Paris plans bold new home for art on the Seine

The world's most visited capital will boast yet another must-see attraction, after one of France's richest men unveiled plans for a modern art museum that promises to be Europe's boldest cultural project since Bilbao's Guggenheim and London's Tate Modern.

Francois Pinault, whose collection includes 1,000 works by such masters as Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Amedeo Modigliani, and Joan Miró, picked Japanese architectural legend Tadao Ando to design the museum, describing the trapezoid building as "a spacecraft suspended on the River Seine."

Called the Francois Pinault Contemporary Art Foundation, it will house the largest private art collection in France and open in early 2006. At a cost of $140 million, the museum will be equal in size to the magnificent Pompidou Center and twice as big as the Guggenheim Bilbao. Art experts say Pinault's paintings, sculptures, photographs, and videos - mainly from the past half century - form one of the finest selections of contemporary art in Europe.

The museum will be built on a disused Renault car-factory site on the southwestern edge of Paris. French media predict it will transform the rundown suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt in the same way the Guggenheim Museum revitalized Bilbao in northern Spain.

Ironically, land that once symbolized the bastion of communist-dominated trade union militancy will house the collection of one of France's most successful capitalists. The Renault site, abandoned by the company a decade ago, was the scene of confrontations between workers and riot police, including a sit-in that sparked the May 1968 national strike that led to sweeping social changes and formed the foundation of a more capitalistic France.

"This is a mythical place that is rich in history," Mr. Pinault said recently. "I want to share my love of contemporary art with the greatest number of people possible, not just an elite."

The news that Mr. Ando was picked as designer was greeted with widespread excitement in Paris. Ando won his profession's highest honor, the Pritzker Prize, in 1995, and this will be his first large-scale commission in Europe.

The Japanese architect is best known for his concrete buildings with finishes described to be as smooth as silk. Nobody in the West fully understands how he achieves this feat, leading to some apocryphal theories. One of them is that volunteer student armies using toothbrushes give the master's freshly cast walls a gentle rubdown.

Ando is a self-made man who never attended college or received any formal training. Once a professional boxer, he educated himself by traveling around historic buildings in Europe and the United States. His masterpieces, such as Church on the Water at Hokkaido, Japan, and Church of the Light in Osaka, Japan, are admired for their extraordinary use of space and light.

Like Ando, Pinault started from humble beginnings. He once said that the only exam he ever passed was his driver's license.

The Frenchman seems as indefatigable in amassing new businesses as he is at acquiring art. He started life as a timber merchant and is now worth more than $4 billion. Pinault owns a vast business empire that includes Christie's auction house, Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, luggage maker Samsonite, the magazine Le Point, and ski resorts in Vail, Colo.

The multibillionaire started buying art some 30 years ago, purchasing works by such names as Brancusi, Rothko, and Pollock, as well as photographs by Cindy Sherman, videos by Bruce Nauman, and installations by British and American artists such as Damien Hirst and Matthew Barney.

Pinault says he assembles his collection in the same way as he conducts business: "It ... takes a lot of perseverance, and you must constantly be on the lookout for the next thing," he told the French magazine Le Figaro.

Last year, he purchased Jeff Koons's "Split Rocker," an enormous half-rocking horse, half-dinosaur almost certainly destined to be the centerpiece of the museum.

The only comparable work, Koons's "Puppy," stands at the entrance to Bilbao's Guggenheim. Another piece that will undoubtedly get one of the top spots in the museum is the famous "Little Dancer" bronze sculpture by Edgar Degas, which Pinault bought for $12.3 million.

Pinault recalls that when he bought Mondrian's 1925 Tableau Losanique II in 1990, he saw that his dream of creating a unique collection could come true.

"On that day, I knew I could afford the summits of contemporary art," he said, paying $8 million for the painting - double the annual acquisitions budget of France's national Pompidou Center.

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