A Maison Of His Own

A Paris collector has a lofty goal: to transform the French cultural landscape.

On this fall day, Antoine de Galbert is touring La Maison Rouge, the contemporary art foundation he launched in Paris last June, walking briskly among works still bound in bubble wrap. The pieces—part of the fall-winter show, Central Station—have been culled from the collection of German art-lover Harald Falckenberg. The 50-year-old De Galbert, tall and lanky and dressed in the uniform of the young Parisian (jeans and navy blazer) speaks in soft, measured tones. When he reaches a large room at the back, though, where two oversize bears by Paul McCarthy stand face-to-face, he turns quite emphatic. "You can learn in museums, of course, but today they tend to exhibit the same artists. Private collections are the best places to learn about art these days."

In a country where the strongly centralized government has deeply affected how cultural institutions are run, such thinking is radical. Most art-related ventures are still state-funded and France's art market isn't collector-driven, as it is in the United States. In French museums, the majority of which are public, collectors do not hold as much authority as do their counterparts across the Atlantic to dictate, say, the terms of a gift. And social mores have thwarted those who might wish to display their pieces. As noted collector Gilles Fuchs puts it, "The French are developing a taste for [showing their works], but it's not part of their mentality."

In this context, De Galbert's venture, a 21,500-square-foot venue devoted to new art as seen through the prism of private collections and single-artist exhibitions, appears not only original but also provocative. De Galbert, heir to a supermarket chain and a longtime fixture in the French art world, believes collectors can have a profound, long-term impact on culture.

"You know those flocks of birds near the highway that always move together in the same direction? Well, I'm interested in the one that breaks away from the flock," he says.

France does not have collectors bent on presenting their gathered selections—like the British Charles Saatchi or the American Eli Broad—and this may be because obtaining and then donating art can be incredibly tricky. Only in August 2003 were tax laws changed to significantly support donations to any kind of private foundation, and collectors have often felt neglected by the public institutions they approached. This may explain why private foundations like De Galbert's, along with others such as Henri Cartier-Bresson's, have recently sprung up in Paris.

"Relations between the public and private sector can be fraught with tension," De Galbert explains. "But we're not here to replace anyone. We are just trying to bring something new to the equation."

Set in a former printing plant near the Place de la Bastille, La Maison Rouge is indeed something new. An ensemble of buildings surrounds a courtyard in which stands a three-story Parisian house. The architect who revamped it, Jean-Yves Clément, has been much praised in the press. A lot of the space was left raw, but the courtyard now has a glass ceiling; the house, which pops through it, is painted a rich red.

De Galbert and his staff plan to handpick at least two private collections a year as well as display individual works by contemporary artists. (Running through May is an exhibition from the American artist Ann Hamilton, whose installations often combine sound, video, and photography. It will be her first solo presentation in Paris.)

The inaugural show, L'intime, Behind Closed Doors: The Private World of Collectors, featured 16 room-size wooden crates, each replicating a room within the home of a private collector, furniture and knickknacks included. The actual art appeared just as it did in the collectors' homes. With an average of 1,000 visitors daily and superlative press, L'intime was a smash hit.

De Galbert is a collector himself, though, he insists, a humble one. The foyer of his own home, only 215 square feet, was reconstructed in the first wooden crate of L'intime. It was jam-packed from floor to ceiling with more than 70 works of art by the likes of early 20th-century German collage-meister Kurt Schwitters and French poet and painter Henri Michaux. The room provided a tantalizing glimpse into his avidity as a collector.

"He is very intuitive in his choices and open-minded," says French art dealer and powerhouse Anne de Villepoix, who has known De Galbert for 11 years. "It is interesting to watch him because he always gets things right."

De Galbert grew up in an environment he describes as "cultured, but not necessarily attuned to modern art." In fact, he started out in the corporate world. By the age of 30, however, he realized he wasn't cut out for accounting and so he opened a gallery in Grenoble. An inheritance enabled him to begin considering "a real project," he says, which crystallized when he initially visited the space now housing La Maison Rouge.

De Galbert may certainly be on the cusp of a momentous trend: Another, more prominent collector, luxury magnate François Pinault, has announced that he will introduce a behemoth private museum in the next few years. The French art world is definitely shifting.

La Maison Rouge, Fondation Antoine de Galbert,10 Blvd. de la Bastille, 12th Arr.; 33-1/40-01-08-81; www.lamaisonrouge.org.