Frédéric Jousset, the Businessman Bringing Culture to the People

Entrepreneur, businessman, adventurer, philanthropist. At 52, the administrator of the Louvre and owner of Beaux Arts magazine has taken on yet another challenge: to entice new demographics into museums and bridge the cultural divide in France. To achieve his objectives, he has created the Art Explora foundation and a fleet of mobile museums.
© François Roelants

“Sixty years after André Malraux created the French ministry of culture, we find ourselves trapped beneath the same glass ceiling. The percentage of working-class people visiting museums is still as low as ever,” says Frédéric Jousset, who made his fortune in call centers and now lives in the U.K. However, he believes that “the problem is not financial,” pointing to the fact that discounted prices have no effect, and those who do not go to museums or theaters can spend ten times more on tickets to a soccer game. The problem is deeper. The French businessman claims that it is a lack of interest. “The propensity to consume culture depends on where you are born and where you live. If people are not going to museums, it is up to us to go to them.”

This is the role of Art Explora, the foundation Frédéric Jousset launched in 2019. Its objective is to create new ways of accessing culture by making it mobile. The MuMo museum-truck, loaded with works of modern and contemporary art from the Centre Pompidou, is already driving along the roads of rural France. It will be joined in the fall of 2023 by the giant catamaran ArtExplorer, which will sail across the Mediterranean Sea from Marseille to Beirut and from Malta to Tunisia. The boat features a modular, on-board exhibition space designed by architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte and is large enough to welcome 2,000 people while docked. It will offer a traveling exhibition curated by the Louvre focused on the representation of women in the Mediterranean region, from the Venus de Milo to Mona Lisa, and also showcase local artists at each port of call.

Frédéric Jousset isn’t stopping there. Other initiatives include awards for innovative European museums – such as the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations in Marseille, which will be using electric buses to bring young people from underprivileged neighborhoods to its site – artistic residencies at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Montmartre, and partnerships with Villa Albertine in the United States. The entrepreneur wants to rejuvenate culture in all its forms. “Culture occurs whenever there is dialogue in a public space through a unique, original action.” Does this definition even extend to Star Wars? “Why not, if young people start going to movie theaters instead of watching series on their computers.” Another demographic “held back” from culture are the elderly residents of some 7,300 assisted living facilities in France. In an effort to combat loneliness, the businessman is developing visits by artists, “30 minutes of attention providing a doorway into living culture.”

American-Inspired French Philanthropy

As well as being a globetrotter, Frédéric Jousset is a keen observer of heritage conservation policies and systems, initiatives which also strive to close the cultural divide. He praises American museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a pioneer in engaging with disadvantaged demographics and young people, and dreams of establishing the U.S. tradition of philanthropy in France. As the son of a director of the Ecole Normale de Musique and a curator at the Centre Pompidou, he is fighting tooth and nail for the creation of a ministry of philanthropy in France. Even if that means being called a bureaucrat. “Our country is creative without the government’s help,” he says. “But when culture, the cement of the nation, generates 3% of GDP, employs 600,000 people – more than the automobile sector – and helps to make France the most visited country in the world, perhaps we should consider a ministry for managing cultural operators and championing such a major national ambition.”

The MuMo museum-truck, loaded with works from the Centre Pompidou, has been driving around France since June 2022. © Philippe Piron
Starting in the fall of 2023, the giant catamaran ArtExplorer will sail across the Mediterranean, offering a mobile exhibition space. © Wimotte & Associés
Hangar Y, another artistic residency championed by Art Explora, will open in the Meudon Forest, southwest of Paris, in the spring of 2023. © Lewis Joly

The Culture Pass is another of Frédéric Jousset’s achievements. Four years ago, his desire to promote the French cultural sector led minister Françoise Nyssen to ask him to pilot this project to help those between 15 and 18 to “get out of their comfort zones and attend performances or exhibitions they would not otherwise have considered.” The operation, which launched nationally in May 2021, is only getting started. However, it is already showing results, with some 2.3 million users and a mobile app listing cultural offers from thousands of public, private, and community partners.

A French Largo Winch

The millionaire is an intriguing and singular figure in the French art world. Le Monde described him as an adventurer with countless feats to his name, including “climbing Shishapangma in Tibet, horseback riding through the wilderness, hunting in Tajikistan, skiing in the Caucasus, and speeding around the track at Le Mans in his 1964 AC Cobra.” This has seen him nicknamed “the French Largo Winch” by the financial press. He currently lives in a modern home in Notting Hill, a chic enclave in London, and collects contemporary art by figures such as Anish Kapoor, Richard Prince, and Damien Hirst. However, his “eclectic” tastes do not rule out classical pieces such as African masks and Greek vases. When asked how he compares himself to other French philanthropists such as François Pinault and Bernard Arnault, he replies: “They are leading entrepreneurs and I respect them, but the path I am on is not inspired by anyone else. As I am not tied to a certain period or region – my field of action is all of Europe, where my foundation promotes traveling projects. I am contributing something different to the philanthropy sector.”

Frédéric Jousset is certainly attempting, in his own way, to reconcile business with heritage and culture conservation. As a friend of Emmanuel Macron, a former president of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and the owner of the only hotel on the grounds of the Château de Chambord (a similar project at Chantilly failed to materialize), he was previously rumored to be a potential candidate for the position of culture minister. But when asked if he even wants to get involved in politics, he avoids the question: “Serving one’s country is something noble, but directing my foundation, which is a form of public service, is enough for me.” When discussing whether a successful life is the only real aesthetic venture, he pauses for thought. “We must first distinguish between succeeding in life and having a successful life.” He then changes his mind: “There is something important missing from what I just said: the other. Art is my second family, and the solitary plea- sure of owning beautiful things is not my idea of aesthetic pleasure.” Much like wine, it seems, art therefore has “the taste of those with whom we share it.”

Article published in the January 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.