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Bernard Arnault

What we know about the mysterious Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, brainchild of Bernard Arnault

Luxury goods billionaire opens long-awaited private museum designed by Frank Gehry

The billionaire Bernard Arnault, France’s richest man with a reported fortune of $33bn and the chairman and chief executive of luxury goods group LVMH, will no doubt infuriate his arch rival and fellow luxury retail magnate François Pinault with the launch on 27 October of the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris.

Designed by Frank Gehry, the private museum in the Bois de Boulogne is large and dramatic, featuring 12 glazed “sails” beneath which are 11 galleries and an auditorium.

Arnault launched the €100m project in 2006, a year after a dispute over red-tape led Pinault to abandon plans to build a museum on the Ile Seguin in Paris. Complaining that excessive bureaucracy had led to severe delays, Pinault took his art to Italy and opened two spaces in Venice, the Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana.

Closely guarded secret

What will be on show inside Arnault’s museum is a closely guarded secret: anyone connected to the collection seems to have taken a vow of omertà. The Art Newspaper understands that the Fondation Louis Vuitton will house a permanent collection that is a combination of works owned by LVMH and those belonging to Arnault. It will also host temporary exhibitions, as well as display new commissions by established French and international artists alongside “young artists from emerging scenes worldwide”, a spokeswoman for Arnault confirmed earlier this year. The programme is led by Arnault’s curator, Suzanne Pagé.

The foundation will only confirm that an exhibition of Gehry’s designs will coincide with his first European retrospective at the Centre Pompidou, also opening this month. Several sources say that an exhibition of works by Olafur Eliasson is also due to open at the new institution; Eliasson’s studio would neither confirm nor deny this. In 2005, the Danish-Icelandic artist created a lift leading to the Espace Culturel Louis Vuitton in Paris (see box). A Christian Boltanski show is due to open at the museum according to German media.

A Paris-based art adviser, who preferred to remain anonymous, says that French media have effectively been barred from reporting the project until late September. “He loves developing a cult of mystery,” she says. “Arnault is not considered a particularly avant-garde collector; his taste is very elegant, very bourgeois.”

She says the artists Arnault is believed to have collected include Anish Kapoor, Doug Aitken, Pierre Huyghe, Philippe Parreno, Christopher Wool and Rosemarie Trockel. In 2006, we reported that he acquired work by Ellsworth Kelly, Richard Serra and Maurizio Cattelan. Arnault bought a work by Ugo Rondinone at the Fiac fair in 2003 and the next year Jean Dubuffet’s painting, Rue Pifre, 1961, for around $6.5m. An exhibition of works drawn from the Louis Vuitton Foundation at the Hong Kong Museum of Art in 2009 included works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Cao-Fei, Ryan Trecartin and Cyprien Gaillard.

Visitors to the new museum may spot Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde work The Golden Calf, 2008, which fetched £10.3m at the “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever” sale at Sotheby’s, London, in 2008. The UK magazine Art Monthly reported at the time that trade insiders believed the telephone buyer of the bull sculpture, which has hooves cast in 18-carat gold, was Arnault. A spokeswoman for Arnault declined to comment.

In a canny deal with the Ville de Paris, the Fondation Louis Vuitton gained a permit to build in the Bois de Boulogne from the city authorities in Paris, although objectors fought the project in the courts and delayed its construction. Arnault had initially planned to open the museum in 2009. Under the agreement, the Gehry-designed building will be handed over to the Ville de Paris in 55 years. In a documentary screened on the France 2 TV channel earlier this year, Arnault says that “[the Fondation] is a present to France from LVMH.”

The documentary revealed new aspects of Arnault’s character, including his talent for playing the piano, a skill learned during childhood. Arnault was raised by his grandparents in Roubaix, northern France. His grandmother gave the budding entrepreneur a taste for music and the arts, according to the documentary.

Arnault is believed to collect 18th-century decorative art, and supports the Château de Versailles through lucrative LVMH sponsorship deals. “I believe Arnault has an interest in rare and important objects from the 18th century,” says the Parisian antiques dealer Benjamin Steinitz. Meanwhile, “I see myself as an ambassador of French heritage and French culture,” Arnault told Forbes magazine, which called him the Lord of Luxe. “What we create is emblematic. It’s linked to Versailles, to Marie Antoinette.”

The luxury brands group, through its subsidiaries Dior and Moët Hennessy, has sponsored at least four exhibitions at the palace outside Paris in the past 20 years, including “Kangxi, Emperor of China” in 2004, and a show dedicated to Louis XIV in 2009.

Crucially, LVMH part-funded the acquisition of a desk once owned by Marie Antoinette, which was reportedly bought by the French state for €6.8m in 2011 (a spokeswoman for the palace says that the figure is incorrect but would not elaborate). The ornate desk, which was made by the royal cabinet maker Jean-Henri Riesener, is on show in the former queen’s private apartment.

In the France 2 programme, Arnault explains why the luxury sector matters. When the socialist François Mitterrand was elected President in 1981, Arnault moved to the US for two years. “I asked a taxi driver, who loved France, if he knew who the President of France was. No, but he knew Christian Dior. That stayed with me in a subliminal way,” he said.

Where art helps to burnish brand image

“LVMH is just a name. With art, we are building our image,” Jean-Paul Claverie told The Art Newspaper in 1997. Claverie is now the head of LVMH’s corporate philanthropy and an adviser to Bernard Arnault, the chairman of the conglomerate that owns brands such as Dior and Louis Vuitton. This fusion of art, luxury and commerce is nowhere more apparent than in Vuitton's collaborations with artists including Takashi Murakami, Richard Prince and Yayoi Kusama who have all designed handbags for the fashion house. But its main platforms for contemporary art are the Espace Culturel, lavish exhibition spaces above Vuitton’s flagship stores. The Espace Culturel Paris opened on the seventh floor of the Maison Louis Vuitton in 2006; exhibition spaces have since been launched in Tokyo (Ernesto Neto’s 2012-13 installation, right), London, Munich and Singapore. Numerous established and emerging artists have shown works in the spaces.

The artists Andrea Bowers, Min Jeong Seo and Simryn Gill have been invited by the Espace Culturel in Paris, Tokyo and Munich respectively to make new works as part of the “In Situ-1” programme (Bowers’s work is on show in Paris until 4 January). However, the crossover between the Espace Culturel, and the collections owned by the Fondation Louis Vuitton and Arnault, remains unclear. “There are no plans for the foundation to purchase my installation; however, they may acquire a different project I’m working on, which is a video work,” Min says.

Nick O'Flaherty, the head of strategy at the brand consultancy Wolff Olins in New York, says that LVMH has integrated art into its business. “Artists can bring fresh perspectives to the creative process. And [then there is] the equity association: if haute couture is increasingly perceived as part of the canon of art, LVMH has much to gain," he says.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘A walk in the park with Arnault'