The Importance of Philanthropy: A Conversation with Marie-France Cohen and Marine Van Schoonbeek

The Importance of Philanthropy: A Conversation with Marie-France Cohen and Marine Van Schoonbeek

Turning dreams into reality is the philosophy of Marie-France Cohen, President of the Merci Endowment Fund who together with Marine Van Schoonbeek, President and co-founder of Thanks for Nothing, is organizing a major charity auction with the support of Sotheby's.
Turning dreams into reality is the philosophy of Marie-France Cohen, President of the Merci Endowment Fund who together with Marine Van Schoonbeek, President and co-founder of Thanks for Nothing, is organizing a major charity auction with the support of Sotheby's.

Soline Delos: Marie-France Cohen, the Merci Endowment Fund is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. Could you take us back in time through this wonderful adventure?

Marie-France Cohen: In 2007, after selling Bonpoint, the children's fashion label that my husband Bernard and I had created in 1975, we decided to embark on a new adventure where our entrepreneurship could be aligned with a philanthropic project. This is how Merci was born, a concept store for fashion and decoration, where we decided that the profits would go to an Endowment Fund of the same name. Our desire was not to make even more money but rather to give back to those who had given us so much. So our first project was naturally focused on Madagascar, a country of extreme poverty where for thirty years, talented women artisans had been making all the embroidery for Bonpoint. In Madagascar, we joined forces with an NGO, ABC Domino. In ten years, in the forgotten region of Tuléain in the southwest of the island, we made possible, among other things, the schooling of 3,500 students through the construction of six elementary schools, two middle schools and a high school. Education is the basis of everything.

Michelangelo Pistoletto, Sculpture de promenade, 2019, Realised in the context of « Le Troisième Paradis - Art & Environnement » Project organised by Thanks for Nothing for Nuit Blanche 2019 in co-production with the City of Science and Industry, Courtesy of the artist and the Cittadellarte - Fondazione Pistoletto

S: Since 2015, your Endowment Fund has also been active in France?

M-F.C: When my husband died, one year after the creation of Merci, my sons, Benoit, Julien and Thomas, came on board to support me. Their presence was all the more necessary because two years later, we sold Merci, donating the entirety of the profit to the Endowment Fund. This allowed us to initiate new ambitious projects in France. Julien, who is a restaurateur, worked with the NGO Fermes d'Avenir to create the Ferme de l'Envol, the largest farm in agroecology -75 hectares- in the Essonne region on the outskirts of Paris. A groundbreaking initiative inspired by permaculture, with a totally new system of salaried employment for farmers. And then, three years ago, compelled by the migrant crisis, I decided to welcome an Afghan refugee, Mohammad, into my home. It was an extraordinary encounter that led us to another idea, that of taking an abandoned French village and giving it new life by welcoming refugee families. The idea was that each one of them would bring their own talents to fill the needs of the village: electrician, doctor, computer specialist, mason... This “Horizon project”, as it has been called, is a way to remove fear, to fight against the clichés about refugees when they have so many skills that are waiting to be acknowledged. In this regard, the UNHCR figures speak for themselves: 80% of immigrants arriving in Western countries are from the most educated portion of the population. They are above all endowed with an extraordinary intelligence and tremendous willpower. It takes those traits to brave all the difficulties that lead them to us!

Francesca Pasquali, Yellow straws, 2015, Estimate €7,000–10,000

S.D: Marine van Schoonbeek, you are co-creator of the philanthropic association, Thanks for Nothing, what led to your collaboration with Marie-France?

M. Van S: We were introduced by the collector Philippe Journo, founder of the Compagnie de Phalsbourg and his team. They immediately recognized our affinities and the possible bridges between the Merci Endowment Fund and our association founded by a group of women from the art world. Our goal is to connect this world with that of the non-profit sector and, with the Cohen family, we are united on causes that are close to our hearts, such as the plight of refugees. In 2017, our founding project organized in collaboration with the Chantal Crousel Gallery, "WE DREAM UNDER THE SAME SKY", was a sale of contemporary art held for the benefit of five different associations working for the welcoming of refugees, but also {united in our belief in} a horizontal and not a vertical vision of philanthropy.

M-F.C: Yes, because what moves boundaries is when everyone at his or her own level feels involved, responsible, a “stakeholder” as it were, and when the maximum amount of energy is brought together.

M. Van S: our projects systematically bring together artists and associations and it is important that everyone has the same visibility. In this way, with the exhibition "WE DREAM UNDER THE SAME SKY" at the Palais de Tokyo, with our project held during the Nuit Blanche in 2018, "Le pont des échanges", we invited the associations involved to present their work in order to raise public awareness. All too often have I gone to charity dinners where no one really knew what the cause they had written a check for was actually doing. By having a precise knowledge of an association' s purpose and actions, it is possible to be more involved. In this sense, our vision of philanthropy is in line with the concepts of civic responsibility and moral duty, which are all the more necessary today since we are in a system where government can no longer take care of everything.

Oliver Beer, Heaven, 2018, Estimate €8,000-12,000

S.D: The Merci Endowment Fund is also very relevant in the way it blends together solidarity and economics?

M-F.C: At the origin of Merci, there was this question: how can one give money without asking for it? For La Ferme de l'Envol and the Horizon project, it is a question of creating ethical models that work economically, the goal in fact being to duplicate them as much as possible. Both the public sector and local communities have understood this, especially in the Essonne region, which welcomed us with open arms.

S.D: To mark this anniversary, you have initiated a whole series of fundraising events...

M-F.C: To date, 100% of our actions have been financed by our own funds, but today, to extend our reach and carry out these large-scale projects, we need to broaden our funding, hence the initiatives imagined with Thanks for Nothing that will mark the year 2020.

Annette Messager, Le vagin ailé mercredi, 2018, Estimate €7,000–10,000

M. Van S: To do this, we thought about how best to use our skills, how to mobilize our networks in the world of art, fashion, music and food. To that end we set up various high points. A "Month of Solidarity" (Mois de la Solidarité) last December in which 12 restaurants and 4 brands took part, which enabled us to raise more than €20,000 and last March 11, a charity concert given by Mathieu Chédid. The final artistic highlight of the year will be the charity auction that will take place in November.

Giulia Andreani, L’enfance de Pablo, 2019, Courtesy of the artist and the Max Hetzler Gallery, Estimate upon request

S.D: Can you tell us more about this auction?

M. Van S: It will consist of approximately twenty works by contemporary artists offered by about fifteen French and international galleries, including the Max Hetzler gallery, which is giving us a work by the artist Giulia Andreani, "L'enfance de Pablo", but also the galleries of Marian Goodman, Tornabuoni, Ceysson and Bénétière, Mor Charpentier, RX galleries, among others. We are infinitely grateful to Sotheby's for recognizing the importance and value of these projects by hosting this sale within its walls. Proving once again that together we are stronger.

Contemporary Art

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