The sight of the massive gold bar against a video backdrop of a shrieking eagle did more than catch the imagination of visitors to the foundation’s steel-and-glass headquarters on a leafy Paris boulevard. In February, a gang of thieves broke in and stole the gold bar from the safe where it was stored overnight.
“That definitely was unexpected,” a rueful Chandès explains in an interview two months after the still-unresolved theft.
For weeks, museum staff had been wading through the oil to remove the gold bar at night and replace it in the morning.“We would retrieve it wearing plastic boots—it was hellish. We should have just left it where it was, because nobody would have gone wallowing in there,” he sighs.
Drama seems to be part of the package for Chandès, who once diligently oversaw an exhibition of Jean Paul Gaultier dresses made from loaves of bread that would periodically dry out and implode.
Since famed French jeweler Cartier launched its foundation in 1984, it has developed a reputation as a bold and eclectic patron of contemporary art. It staged exhibitions by industrial designer Marc Newson and U.S. artist Matthew Barney in the mid-90s, well before they became international stars. Recently, it hosted the first large show of paintings, sketches and photographs by filmmaker David Lynch.
“Timing is always one of the most interesting elements when you are working on an exhibition program,” explains Chandès.
From the start, Cartier was not content to tag its logo onto exhibitions by established artists. In search of a dynamic image, the house famous for its Tank watches and panther designs took a gamble on contemporary art—and almost certainly contributed to the sector’s subsequent boom.
“It was totally visionary,” says Chandès.“At the time, it was surprising even to some people within the company.”
Alain Dominique Perrin, president of Cartier International, raised eye- brows by initially creating an artists’ residence in the Paris suburb of Jouy-en-Josas, at the suggestion of the sculptor Cesar. “This wasn’t in the French culture or in the culture of the art world,” asserts Chandès.“There was definitely some resistance.”
The Fondation Cartier subsequently developed a three-pronged strate- gy: commission work, show it, and garner a large permanent collection. In addition to staging exhibitions abroad, it often lends works to larger institutions. In 1994, the foundation moved to its present home in the French capital. The structure, designed by architect Jean Nouvel, stands on the former site of the American Center and is flanked by a cedar tree planted by the French writer Chateaubriand almost two centuries ago.
The venue hosts weekly performances designed to bring together artists from different disciplines. Thematic exhibitions, like this summer’s Rock ‘n’ Roll 39- 59, are similarly aimed at placing contemporary art in a broader cultural context.
“Cartier has understood that a place for art has to create room for flexibility,” says Chandès.
That means giving artists full freedom of expression, free of commercial constraints, even if they end up pairing off with other wealthy suitors, as Japanese artist Takashi Murakami did in 2002. Shortly after the Fondation Cartier staged the first major European exhibition of his work, Murakami was contacted by luxury giant LVMH to redesign its Louis Vuitton handbags, in what now stands as a textbook collaboration between art and commerce.
On the upside, Chandès has cemented long-standing relationships with exceptional artists like Memphis-based photographer William Eggleston, who is busy working on his third commission for the foundation.
“It’s fantastic,” enthuses the director, who hopes to show Eggleston’s images in 2009.“It really is pure patronage—because nothing expresses the concept of patronage better than stimulating creation and showing it.”
Image: Alfred Wertheimer, Going Home. Black and white photograph. Photo © Alfred Wertheimer. Wertheimer Collection.