PARIS - On 27 October, when the doors of the Fondation Louis Vuitton opened in Paris, Bernard
Arnault, chairman and CEO of luxury-goods conglomerate LVMH Moët Hennessey Louis Vuitton, cemented his standing as one of the preeminent cultural patrons today.
A new institution dedicated to contemporary art, the Fondation Louis Vuitton showcases some of the greatest art of our time while being a masterpiece in itself – the building is an astounding 125,000-square-foot glass-sheathed marvel designed by Frank Gehry, on a verdant site in the Bois de Boulogne.
Architect Frank Gehry and LVMH Chairman Bernard Arnault at the newly opened Fondation Louis Vuitton. Photograph by Manuel Lagos Cid/Paris Match via Getty Images.
Next to Arnault, who has bankrolled the building’s reported costs of $143 million, the person most instrumental in its development is Jean-Paul Claverie, who holds the titles of Advisor to the Chairman and Director of Corporate Sponsorship at LVMH. A right-hand man if ever there were one, Claverie was hired by Arnault in 1991 to devise a new corporate communications strategy for LVMH, whose vast portfolio currently includes some 60 luxury-goods companies.
Over the years, Claverie – who studied law and worked for French Minister of Culture Jack Lang in the 1980s – has overseen a multitude of cultural initiatives and sponsorships for LVMH, ranging from MoMA’s Richard Serra retrospective and a Picasso blockbuster at the Grand Palais to the restorations of Paris’s Palais-Royal gardens and Rome’s Spanish Steps. It was his visit to the opening of the Gehry-designed Guggenheim Bilbao in 1997 that led to the birth of the Fondation Louis Vuitton. “I was astonished when I saw it, and I couldn’t wait to bring Bernard Arnault to see it,” says Claverie during a chat in his office at LVMH headquarters on the Avenue Montaigne. An impressive range of art and mementos in the room attest to his formidable eye and wide-ranging relationships. A large silver sculpture by Jeff Koons (“a very close friend”) sits on the conference table, while the walls are adorned with works by artists such as Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Douglas Gordon and Richard Serra, the last of which bears a large dedication “to Jean-Paul” from the artist. His bookcases, meanwhile, include photos of Claverie with the likes of Hillary Clinton and a card from Queen Elizabeth.
Olafur Eliasson’s Inside the horizon (2014). ©Iwan Baan. ©2014 Olafur Eliasson.
Enthusiastic as Claverie was to bring Arnault to Bilbao, the visit took a few years to happen. “He is a very busy man, and Bilbao is not so close to Paris.” But in 2001, when the Chairman did go, his reaction was profound. “He was mesmerised by the building,” recalls Claverie. “He was absolutely seduced by it. He asked me immediately to organise a meeting with Frank Gehry.”
Within a month, Arnault met the Los Angeles-based architect over lunch in New York, and broached the idea of a building. After Gehry responded positively, he was invited to Paris to inspect the property within the 2,000-acre Bois de Boulogne on which it would be built. As Claverie tells it, the site – adjacent to the Jardin d’Acclimatation, a children’s amusement park dating to the 19th century – has a fascinating story itself.
The Jardin was purchased in the 1940s by Mr Marcel Boussac, who was the most successful and powerful businessman in postwar France. Among his many holdings was Maison Christian Dior, which he created with the designer in 1946. “Boussac lived in a penthouse that overlooked the Jardin, where the Attractions included a zoo. Among the animals was a pair of lions. Unfortunately, early every morning the lions would begin to roar. Mr Boussac could not sleep. So he bought the 50-acre park, and offered the lions to another zoo. And so he was then able to sleep soundly again.”
Bertrand Lavier’s Empress of India II, 2005. AFP Photo / Bertrand Guay.
Several decades later, when Arnault bought the holdings of the Boussac group in order to acquire Christian Dior, he thus acquired the Jardin, too. Early in his tenure at LVMH, Claverie was surprised to discover that it was among the company’s myriad subsidiaries. When he and Arnault began discussing the idea of building a foundation, they realised this would be a perfect site – though the building was eventually built immediately adjacent to it, on a 2.5-acre parcel purchased by Arnault.
Several years elapsed, however, before LVMH announced the Fondation and began construction. While Arnault and Claverie were enraptured by the daring design Gehry came up with – a central block surrounded by twelve immense glass “sails” – it did not seem possible to build it. “At the time, the technology did not exist to construct such a building. We had to invent it,” says Claverie.
“So we gathered 200 top engineers from all over the world in a research and development programme to figure out how we could construct Frank’s design. Thirty patents were created in the process.” Apart from the originality of its architecture, Fondation Louis Vuitton – which features eleven galleries, an auditorium, bookshop and restaurant – is also fairly novel for another reason, at least in France. It is one of just a few private museums there; this is private cultural patronage on a scale not seen in France before.
“In France, for centuries, the tradition has been that the state is patron of the arts. But it’s a new day and I think this building is a symbol of the new era. And a sign of optimism for the future as it recognises the value of the art of our time.”
In addition to the largess and vision of his current boss, Claverie gives credit to his previous boss for helping to pave the way for new attitudes. “When Jack Lang was minister, he created a modern concept of culture in France. Before him, culture was only the beaux-arts. He enlarged the notion of what culture is, and made us include creativity expressed at every rank.
LVMH’s Jean-Paul Claverie, who oversaw the creation of the Fondation. ©Fondation Louis Vuitton Marc Domage.
“And LVMH is totally a part of French culture,” he adds. “When you buy a Dior bag or a Vuitton suitcase, drink Dom Perignon or wear a Guerlain perfume, you are immediately in relationship with the artistic creativity of today and of the past.”
To underscore this synergy, coinciding with the opening of the foundation this autumn, the windows of Vuitton stores around the world will feature curved metal panels designed by Frank Gehry, echoing the sail-like shapes in his new building; the architect has also conceived a handbag in an off-kilter shape, rendered in Vuitton’s famous monogram canvas.
While Claverie and everyone at LVMH have been happy to discuss the design of the new building, they zealously guarded any information about what would be displayed inside until the doors opened. “It’s a surprise! You will discover it!” Claverie said teasingly in the lead up to the inauguration.
Ellsworth Kelly’s Spectrum VIII; Thomas Schutte’s Mann im Matsch. ©Ellsworth Kelly, ©Fondation Louis Vuitton Marc Domage Photo by Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/French Select/Getty Images.
Now that the building is unwrapped, its contents are being lauded, too. Major works commissioned by the foundation come from artists including Ellsworth Kelly, Olafur Eliasson, Janet Cardiff and Tayrn Simon. Meanwhile, its permanent collection display – installations of which will rotate a few times a year – currently features fifteen pieces by Gerhard Richter, including a large-scale work from his 1990s series Abstraktes bild.
One will be able to see the eye of Bernard Arnault in all works on display, Claverie promises. “It is Mr Arnault who decides we buy this artist or we don’t buy this artist.”
How does someone who runs an empire with $40 billion in annual revenue find time to make all these decisions? “He was trained as an engineer, and engineers are very well organised,” says Mr Claverie.
“But what pushes him is passion. He is optimistic about everything, always ready for a new adventure. And the Fondation is a real human adventure.”
James Reginato is writer-at-large of Vanity Fair.