The title of this piece made me wonder why the art world so much enjoys the conjunction "as." It seems a funny construct, one thing as another thing. It contains within it both the idea of transformation, and also deception, and fails to decide or state which side of the fence the utterance wants to come down on. There’s also a strange utility within the phrase, the using of one thing as another as though there were a lack or necessity for makeshift solutions.
"When you think about it, department stores are kind of like museums."
Andrea del Verrocchio, Lorenzo de Medici, 1480, Painted terracotta, Washington, National Gallery of Art
The idea for this article grew from a discussion between the editors of Artslant and myself about how to approach the relatively newly opened Fondation Vuitton. I was slightly obsessed with the idea that this was the Uffizi of our time and interested in exploring what came out of the comparison between the two—even if this was perhaps an exercise in saturnalian critique, because, let’s be honest, while perhaps interesting the comparison between the two is not favorable.
Lorenzo di Medici had the tag "the magnificent" attached to his name as he indirectly ruled over a period of unprecendented peace and stability for the state of Florence. Bernard Arnault is the head of the luxury brand conglomerate LVMH. Anyway, this desire to compare slowly waned as my research continued; nostalgia seems too cheap, and the observations one can draw from this kind of comparison seemed contrived. However, I will observe that Lorenzo was once stabbed in an assassination attempt, and looks like a tough old bastard, while Bernard Arnault is a slight man with a narrow mouth and the type of eyes that look as though he is wearing eyeliner, one almost perpetually more open than the other. His look is neither open, honest, brave, nor courageous. He is the head of a luxury brand; in my book this qualifies him for judgment on appearance.
“My relationship to luxury goods is really very rational. It is the only area in which it is possible to make luxury profit margins.”
Bernard Arnault is, in case you didn’t know, the richest man in Europe and personally worth an estimated 35 billion dollars. (I don’t like this kind of statistic but it’s almost irresistible.) This makes him wealthier than Jordan, Tanzania, and Bahrain individually, or Malta, Laos, and Macedonia collectively. He sought citizenship in Belgium when the 75 percent top rate tax was mooted in France, what’s now known as “doing a Depardieu,” but strenuously denied that this was for the purpose of tax evasion. The obvious question then being why?
(I wonder if he is really just a fan of chips, beer, and cyclo-cross.)
Paris isn’t a one-luxury-Fondation town however, and, Fondation Vuitton, which opened at the end of last year, is kind of the new kid on the block in comparison to Fondation Hermes and Fondation Cartier. Fondation Hermes has been around since 2008 and is a different kind of thing—it offers “the promotion of traditional craft skills, support for the creative arts, a commitment to education and training, and environmental concerns.” It doesn’t have its own dedicated space. Fondation Cartier is the originary Fondation established in 1984. It was originally housed in Jouy-en-Josas, near Versailles, moving to its dedicated Jean Nouvel designed building in the 14th arrondissement in 1994. It doesn’t house a permanent collection and considers itself an "Art’s Centre."
“Of course I believe imaginative architecture can make a difference to people's lives, but I wish it was possible to divert some of the effort we put into ambitious museums and galleries into the basic architectural building blocks of society.”
Jean Nouvel, Batiment de la Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, 1994 © Jean Nouvel. Adagp, Paris, 2011. Photo © Luc Boegly
The comparison. Or, proof that architecture influences thinking
The comparison between Fondation Vuitton and Fondation Cartier is irresistible. Cartier's Jean Nouvel building sits quite discretely opposite Montparnasse Cemetery (home to an amazing bunch of artists including Tristan Tzara—yes, he is the one I chose) in the unprepossing 14th arrondissement. It is a harmonious building and another iteration of Nouvel’s tricky glass walls. As with the architect's Quai Branley, at Fondation Cartier the glass frontage delineates a garden space that is integral to one’s experience of the modernist building within. It at once offers sanctuary, yet is not closed off from the city. One has the sense that the movement between inside and outside is somehow free. I visited on an early spring day and was amazed at how beautiful a space it was and how easy it was to pass time there.
Fondation Louis Vuitton. Photo via Flickr user Howard Stanbury
Fondation Vuitton is sited in the Bois de Boulogne between the most exclusive arrondissement of Paris, the 16th, and the most exclusive suburb of Paris, Neuilly-sur-Seine. The residents of Neuilly sur Seine have an average income of €55,786 per person. The building was designed by Frank Gehry at the expense of $143 million and rises from the Bois in huge sweeping, fractured sails of glass. It is very Gehry. It is most often compared to a huge ship but my first impression was of a whale. The building is awe inspiring not only because of its scale, but also because it appears to defy the conventional rectilinear form of a building. There is quite simply absolutely nothing like it in Paris. It widens from the ground up, reinforcing the sense that it looms over you. Do you see where this is going?
"Architecture should speak of its time and place, but yearn for timelessness."
Meet the Press
This comparison between the buildings was reinforced, or perhaps grew out of my dealings with their respective press offices.
A striking thing about Fondation Cartier is how open they are: you can, right now if you want, go on their website and find an email address for the director Hervé Chandès. You can send him an email. I didn’t do this, but contacted their press officer Mathieu Simonet who was remarkably helpful offering an interview with M. Chandès, and, when he had to cancel due to an unforeseen emergency, replaced him with Grazia Quaroni, senior curator. We had a very interesting phone conversation, as you can imagine, as someone who has held this post for almost 20 years, she’s a smart, interesting lady. I emailed the press office of Fondation LV five times with requests ranging from a press pass, to a statement, to an interview, to just someone replying to me so I knew that I wasn’t hopelessly throwing electronic mail into the cybersphere. In the end I cajoled a response by emailing the general information address and asking them to pass on a message to the press office. This prompted a response. Here is the email chain in full.
From: James Loks <firstname.lastname@example.org> 7 Apr (11 days ago)
My name is James Loks, I'm the paris correspondent for ArtSlant and I'm currently working on a features piece for the upcoming edition themed on the idea of 'Brand as Museum'.
My editor and I have been trying to contact your press office for over a week and have received no response, I am therefore sending this email here in the hope that we can get some kind of meaningful answer.
I'm certainly going to include the fondation Vuitton in the piece, but wanted to organise someone on the curatorial team to answer a few questions about the connection between the brand Vuitton and role fondation Vuitton plays in the art world, or rather perhaps what the goals are for the fondation Vuitton. If someone in the press office could make this happen would be great as I think it's important that all of the brands who are involved in the contemporary art world have a voice within this piece, i.e. it would be a shame to hear from Hermes and Cartier and not Vuitton.
I'm not sure what you know about ArtSlant but you can check out our website. If you have any further questions please don't hesitate to get in contact.
From: Fondation LOUIS VUITTON <email@example.com> 7 Apr (11 days ago)
Thank you for your message. Dear Sir,
We forwarded it to the appropriate service.
From: <******************@fondationlouisvuitton.fr> 8 Apr (10 days ago)
Dear Lokd James,
Thanks for your interest.
I am afraid the artistic team of the foundation won't answer a question regarding the link between the Foundation LV and LV, as there are two differents things.
All the best,
James Loks <firstname.lastname@example.org> 9 Apr (9 days ago)
Thank you for your reply to this, and your denial is very interesting. I fear you may have misunderstood however, the questions I want to ask refer solely to the Fondation LV, I have absolutely no interest in LV as a brand, solely what it is as a museum, I am, after all, an arts journalist. I would however like to ask some follow up questions on this statement, as you claim that Fondation LV and LV are different things, I think we can agree on this, however do you state that they have no connection? I mean they are owned by Bernard Arnault, and they share the name LV? Why do this if you are going to be so defensive about their connection?
It seems a shame again for LV to present itself like this when both Hermes and Cartier are proving very helpful, Cartier even going so far as to offer an interview with the Director.
I am still awaiting a response to this email. Yes, the observant among you will note both my pettty attempt at manipulation and the little wiggle I did as regards the subject matter of the interview. I’m not ashamed to admit that by this point I was pretty desperate to get something from them and willing to compromise just get a response. There is also the curiously uncomfortable point that when rejected by a press office in this manner—and you know, I’m not a features writer on a massive international publication—there is some need for validation going on.
Corporate Patronage. Or, “Why does no one want to talk about the brand?”
This is question that comes to mind: WHY? Why call it Fondation LV if you deny there is any connection. It’s owned by the same man, it’s called the same thing! WHY? And the truth is that it isn’t just Vuitton who have this attitude, Cartier also mentioned that they didn’t really want to speak about the relationship between the brand and the Fondation, although, while in conversation with Grazia Quaroni, she did open up on this point honestly admitting that corporate patronage is never a purely philanthropic relationship: the brand is always looking for something. In respect of Fondation Cartier she mentioned that they were quite a traditional brand and benefited from association with very contemporary, very modern art and artists. In response to my question of Why art? she made the point that there was a connection between the two worlds with ideas of “the well done, the beautifully done, and excellence.” She also, quite rightly, pointed out that artists do really benefit from this relationship, that Fondation Cartier were responsible for things like William Eggleston’s first European show, introducing Rinko Kawauchi, Daido Mariyama, and Nobuyoshi Araki to France, and supporting the early work of the likes of Ron Mueck, and also that Fondation Cartier were notable for their ongoing relationship with artists as they develop throughout their career, particularly through their extensive program of commissions.
William Eggleston, Déserts de Californie, de l’Arizona et de l’Utah, 2000 (acq. 2000); Curtesy of Fondation Cartier
Ultimately I don’t think anyone who has any contact with the arts can argue against corporate patronage; it has always been an integral part of what has both put food on the artist's table and brought great works to light. What’s interesting is to consider what it is the patron is getting out of the relationship, and historically this has been many things, sometimes as simple as wanting to be remembered. One prevalent trend and perhaps what lies behind this reticence to discuss the "other" side of these fondations’ businesses is that, in a sense, art is a pretty simple thing: it’s something people like to look at, it something that provokes a range of human emotions and experiences, and also, importantly, it most often either looks away from the world, or back towards it from a space outside; it doesn’t get caught up in the dirty business of life, or the even more dirty business of business that most of these patrons are involved in. They want to keep this separation and not tarnish their appearance in one with the realities of the other (while of course continuing to allow the philanthropic glow to pass in the other direction).
“Museums are managers of consciousness. They give us an interpretation of history, of how to view the world and locate ourselves in it. They are, if you want to put it in positive terms, great educational institutions. If you want to put it in negative terms, they are propaganda machines.”
The day arrived when it was time to go and be impressed with Vuitton. It was a Tuesday and I’d managed to find time between meetings to pedal my bike out to Bois de Boulogne. I won’t lie: I was excited. I do, after all, really like looking at art and an afternoon walking around a collection as impressive as M. Arnault’s is little other than a pleasure. I’d been meaning to visit for about a week and had, for various reasons, had to cancel or change my plans. It is important to mention here that this Tuesday was between back-to-back weekends in London and Washington with other work commitments. The weekend after the return from Washington my wife and I are leaving Paris and moving back to London. It was a busy time. And therefore understandable, particularly if you know me, that I’d overlooked a detail: the Fondation LV is closed on Tuesday.
I did get to ride my bike through the woods, admire the building, and also experience one of those art-meets-life moments. As I was walking to the entrance of FLV I stopped to admire the amazing movement of water over the black stone-stepped undercut that reinforces the sense of one end of the building being the prow of a ship. The light was very clear and the shadow line very precise. At the base of the steps and water, some way below me, stood a lone security guard, stood in that hands behind back, ear piece in, security guard way, like a dour figurehead for this magnificent building. What was he guarding? I asked myself. The image was, for that moment, perfect.
(I don’t have a picture. I don’t have a smartphone. Normally I’m quite smug about this—now is not one of those moments.)
This was the only art I saw that day.
"Art should be created for life, not for the museum."
Kind of conclusion
Where’s the surprise? Anyone who accumulates $35 billion has a point to prove, and what better way to prove something than build a collection of the world’s best art and house it in a huge architectural showpiece? Foolish naivety to imagine that this was going to point in any direction other than a totemic statement of "greatness." And should we really complain? It is, after all, open to the public (ticket price €14), in an amazing space (from the outside), and a great collection of work (although I didn’t see any).
The only question I’d ask is if the world really needs another monument to the modern day ultra-rich? When researching this article I came across the figure of Andrew W. Mellon. He was a financier who went on to serve as US secretary of the treasury. He donated his art collection to the United States in 1936 and this went on to become the American National Gallery of Art. Mellon is just one figure in a long list who donated their private collection to the state so it might be seen by the people. The practice still continues today, Anthony D’Offay being an example. It’s a boring cliché to say that art reflects life, but often I get the sense that today this is more true when looking at the mechanisms that take place around art. This is where life and the state of the world are laid bare—and isn’t this the case with FLV? The museum as ultimate luxury item, sending a message not dissimilar to the LV monogram, albeit multiplied by powers of magnitude. I’m not sure I was expecting anything else.
View of the exhibition Bruce Nauman, Pencil Lift Mr. Rogers, Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, 2015. Visuel © Luc Boegly © Adagp, Paris 2015
The surprise came with Fondation Cartier, as Mme Quaroni explained their approach is designed to be various, to appeal to the specialist and the public, to be an "open" space where they privilege the work of art. It isn’t didactic, it isn’t patronizing, and it’s all about relationships. And, when I visited their current Bruce Nauman I couldn’t fault them. The pieces worked really well with the space, it was just art, and the sound installation in the garden (For beginners (instructed piano)) wonderfully contextualized a piece that might become bland in a white cube. We need more art that actually engages with people in every sense, with both the artist and the public, keeps things on a human scale, that fosters relationships, and the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art contemporain should be commended for this. I’ve been referred to as acerbic by my editor—I’m not a cheap date, put it that way—and here I was seduced, sitting in the sunny garden, listening to fragile beauty of stumbling, delicate piano notes, watching the flirtations and experimentations of a teenage art class busy with sketchbooks. It’s hard to imagine who wouldn’t be.
Integral to the museum is the public, integral to art is the viewer, and, if a brand is going to mediate in these relationships it should be aware that its attitude, and its perceptions of these groups will be reflected in that mediation. That “the jeweller to king” should be so humble is surprising, and most pleasantly so.
(Image at top: Courtesy Fondation Cartier)
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