On 13 December the grand palace of Versailles closed its doors on an exhibition by French sculptor, Xavier Veilhan. In September it will host Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, which will be followed in 2011 by the Italian Maurizio Cattelan, famous for the controversial work La Nona Ora (The Ninth Hour), 1999, aka Meteorite Strikes The Pope.
These three artists have one thing in common: they all belong to the stable of the Paris contemporary art dealer, Emmanuel Perrotin. And already the gossips are doing what they do best in France—wagging their tongues furiously.
Versailles is more than a museum: it is a holy place of French cultural identity. Prominent author and art critic Vincent Noce has commented pointedly in the newspaper Libération on “the weakness” that Versailles director Jean-Jacques Aillagon “seems to show for artists contracted to the Paris gallery Emmanuel Perrotin…[and] also collected by François Pinault”. Other sections of the press accuse Aillagon of “conflicts of interest”—Aillagon was director of Pinault’s Palazzo Grassi in Venice, while Perrotin lists Pinault as one of his most important clients, saying: “[He] is one of the best collectors in France and I owe a lot of my success to him.”
The implication that Versailles, which is a public asset, is being misused for private gain, is vigorously refuted by Perrotin. He said that he financed the production of works for the Veilhan exhibition worth E500,000, and: “I helped to find E300,000 from sponsors—and that was right at the start of the financial crisis. How many French galleries could do that?” He is baffled by the media speculation: “At the start of the show, Libération wrote that I had already covered my investment by selling a couple of the sculptures for E35,000. They have a weird sense of numbers.”
The controversy was sparked by Aillagon’s decision to stage a Jeff Koons exhibition—one of the most prominent artists in the Pinault collection—at Versailles last year. “Questions of a possible conflict of interests arise from the fact that Jean-Jacques Aillagon is a former employee of François Pinault,” wrote influential weekly Nouvel Observateur at the time.
According to Nouvel Observateur, the E1.9m cost of the Koons show was largely covered by E1.4m raised from private sponsors, including E800,000 from Pinault, with E200,000 provided by a local government grant and E300,000 by Versailles itself. “It’s a polemic to say that public money was spent,” said Jérôme de Noirmont, who represents Koons in France. “It’s not true.”
While the financial details remain confidential, De Noirmont said: “The state did not put a franc into the production of this exhibition. It was entirely private, financed by sponsors.” He said that the four-month show brought in around 950,000 additional paying visitors to the palace, while privately sponsored soirée events brought in between E25,000 and E100,000 a night.
The gallerists say that the private sector is asked to step in for large-scale projects the cash-strapped state can ill-afford. “Pinault is among Versailles’s most important donors,” said Perrotin. “Paris had never seen anything like [the Koons vernissage]. The 20 biggest collectors in the world were all there—immensely wealthy people.” De Noirmont added: “Happily for France, there are collectors like Pinault, and big companies, to finance art exhibitions—whether they’re in Versailles, the Grand Palais or the Pompidou Centre. The state can’t do everything.”
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Versailles, Pinault and me: Perrotin answers the critics'