Interview: Wilfred Cass, Ground-Breaking Arts Philanthropist

SLIDESHOW: Set within 26 acres of West Sussex countryside, the foundation has put modern British sculpture on the art world map.

Wilfred Cass and his wife live in their own 26-acre sculpture park in Sussex. After two decades of exhibiting solely British sculptors, the foundation is now seeking to fill its lush green grounds with international talent.

The CASS Sculpture Foundation was established in 1992 by British philanthropist Wilfred Cass (aged 92) and his wife Jeannette (90) as a charitable body committed to fostering new talent. Set within 26 acres of West Sussex countryside, the foundation put modern British sculpture on the art world map. While walking through the old oaks and pine trees you will spot iconic pieces by the mainstays of the British sculpting world, from Tony Cragg to Rachel Whiteread, Phillip King to Anthony Caro.

Art collecting runs in the Cass blood. Wilfred’s great uncles Paul and Bruno Cassirer were pivotal figures in the early 20th century art world. Their gallery was largely responsible for bringing French Impressionism to Germany — Degas, Monet and Cezanne were just a few of the artists whose work they introduced to Berlin, along with Munch and Van Gogh. The Berlin Secession was an iconoclastic movement that championed new trends in art. The Cassirers escaped Nazi Germany in 1938 to the UK, where the family name was shortened to Cass. The family history of working with avant-garde artists inspired the desire of Wilfred and Jeannette Cass to work with contemporary British artists.

After 23 years of exhibiting and commissioning over 400 works and supporting more than 200 artists, CASS is now expanding its model to commission pioneering sculpture from international artists. Billionaire talks to Wilfred Cass.

Billionaire: Did you always have a passion for sculpture — how did your love of this genre begin?
Wilfred Cass: I think that there is some sign there in my forefathers, that they liked sculpture; but I think my love grew from spending a lot of time with Henry Moore, and hearing how he talked about sculpture.

You pioneered the model of selling well-known works to pay for commissioning new ones. Why was this so ground-breaking at the time?
Well, funnily enough, it’s still ground-breaking because the essence of it is that you’re putting money into the artists’ hands upfront — whereas they are used to having to wait a long time for any money. Here we’re saying: have you got an idea? We will fund it and when it sells you get the profit.

Was it always your dream to live in your own sculpture park?
I think the idea came by chance, buying this incredible property. It was clear when we went back to commissioning sculpture, the more young sculptors we met the more we realised they had such a difficult time getting going. Also, there were very few galleries in the world that sold big sculpture; Henry Moore once said sculpture only really works in the open air.

In your own home/s, what type of art are you surrounded by?
British artists, such as Howard Hodgkins; I had a lot of his work. At one stage I had 200 Hockneys. I still have about 20. Henry Moore, of course. And I think, very early on, I thought that Tony Cragg was one of the best talents of British sculpture.

What are your five favourite pieces that you could never sell?
I would sell everything for the foundation, except Mrs Cass!

How do you commission a piece of art or an artist and what does it have to merit to be in your park?
I think that the artist has to convey that this is something they have been trying to get money for, and that they think it’s really important. Something that will be amazing, but that they have not yet been able to realise.

You have always been a champion of British sculptors but your most recent exhibition, ‘A Beautiful Disorder’, commissioning Chinese artists, moves away from that. Why are you looking beyond the UK?
Because I think that we’ve done a pretty reasonable job of working with British artists and, the rest of the world, including China with its great population of artists, gives you scope to widen the picture.

Do you and your wife have different roles within the foundation, or do you work together on everything?
We don’t work together on everything but we come together at the time of making the final decision. Somebody has to lead to get the thing going.

What is an average day like?
I am concentrating as much as I can on thinking about the house that we live in, and what it will become. There are various possibilities on the horizon, but I am sure that eventually it will be run by robots.

You are now in your early 90s and clearly have an active and fulfilling life. What is your secret to longevity?
The swimming pool. I think it’s down to the house, the swimming pool, a wonderful wife, wonderful history, and lots of family. I am currently translating a book about my family history, which will be published next year.

What would you still like to achieve, in art or otherwise?
Another 10 years I think! I am very, very pleased with the way that the foundation is being run by much more able people. I believe that change is always good for any organisation, as long as it’s in the right direction, and that’s what is happening right now at Cass.

Recommended For You

Related Articles

Cass Foundation

Photo: Barney Hindle 2015

Cass Sculpture Foundation,

Peter Burke, Host,1996

Photo: Barney Hindle 2015

Cass Sculpture Foundation,

Peter Burke, Host,1996

View Less
Cass Foundation

Photo: Barney Hindle 2015

Cass Sculpture Foundation,

Eduardo Paolozzi, London to Paris, 2000

Photo: Barney Hindle 2015

Cass Sculpture Foundation,

Eduardo Paolozzi, London to Paris, 2000

View Less
Cass Foundation

Photo: Barney Hindle 2015

Cass Sculpture Foundation,

Sara Barker, warp- and weft-, 2015

Photo: Barney Hindle 2015

Cass Sculpture Foundation,

Sara Barker, warp- and weft-, 2015

View Less
Cass Foundation

Photo: Barney Hindle 2015

Cass Sculpture Foundation,

David Brooks, Picnic Grove,2011

Photo: Barney Hindle 2015

Cass Sculpture Foundation,

David Brooks, Picnic Grove,2011

View Less
Cass Foundation

Photo: Barney Hindle 2015

Cass Sculpture Foundation,

Tony Cragg, Declination, 2005

Photo: Barney Hindle 2015

Cass Sculpture Foundation,

Tony Cragg, Declination, 2005

View Less