Billionaire’s Unwanted Paris Art Museum Opens with Melting Statues and Talking Mice 1

PARIS–More than 20 years ago, when billionaire business mogul François Pinault was in the planning stages of creating a venue in Paris to display his vast personal collection of contemporary art, some responses to his vision were, to put it generously, lukewarm.

Pinault had his eyes on an island in the middle of the Seine in the well-to-do suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt, but the mayor, Libération reported, “didn’t roll out the red carpet.”

Apparently, it was only when then-President Jacques Chirac intervened on Pinault’s behalf during an Elysée garden party, and the reluctant mayor green-lighted the museum.

“Does Paris need another contemporary art gallery?” The Guardian asked in a 2004 article about the project.

Detractors have accused him of being motivated by ego and “a fantasy of omnipotence,” but he has always maintained that his motivation for the space was rooted in a philanthropic desire to share his passion for contemporary art “with as many people as possible.”

Nearly two decades later, as the city cautiously emerges from stringent COVID-19 restrictions that saw the shuttering of restaurants, bars, and cultural spaces, the answer is a resounding yes.

A visit to the collection, which is housed in a renovated Belle Epoque-era dome, provides a breathtaking antidote to the lockdown doldrums that have held the city in a vice-grip since late October. Indeed, after six months of mandated confinement, the mere act of stepping into a museum again felt subversive and slightly surreal. And that was before I encountered the talking mouse and the melting chairs.

However, the unique interior and the diverse works—Pinault’s collection comprises more than 10,000 pieces by hundreds of artists, including Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons—will likely remain a draw long after post-pandemic malaise has faded.

Housed in the city’s onetime Bourse de Commerce and just blocks from the Louvre, the space is centered around an immense concrete cylinder that was constructed in the central rotunda below the building’s original dome—think half Roman Pantheon, half bank vault. But rather than detracting from the building’s original 19th-century grandeur, the austere concrete slabs complement the original aesthetic while providing a sleek enclosure for the central exhibition space in the interior atrium.

Outside view of the Bourse de Commerce – Pinault Collection contemporary art museum in Paris, France.

Sarah Meyssonnier

Beneath the rotunda, a series of sculptures is currently on display, including a perfect replica of 16th-century Italo-Flemish sculptor Giambologna’s “The Rape of the Sabine Women.” But Swiss artist Urs Fischer’s exquisitely detailed reproduction comes with a twist. Over the coming months, the statue and the equally true-to-life chairs that share the space, will gradually self-destruct. The artist forged the detailed pieces out of pigmented wax, essentially creating giant candles.

Martin Béthenod, the museum’s deputy chief executive officer, described the exhibition as “a monument to impermanence.”

“It does not evoke melancholy,” he wrote in the museum’s press catalogue.

The melting statues, he explained, “is less a process of disappearance and more one of transformation.”

The theme of metamorphosis could equally apply to Pinault’s original ambition for his collection. The 84-year-old founder of luxury giant The Kering Group, whose stable of global fashion brands includes Gucci and Balenciaga, had spent decades amassing a hefty collection of contemporary works from the 1960s to the present day, and dreamed of converting a derelict Renault factory in Boulogne-Billancourt’s Île Seguin into an arts space on par with Bilbao’s Guggenheim or London’s Saatchi Gallery.

Pinault’s plan to transform the factory into a gallery space was met with a host of bureaucratic hurdles, including, he claimed, from Jean-Pierre Fourcade, the aforementioned mayor of Boulogne-Billancourt. Pinault was ultimately forced to abandon the project, and turned his attention to Venice instead where he opened the Palazzo Grassi and the Punta della Dogana in 2006 and 2009, respectively.

In 2016, Pinault announced that his collection had finally found a permanent home in Paris after he agreed to a 50-year lease on the Bourse de Commerce. The revitalization of the building cost around €160 million ($194 million), and the planned exhibits were kept top secret. But when the museum was ready to unveil the collection last June, the world was in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic and the opening was postponed until January, when, as it turned out, France was in the thick of a bleak winter lockdown.

On May 22, the museum finally opened to the public. The opening comes three days after cafes, cinemas and shops were permitted to get back to business, and it somehow seems fitting that the long-awaited birth of Paris’ newest contemporary arts space coincides with the post-lockdown rebirth of the city.

The building itself has also undergone several incarnations over the centuries. In the late-1500s, the site housed a palatial mansion that architect Jean Bullant had constructed for Catherine de Medici. At the queen’s request, the lavish project included a tall Doric column with a viewing platform that is believed to have been used by Medici’s personal astrologer. The residence was eventually razed, but the 101-foot column was spared and stands near the structure’s entrance.

In the 18th century, a circular grain exchange was built on the site that included an open interior courtyard and wooden dome. A fire destroyed the dome in the early 1800s and an iron and copper cupola—Victor Hugo unflatteringly likened it to “an English jockey cap on a large scale”—took its place.

The grain exchange closed in the 1870s and Paris’ Commodities Exchange moved in more than a decade later. The so-called giant jockey cap turned out to be ephemeral as well and was modified when the famed Belle Epoque-era architect Henri Blondel massively revamped the building in the late-19th century, swapping out the copper sheets surrounding the dome for frescoes depicting the history of trade between the five continents. In the 1970s, the cupola and the murals were classified as a historical monument.

Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Tadao Ando was in charge of the building’s most recent incarnation. Ando, who also transformed Palazzo Grassi and the Punta della Dogana into art spaces, worked with local firm NeM Architectes to revitalize the building and convert it into a museum space.

“My task was to give the building a new life as an art museum without altering the projected structure itself,” he said in an interview published in La Bourse de Commerce; le nouveau musée de la Collection Pinault—a book dedicated to the project.

Remnants of the building’s grain exchange days include 25 arcades on the building’s inner façade, and a double helix staircase. Although elegant in appearance, the staircase was designed for practical reasons—it allowed grain-toting porters to carry the heavy sacks up and down to storerooms without running into each other.

“Like the projects in Venice, the main theme was to create architecture that would bind together the time flowing from the past to the present and into the future…,” Ando said.

Harmony between the past and the present may be apparent in the architecture, but some of the exhibits present a jarring collision of anachronistic ideologies with the present discourse about race, gender and politics. This is most apparent in the juxtaposition of “Triumphal France”—the muraled panorama surrounding the dome—with the works of David Hammons, a Black artist known for his public installations.

Despite their beauty and historical value, the 19th-century panels are little more than a glorification of colonialism, complete with depictions of people of color through a lens of imperialist stereotypes. Hammons’ works, including a mangled American flag rendered in the Pan-African tri-color of red, black and green, provides a powerful counterpoint. Such a statement is unusual in a country where universal ideals of secularism are valued over racial identities and even discussing race has long since been considered taboo.

Louise Lawler’s haunting “Helms Amendment” is Gallery 3 features an unsettling series of photographs of a plastic cup depicting every senator who voted to deny funding for AIDS education and prevention in 1987—the height of the AIDS crisis. The “nay” votes were on the basis that such information would “promote or encourage homosexual activities.”

One of the more eye-catching exhibits features a Hitchcock-esque fleet of taxidermied pigeons perched on the rotundas’ balconies that seem to peer down at visitors. The birds are courtesy of the storied Italian artist, Maurizio Cattelan, who first displayed them at the Venice Biennale.

Some 90 percent of the works are on view for the first time, and despite big names like Cindy Sherman and Rudolf Stingel, not all of the exhibits are from celebrity-level artists. Installations by lesser-known artists are also featured, and the displays will change regularly.

A top-floor restaurant helmed by Michelin-starred chef Michel Bras and his son Sébastien will open in June. In a nod to the building’s history, the Halle aux Grains will offer a menu that incorporates everything from buckwheat to pumpkin seeds to barley into its recipes. The minimalist decor that has become standard in new Parisian restaurants evokes an office high-rise and is less stand-out than the panorama, which includes views of Saint-Eustache Church and The Pompidou Center.

During a press event, the father-son duo turned out a host of menu items for a small group of journalists, who, because of the current COVID regulations, were not allowed to sample any of the dishes.

“It’s a tasting with your eyes, not your mouth,” the chef explained, as he presented a series of plates that included stuffed mushrooms, oysters garnished with fenugreek and shallots, and glazed strawberries with delicate dollops of mousse.

As it was lunchtime, I found the whole thing akin to a form of gastronomic torture, so I fled the restaurant to explore the basement level, which includes a 284-seat auditorium and a windowless gallery, where Pierre Huyghe’s installation, Offspring, features a light and fog display to the soundtrack of Erik Satie’s 19th-century “Gymnopedie number 1.” What at first seems like the detritus of a ‘90s-era techno club actually involves an artificial intelligence device that endlessly reinterprets the composition, depending on the movements of visitors in the space.

I didn’t discover the talking mouse until I was heading out, and I have Thomas Lozinski, who was overseeing international press visits, to thank for leading me to a hole in wall near the elevators that contains the white animatronic rodent. A creation of Ryan Gander, the mouse attempts to speak, but then begins to stutter and stammer in a child-like British accent.

It seems confused and slightly delirious. It’s almost as though, like the city itself, the tiny creature is also emerging from a long hibernation.

The Bourse de Commerce is open daily from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., except Tuesdays. On Friday the museum closes at 9 p.m. General admission is €14.