In California Wine Country, a Couple Has Planted a World-Class Sculpture Park
Ai Weiwei Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads, 2011l. Courtesy of the Donum Estate.
Plenty of vineyards have sculptures on their grounds, but at Donum Estate in Northern California, there are pieces by Ai Weiwei on the property and on every wine label. Arranged within a grassy circle surrounded by a grove of olive trees, Ai’s Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads (2011) is one Donum’s signature artworks, and on the wine front, pinot noir and chardonnay are the estate’s strong suits.
Since 2015, the Hong Kong–based collectors Allan and Mei Warburg have been adding large-scale sculptures to Donum’s 200-acre property in Sonoma County, which they acquired in 2011. The result is a breathtaking landscape of rolling hills blanketed in rows of vines and punctuated with monumental sculptures, with sweeping views to the south toward San Pablo Bay. Works are arranged among the vines, around a pond, and amid lavender plants and olive trees. While many of the early additions were existing works the Warburgs had bought, the couple’s focus increasingly is on commissioning and developing site-specific pieces with artists. Amid a constellation of collector-driven sculpture parks around the world—places like Bernardo Paz’s Inhotim and Paddy McKillen’s Château La Coste—what sets Donum apart is the Warburgs’ desire to create a contemplative space that reflects their unique collecting habits and interests.
Zhan Wang Artificial Rock No. 126, 2007–2013. Courtesy of the Donum Estate.
“We want to share this experience with others, but we also have a sense of responsibility to the artists,” said Allan, who is the co-founder and co-CEO of Bestseller, one of China’s biggest fashion retailers.
Like its owners—Allan is Danish, Mei is Chinese—Donum’s art collection is international. Alongside a strong contingent of Chinese artists, including Ai, Yue Minjun, Liu Xiaodong, and Zhan Wang, Allan’s native Denmark is well represented, too, with works by Jeppe Hein, Danh Vō, and the half-Danish duo Elmgreen & Dragset. The collection also boasts works by major contemporary artists from throughout Asia, Europe, and the U.S., such as Yayoi Kusama, Anselm Kiefer, Tracey Emin, Keith Haring, and Lynda Benglis. A spider sculpture by Louise Bourgeois stands sentry in its own building; unlike her subsequent spiders made of bronze, this early steel specimen can’t be displayed outdoors.
Keith Haring King and Queen , 1987. Courtesy of the Donum Estate.
The latest additions to Donum’s offerings include a gleaming metal tree sculpture by Subodh Gupta (Donum’s second work by the Indian sculptor) recently installed on a prominent hillside, and a new commission by Doug Aitken slated to be inaugurated next month. The latter came about after Allan approached Aitken to acquire a work he’d created for the 2017 edition of the Desert X biennial, but the artist pitched a site-specific work instead. The estate property currently features about 40 works, while more of the Warburgs’ collection lives at their Hong Kong apartment and house in Copenhagen.
In addition to giving market stars carte blanche in design, the Warburgs have placed plenty of surprising pieces on the property. One of Donum’s most striking works is a giant, mirrored, site-specific sculpture of a heart by Richard Hudson. It looks like something Anish Kapoor might have created in a moment of unguarded sentimentality. But the view from the hilltop on which the big shiny heart perches and the panoramic, selfie-friendly reflections it creates are so stunning that it works. The Warburgs have decided they aren’t out to please everyone, which may actually be the Donum collection’s distinguishing feature, along with its balance of Eastern and Western artists. While other publicly displayed private collections may strive for universal approbation or chase trends, the Warburgs want Donum to reflect their tastes and values.
Subodh Gupta, People Tree, 2017. Courtesy of the Donum Estate.
“It’s very important that this is a personally curated space,” Allan said. “There are things here that a museum would never put in because they’re based on friendships with the artists.”
“We don’t have to care what others think,” Mei concurred: “It’s all about mentality. It’s not about what a curator thinks, it’s about the experience.”
Ghada Amer The Words I Love the Most, 2012. Courtesy of the Donum Estate.
The experience at Donum is likely to win over most skeptics, especially those who are also wine enthusiasts. The estate is accessible to visitors who book a wine tasting ($95 per person), which includes visiting the grounds and sculpture collection. But as the collection continues to grow and the facilities onsite expand, the Warburgs plan to develop more public programming and make the art more broadly accessible.
“We realize there are people who maybe cannot afford to come for a tasting, or maybe they don’t drink, or they’re kids,” Allan said. “We will have tours, and they will not cost much, just to cover the cost of the person taking people around—it’s not to make money.”
Elmgreen & Dragset The Care of Oneself , 2017. Courtesy of the Donum Estate.
For the Warburgs, it’s essential to maintain the tranquility of the experience and the sense of communion with the landscape and the art. “We want people to come here, to be moved by this beauty, and to make new memories,” Mei said. “I hope we can somehow help people think differently and see art differently through a unique experience.”