Over the past quarter century, French philanthropist, entrepreneur, and automotive heir Jean Pigozzi has assembled one of the world’s greatest collections of contemporary African art—without ever setting foot in Africa. As he prepares to show off his trove at Paris’s Fondation Louis Vuitton, Pigozzi, 65, tells departures what drives him to collect and why he traded in blue-chip names for masterpieces that few people recognize. “Art/Afrique, le nouvel atelier” runs April 26 to August 28.
What was the spark that captured your imagination to begin your collection?
It was 1989. There was a show at the Centre Pompidou in Paris called “Magiciens de la terre.” It was very interesting, because it mixed Western art with art from Papua New Guinea and India and South America. In the middle of that, there were several African artists: Bodys Isek Kingelez, Frédéric Bruly Bouabré, and some others.
It was unbelievably different. I got so excited that the day after, I called the Pompidou and I said, “What are you going to do with all this stuff? Are you going to sell it?” and they said, “No, it’s owned by the sponsor. But if you want, you can meet the curator who was in charge of Africa.” So I met this person, André Magnin, and he said, “Actually, I have a dream. I would like to continue this collection.”
I hired André, and for about 22 years we put together this collection. I’ve never been to Africa, but André went. There’s not one piece in the collection that we haven’t chosen together.
What were the criteria that the two of you used to choose artists?
The artists had to be black. They had to live in Africa, and they had to be alive.
Why set those restrictions?
I had to limit the scope of my activity. I’m not the Museum of Modern Art, and I’m not Bill Gates. Also, this is a very personal collection. If you’re a library, you have to have every book from A to Z. In my collection, I just collected whoever I wanted. So I wouldn’t say, I don’t have enough women, or I don’t have any paintings from Ghana, or I don’t have enough lesbian or gay painters. The criteria were: Is this art that I like, that I think is important and different?
How did the show come about with the Fondation Louis Vuitton?
They found me. Suzanne Pagé, who runs the museum, came to see me two years ago and said, “Jean, will you do it?” and I said yes. First of all, I like the museum, because it’s a very interesting structure designed by—what’s his name?
My friend [Frank] Gehry, who’s a very good friend of mine. Also, the idea of doing it in Paris was interesting, because we never did a big show. We did [the Guggenheim in] Bilbao, and I did shows in Houston. But in this show we’ll have 15 artists, which is going to be very big. They’re giving me a lot of space, like 10,000 square feet. But I could have filled the museum easily.
Did your parents collect?
My parents [Henri and Loisette Pigozzi] had a very bourgeois collection, with Renoirs, Sisleys, and Boudins. For me, completely uninteresting, and I’m actually sad— they could have collected Warhol and more modern paintings. But they lived in an apartment that was a fake version of Versailles.
Tell me about your lifelong friendship with Charles Saatchi, and his influence on your collecting.
I had a collection like a good dentist from Minneapolis. I had a little Warhol, and I had a little [Francesco] Clemente, and a few little things by Sol LeWitt, and a little drawing by—what’s the name of the guy in Los Angeles who writes things?
Yes, Ruscha, and things like that, and a few by Robert Frank. It wasn’t completely uninteresting. Charles said, “This is a ridiculous collection. You have to really have a theme, and when you find a theme, you have to collect in depth.” So, after I saw the show in Paris, I decided to completely change what I was doing. For 23 years, I mainly bought African art.
Saatchi has a history of acquiring and then selling. What about you?
I don’t sell. I think certain artists will eventually be worth a lot of money, but my work has nothing to do with making money. But I’ll tell you one thing: If I walk into an apartment on Park Avenue, and I see a Richard Prince and a drawing by Richard Serra, and a little Warhol—so you walk around, and you say, $500,000, $1.2 million, $700,000, $2 million. Okay. But so what? At least when you walk into my apartment, you say, “What the f--- is this stuff on the wall?” Nobody knows anything, but it’s much more surprising, because nobody knows what it is.
Ultimately, what would be your dream with the collection?
Well, my dream is to build a museum. If I were Bill Gates, I would buy two or three buildings in New York. I don’t want to build the collection in the middle of a field three hours away from Geneva or in the middle of Montana where nobody will come and see it. It’s been a lot of work, 30 years, so I want the collection to be very accessible.
Will the artists come for the show?
I hope so. It’s extremely important that the artists are there. I haven’t started writing my little intro yet. But I’m going to thank each individual artist. People always forget to thank the artist. Tell them “I like you for this reason. I like you for that reason.” No artist, no show.