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True Colors: The Museum-Off Between Two French Billionaires Has Only Just Begun

It seems that little has happened in the uppermost reaches of French fashion and philanthropy in recent decades that has not in some way involved either Bernard Arnault, 72, or François Pinault, 85, the mega-collectors and billionaire patresfamilias of, respectively, the LVMH and Kering luxury conglomerates. The two have been locking horns on the most gilded arenas for years, most famously in 2001 when Pinault’s PPR (now known as Kering) boxed out Arnault in the acquisition battle for Gucci, helmed then by Tom Ford. The jousting continued for decades, culminating in the most highbrow-excellent ego contest in human history, wherein the two billionaires donated hundreds of millions of euros in kind to rebuild Notre Dame. For those keeping score: The Arnault family gave $218 million, while Pinault (along with son François-Henri, who took over the day-to-day of the family business in 2003) donated $109 million.

But competition over fashion houses and charitable giving has paled in comparison to the showdown between their two private museums. Mr. Arnault (everyone calls him “Mister Ar-noh”) opened the Louis Vuitton Foundation in the forested area of the Bois de Boulogne in 2014, its structure dreamed up by Frank Gehry—a shimmering pile of what look like silver eggshell pieces delicately placed upon one another. It was closed to the public during the pandemic and reopened just weeks ago with “The Morozov Collection,” a show of Impressionist masterpieces from the collection of two brothers that had been dispersed by a century of war and revolution, only to be put together by Arnault (with a little help from Vladimir Putin).

Then, last May, Mr. Pinault (everyone calls him “Mister Pee-no”) opened his own private museum, the Bourse de Commerce in the central neighborhood of Les Halles, in a former hub for Parisian grain trade, after an extraordinary $170 million renovation by Tadao Ando. And while Mr. Pinault’s museum might not currently have a trove of Matisse and Picasso reunited for the first time in a century, it has on display the masterpieces from his collection, including a suite of some 30 seminal works by David Hammons, the most comprehensive show of the artist’s work ever staged in Europe.

Each institution is a game changer of an addition to the 21st-century French cultural landscape in its own right, but due to some quirks of timing and a global pandemic, they’ve only been open to the public concurrently for a few weeks. The arrival in Paris this week of Foire Internationale de l’Art Contemporain (otherwise known as FIAC) allowed for the gallery class to take them both in together and update the mental score card.

“You know, it’s quite amazing and interesting that two of the biggest collectors in the art world are both French, and both care deeply and keenly about art—but also their city, to build museums here,” said Jennifer Flay, who’s been the director of FIAC since 2010. “And I think that’s a beautiful message. It’s a remarkable phenomenon that brings a lot of people who love art to the city.”

Flay was sitting in an office carved into the warren of rooms hidden inside the guts of FIAC, which was staged this year not at its usual digs in the light-strewn Grand Palais but rather in the Grand Palais Éphémère, a new space built to house exhibitions while the 1897 iron and glass structure on the Champs-Élysées gets a much-needed face-lift ahead of the 2024 Olympics. Flay seemed upbeat, noting that exhibitors were eminently pleased with the new setup, which trades the grandeur of the old space for a more typical art fair setup with navigable aisles.

Evidently, it worked: Collectors did buy at the fair, stopping by the Hauser & Wirth booth to snap up new paintings by George Condo and Rashid Johnson for $1.55 million and $850,000, respectively. Perhaps the biggest sale of Wednesday, the fair’s first day, was Robert Rauschenberg’s Star Grass (1963), which sold for $2.8 million at the Thaddaeus Ropac booth.

But it was also clear that, after the madness of Frieze London and Art Basel just weeks before, there was a bit of fair fatigue going on by the time the proceedings were getting underway this year in Paris.

“I am a little disappointed, after the vibrancy of Frieze, with sales at FIAC. Paris is such a great city for a fair, but FIAC has tended to underperform for us compared with other major fairs,” David Zwirner said in a statement that was blasted out to press mid-afternoon on the first day of the fair.

Even more reason to thank God (or the continued commitment of the luxury-buying public), then, for the private museums—even if, when reached on the phone, Louis Vuitton Foundation director Suzanne Pagé sought to distinguish her institution from the vagaries of the fair circuit. Rather, she said, it leans into hearty programming built on careful collecting.

“The decision of Mr. Arnault has a great impact on an artist,” Pagé said. “We are a museum, a museum in the sense that the work that we buy, we never sell. We don’t sell, so what we want is to be ambitious and moving, and only have a cultural impact.”

A more cynical ear might have heard in that response a little bit of a knock on Mr. Pinault, who has been known to sell work through that little auction house he bought in 1998 through his Group Artémis, Christie’s. In 2016, for example, Pinault was the consignor of Adrian Ghenie’s Nickelodeon (2008), which quadrupled high estimates when it sold for about $8.4 million.

She stressed that Mr. Arnault loves staging historical surveys and acquiring works by the leading contemporary voices. When asked what she thought of the Bourse, Pagé responded diplomatically, “I think it’s very good! We just have a different look at the art.”

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