Modern-day Medicis: behind the private art museum boom

The Frank Gehry-designed Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris poses a challenge to public institutions.
The Frank Gehry-designed Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris poses a challenge to public institutions.
The well-endowed David Roche Foundation in Adelaide.
The well-endowed David Roche Foundation in Adelaide.
TarraWarra Museum of Art director and curator Victoria Lynn. Picture: Steve Tanner
TarraWarra Museum of Art director and curator Victoria Lynn. Picture: Steve Tanner
LVMH chairman and Fondation Louis Vuitton president Bernard Arnault. Picture: AFP
LVMH chairman and Fondation Louis Vuitton president Bernard Arnault. Picture: AFP
Gene and Brian Sherman of the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation. Picture: Renee Nowytarger
Gene and Brian Sherman of the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation. Picture: Renee Nowytarger
White Rabbit Gallery owner Judith Neilson is building a performance space. Picture: Renee Nowytarger
White Rabbit Gallery owner Judith Neilson is building a performance space. Picture: Renee Nowytarger
David Walsh, founder of Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art. Picture: Remi Chauvin
David Walsh, founder of Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art. Picture: Remi Chauvin
Modern-day Medicis
Modern-day Medicis

Deep in the headquarters of fashion giant Louis Vuitton on Avenue Montaigne in Paris, Jean-Paul Claverie cuts a dapper picture of old-school elegance. He takes my hand and offers me a seat. His office feels like a tropical glasshouse; outside, a grey Paris is shivering in sub-zero temperatures.

Claverie is the chief adviser to Bernard Arnault, chairman and chief executive of French luxury goods group LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton. I’ve had to pass a battalion of jumpy security guards and electronic detectors to get to this inner sanctum. Here, Claverie, surrounded by piles of papers and books, plots the giant company’s cultural strategies.

The biggest project in his portfolio is the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Arnault’s curvy, glittering €100 million ($155m) jewel that opened after a difficult six-year build in a blaze of international attention 18 months ago. Located in the Bois de Boulogne on Paris’s southern outskirts, the complex, a futuristic conservatory designed by Frank Gehry “for art, not plants or trees”, as Claverie poetically puts it, was instantly celebrated by many as an innovative new design icon and architectural case study.

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Alongside 12 giant glass sails, permanent sculptural commissions included Spectrum VIII, a rainbow “curtain” by the late American artist Ellsworth Kelly, and a monumental outdoor installation of 43 prisms, Inside the Horizon, by the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson.

Earlier in the day, Reviewis given a private tour of the Fondation Louis Vuitton. All billowing soft curves, it rises out of the wintry, bare treetops like a lopsided spaceship. It is a strange, beautiful thing, reminiscent of the Sydney Opera House — simultaneously alien and utilitarian, fragile and solid. Arnault, a passionate collector of modern and contemporary artwork, had long dreamed of building an art foundation as a tribute to French culture, particularly its artists, says Claverie. The 3850sq m museum space is Arnault’s gift to Paris, he says, with the building to be handed over to the city in 2062.

Since its October 2014 opening, the Fondation Louis Vuitton has attracted more than 1.5 million visitors to its blue-chip art and music shows but this October it will unveil its biggest coup: an exhibition from Russia reuniting the fragmented collection of early modern masterpieces amassed by textile merchant Sergei Shchukin, which will be seen outside Russia for the first time in almost a century.

According to one observer, “It is certainly one of the largest and most valuable shows ever undertaken, [Vladimir] Putin and [Francois] Hollande are both behind it … It’s a very big story for France — a private museum hosting a show that traditionally would have gone to Grand Palais or Orsay.” It’s a deal that is likely to have left those institutions quietly fuming.

The Shchukin show is just one example of the increasing power being wielded by private art museums, funded by an international tribe of wealthy arts patrons — from billionaire Russian oligarch Leonid Mikhelson, Indonesian-Chinese businessman Budi Tek and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen to Australia’s gambler philanthropist David Walsh — dubbed modern-day Medicis. Increasingly, they’re changing the landscape and dynamics of art markets, cultural patronage and the building of cultural infrastructure. In terms of budgets and connections, many are increasingly overshadowing their venerable public peers.

Arnault’s vast personal wealth (he is reportedly France’s richest man, worth $US33billion, or $46n) was a key factor in securing the show, which would prove financially out of reach for even some of the world’s greatest museums. Private foundations are playing an increasingly big role in the arts scene, Claverie says. “Often, private foundations enjoy particularly close relationships with artists and the public ... Also, for centuries, private collections have helped expand the collections of public sector museums through donations. The art collections built up by private collectors enrich the arts now and help develop tomorrow’s public collections.”

Observers say these so-called single-donor museums raise questions about everything from who writes art history and shapes public tastes to how public institutions and private museums can work together.

These glittering temples to high art — and their owners’ huge egos, some critics snipe — are popping up across the globe, often designed by an armada of Pritzker prize-winning “starchitects” — such as the late Zaha Hadid, Renzo Piano, Rem Koolhaas, Gehry and Tadao Ando. The Private Art Museum Report by art collector database Larry’s List and Art Market Monitor of Artron has documented the explosion, recently finding there are 317 “privately funded contemporary art museums” around the world, with 70 per cent founded after 2000, and that South Korea leads the pack, followed by the US, Germany, China, Italy and Japan.

They range from the Fondazione Prada in Milan, rival luxury group owner Francois Pinault’s two private museums in Venice (Pinault recently announced he will be opening a third in Paris in 2018) and the Galeries Lafayette’s art foundation to two museums funded out of the Yves St Laurent estate. They’re everywhere, from Russia’s Garage, owned by Dasha Zhukova, to Eli Broad’s $US140m museum in Los Angeles and a veritable tsunami of private art activity in China, from Shanghai’s Long and Yuz museums to Nanjing’s Sifang Art Museum. (Latest government statistics suggest about 100 museums are being built each year in China).

And Australia isn’t immune. Since Walsh opened his “subversive adult Disneyland”, the Museum of Old and New Art, in Hobart in 2011, private projects in the pipeline include the $41m performance space Phoenix being built in Sydney’s Chippendale by arts patron and White Rabbit Gallery owner Judith Neilson, while the $5m David Roche Foundation House decorative arts museum in Adelaide, housing an $80m collection, was opened yesterday by former prime minister Paul Keating.

They join a diverse range of established privately funded exhibition spaces — many created following the federal government’s national philanthropic intiative in 1999 — such as the TarraWarra Museum of Art, the country’s first significant privately funded public art museum, which opened in Victoria in 2003; the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation; the Holmes a Court Gallery, the Lyon House­museum, and Tasmanian Penny Clive’s Detached Cultural Organisation, a not-for-profit venture established in Hobart in 2008.

Private art museums have been with us for a long time, but as The Art Newspaper says, “you’d have to dial back the clock more than a century to the American ‘robber barons’ like [Henry Clay] Frick, [JP] Morgan and [Collis] Huntington to find another moment in art history when so many great institutions were founded by powerful individuals instead of broader coalitions or private-public alliances”.

In the 2015 ARTnews top 200 collectors list, 30 per cent of the first 20 collectors had recently opened spaces to house private collections and archives. The trend is attributed to factors ranging from wealthy baby boomers seeking to create cultural legacies to the US economic recovery and a surge in philanthropic activity (giving to the arts, culture and humanities nonprofits rose by about 22 per cent to $US16.6bn in the five years to 2013, according to Giving USA Foundation) to fashionability: as SCAF chairman and executive director Gene Sherman dryly puts it, why buy an island or a football team when you can have your own museum?

Sherman, who opened her foundation in 2008 as a not-for-profit organisation championing research, education and exhibitions of contemporary art, has been a front-seat witness for more than a decade to the explosion in private art museums in China, in particular. She’s known ambitious young arts patron Lu Xun of the Sifang Museum for years and says that “money is no object — we’re talking billions, so $300m is nothing for some. There have always been private art museums but this is like a new era. They’re everywhere. Architecturally, they’re amazing. They are like the cathedrals of the medieval period.”

So what impact are these modern-day Medicis having on the international art scene? Observers paint a mixed picture. Advocates say they are playing a crucial role in building cultural infrastructure, particularly in regional hubs — witness Clive and Walsh in Hobart — and across developing nations as state funding of the arts recedes all over the world. In the main, they are good for artists, good for art prices and good for the commissioning of new work, particularly big, expensive projects that might otherwise not exist.

Claverie says private foundations such as Arnault’s are vital players in ensuring cultural infrastructure continues to be built in Paris and across Europe. It is good publicity for the brand, certainly, but “also, it is good for the artists, and good for the people,”

The better ones promote much-needed scholarship and public education through rigorously curated shows, artist talks and publications, and work harmoniously with public art galleries, including by providing loans and funds to purchase paintings and other works.

Some, such as Walsh’s MONA, offer wider benefits to the local economy: a Deloitte study puts a value of $75m on MONA’s impact on the Tasmanian economy since it opened. A spokeswoman says Walsh ploughs about $8m of his own money into this and other ventures, such as funding the French pavilion at the Venice Biennale, and frequently lends works to Australian and international museums, as well as for events such as the Moscow Biennale.

However, those opposed to the concept of private museums decry them as overblown vanity vehicles that are increasingly sidelining public museums with their huge acquisition budgets. In Paris, Musee d’Orsay president Guy Cogeval told Review that his museum was increasingly unable to compete with cashed-up private rivals at auctions.

Consider this: in 2014, Asian media mogul and super-collector Wang Zhongjun paid $US61.8m for a Van Gogh painting, while businessman and former cab driver Liu Yiqian, the co-founder of Shanghai’s Long Museum, last year paid $US170m at Christie’s for Modigliani’s Nu Couche.

Shrinking government acquisition budgets are making things worse; Cogeval’s compatriot Bernard Blistene of the Centre Pompidou has revealed that its annual government budget for acquisitions was a mere €1.2m, complaining: “That’s only enough to buy a watercolour by ­Elizabeth Peyton; it is an absurd situation, we are not in a position to grow.”

Sherman says an unhealthy distortion in the art market can result from macho one-upmanship among the seriously wealthy, but Clive points out that “not all private museums have a big budget”.

Sherman agrees, but adds that the ability of these private patrons to outbid public rivals is a legitimate concern. Raising awareness of the issue is pretty much all the private sector can do in this respect, she says — if it prompts even one rich patron to donate a collection to a public gallery, it’s a step forward.

And at least latter-day private buyers are putting their masterpieces on public display in their museums and not salting them away in boardrooms, as occurred when the Japanese started snapping up impressionist masters in the 1980s, Sherman adds.

One of the most trenchant recent critics of private art museums is the outgoing director of London’s Tate Modern, Chris Dercon. Among other things, he is concerned that such extraordinary buying power is undermining the role of public museums to “ensure the long-term availability and display of art”.

He has also accused many private outfits of low curatorial standards, short-term and speculative purchases of masterpieces, championing mediocrity through promoting celebrity “brands” over substance, and promoting a consumerist view of art as a commodity to be traded and in some cases, act as shiny branding tool to promote company brands. (Some critics have, for instance, decried the giant silver Louis Vuitton logo on the exterior of the Fondation Louis Vuitton, but Claverie is quick to say there “is nothing commercial” in the venture).

Essentially, Dercon and other critics say, these spaces are colossal acts of self-aggrandisement given physical form — in some cases, also acting as glorified tax break shelters. Then there are the legacy issues. What happens to these collections — often priceless — when owners die or lose interest?

Walsh, ever the contrarian, tells Review that Dercon’s laundry list of complaints is “reasonable”. Many of these ventures don’t spring from the rivers of pure altruism; rather, they are a status symbol. “Essentially, museums are biological fitness markers, conspicuous consumption machines that reveal excess capacity,” Walsh says. “Red Ferraris no longer cut it with the proliferation of ‘self-made’ billionaires.”

Private benefactors can prove damaging because they allow governments to abrogate their funding duties, he says. “It is the domain of the government to support culture. People like me just offer the government an excuse to shirk their responsibilities.” He adds that “we probably mess it up by encouraging a winner-takes-all rock star mentality. In art there are big names and no names, not much in between.”

But what about claims that the likes of Arnault, Pinault and Broad play an essential role by building cultural infrastructure at a time of severe arts funding cuts? Walsh says what the uber-rich do for the arts should not be deified. “Some of the things these people have done are pretty impressive, but those first three names have $100bn between them. That’s $14 for every human. In many countries lives can be changed for less than that.”

Sherman takes a philosophical view: “Some of them, yes, in China are just doing this to build a shopping centre: to get permission from the government they put in a token museum. But there are also many who are doing it so the ­public benefits.” Vanity is a factor for some but “we are all vain”, she says. “As long as they’re not buying 20 golf courses or having 400 houses, why not put money into the museums? At the end of the day, the public benefits.”

Hobart’s Clive concurs. Certainly, “the morals of some individuals will come into question just as with governments. A broad playing field of public and private patronage reflects healthy society.” And in any case, more often than not there is little room for vanity as the “delivery of an operating private museum not only requires initial and ongoing funding but enormous passion and commitment to time, vision and people across many spheres”.

She is bullish about the role of private money in the arts. “Businesspeople … are less risk averse and more focused perhaps than governments or states. It is worth noting that the Medicis participated very widely in culture-building, not just in building-building.

“Obviously there is a commitment to the idea of the value of art experiences as a vital but also inextricable part of everyday life,” Clive adds. “In many parts of Australia such experiences may be limited. Private patronage can contribute in responding to particular needs of individuals and communities.”

And the private sector has been responding to that call for assistance for a long time, Sherman points out — witness everything from the Felton Bequest to the National Gallery of Victoria, to the big public art commissions funded by philanthropic bodies such as Kaldor Art Projects and the Nelson Meers and Balnaves Foundations.

Then there’s the role of private arts patrons in promoting scholarship and public education programs: SCAF is involved in everything from hosting forums to producing scholarly publications.

Victoria Lynn, director of the TarraWarra Art Museum, says it regularly “loans works to [and shares exhibitions with] regional, state, university and national galleries”.

Martyn Cook, director of the David Roche Foundation House Museum, says David Roche, a passionate private collector who built up an $80m, 3000-piece collection of fine art objects over several decades, was also a generous benefactor, helping the Art Gallery of South Australia purchase an 1806 portrait of Matthew Flinders by Toussaint Antoine de Chazal de Chamerel, and enabling the Powerhouse Museum to obtain an 1815 Australian colonial cedar sideboard.

But what of Dercon’s claim that the super-rich often have fickle tastes that are bad for “the production of memory” and the writing of art history? Supporters of private cultural endeavours retort that bad art can also be found in public and collections.

Lynn says “privately acquired collections always differ from those assembled by public museums: they are idiosyncratic and forged through passion. [But] they often hold significant treasures. The [TarraWarra] collection includes works by leading figures in Australian art from each decade of the last 60 years.”

Sherman agrees that the issue of legacies and sustainability is “definitely a worry”. But many have future-proofed their institutions. Cook says the Roche museum is on good footing because Roche was aware of the problems many private house museums come up against, and ensured there would be adequate funds to keep it going. Lynn says TarraWarra will “continue long into the future, to be funded through a combination of support provided by our principal sponsor, the Besen family, private sponsors, philanthropic trusts, in-kind support and government grants”.

Sherman says “the fakes, the vanity projects and the playthings, the toys, will be discarded and the more serious ones will continue via endowment and survive through to the next generation”.

As for the local Medicis, Walsh says: “MONA started as a whimsy. But the community adopted it, and chance favoured it. When I opened it I wasn’t planning for forever, but now I’m going to make sure a sufficient endowment exists to perpetuate it.

“As soon as I seek charity status — which I need to be able to accept donations — the requisite independent board will set its own direction (as happened with the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation). Most likely it will become a quasi-public institution — a very mini-Met. In the meantime, I’ll expand it, build a hotel, continue to seek a casino licence all ostensibly to make a better MONA, but mostly because I like building stuff and I like gambling — and particularly, I like irony.”

Sherman hints that a natural point of closure is fast approaching: she will be 70 next year and expects to turn her considerable energy to private pursuits. “I never saw this as a permanent foundation but I feel very satisfied with what has been done,” she says.

Clive has temporarily shelved plans to build a 117m Art Tower in Hobart because the site proved inappropriate, but her commitment to “this thing called art” remains high.

And Arnault? There are potential plans to establish satellite foundations in “Beijing, in Tokyo, and maybe one in Australia”, Claverie says. “You have very good artists — we would like to have an exhibition, for sure, here in the foundation one day.”

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