Pinault, Francois

▪ 2007

      From May through September 2006, a Venetian villa was home to a unique exhibition of contemporary artworks owned by French entrepreneur François Pinault. “Where Are We Going?” showcased 250 post-World War II pieces in the Palazzo Grassi, which Pinault purchased in 2005. He had planned to house his private collection in a museum that was to be built on an island in the Seine, southwest of Paris, but he abandoned the idea after five years of bureaucratic wrangling. Instead, “Where Are We Going?” became the first of what Pinault promised would be a series of exhibitions planned for a “network” of European locations.

      Pinault was born on Aug. 21, 1936, in Champs Géraux, Côtes-du-Nord. His earliest jobs were with his father's timber company; in 1963 he founded Société Pinault, a timber and building materials firm (reorganized as Pinault SA in 1988). Pinault acquired department store Au Printemps SA in 1992 and, after purchasing mail-order company La Redoute, he formed Pinault-Printemps-Redoute in 1994 (renamed PPR in 2005). Working through his holding company, Artémis SA (founded in 1992), he added a wide range of firms. Pinault's purchase of a 29.1% stake in British auction house Christie's in 1998 signaled his shift toward expensive brands—and affirmed his love of art. After acquiring (1999) 42% of luxury-goods retailer Gucci Group NV, Pinault transformed it into a luxury-brand conglomerate, and in 2004 he gained a controlling stake. His American holdings included Samsonite luggage and a ski resort in Vail, Colo.

      Pinault spent some three decades acquiring art, but he was so secretive that few outsiders knew which works he had purchased; the Palazzo Grassi exhibition reportedly featured only 10% of his collection. Americans Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, Cy Twombly, and Robert Ryman were among the more than 50 artists chosen by curator Alison M. Gingeras of the Guggenheim museums, while the title “Where Are We Going?” was derived from a work (animal skeletons displayed in a glass and steel case) by British artist Damien Hirst. New works were also commissioned; the palazzo's facade was wrapped in a luminous textile work, Your Wave Is, by Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, and Swiss artist Urs Fischer created Vintage Violence, an installation of “droplets” suspended from the ceiling above the grand staircase.

      As “Where Are We Going?” drew to its October 1 close, Pinault's rival, Bernard Arnault of the French luxury-goods conglomerate LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, announced his own plans to build a Frank Gehry-designed cultural centre near the Bois de Boulogne in Paris—thus succeeding where Pinault had failed. Yet Pinault's stature in the art world was unrivaled; in October ArtReview magazine named him the most powerful man in modern art. The next exhibition from Pinault's collection was scheduled for early 2007 in France.

Sarah Forbes Orwig

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Universalium. 2010.

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