It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a Frenchman in possession of a good fortune may not be in want of a wife, but a private cultural foundation.
Bernard Arnault, France’s richest man and the head of the luxury goods group LVMH, has his Louis Vuitton Foundation based in a building in Paris resembling a glass cloud, designed by the architect Frank Gehry.
His rival François Pinault, France’s eighth-richest man, is building a showcase for his large collection of contemporary art, to be opened in the French capital next year.
Now, Guillaume Houzé, the heir to the Galeries Lafayette department store group, has joined the elite group of businesspeople with artistic ambitions by opening Lafayette Anticipations, a foundation, in the heart of the Marais.
In a five-storey former industrial building, part of which was once a girls’ school, this modern cultural centre has been created by the architect Rem Koolhaas and his Rotterdam-based Office for Metropolitan Architecture.
The centre includes an 18-metre flexible exhibition tower made of concrete, metal, glass and moving floors, which uses motors and a rack-and-pinion system to allow for 49 spacial configurations, creating galleries of different sizes in what would have been the courtyard.
Construction was further complicated by the fact the original U-shaped building, built in 1891 as a warehouse for the nearby BHV department store, is in a strict conservation area.
Houzé, the foundation’s president and great-great grandson of the founder of Galeries Lafayette, the luxury store on Boulevard Haussmann, admitted Paris already has a lot of institutions and foundations.
However, he insisted Lafayette Anticipations, which has a working budget of €21m (£19m) for the next five years, was not just another gallery for his family’s collection of contemporary art, but a unique space to encourage the creation of works.
In the basement, invited artists – not all internationally known and not all French – will be given the time, space and tools to indulge their imaginations in a hi-tech production workshop. Curators based in London, New York and the Netherlands are under instructions to keep an eye out for talent.
Even before the building opened, artists were assisting with projects linked to the nearby Pompidou Centre, the Kunsthalle in Basel, and MoMA PS1 and the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York.
“In 2012, we set up the Galeries Lafayette Foundation, and the question we asked was how could it be most useful to artists,” Houzé told the Guardian.
“We convened a thinktank of artists, philosophers, planners and others, and held a series of workshops to define what a 21st-century foundation could bring that is different.
“What we came down to was the notion of ‘production’, the idea of actually creating something. It seemed absolutely critical to explore this. We then invited artists to a kind of prefiguration programme that we are now testing for real in the building.”
Houzé, who is in charge of Galeries Lafayette’s brand image and communication, denied the foundation was a marketing exercise and said it would be an “encounter of creativity and commerce, accessible to all”.
“We have a project that is unique in character and innovative for the artists. The idea here is to give artists the means, including the tools and the machines, to produce something new. What they produce will be presented here, but not only here,” he said.
“The idea is that it should have a multidisciplinary character. We want to show that art, fashion, design are all linked, that there is porosity between these disciplines.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010