As Paris gears up to reopen its cultural venues this week after a six-month closure due to the coronavirus pandemic, one man has more reason than most to celebrate.
More than 20 years after first floating the idea of creating an art institution in Paris, billionaire François Pinault will finally open the doors of his private museum to the public on Saturday. The Bourse de Commerce is the latest venue to house the Pinault Collection, after the Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana in Venice, Italy.
“For years, I have longed to be able to show my collection in Paris, the city I love. This is why the inauguration of the Bourse de Commerce – Pinault Collection is of such special and symbolic importance for me,” Pinault said in a statement.
“Paris is not only the city of passion. First and foremost, it is the natural home of artists, of their creative genius and their beliefs,” he added.
The museum is housed in a historic building in central Paris that can trace its roots back to the 16th century. At one point it served as a grain exchange, with an imposing circular floor that is the centerpiece of a renovation led by Japanese architect Tadao Ando, who has erected a concrete cylinder in the central rotunda.
Construction on the 160-million-euro project began in 2017 and was completed in March 2020, but successive lockdowns designed to curb the spread of Covid-19 meant that only a handful of V.I.P. visitors have seen the finished result.
The new museum features more than 75,000 square feet of exhibition space, in addition to a restaurant, the Halle aux grains, run by award-winning chefs Michel and Sébastien Bras.
The museum joins a series of high-profile private art institutions in Paris, including the Foundation Louis Vuitton, the brainchild of luxury magnate Bernard Arnault, which opened in 2014, and Lafayette Anticipations, the art foundation of the Galeries Lafayette department store group, which bowed in 2018.
It follows Pinault’s thwarted project to build a museum on the Île Seguin on the Seine river in the western suburbs of Paris, dropped in 2005 after several years of administrative wrangling.
The founder of luxury group Kering and investment firm Artémis, Pinault oversees an empire that encompasses fashion brands such as Gucci, Saint Laurent and Bottega Veneta; Christie’s auction house; the Château Latour vineyard; the luxury cruise specialist Ponant, and the Stade Rennais Football Club, among other assets.
At 84, he has handed over the running of his companies to his son François-Henri Pinault, leaving him free to focus on his passion for collecting art. A high-school dropout who began his career in his family’s timber business, Pinault has amassed more than 10,000 contemporary works over more than 50 years.
For the opening show, titled “Ouverture,” he has selected more than 200 works by 32 artists that provide a snapshot of the issues gripping society today, from the Black Lives Matter movement to questions surrounding gender identity and feminist politics.
The exhibition includes 30 works by David Hammons, marking the reclusive American artist’s first exhibition in France, as well as 10 paintings by Kerry James Marshall, including his 1994 painting Super Model (Female), which juxtaposes a portrait of a topless Black model with the names Linda, Cindy, and Naomi.
Martin Bethenod, managing director of the Bourse de Commerce, said Pinault was guided by his long-term commitment to artists, and a desire to reflect the social issues of the day.
“These works deal with the major issues of contemporary society, and tackle questions of identity: racial and post-colonial identity in the case of David Hammons, and feminist or gender issues in the case of Cindy Sherman, Louise Lawler, or Michel Journiac, for instance,” he said in an interview during a preview visit on Monday.
“At the Bourse de Commerce, we never show just one piece of work by any given artist. It’s always five, 10, 15, or 30, to show that the relationship to art is not simply a matter of zapping, sampling, or creating an anthology. Instead, it’s about forming long-term relationships,” Bethenod added.
He noted that Pinault has been collecting Hammons’s work for three decades, amassing the biggest collection worldwide.
Among the standouts displayed in Paris is the previously unseen installation Minimum Security, a metal cage the size of a prison cell that is powerfully juxtaposed with the building’s original wall décor: a map of the world from the late 19th century featuring trade routes at the height of the colonial period.
“It was very important for us to show the strong representation of African American artists in the collection,” said Bethenod. “The exhibition was originally due to open last year, so we started working on it in 2018. After the events of last year, we thought this approach was even more relevant.”
He added that Pinault was also keen to focus on the human figure, a choice that feels especially poignant after a year of self-isolation and social distancing.
“The clichéd view of the Pinault Collection is that it’s all about huge provocative installations or minimal art,” said Bethenod. “But what François Pinault wanted to focus on with this first exhibition, ‘Ouverture,’ was work that is anchored in humanity, in faces, bodies, an existential approach.”
Nowhere is this more evident than in the second floor galleries dedicated to painting, where emerging artists like Ser Serpas and Xinyi Cheng rub shoulders with the likes of Marshall, Peter Doig, Miriam Cahn, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, and Antonio Oba, making for a diverse and visceral panorama of the human form.
Pinault’s obsession with skulls is reflected in a room hung with 36 small skull paintings by Marlene Dumas. The impermanence of life is also the theme of the monumental wax sculpture by Urs Fischer that takes pride of place in the rotunda.
A life-sized replica of Rape of the Sabine Women by Renaissance sculptor Giambologna, Fischer’s sculpture will gradually melt down over the course of six months. It is surrounded by other burning wax works, including chairs from around the world, and an effigy of Rudolf Stingel, Fischer’s friend and fellow artist, who has three large-scale paintings on show on another floor.
“This exhibition has been conceived as a manifesto of the values I have always championed—the thirst for freedom, the rebuttal of injustice, the acceptance of diversity—and as a testament both to qualities I consider essential—audacity, curiosity and humility—and to questions that haunt me—impermanence, vanity, and the passage of time,” Pinault explained.
Asked to describe his reaction to a new work of art, he evoked an almost uncontrollable response.
“I’m incapable of defining what happens. I experience an intense emotion, something grabs me, calls out to me when I am truly struck by a piece of work. I’m often taken aback by this intensity and sometimes feel a little trapped because I tell myself that I cannot let this work get away,” he said.
“Then I embark on the process of adding it to a collection that will enable others to discover it, with the hope that they will experience the same emotion as I did when I first saw it,” he added.
Indeed, “Ouverture” refers not only to the opening of the museum, but to its ambition of reaching the widest possible audience. While entrance costs 14 euros, admittance is free for under-18s and recipients of social welfare benefits. Those aged between 18 and 26 can sign up for Super Cercle membership, which includes free access after 4 p.m.
For the time being, capacity is limited to 500 people, but the museum will be able to admit 1,500 people at a time once Covid-19 restrictions ease. Bethenod hopes the museum will draw between 700,000 and 1 million visitors a year.
Pinault encouraged skeptics to give the venue a try.
“There are lots of contemporary artworks, even some avant-garde ones, which a non-museum-going public might have some difficulty understanding. Nevertheless, I hope that they will at least try to understand, that they will open their mind in such a way that they can see things differently, in terms of their own life and world affairs. I really believe that art is the best medicine,” he said.
A version of this article previously ran on WWD.