to bring in awesome exhibits,” Barber says. “They don’t want mediocre quality.” The problem is, the better the exhibit, the more expensive the rental fee. The Brogan needed to figure out a way to find money in a community that was already financially strapped.
“All of us in the community that are not-for-profits are knocking on the same doors for our savior,” Barber says. “The truth is that these are wonderful organizations that want to support all of us, but their resources are limited.”
The Brogan needed to find a way to diversify its income source.
The solution turned out to be in Italy.
Trish Hanson, the museum’s chief operating officer, went on a trip to Italy with a local Rotary club. She spent her time learning about Italian museums, and an opportunity came up to host 56 Italian paintings from the 16th through 18th centuries. Nine of the paintings needed restoration, and as part of the deal, the Brogan would pay the Italian government, which owns the paintings, for the work. The museum would not have to pay a pricey rental fee — only the cost of shipping, restoration and insurance.
Coincidently, at around the same time, Weiller had spoken with Sandrina Bandera, director of the Brera and superintendent of arts, while he was involved with another foundation that he had founded in Milan.
“She asked me, ‘Do you know of a city called Tal-la-has-see?’” he says, enunciating slowly and clearly in an imitation of her Italian accent.
Weiller responded, “Yes, it’s the capital of the state I live in.”
While he had heard of most of the museums in the United States, Weiller didn’t know about the Brogan. So Bandera asked him to check it out, because the Brera had never held an entire exhibition outside of Italy. Weiller called Hanson and quickly became involved in the project, which is now scheduled for March 2011.
“Bill Weiller has given us such wonderful advice and support,” Hanson says. "He has been extremely instrumental and I truly appreciate his support and commitment to the project."
Now, the Brogan is looking forward to hosting an exhibition that could offer a way out of its recent financial woes.
“This leads us to a replicable (business) model,” Barber says. “We think there may be an opportunity to reach outside the community with an exhibition like this, and perhaps others in our future, whereby we are now generating support from firms in Italy that want to do business in Florida. All of a sudden, there are new revenue streams that are uniquely associated with the Brogan Museum.”
The Brogan is also seeking sponsors to adopt one of the Italian paintings to help pay for the restoration. This special fundraising effort will help pay for the exhibit. Though there is no rental fee, the museum expects its operating budget to be $400,000 higher in the 2010–2011 fiscal year because of the exhibit.
But the Brogan also has an escape clause in case fundraising efforts fall short. If financial goals are not met, the museum will still pay to restore the paintings but won’t mount an exhibition, meaning it wouldn’t have to pay for shipping or insurance.
“Our hope at the moment is that by offering our constituents exhibitions and programs of such outstanding caliber, people cannot resist,” Barber says. “We hope that will keep us alive. We have already tried hunkering down and it didn’t work.”
Weiller says all of Northwest Florida will benefit from an international exhibit from a major museum, and this project will give the Brogan much-needed exposure in the art world.
“Here we are in a great place,” he says. “I love the natural part of this area, but it has some things lacking — a good bakery and some cultural things. This area is completely under-served.”
If the exhibition is a success, it could open doors for other international exhibits.
“Why can’t they go to the Vatican and ask them to have a special show?” he asks. “It will be great for the entire North Florida region.”
The exhibition is already getting financial backers willing to adopt the paintings, according to Hanson, but is still seeking funds to cover the cost of the overall exhibition. Weiller says this is a prime opportunity for people who live on the Emerald Coast to get in on the project.
“If we were able to get the money in Arezzo,” Weiller says, “we can get it here.”
Adopt a Painting
The Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science’s “Adopt a Painting Project” initiative in Tallahassee includes landscapes, portraits and religious scenes from the Brera collection in Milan, Italy. Adoption levels range from $5,000 for an “Apprendista Restauratore” to $10,000 for a “Maestro Restauratore.”
To adopt one or more paintings from the collection, or to find out more about the project, call Trish Hanson at (850) 513-0700, Ext. 236, or visit thebrogan.org.