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Grand Dame: Helene David-Weill’s New Mission

The elegant and very private Helene David-Weill discusses fundraising for Les Arts Décoratifs museum.

In another life, Helene David-Weill could have made a very good international spy. The petite, soft-spoken — and, one imagines, secretly formidable — president of Les Arts Décoratifs in Paris, one of the largest decorative arts museums in the world, is so intent on keeping her private life, well, private, that she deflects all questions of a personal nature with the skill and grace of a seasoned diplomat.

As a well-known collector, who are some of her favorite artists?

“Oh, I can’t tell you.”

Well, has she seen any newcomers recently she liked?

“Yes.”

Will she name them?

“No.”

Was she surrounded by beautiful objects growing up in France?

“Yes.”

Any specific ones come to mind?

“No.”

While any endeavors at probing her background and tastes become an exercise in futility, David-Weill is more than happy to wax on about her work. Seated on a sofa beneath a Picasso nude in the palatial Fifth Avenue apartment she shares with husband Michel (a former head of Lazard), she explains her passion for the objects in her museum between sips of cranberry juice that has been brought to her on a silver tray.

“Decorative arts is not as highly considered as modern art or paintings. It was considered like an everyday use and, therefore, not beautiful. Which I think is totally wrong. When you have a carving of ivory or wood, they’re as beautiful as a painting and I don’t see why they shouldn’t be as highly prized,” says David-Weill, who, in her role as president, oversees the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Musée de la Mode et du Textile and Musée de la Publicité, in addition to a library and school of design. “Our museum is more like your house because it’s been a mixture of what people gave us. And people gave us what they thought were their most beautiful objects…so we have anything that man created since medieval time up until today. It’s really the history of the creativity and imagination of man. And his designs and goal to make everyday life more beautiful.”

On Saturday, David-Weill hoped to spread her mission to New Yorkers when she hosted a casual dîner de famille for Oscar and Annette de la Renta, Nina Griscom and Leonel Piraino, Frédéric and Marie Malle and Pierre Durand in the Millbrook home of Nigel and Julia Widdowson, both members of the museum’s International Committee.

“Americans are more open, they’re more used to giving money to museums,” she explains of her outreach. Indeed, unlike most state-owned French institutions, Les Arts Décoratifs is private and therefore relies heavily on donations from friends and, by proxy, the efforts of its president. (She initiated a five-year renovation of the museum, which reopened in September 2007.)

“I’m just begging,” quips David-Weill of her pitch. “I try to explain that the decorative arts is very important because it’s an important way for artisans to express their imagination and that shouldn’t die.”

Hers is an approach honed by years in the museum world. Prior to arriving at Les Arts Décoratifs, David-Weill was president of the Friends of the Centre Pompidou for 10 years.

“The idea was to explain to the French people that modern art was very important and very beautiful, so I took them around the world to see modern art collections,” she says of her time there.

There is no better testament to David-Weill’s balance of contemporary and decorative tastes than her own home. A giant Jean-Marc Nattier rococo painting greets guests to her apartment (once owned by Bill Paley); her study holds a Picasso, a Miró and a work by the Afro-Cuban Wifredo Lam (one of David-Weill’s first modern art purchases); Louis Quatorze chests mix with Corots and a van Dyck in her living room, and her hallway is lined with pieces as varied as Nuremberg silver and Mesopotamian and Sumerian objects.

As she fingers her collection, her eyes light up and she offers a few token personal tidbits: She was raised in an 18th-century house in eastern France. She was introduced to modern art by Michel who is a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her eldest of four daughters works with 17th- and 18th-century paintings at Sotheby’s New York. She divides her time between New York and Paris, where they have an apartment in Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

“And now you know everything,” she smiles. Or as much as you ever will.

 

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