Alain Dominique Perrin
Alain Dominique Perrin at the Cartier Foundation in Paris © Lauren Fleishman

There is an air of frenetic activity in and around the glassy headquarters of Paris’s Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art. Heavy trucks are delivering strange and hefty packages to the door. Inside the gallery, a giant black question mark is suspended in the air, next to a sleek aircraft that looks like it has made a day trip from the next century. Why are we here, the first work seems to ask? Whatever, I can get us out super-quickly, replies the second. Existential questions get short shrift in the hyper-velocity of today’s contemporary art scene.

The atmosphere is frisky: a birthday is being celebrated. It was 30 years ago that the foundation opened its doors to the public for the first time. It was immediately, and notably, successful. The popular appeal of contemporary art may be a cliché of today’s cultural landscape but it was not so straightforward in 1984. “It was a very different world,” says Alain Dominique Perrin, then-president of the renowned jeweller Cartier International, who masterminded the project.

Sitting in his office on the top floor of the Jean Nouvel-designed building, smoking a sizeable cigar, Perrin explains the political background to his initiative. “One thing is important to remember: Cartier is a shiny brand, a shiny name. A big company. In 1981, France had elected its first socialist government for nearly 40 years. And there was a project to nationalise Cartier. For us it was kind of a joke but it was being talked about in the French press.

“It didn’t happen. But it was my concern to put Cartier in the minds of all those intellectuals who had come into power, that this was not just a company that represented luxury, jewellery, money, but that it could become an actor in French society and culture.”

The company, meanwhile, had carried out a survey that showed young people under the age of 29 were becoming more interested in art. “The museums were getting fuller and fuller. Contemporary art was in the air. And one of the very good things that Jack Lang [François Mitterrand’s charismatic minister of culture] did was to open up culture to everybody, and push contemporary art.”

The move opened up the patronage of art to the private sector – and not just any old part of the private sector, but one that was unashamedly committed to high-end luxury. That must have irritated the new wave of leftists, I say to Perrin. “Oh yes, of course!” he replies. “But we didn’t care. It was a gamble. We were gambling!” He rolls a make-believe set of dice in front of him. “But it was a gamble made with a kind of security. Very quickly, the intellectuals, who were on the left, respected the work that we were doing.”

Thirty years on, the foundation has become a prominent part of the art scene, each year commissioning new art, assembling imaginative thematic exhibitions, and championing young talent. Its first show, held in its original headquarters at Jouy-en-Josas, put together the French sculptor César with two young British artists: Lisa Milroy and Julian Opie, both established artists of today.

The policy was based on the principle, says Perrin, of the “vedette américaine”, the bringing together of an up-and-coming talent with an established artist. He says he had a memorable early encounter with the concept when he was a young man. “I went to see [the French pop singer] Sylvie Vartan back in the very early 1960s. But not to see Sylvie Vartan! It was to see the first half of the show, [which consisted of] three songs by The Beatles! It was their first show in Paris. They were unknown! I had dinner with them, they used to go to Le Bilboquet. John Lennon always had the same dish – lamb with mint sauce. They prepared the mint sauce specially for him.”

That brush with the nascent popular culture scene of the 1960s stayed with Perrin as he helped to guide the foundation’s programme, which was determinedly eclectic in its outlook. A highlight was a reunion concert of the Velvet Underground in 1990, put together at the last minute as a high-class accompaniment to an Andy Warhol show. “It was decided overnight!” says Perrin excitedly. “It was the first time they had played together for 12 years.” A concert commemorating the death last year of Lou Reed is planned for September, with John Cale and Patti Smith due to play.

Another founding principle of the foundation was a strict demarcation between its affairs and those of its parent company. This remains in place. “No artist can interfere in the business of Cartier, in any way,” says Perrin, with the air of an Old Testament prophet. “It is an absolute and complete divide.” He draws a line across his desk in front of him. “I don’t want our artists to become involved in our business. And it works both ways: there are many artists who would love to do some design for Cartier. But it is not allowed.”

That is not the approach of many luxury brand companies, I say. “No,” he says. “We did a show here for [Takashi] Murakami, and Marc Jacobs, who was at Louis Vuitton, came for the show, met him, and they became friends. We know the rest of the story – they asked him to design bags. That is fine but it is exactly what I did not want here. Vuitton are free to do whatever they like but I disagree with the principle that an artist can be involved with making bags. There is a certain vulgarity to it.”

That is a very purist view, I say. “And that is why we are still here,” says Perrin, rapping at his desk. “We have been doing our job, and artists respect us for it. They know that by coming here, they will not be spoilt or used. I am very serious on that subject. It is an absolute rule. It is a duty for us to respect the artists, and also to protect them. It is a big temptation.”

But Murakami must have made a lot of money from his collaboration with Louis Vuitton? “But we need to protect artists from that kind of money. Because serious collectors want to collect pure artists. In 20 years’ time, will Murakami be in top collections? I am not so sure. He will be remembered for his bags.”

The show being prepared downstairs – the big, black question mark is by Richard Artschwager, the futuristic aeroplane by Marc Newson – is Vivid Memories, a rotating selection of highlights from the past 30 years. In October, a decision will be made on whether the foundation can expand into an adjacent block of land or move to new premises altogether.

Perrin looks a little exasperated when talking of the bureaucratic obstacles in his way. “I am never optimistic when it comes to red tape,” he says.

In the meantime, he has his own vivid memories: such as persuading Enzo Ferrari, founder of the mythical Italian sports car marque, that he should be the subject of an exhibition back in 1987. “But my little boy,” Ferrari said to him, “I am not an artist. I am a mechanic! Sono un meccanico!” Perrin laughs in recollection of the exchange.

Another of his favourite shows was Jean Paul Gaultier’s Pain Couture, in which the fashion pioneer presented a collection that used bread, instead of thread. “There was only one problem,” says Perrin, holding his nose. “We had to change the bread every week!” He turns serious again: “It is important for us to encourage artists to express themselves in new and completely different ways. And also to bring in people who are not just painters or sculptors. But they are big artists all the same.”

He says the foundation is getting ever more popular with the public – a record 340,000 visitors came to see last year’s Ron Mueck show – and its €10m budget, 60 per cent of which comes from Cartier, is secure. The collection today consists of more than 1,300 works. It turns out he doesn’t like the term “contemporary” art at all. “I prefer art vivant,” he says; art that is living it large in this vibrant corner of culture for all-comers.

‘Vivid Memories’, Cartier Foundation, Paris, until September 21,

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