Jean-Jacques Aillagon : “The very idea of the museum is associated with the idea of sharing.”

Jean-Jacques Aillagon
Close Photo : Maxime Tétard ©Bourse de Commerce — Pinault Collection
Interview
January 31, 2021

Jean-Jacques Aillagon : “The very idea of the museum is associated with the idea of sharing.”

Jean-Jacques Aillagon, Chief Executive Officer of Pinault Collection, talks about the Bourse de Commerce project.

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By Pinault Collection,

How did you discover this new site for the Pinault Collection?

I was always hanging around this building, admiring it too, from the outside, as for a long time, visitors were allowed very parsimoniously into the building. So, when I heard from the City of Paris that the building was going to be available, and the City of Paris was wondering whether it should be given to a cultural project, I immediately suggested to François Pinault that he come and visit it. He knew the building; he used to go there when it was still the Bourse de Commerce, in the real sense of the term. Nonetheless, he came along to have a look and assess the possibility of adapting the building to house a museum dedicated to his collection. Very soon, he was convinced, and we began discussions with the City of Paris, to see whether the building could be given to the Pinault Collection on a long-term lease. In any event, to return to your question, I’ve known this building forever, ever since I came to live and work in Paris. I moved to Paris quite late, in 1976; you probably see that as a long time ago. I lived in this neighbourhood, I lived near les Halles at that time, a cursed time unfortunately, as it was when they destroyed the Baltard Pavilions, and then dug the huge hole that became the Forum des Halles, to provide new equipment. And amidst this disaster, just one or two unique architectural objects survived: Saint Eustache Church on one side, and the Bourse de Commerce on the other.

“François Pinault has very clear tastes, he also truly appreciates great historical buildings, because he believes that the art of our times cannot only make do with white cubes, spaces with no character.”

Why did you choose the Bourse de Commerce?

I think François Pinault chose the Bourse de Commerce because it is not an ordinary building; it’s a unique building. François Pinault has very clear tastes, he also truly appreciates great historical buildings, because he believes that the art of our times cannot only make do with white cubes, spaces with no character, it also needs to confront reality, the reality of the world on the one hand, and the reality of the previous centuries on the other. In Venice, he chose an 18th century palace for his collection, Palazzo Grassi, a building that is actually a faithful reflection of Venice, and la Punta della Dogana, a building where goods were exchanged from the Renaissance period onwards. Buildings permeated by history. And François Pinault found the same qualities here. With its circular shape, this building is rooted in the utopian architecture of the 18th century, the century of Enlightenment. With its roof, its dome, the first to be made of metal in France, this building is one of the great witnesses to the arrival of the industrial period in our country and throughout Europe. With the decoration that was added in 1889, for the Universal Exhibition held the same year, this is also a building that reveals a certain optimism in Europe, at a time when Europe felt it was conquering, learning about and trading with the whole world. Despite what some said to him about the inconvenience of curved rather than rectilinear rooms, it is a building with great character rather than a standardised building. François Pinault chose it because he believed that in the future, it would be a real gamble for his collection and for artists, to have to confront this building, it was a sort of challenge. How does today’s art experience and meet the public in a building of this type?

Tomorrow, the visitor who comes here will be able to enjoy several experiences. Frist a great heritage experience, an encounter with a little known building, a magnificent building, wonderfully restored by a great architect, an authority on historical monuments, Pierre-Antoine Gatier. An extraordinary architectural experience, thanks to the opportunity to discover the work of one of the greatest architects of our time, Tadao Ando, who was supported by a team of young Parisian architects, NeM Architects Agency, Lucie Niney and Thibault Marca. They worked together to shape this very strong architectural concept, which consists of installing a round internal envelope within a round building that has a round external and internal envelope. So it creates a third circle, a third cylinder, a third cement ring that fully respects Tadao Ando’s architectural vocabulary. And lastly, the same visitor will have a third experience, an artistic experience, the encounter with works of our time, with one of the largest collections of contemporary art of our time, François Pinault’s collection.

Which great moment during the project will you remember?

Like in all great adventures, whether they are cultural or emotional, the most beautiful moments are always the first. Those are the ones we remember with the greatest emotion. The first great moment was when the City of Paris confirmed it would give François Pinault a fifty-year lease for the building. The second great moment, which was also a sort of inauguration, a birth, was when Tadao Ando first showed us his project, his building; a very modest sketch, a sort of line delicately drawn on the paper, so we could begin to imagine what the transformation of this building would be like, while fully respecting the heritage aspect. The third great moment was probably when the architectural project was finally approved by the extremely vigilant administrative bodies, the Commission nationale des monuments historiques (National Commission for Historical Monuments), on the one hand, a National Commission under the direct responsibility of the Ministry of Culture, and also by the Commission du Vieux Paris, a municipal body, and everyone knows how carefully they ensure heritage is really respected. That was when we felt our gamble had paid off, we could highlight a great historical building, scrupulously respecting its identity, and at the same time, invite a great architect to create a major architectural work here, in Paris, in the heart of France.

I want to go back to the idea that here, we are in the centre of Paris, to better explain that one of the other reasons that motivated François Pinault’s choice of the Bourse de Commerce is precisely the fact that it is located here, in the centre of Paris, in the 1st arrondissement, between the Pompidou Centre, on one side and the Louvre on the other. It stands in the thrilling cultural heart of Paris, at a site where the great masterpieces of past civilisations are displayed on one side, and on the other there is an institution dedicated to modern art, contemporary art.

“So, at the outset, the very idea of the museum is associated with the idea of sharing. Displaying, admiring, contemplating. […] It is the visitors’ gaze that brings them to life that gives them meaning; it’s the visitors’ gaze that makes them a real necessity.”

What purpose does a museum serve today, and what purpose should it serve in the future?

The museum is an old democratic invention. From the Renaissance onwards, the idea of collections was formalised. Some of these collections are parsimoniously opening up to the public, or at least to specialist amateur audiences. It was mainly in the 18th century, particularly at times of major political rupture, for example the great moment of rupture represented by the French Revolution, that people said to themselves, after all, the masterpieces from the past, the present-day masterpieces that the powerful have the option of owning, cannot be the prerogative of a few. These masterpieces should be made available to everyone; as civilisations evolve, we should never lose sight of the fact things progress collectively, and the more men and women contribute to, and share these treasures, the more civilisation will become a civilisation of blossoming. So, at the outset, the very idea of the museum is associated with the idea of sharing. Displaying, admiring, contemplating. If these works remain unseen, unseen by young people, old people, adults, women, men who can admire them, these objects, these works, remain dead objects. It is the visitors’ gaze that brings them to life that gives them meaning; it’s the visitors’ gaze that makes them a real necessity. It is also, I think, the translation of one of the ways we envisage culture. Naturally, culture can be a delight. We find things beautiful, we find things great, we find things noble, or worthy of being preserved. Culture is also a collective way of building shared references in a society, of sharing values, so that every one who accesses this culture ultimately has the feeling of belonging to a real collective, a true community. By building museums, by building places for music, by building libraries, by publishing books, composing music, creating works of art, by opening museums like this one, we are actually adding another brick to the vast edifice of shared civilisation.

Which work in the Pinault Collection touches you the most?

It’s very difficult to say, as it isn’t the same work every day. What I like when I visit a museum, is asking myself when I leave, “which is the work that I must absolutely remember?” Which work touched me the most when I stepped into a room in the museum? Which work drew my gaze immediately? I often visit the Dijon museum, for example. Every time, I go back to see the same work, a very small painting by Konrad Witz, between the Middle Ages and the North European Renaissance. It depicts Emperor Augustus hearing of Jesus’ birth from the Tiburtine Sibyl. It’s a small painting that fascinates me for its composition, the sense of marvel you see in Emperor Augustus’ and the Tiburtine Sibyl’s eyes. See, that’s my favourite painting in the Dijon museum. In the Pinault Collection, off the top of my head, and not really thinking about it, I would probably say a work by Maurizio Cattelan, All, a row of corpses, apparently wrapped in white shrouds. When you look more closely at the work, or at each of the shrouds, you realise that the anatomy of the dead bodies is very summary, and even at times somewhat absurd, particularly in what concerns the position of the limbs. But this work, like all great vanitas, like the great tomb effigies of the Middle Ages, invites us to reflect upon the meaning of life, the fragility of things, the inevitable nature of death, it’s a wonderful invitation to meditate. But it’s one work among so many others. Another morning, another day, I may tell you I am amazed at Axial Age, Polke’s great nine-panel composition. Two years ago, when I was visiting the Pinault Collection exhibition in Rennes, I was filled with wonder as I stood before a contemporary work by a young artist, Vincent Gicquel, whose watercolours I admired. This collection is so varied, so rich, that it constantly invites us to discover new works, and finally, to reconsider our relationship with the works, and the presumed hierarchy of works. This hierarchy does not really exist; it is not an objective reality. Ultimately, the way we classify this or that work in our memory, in our list of preferences, in our choices, or the way we classify works in general, is so much a question of emotion, sensitivity.

“Culture is also a collective way of building shared references in a society, of sharing values, so that every one who accesses this culture ultimately has the feeling of belonging to a real collective, a true community.”

When did you first discover art?

My first relationship with works of art came to me through paper. It was thanks to art reviews that I gained a first familiarity with art. Some of the reviews that we find today already existed when I was young. My family didn’t buy them, but I often went to visit an aunt who lived in the village next door to the small town where I lived, and one of the magazines my aunt used to buy was Connaissance des Arts that was a new publication at the time. It was while flicking through this review that I first saw works of art. Later, I realised that I had actually had some contact with the architecture of our time, without even knowing anything about the architects who built the various buildings. In the small town where I lived, a chapel designed by Prouvé had been built after the war. I didn’t yet know who the great engineer-architect Prouvé was, but I already admired the radical shape of the building. I had a feeling there was something exceptional about it, but it was only later than I learnt it was an exceptional building. I think after that, my first real, physical, sensual, contact with works of art, was when I moved from Loraine to Toulouse. At the time, I found myself in a city that had amazing museums, and I visited them. I saw exhibitions for the first time; I saw exceptional monuments. That was when I discovered what nothing can fully replace, no publication, no imaginary museum, no book can replace, and that is the joy of being in close contact, sensual contact with the physicality of works of art, as well as their spirituality. That was a joy that stayed with me.