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Art & Design

“Intertwining art and business is a way for us to stand out from our competitors”

The Valmont Foundation, a Swiss cosmetics brand, recently invested its headquarters in a venetian palace. An opportunity to explore with its founder, Didier Guillon, the often-hidden ties between art and business.

Aymeric Mantoux

By Aymeric Mantoux01 juillet 2021

Didier Guillon and his son Maxence Guillon, who will take over the management of the Valmont Foundation in January 2022 (© Francesco Allegretto)

An ancient market hall formerly used solely by merchants from Northern Europe, lying by the Grand Canal, with a commanding view on the Rialto. On the second floor of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, property of DFS (Duty Free Shopping, an LVMH subsidiary), and fully restored by the architect Relm Khoolas, is located one of the most elegant beauty parlours there ever was. The Valmont house owns a high-end shop in shop, offering its entire collection between glass masks of Murano, masterpieces signed by Didier Guillon. Masks that can be found in miniature size on Valmont’s perfume bottles, one of the brand’s latest novelties. “Up until now, says Didier Guillon, the Chairman of the Valmont Foundation, art and business were strictly separate. But increasingly, we believe it is a way to stand out from our competitors.”

It is in the Palazzo Bonvicini, in Venice, that the Valmont Foundation has its headquarters and exhibits the works chosen by Didier Guillon (© Francesco Allegretto)

No influence on the art market

Artworks were disseminated across the world in boutiques from the family business, artist residencies in Verbier and on the Greek island of Hydra were created to inspire exchanges between teams and the foundation’s artistic influxes. Every other year, the artistic season’s start kicks off with four days of disconnection from the world with Didier Guillon, his two curators and selected artists. A method inspired by Swiss participating management techniques. “In Switzerland, a manager never decides alone, explains Guillon. Our culture encourages us to share subjects with colleagues and to ask for their opinion. I applied this dynamic to the Valmont Foundation’s actions.”

We are not involved in the market. So, we can do and say some things because we are free. Didier is an outsider.

Francesca Giubilai, one of the two curators

This collector, aesthete and iconoclastic entrepreneur does not do anything like the others, to say the least. The foundation is a modest organization that has no ambition to equalize with the wealthy Prada, Pinault or Vuitton foundations, which hustle to influence the contemporary art market. In fact, proof is the location it chose for a home. A very beautiful space with rooms on the first floor of a gothic palace just a few steps away from the grand canal. “The space has been equipped just like an artist residency, shares Francesca Giubilai, one of the two curators. It is a place for art, not for business. We do not position ourselves in the art market. Venice is a town, where during the Biennale, for example, guests visit us for the viewings, not to buy like at Art Basel. Venice is the city of concepts. A beautiful world to explore.”

Alice in Doomedland, 2021 Fondation Valmont, Palazzo Bonvicini, Venice (© Francesco Allegretto)

In Venice, palaces open their doors and offer exhibitions. In this context, the Valmont Foundation wanted to offer something singular, unseen, limitless and with no taboo. “I left with the idea to explore the fairy tale universe, explains Guillon, to stimulate imagination with all ages. I did not wish to orchestrate a debate, attack, or provoke, but I found inspiration in the Arabian Nights. The narrator will be killed if she doesn’t find a story to tell every night.” With previous themes such as Beauty and the Beast, Hansel and Gretel, the Valmont Foundation immersed visitors in imagination. Starting off with these fairy tales, the artists used the metaphor to offer sometimes deep thoughts. A co-construction made possible by a commission that is not all-powerful, but which relies on the participants’ collective intelligence. The method offers a snapshot of the humble practices of the Valmont Foundation, compared to its older cousins on the shores of the Grand Canal. The creative process of each exhibition, just as the latest one “Alice in Doomland”, starts off as a conversation about a given theme. Never seen before. Sometimes surprising for newbies. “We immediately cast away some artists that did not match with the collective aspect of the project. It is not easy. Others almost left the ship on the first day, but everything went well eventually, and that is quite rare.”

Open art to many audiences

For its director, tales are an unequalled tool that speak the language of contemporary art to a larger audience and in different ways. The stories seem simple but can be read at different levels according to one’s own references, just like sediment layers that can be explored in one’s own way to walk the path of creation.

Alice in Doomedland, 2021 Fondation Valmont, Palazzo Bonvicini, Venice (© Francesco Allegretto)

But why develop a foundation focused on art, and not on a more humanitarian project or larger horizons? “The approach of Didier is very inclusive, shares Francesca, who has been working with him for five years. Everything started with his work for Valmont in collaboration with glass artists in Venice. We had many discussions, visited exhibitions with him. At first, he wanted to organize an exhibition before opening a space where his approach could be appreciated and understood by the greater public.”

I left with the idea to explore the fairy tale universe, to stimulate imagination with all ages

Didier Guillon, President of the Foundation

Sometimes indeed, contemporary art is too conceptual or difficult to access. To remedy this, the Valmont Foundation created links with associations that bring art in challenging neighbourhoods, such as some parts of New York. His objective is to share a certain vision of art and to infuse it. That’s why he uses myths to conceive his exhibitions. Indeed, most fairy tales are destined to children. In appearance, they can seem very simple, but the more you read them, the more you understand and learn different things. Perfect themes to explore a new approach of art. And it works increasingly. With the success received, the foundation wanted to have its own location. It has now come true to welcome the 2021 millesimal, which offers great freedom to the hosts. “When I saw the theme, shares Silvano Rubino, one of the artists (with Isao and Stéphanie Blake), I told myself I would use paint, but in a more architectonic context. I found my idea in the book. Alice changes after experimenting the slide. She falls, follows the rabbit, starts to dream, and wakes up. My installation somehow sums up the piece. I used the book as inspiration to translate through personal reflexions of what I feel. To understand it, one must let go and find one’s inner child. We must simulate the idea of losing control. This is what happens to Alice.”

Francesca Giubilei and Luca Berta, curators of contemporary art (DR)

Guests and Venetians are welcoming the idea, as they can freely access a space of culture and self-fulfilment. His approach outside of the art market doesn’t aim at selling nor exhibiting his own artwork, but at complementing the venetian ecosystem and it works. “We are not involved in the market, says Francesca Giubilei. So, we can do and say some things because we are free. Didier is an outsider. Which gives us the possibility to produce unusual exhibitions.” The foundation also seeks at limiting its carbon footprint. No catalogue, no trace, no sold pieces to institutions or collectors in sight. As much as possible, the pieces from the exhibition are produced onsite with recyclable materials by local artisans. The foundation intends to be sustainable or not to be. It is not a question, but a commitment. A way of functioning that is only possible if Didier Guillon remains in his lane and doesn’t intend to overstep on others’ toes. Soon to be joined by his eldest son, he is today alone at the head of the foundation. Its simple and hierarchy-free structure favours reactivity and quick decisions. At 68, the Chairman of the Foundation doesn’t intend to let someone take over, but wants to bring new talent, new ideas. The latest one is to create more bridges between the foundation and cosmetics, through events, meetings, by developing viewing rooms in the new Valmont subsidiaries worldwide. This can’t truly be called retirement.

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