How Drake's $100 million bet saved the long-lost art carnival Luna Luna

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How Drake's $100 million bet saved the long-lost art carnival Luna Luna
Progress of the restoration of the Luna Luna carnival in Los Angeles, Oct. 7, 2022. In 1987, the Austrian artist André Heller debuted an avant-garde amusement park. — Its disappearance was a winding tale, but its return is even more bizarre. (Jake Michaels/The New York Times)

by Joe Coscarelli

LOS ANGELES, CA.- Earlier this year, in a 50,000-square-foot warehouse lined with weathered shipping containers and crates, Viennese artist André Heller was reunited with one of the great loves of his life and career.

The psychedelic works inside, unseen by Heller or the world for 35 years, had long been lost to history, despite their flashy provenance. Together, they made up Luna Luna — a functional amusement park where the rides and attractions also happened to be contemporary art from the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Salvador Dalí, which Heller had conceptualized and opened, briefly, in Hamburg, Germany, in 1987.

For decades, he had obsessed over its loss. “Forget about it,” he told himself repeatedly. “This is like a love affair where you can’t stop having erotic dreams.”

Eventually, Heller managed to move on. “And then,” he said via video chat from Austria, “when everything was out of my mind, I met some people that started reminding me.”

In the end, it took the connections, resources and ingenuity of Heller, his musician son, a New York creative director, an art lawyer, a startup founder, two powerful music managers and a megawatt rapper who happens to be one of the most famous people on the planet to revive the ambitious project.

That Drake would be the final piece needed to bring Heller back together with Luna Luna was almost inconceivable. Heller, now 75, didn’t even know who the rap star was until they were nearly partners.

But sure enough — following years of lawsuits, rabbit holes, cosmic coincidences, false starts, contract negotiations, strokes of luck, Zoom calls and logistical nightmares — here was Heller, once again face to face with treasures that most in the art world didn’t even realize existed: a carousel by Keith Haring, an enchanted tree by David Hockney, a glass labyrinth by Roy Lichtenstein with music by Philip Glass.

“I excused myself to the art,” Heller recalled, emotional at the memory of at last glimpsing his disassembled carnival. “I said, ‘You were in prison for 35 years — please take my love and my apologies for what has happened to you.’

“Then I started touching all these things like a newborn baby with its father,” he added. “And I knew that the soul of the project was unharmed.”

How Luna Luna came to be — and then came to be sold, locked up, shipped to the Texas desert and forgotten — was a miracle-turned-tragedy for Heller, a rascally multimedia artist who has been, intermittently, an actor, a poet, a singer-songwriter and a circus impresario, with piles of stories from each of his many lives.

But the never-before-told next chapter of the tale, in which the art amusement park was tracked down, bought back and re-imagined for a large-scale reboot scheduled to begin next year, sounds far-fetched even for Heller.

“When I first heard about Luna Luna I was blown away,” Drake said in a statement. “It’s such a unique and special way to experience art. This is a big idea and opportunity that centers around what we love most: bringing people together.”

Now, the hard part: putting Luna Luna back together, and taking it around the world.

“It’s an undeniable project,” said Anthony Gonzales, the new CEO of Luna Luna and a partner in Drake’s DreamCrew, the rapper’s all-purpose business and management apparatus. “I think we’re actually built better than any other resource to make this a reality. We exist in live events, we exist in culture, we understand the art world and being artist-friendly.”

With reference points such as Cirque du Soleil, the immersive van Gogh exhibits, the Miami “experiential art center” Superblue and that little vintage arts-and-crafts project known as Disneyland, DreamCrew and its partners have Drake-sized ambitions for Luna Luna.

To prepare the revamped park for a global tour with production help from Live Nation, a curatorial team with a collective CV that includes the Tate Modern, MOCA, the Kitchen and the Shed is engaging a fresh slate of artists to contribute new interactive and ridable pieces. Food and beverage options, music programming and educational workshops must also be top-notch, the team said.

The entire process is being captured for a documentary — Drake and DreamCrew have produced shows including “Euphoria” and “Top Boy” — while a reissue of the Luna Luna monograph, translated from the original German, is due in February.

“Drake’s done everything at the highest level,” Gonzales said, “and scale is something that he does better than anybody. This is a massive undertaking with huge logistical aspects, tons of moving parts. But it doesn’t seem overwhelming in my mind in any way whatsoever. It’s just like, ‘Let’s go and execute it.’”

The stakes are clear: Outside of music and touring, Gonzales said, “this is probably our biggest project to date.” With DreamCrew as majority owner, overall investment in Luna Luna is approaching $100 million.

‘Carnival of the Avant-Garde’

Known for his “large-scale, offbeat creations” and performances — surrealist vaudeville, Chinese acrobats, hot air balloons — Heller cashed in the cultural capital from his growing fame in the 1980s to pursue Luna Luna, a whimsical premise he had conceived of more than a decade earlier.

Inspired by the Prater amusement park of his youth, he hoped to use a fairground as his canvas “to build a big bridge between the so-called avant-garde — the artists who were a little snobbish sometimes and didn’t connect with the masses — and the so-called normal people,” Heller said.

“Every person you meet — all your friends — have a memory of a luna park,” he explained, using the international term for small local carnivals named for the original in Coney Island circa 1903. “Everybody had a childhood and I wanted to address the childhood of these geniuses.”

In 1985, Heller received a grant of about $350,000 from the German magazine Neue Revue for the project, and he traveled the world to convince his dream list of artists to participate.

Already, in Paris, he had secured the support of Russian-French painter Sonia Delaunay, along with a design for an entry arch, before her death in 1979. In New York, an ailing Andy Warhol sent Heller to meet an up-and-coming Basquiat, who insisted on the inclusion of Miles Davis. Haring took Heller to meet Kenny Scharf. Lichtenstein gave a number for Hockney.

In Palm Beach, for blessings alone, Heller met with Nobel-winning Jewish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose letter of encouragement graced the back cover of the Luna Luna book. “From there on, I knew we couldn’t lose,” Heller said. (Only John Cage turned him down.)

Much of the work, like Basquiat’s Ferris wheel and Dalí’s mirrored fun house, were then fabricated in Europe, using vintage carnival equipment and some 220 artisans from the Viennese opera and theater community, working across multiple studios. Haring and Scharf traveled to Austria to work by hand.

Luna Luna opened in West Germany in June 1987. “There are 30 pavilions in this international carnival of the avant-garde, and each one simultaneously elevates the mind and makes the jaw drop,” Life magazine reported at the time.

Throughout that summer in Hamburg, an estimated 250,000 visitors enjoyed the attractions. From there, Heller hoped, Luna Luna would “travel the seas and the suns and the moons.”

But the artist’s streak of serendipity would soon be foiled by the realities of commerce and bureaucracy. Plans for the city of Vienna to buy the park and display it permanently were thwarted by political concerns. A European tour also fell through, sending Heller, who had received a loan to store the attractions, into debt.

In 1990, out of options, he agreed to sell the entire project for about $6 million to the Stephen and Mary Birch Foundation, a philanthropic group that hoped to show it in San Diego. But amid rights concerns, disputes over charging admission and other complications, the foundation attempted to pull out of finalizing the deal, setting off decades of litigation in courts from Delaware to Switzerland.

In time, the group would be forced to close its purchase. But Luna Luna languished in storage throughout the legal saga, and in 2007, was transported to rural Texas, where it would sit untouched for another 15 years.

Heller assumed that he would be long dead by the time anyone thought to open those doors again. “I won, I won, I won, I won and I lost,” he said.

‘A Leap of Faith’

In 2019, creative director Michael Goldberg was clicking around an obscure website that an intern had sent him when he happened upon one of the rare detailed mentions of Luna Luna online. Immediately, he was smitten.

“It just felt like something I should have known about,” Goldberg, whose Something Special Studios has worked with Nike and the Brooklyn Museum, said in an interview. But when he began texting his most plugged-in contacts — art advisers, collectors, “kids who know what’s up” — nobody knew what he was talking about. “OK, this is really starting to become interesting,” he thought.

Experienced in the world of New York nightlife and entertainment events but with no obvious inroads to the project, Goldberg let his imagination lead, prematurely plotting ways to resurrect the Luna Luna brand. As a Hail Mary, he sent a series of cold emails to Heller’s studio.

What Goldberg didn’t know at the time was that Heller had recently been pulled back down the same path. Encouraged by art historian Dieter Buchhart, a Basquiat scholar, Heller and lawyer Daniel McClean, who specialized in art restitution, were already exploring ways to liberate Luna Luna.

“André was like the poison and the cure,” McClean said. “This was sold by him, but he also had to be part of any purchaser that bought it back, because he has the know-how and the relationship with the artists.”

A billionaire collector looked into funding the deal, but the sellers insisted that the works be bought as-is, sight unseen, cooling interest. “We had a very apocalyptic view of what the contents of the containers would be,” McClean said. Upon being granted a limited inspection of one in 2018, he was greeted by water sloshing out.

It was Goldberg, clinging to hope that he could get involved somehow, who planted the seed with Drake’s DreamCrew. “Within a 30-second conversation of ‘this existed,’ we were all in,” Gonzales said of taking it to the rapper and his manager Adel Nur, who is known as Future the Prince. “‘How do we get involved?’”

Drake “got it the fastest,” Nur said. “He buys what he likes in terms of art and has homes around the world to place those pieces in. He’s always had an eye for great things, and he’s a big thinker. He sees something like this and his brain activates right away.”

Connecting the dots during the COVID-19 pandemic, Goldberg floated the potential savior to Heller’s son, Ferdinand, a musician, who encouraged his father to hear out the improbable overture. Heller, in turn, did his own Drake research — “listening to his music, watching his attitudes” — and began to think that fate had again intervened on his behalf.

In his typically lyrical telling, Heller compared DreamCrew swooping in to “when you promise your child a swimming pool and then somebody comes and is like, ‘Wouldn’t you like to have the Mediterranean Sea?’”

Still, negotiations dragged on for months, with the identity of the buyer remaining a secret from the Birch Foundation. “Once we mentioned that word” — Drake — “everything fell into place,” McClean said.

In January, Luna Luna left its Texas home — and the rattlesnakes, skunks and armadillos that had taken up residence around and under it — for Los Angeles, in 44 containers, two wagons and seven crates.

For its new owners, the condition of the art was still a mystery that the partners likened to an “Indiana Jones” archaeological dig, a dive into the “Titanic” and a game of Russian roulette.

“You take that mystical leap of faith,” McClean said. “But we lucked out — it’s a whole treasure trove.”

A New Beginning

A visit to the Luna Luna warehouse in the Boyle Heights area of Los Angeles this fall revealed an enormous industrial workshop shot through with shocks of cartoon color. Basquiat’s Ferris wheel, adorned with a drawing of a disembodied baboon behind, towered on one end, while experts in refurbishment tended to panels from Delaunay’s entrance arch by spotlight.

A Wonka-esque factory with some startup vibes, there were kick scooters to get around and table tennis for the studio hands on their lunch break. Thousands of pieces of original merchandise were being sorted and revitalized, including old posters and T-shirts designed by the artists, each of which needed to be cleaned and dried by hand.

In an earlier interview, Kathy Noble, the curatorial director of the new Luna Luna, called it “a Trojan horse of experimental art.” She marveled at how Heller, by simply following his whims, had managed to construct a survey that covered large swathes of 20th century Western art history.

“The number of artistic movements it covers is kind of crazy,” she said. “Everything from abstraction, art brut, Dada, Fluxus, Neo-Expressionism, nouveau realism, pop art, surrealism, Viennese Actionism — most exhibitions will not cover this breadth.”

In addition to restoring the existing rides — many of which will be displayed but are now too valuable to be experienced directly by the public — Noble, along with curatorial adviser Helen Molesworth and others, have been tasked with commissioning new experiential works in the same spirit.

Meanwhile, the Luna Luna partners — DreamCrew, McClean, Goldberg and Justin Wills, a tech entrepreneur and art collector, who is heading up operations — are consulting everyone from aficionados in antique carnival rides to trucking companies, in anticipation of a wide-scale launch.

The global march, Gonzales said, will require “marrying the white-glove service of art transport with the movement of a concert tour.” An in-house data analytics person is working to determine ticket pricing.

“Everybody knows what Drake is,” Gonzales said. “This is now: ‘How do we market something that’s never existed before?’”

For the rapper and his team, who have made a career out of elevating subcultures to a mainstream level, the goal is to carry on Heller’s initial aim of bringing the avant-garde to the masses in a digestible package.

But Heller, in a last-minute twist, will no longer be involved himself.

As Luna Luna plotted its grand return, the Austrian magazine Falter revealed Heller’s role in what he brushed off as a childish prank, but others have said borders on art forgery. Cutting up drawings Basquiat made for Luna Luna, Heller had created a frame in his old friend’s style that was later presented for sale as a Basquiat original, he confirmed to Falter.

Given the lapse in judgment and whatever fallout may come, Heller, it was decided, could not remain hands-on with the return of his luna park.

“I am passing the baton to the partners of Luna Luna, who have the energy, vision and respect to keep the spirit of Luna Luna alive,” he said in a statement. “It feels miraculous that the artworks from Luna Luna will again see the light of day, and I am honored that a new generation around the world will experience the wonder of Luna Luna for many years to come.”

Heller declined to comment further. But as bittersweet as it may seem that Luna Luna is once again moving on without him, it always was bigger than Heller — a reality he accepted over and over again throughout its turbulent life.

Earlier, he had praised Drake’s own “love story with Luna Luna,” certain that their paths had intertwined for a reason, and that each obstacle was a necessary struggle.

“It’s always out of every bad thing comes something extremely good,” Heller said. “The chance that this happened is so little that it must have an inner truth that I’m not aware of yet.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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