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2012, Interview Collaboration (Mauricio A. Rodríguez Hernández, Iliana Such and late (2014) Erin Willinger) in the Noble Spirit. Lensed by Leila Alaoui.

Vanessa Branson

Noble Magazine: What does being noble in the 21st Century mean?

Vanessa Branson: I think it means standing by your principles, being respectful, and taking pleasure in life.

Noble Magazine: Can you reveal a childhood experience that influenced your business career, especially your relationship with the arts? 

Vanessa Branson: When I was about ten years old, I clearly remember my father pointing out the beauty of a simple plastic pepper grinder one lunchtime, which opened my eyes.  From then on, I took pleasure in seeing the aesthetic value of manmade objects.

Noble Magazine: How did your initial process to create the Arts in Marrakech (AiM) International Biennale originate? Could you provide us with business insight?

Vanessa Branson: Business was far from a priority when I founded the Biennale.  After listening to a BBC Radio4 news item on the Today program in 2004, when George W Bush was at his most vociferous, I was incensed at the representation of the people of North Africa. In my experience buying and developing Riad El Fenn, I had been so at odds with the hateful words I listened to that morning that I decided to hold an arts event as a platform for debate. Using the arts, you can discuss contentious subjects with passion and honesty. We held the first festival in 2005, which has become a biennale ever since.

Noble Magazine: What is a recent chief achievement in realizing Arts in Marrakech? What are your challenges?  

Vanessa Branson: Arts in Marrakech has now become The Marrakech Biennale. I think its real achievement is that it has stuck to its non-commercial and excellent principle. Now working on our 5th event, its scale and international reach are beyond exciting.

Noble Magazine: Please tell us about a good personal experience defining Arts in Marrakech.

Vanessa Branson: I take enormous pleasure in working with young creative people; seeing how the Biennale is also encouraging the region's art scene is immensely rewarding.

Barkow Leibinger chose "strong and elastic" cotton for tensile installation in Marrakech

Noble Magazine: What was your initial thought process in the Wonderful Fund Collection?

Vanessa Branson: I got terribly excited about the Millennium, and I really wanted to celebrate the moment. To have a snapshot of emerging artists of that period I knew would resonate with importance one day. My partner Prue O’Day and I also wanted to work with people who had never previously been collectors of modern art.

The Wonderful Fund.webp

The Wonderful Fund Collection (2005) Vanessa Branson, Prue O'Day

Noble Magazine: Why and how did you get the idea of Eilean Shona and Riad El Fenn?
Vanessa Branson: Eilean Shona was really the inspiration of my partner Robert Devereux. Buying an island in Scotland had always been his dream. Although challenging at times, spending time in the wilderness restores our souls. We love to spend time there as a family.

Riad el Fenn was an adventure from the word go. While on holiday in Marrakech and after a very good lunch, we decided it would be fun to buy a small house in the medina as a ‘souvenir.’ We instantly fell in love when the agent took us to El Fenn, then a crumbling majestic ruin. However, it was a little bigger than our original concept of a small souvenir, so we decided to open it as a hotel. We bought the central courtyard and one or two neighbouring little houses in 2002. Within five years, we had bought the two large neighbouring properties, thus bringing back the original footprint of the 'palace.'


Noble Magazine: Was there a specific human exchange that inspired you towards taking charitable action regarding Wonderful Fund Collection and Pallant House Gallery?    

Vanessa Branson: Yes, Stefan van Raay transformed Pallant House into a world-class gallery during his fifteen-year tenure there.  He was a visionary and a remarkable man, and I loved working with him. As for charitable inspiration, I’ve been quite a successful collector, and it was a pleasure to give something back.

Noble Magazine: How did you get your idea for Portobello Arts Festivals and Vanessa Devereux Gallery? Could you tell us more about forming such a gallery?  

Vanessa Branson: While studying art history, I listened to a lecture on Stanley Spencer by Antony Gormley, an unknown student at the Slade. I then realised that I wanted to work with living artists. I can’t paint myself, but I quickly understood a good gallerist's creative role by editing, encouraging, and supporting young talent through sales. I opened the Vanessa Devereux Gallery in 1986. Along with several other young, naive enthusiasts, Prue O’Day and Anatol Orient, we realised that if we were to compete with the West End galleries, we needed to get together, share our contacts, and have a festival of art in Portobello to highlight the amount of creativity in the area.

Noble Magazine: If you were UNESCO Director General, what would be your main priority, and how would good management address the arts budget creatively?

Vanessa Branson: The seismic changes happening in North Africa give some very fine artists a voice. The Islamic world hasn’t encouraged creative thinking, and the present fragile situation should be supported and encouraged.

Noble Magazine: What would you suggest to NATO and UNESCO to preserve World Heritage Sites in some "War Zone nations" like Libya, Palestine, Israel, Egypt, or Syria?

Vanessa Branson: If people are treated respectfully, they will respect their surroundings. Beyond that, I suppose education is the answer but in a war situation, I just do not know.

Noble Magazine: Why does the art market profit when social inequality grows?

Vanessa Branson: Only big-name branded artists are making extraordinary prices right now. The rest of the art world is also affected by the global downturn.

Noble Magazine: Does funding for the arts benefit only elite art patrons, or does the rest of society benefit, too?

Vanessa Branson: The arts are a great economic driver. The return they give is much greater than the subsidies they receive.

Noble Magazine: Should world governments give more money to arts and culture?

Vanessa Branson: Big cuts are necessary, and the arts should take a hit among other services. Sometimes less money brings out the ingenuity in people.

Noble Magazine: What is the best way to approach and encourage young people with arts?

Vanessa Branson: Young artists must join groups to support each other. History has shown again and again that this is very effective.

Noble Magazine: You have a healthy relationship with your brother? How is he as a person, not as a global leader?
Vanessa Branson: Richard is very family-minded, and we are incredibly close. We are lucky to spend a good two weeks together a year on holiday, skiing or on Necker. He is generous-spirited and loves sharing his triumphs and the odd mishap. Life is never dull in his world - that is for sure!


Portrait for The Sunday Times, 1980

Noble Magazine: How do you divide your time among family, business, and philanthropy activities?

Vanessa Branson: Now that the family is growing up, they enjoy participating in and helping with Riad El Fenn and the Biennale. You are as good as the people you work with, and I surround myself with extraordinary talent. After the 2014 Biennale, I will be stepping down as President and handing the organisation over to the next generation. I've every confidence that they will do a wonderful job. I'm on the boards of Virgin Unite and the British Moroccan Society and look forward to having more time to devote to these.

Noble Magazine: Currently, you are involved with the Virgin Unite Global Diversity Foundation. What would be your solution to stop poverty issues? Tell us more about your involvement at Virgin Unite, which are your roles? Can you reveal some experience working there?

Vanessa Branson: Virgin Unite focuses on inspiring business as a force for good. And by this, I mean a business should put people and the planet first in all its decision-making. One of the projects Virgin Unite is working on is encouraging young entrepreneurs to set up their own businesses - some very simple, others with enormous ambition. We must rely on something other than governments and big businesses to kick-start the economy again.

Noble Magazine: Virgin Unite is interested in geographical areas like the United States, Canada, South Africa, and Australia. Do you want to reach more countries in the near future?

Vanessa Branson: It's where Virgin employs many people… and yes, there are no geographical boundaries.

Noble Magazine: Virgin Unite fights to end obstetric fistula, AIDS, HIV, and malaria/tuberculosis. Did you want to support additional causes like Multiple Sclerosis, Cancer, etc.?

Vanessa Branson: Rather than focusing on individual diseases, one of Virgin Unite's big ideas is to get the best practitioners in different fields of medicine together to share ideas and best practices.

Noble Magazine: What is a ‘normal’ day in the life of Vanessa Branson?

Vanessa Branson: There isn’t a normal day – except at the end of every day, I simply can’t believe my luck. Come to think of it, a great day would be – you wade through a couple of hours of emails, do a little cooking, see a good friend or member of the family, walk the dogs, plan future events, and do something creative – that is a really great day.

Noble Magazine: Would you describe yourself as a spiritual person? If so, can you share one of your more profound spiritual experiences with us?

Vanessa Branson: I am spiritual, but I'm afraid I completely lost all respect for organised religion about ten years ago. My most spiritual connections are roused by connecting with nature in the company of good friends and a glass of dry white wine.

Noble Magazine: What is your message for today's youth, most unemployed? 

Vanessa Branson: My message to all young people is that life is pretty wonderful but it’s up to you to go out and discover it.

Noble Magazine: What is your greatest hope for the future?

Vanessa Branson: People understand that being creative is much more rewarding than being a consumer.

Noble Magazine: Are you satisfied with all of your achievements until now? When are you happiest?

Vanessa Branson: I don't want to sound too pleased with myself. However, I'm blessed with four funny, energetic kids, a beautiful hotel in Marrakech, great friends, and a love of nature – I could wish for a little more.

Noble Magazine: What is next for Vanessa Branson? Do you desire to write a memoir?

Vanessa Branson: I enjoy writing – who knows …..

Noble Magazine: How would you like to be remembered?

Vanessa Branson: I want to be remembered for making others feel good about themselves.

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