Mixing art and commerce

Special to The Times

Marc Restellini wants his fellow Parisians to understand there’s no such thing as a free art show. It costs a lot of money to put on an exhibition, says the founder of the Pinacotheque de Paris, a new private museum in the former Baccarat crystal museum and boutique on the rue de Paradis near the Gare de l’Est.

To help defray those costs, the art historian-turned-entrepreneur is charging a 12-euro (about $15) entry fee -- roughly twice the price of admission to the state-subsidized Louvre.

“When we spend 12 euros at McDonald’s, we don’t say, ‘It’s so expensive,’ ” Restellini said recently in his small office at the museum. “When we go see ‘Terminator,’ nobody says it’s expensive. But in France, people are accustomed to having culture for free. And somehow that devalues it.”

Unlike in the United States, most of France’s museums are state-owned and operated and Restellini believes that the French, spoiled by an embarrassment of state-subsidized cultural riches, have learned to take art for granted.

“We don’t make the effort to discover,” he says. “But from the moment we pay for something, we pay more attention -- we feel we must take advantage of it fully because we’ve paid money for it. An exhibition is nothing but a show -- and I think somehow that it’s important for people to participate in this show.”


Restellini has shown his flair for drawing audiences and pleasing crowds with big, popular, money-making shows such as the wildly successful Modigliani exhibition he presented at the Musee du Luxembourg in 2002.

Through advertisements in movie theaters, on the backs of buses and plastered over 250 Smart cars, the Pinacotheque has attracted about 1,500 people a day since it opened in November with a kickoff exhibition, “Intimate Picasso: The Collection of Jacqueline,” which includes nearly 100 works from the private collection of the late Jacqueline Roque, Picasso’s second and last wife. It includes drawings, paintings, sculptures and collages -- most of which have never been exhibited in France -- as well as 160 family photos taken by Roque.

The show runs until March 28. The Pinacotheque will then close for remodeling and open in the fall with a permanent collection and temporary exhibits.

Although people are coming, some traditionalists have blanched at the mixture of art and commerce. Liberation called Restellini’s ad campaign “vulgar.” And he said he has butted heads with journalists from such publications as the art establishment Beaux Arts Magazine, which asked why France needs a private museum when it has the Musee d’Orsay and the Louvre. He stops to Google himself to point out one of his Web critics, who calls him unprintable names, mocks his business plan as “an approach of pure poetry” and then grills him for referring to the paintings in the exhibition as “my paintings.” Even the show’s design is mocked: “The exhibition space is presented like a mausoleum to Jacqueline,” his anonymous critic says. “That poor Jacqueline ought to return to her tomb.”

“There is a bit of a resistance,” Restellini says. “There are people who insult me -- it’s virulent sometimes. It’s difficult to change people’s habits. Very difficult. It’s not easy to do things in France. It’s funny to see how people behave. It’s jealousy. In the U.S. people say ‘Wow, great.... ' In France, it’s ‘Ahh....’ ” he trails off, letting a disproving expiration of breath make his point.

Private collections

Restellini says those who believe in the sanctity of state-funded art should note that state museums make up a minority of the world’s art institutions.

“The problem is that we’ve arrived at a stage now where the state has no more money,” he says, “and culture is the first thing to be diminished. So you have to find a solution. If not, what will culture be in 10 or 20 years?” Restellini says he is disturbed by the lack of art history taught in French schools, so he invites groups of schoolchildren to visit the museum at no charge for an hour before opening.

Eventually, he would like to set up an international network of affiliated museums that would stretch from Paris to London to Tokyo to Berlin -- allowing him to conceive, organize and circulate large shows destined for a large public at a reduced cost. The model is Thomas Krens’ developing international chain of Guggenheim museums, without the nonprofit status.

He persuaded Roque’s only daughter and heir, Catherine, to let him display the private collection of works that Picasso left to his widow, who killed herself 13 years after the artist’s death.

“You would never have an exhibition like this in a national museum in France because it’s a private collection,” he says, “and state museums have a role to show off the patrimony of the state, not private collections. That’s why private collections never get exposed in France.”

Restellini also persuaded private investors and banks to contribute the 10 million euros it took to buy the building and refurbish it. And he has persuaded the holders of what he says is a great untapped resource of private collections to lend works from the half century before Picasso met Roque. But this kind of negotiation takes place behind closed doors in France. There are no name plaques next to any of the works -- which is no accident in a country in which hiding one’s wealth is a cultural tradition dating to the French Revolution.

“In France, there are even collectors whose friends don’t know they are collectors,” Restellini says. “All the American collectors know one another, they find themselves on the board of trustees of the same museums and so forth. But that doesn’t exist in France -- one collector doesn’t know who the others are. It’s because collections are often inherited, not constructed. So they hide them, put them in the bank, put nothing up on their walls.

“In America, people hang the paintings in their homes, they buy expensive works in public and are happy to say, ‘I bought this for a million.’ In France you’d never hear that,” he says, adding that a Frenchman might timidly inquire as to the value of one of Grandma’s paintings, then greet the news with an incredulous mon Dieu.

Demystifying Picasso

It seems Picasso is a pretty sure bet for an inaugural exhibition. But Restellini insists that he set out -- 30 years after the artist’s death -- to demystify the most celebrated and overexposed artist of the 20th century.

“I think the more we have exposed Picasso, the more he’s become a monster, a destructive character,” Restellini says. “I want to say, ‘Stop.’ He was a man like any other, with good qualities, faults, weaknesses. Mostly he was an artist. After all, Picasso is not Saddam Hussein.”

He says he wanted to show how meeting Roque transformed the artist’s life and his artwork during his last 20 years on Earth. These are not the tortured mistresses of his earlier days. The paintings -- “Jacqueline aux Roses,” “Jacqueline Avec le Chat” -- often are sweet, conventional, domestic tributes to his last muse. Roque was often accused of cutting off Picasso from the world, but Restellini has a more romantic notion of events.

“From the moment he met Jacqueline, he had a need to change his life,” Restellini says. “He was always a public man, a political man. But from then on, he shut himself away with his wife and certain of his children and close friends, a very closed circle of about 20 people. After that, he didn’t do one sole political painting. His style changed completely. He was no longer ruled by an aesthetic that functioned by the logic of periods -- blue, rose, etc. His tableaux were just Jacqueline in all her forms. Jacqueline, Jacqueline, Jacqueline -- 400 times Jacqueline -- Jacqueline painted in any number of styles. He was a man of 75, at the end of his life, in love, totally free.” Restellini is in sales pitch mode, although the art historian bristles at the suggestion that he might now be thought of as a businessman. “I don’t love money enough to be a real businessman,” he says, adding that he just wants to turn the Pinacotheque into a viable enterprise.

And he thinks the way to get people to pay for art is to appeal not to their intellect but to their emotions. “I think that you can engage the public in the history of art with a cerebral discourse,” he says, “but at an exhibition, you have to have a shock, an emotion -- then you can think about it and discuss. This kind of exhibition would never be seen in a museum in France. Our idea is to be a bit less academic, to appeal more to emotions, feelings. To show things that otherwise couldn’t be seen.”