Photo: WC News Service/Richard Carreño
ALL HAT, NO CATTLE
By RICHARD CARREÑO
PARIS [WC News Service] -- The super rich and powerful get all sorts things named for them; their fabulous wealth underwriting ego-centric municipal projects from hospitals and sports stadiums to theatres and, increasingly for those billionaire one-per-centers who also fancy themselves as art connoisseurs, eponymous museums that showcase their putative, ahem, 'connoisseurship.'
Step forward, please, France's richest man, one Bernard Arnault, chairman of the luxury goods conglomerate, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, who has also created what may be one of the the world's worst contemporary art museums, the newly-minted Fondation Louis Vuitton, a Frank Gehry-designed behemoth that rises up in Paris' principal park, the Bois de Boulogne.
The mega-million-euro museum, resembling an ocean-going ark with a very large prow, opened in late 2014. I got around to it earlier this month.
True, the museum doesn't bear Arnault's name. Never mind. Arnault is Vuitton, and, in the tony precincts of the 16th, Mayfair, and the Upper East Side, everyone knows it. That, seemingly, is enough for the vainglorious Arnault.
On the other hand, the Gehry brand gets more than its fair share of acclaim, including an eponymous, overpriced restaurant, festooned with Vuitton-branded luggage, dubbed rather vulgarly 'Le Frank.'
A small gift shop also features goods with the now-ubiquitous Vuitton logo. It, too, is costly (even by museum gift shop standards), making one wonder if the museum's marketing concept is akin to a price-gouging Vuitton retail shop. (Breaking news! General admission is a bargain, just €14. As a reporter, I got in free).
One is further hard-pressed what to make of the museum's awkward nomenclature as a foundation -- founded, one supposes, to support good works other than its basic mission as an art repository. So far, the museum/foundation provides artsy iPad 'games' for children and a series of concerts. Hardly innovative. (Ultimately, the foundation model might work. For example, the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia is a museum -- and, thanks to its namesake, the visionary Dr. Albert C. Barnes, also separate art and horticultural schools).
How Arnault was able to weasel his way into the city's most public park, encroaching on a former green-space that would have better served in perpetuity as, well, green-space, is another brain-teaser. But then did I mention that Arnault is also France's richest man?
At least, you can't blame Gehry for the siting of his nautical-like structure. But you can call him out for its cookie-cutter design, encased in titanium panels and glass, signature Gehry materiel. If you're anywhere near the Jardin d'Acclimatation, as are the mommy-matrons and their nannies who wheel their charges in the neighbourhood, you can't miss it. The museum is Gehry redux. If you count his Disney Concert Hall in L.A. and/or the Guggenheim satellite in Bilbao, Spain, maybe even tri-dux.
To be fair, there seems to be a rash of dodgy museums popping up in the past few years. Related, of course, to an equal rise in solipsistic, ersatz connoisseurs like Arnault who, like the ancient pharaohs, are erecting pyramids of self-aggrandisement, rather than civic-minded public institutions. The upshot is a new menu of 'retail' museums.
Of course, they're not all bad -- at least, when they contain a full range of significant art. But even on this score, the Fondation Louis Vuitton is thin gruel. As they say way, way out West, 'All hat, no cattle.' (OK, I did sorta like some commissioned works by Ellsworth Kelly, part of the permanent collection. And everyman's favourite, Alberto Giacometti, was easy to take).
Interestingly enough, the Gehry's Bilbao Guggie also at first suffered from a paucity of first-rate art. I loved the building when it first opened almost twenty years ago. (Remember, Gehry's shtick was still fresh at the time). But once inside, beyond Jeff Koons' awful Puppy, I couldn't find the art.
Again earlier this month, in Los Angeles now, I got the same empty feeling when I visited the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, part of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art complex. LACMA is a great, worthy museum. The Broad, designed by Renzo Piano (Gehry's evil twin?), not so much. A good effort. But I sensed the place was running on fumes. (Still, I did get to see Jeff Bridges, who, unlike me, was getting the personal-escort star treatment. A donation in the making?)
Eli Broad, the Los-Angeles-based billionaire who pays the bills, claims he wants to make the Broad the world's 'greatest' contemporary art museum. Tell that to the Whitney! Even the Guggenheim in New York, for that matter. As far as ego-stroking advertising goes, Broad also takes the cake. Viz, The Broad in downtown L.A. (hardby the Disney) and the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State Museum. He also has a hand (sharp elbows, some say) in running LACMA and the Museum of Contemporary Art, across Grand Avenue from The Broad. (Now, that's interesting!)
Vuitton's Arnault also skirts controversy. Until recently, he had been green-lighted to redevelop and remodel the former La Samaritaine, a beloved, greatly-missed department store on the posh rue de Rivoli, just off the Seine. Thankfully, a court injunction has temporarily blocked any new work, involving a insidious plan to reshape the cherished architectural standard of central Paris (a combination of historical periods that es-hew the 20th and 21st centuries). In contrast, the Gehry Vuitton building, near the Neuilly suburb, is less threatening to the city's architectural integrity. (In fact, the Vuitton is so far off the beaten path, it's unlikely that quick-draw/quick hit American and European tourists will hike to the venue in droves. Chinese tourist 'gangs,' the ones that make spring and summer-time visits to the Louvre a nightmare, are another story. Brand Vuitton is sweet nectar to Chinese visitors).
Unleashed by their fortunes, Broad and Arnault exemplify a form of unbridled hubris that promotes the self-regard -- albeit, unwarranted -- they hold for their art collections. And the urgency to create wallspace to mount these works. (Alice Walton, a Sam Walton daughter, who founded the Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas, a kind of Noah's Ark of American art, is another smitten by the bug. Her motto, redolent of her retail background, 'I'll take two of everything, please.') Simply put, much of Broad collection and probably all of the Arnault collection should have been mercifully donated to existing institutions. Broad's to LACMA; Arnault's, to the Centre Pompidou.
Is the new retail museum model a trend? Alas, probably.
Makes one wonder how the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Museum of Modern Art in New York would have rolled out over the years if they had been named for their benefactors. Andrew Mellon (the National Gallery) and John D. Rockefeller (MoMA), of course, would have never countenanced such a thing. For one, they were far richer and powerful than any of the new, wannabe Medicis. And with a lot less to prove.