The Pinault Museum: Paris Toe-to-Toe with New York

The contemporary art museum housing François Pinault’s collection will be inaugurated on May 22 in the former Bourse de Commerce building in Paris, making it the center of the capital’s new cultural hub.
The former Bourse de Commerce building in Paris now hosts the Pinault art collection. © Tadao Ando Architect & Associates, Niney et Marca Architectes, Agence Pierre-Antoine Gatier. Photo Vladimir Partalo

From afar, the tall silo-shaped structure topped with a metal-framed glass dome is reminiscent of a dungeon. Inside, the privileged few granted a tour of the site before the inauguration [first planned for spring 2020 and then pushed back a year by the pandemic] are struck by the architectural project’s daring. Japanese starchitect Tadao Ando was tasked with renovating the interior for the Pinault collection, one of the world’s leading contemporary art ensembles.

In his conception of the soon-to-be inhabited space, he decided to create a void within the old wheat exchange originally built in the 18th century. His idea was to install a gigantic cylinder within the dome-topped curved walls. Within, a circular corridor between the outer wall and the exhibition space will serve as a canvas for the works collected by the French billionaire over the last 40 years.

Will this be – as some have claimed – the most beautiful contemporary art museum on the planet? The Broad Museum in Los Angeles, founded and financed by philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad, and the Chichu Art Museum on the island of Naoshima in Japan, also designed by Tadao Ando, are other worthy title-holders. But the “Pinault Museum,” located five minutes from the Louvre, ten from the Centre Pompidou, and twenty from the Orsay, Jeu de Paume and Orangerie museums, will be at the heart of the capital’s cultural center.

François Pinault (left) and Japanese architect Tadao Ando. The transformation of the Bourse de Commerce building into a museum is Ando's biggest project ever accomplished in France. © Vincent Capman/Paris Match

New York already has its art district, the Museum Mile, home to major establishments including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim Museum. Paris will now have its own “Mile,” one of miracles, delighting art enthusiasts with a plethora of classic, modern, and contemporary works. More than enough to restore the City of Light to its former glory. Paris was once the trendsetting capital of art before being dethroned after World War II by New York, its uninhibited artists free from cultures past, and its business-savvy dealers.

The Bourse de Commerce’s spectacular rehabilitation is not just a blessing for Paris; it is also the cornerstone of a major vanity project. The upcoming museum scores a point in the war between Pinault, a former timber industry executive, and Bernard Arnault, the “wolf in cashmere,” president of LVMH. The two billionaires have been battling it out on the contemporary art market for the last twenty years, vying for a monopoly in the luxury and industrial sectors.

Pinault abandoned his colossal project for a contemporary art museum on the Île Seguin on the Seine River west of Paris in 2005. In an official statement, it was claimed he was discouraged by French bureaucracy, but he was also worried by his own extravagance. Instead, the billionaire moved his collection to Venice, where it was exhibited in the museum at the Palazzo Grassi.

Meanwhile, Arnault counterattacked by opening the Fondation Louis Vuitton in 2014. Looming over the Bois de Boulogne park, the steel and glass construction by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry welcomed the Arnault collection, a vast array of pieces blending art and luxury, and open to the public. It was less avant-garde than Pinault’s, but provided the LVMH group with fantastic leverage. A series of blockbuster exhibitions ensued, including gems from the MoMA – the ancestral establishment founded in 1929 by Abby Rockefeller – and the Shchukin collection from the eponymous Russian contemporary art collector. This latter exhibition attracted 1.2 million visitors.

© Tadao Ando Architect & Associates, Niney et Marca Architectes, Agence Pierre-Antoine Gatier. Photo Marc Domage
© Tadao Ando Architect & Associates, Niney et Marca Architectes, Agence Pierre-Antoine Gatier. Photo Stefan Altenburger

With the Bourse de Commerce, will the one-time “timber merchant” have the upper hand once again? Everything is still to play for. In 2022, LVMH will unveil a new space spanning more than 180,000 square feet built around an immense staircase in the former Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions. Located a few hundred feet from the Fondation Louis Vuitton and also renovated by Frank Gehry, the space will house an “arts academy,” further reinforcing the cultural status of west Paris and enabling Arnault to stake his claim for the title of prince of patrons – long disputed with Pinault via sponsorships, major donations, and grants.

Will this war waged in art and luxury make Paris the new leading light of contemporary art? Nothing could be less certain, as we haven’t heard the last of New York. First there was the construction of the new Whitney Museum in the Meatpacking District, headed up by Italian architect Renzo Piano. This was followed by an addition to the New Museum, an asymmetrical tower designed by Rem Koolhas. Between the two, an extension of the MoMA moved into the first three floors of Jean Nouvel’s 53W53 tower in October 2019. Needless to say, this buzz of activity has relaunched New York’s museum frenzy. The confrontation between the City of Light and the Big Apple has only just begun.

Article published in the December 2019 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.