In 2011, Caroline Jollès, who is very involved with the Quai Branly Museum, created Cercle Design 20/21, a club of contemporary design patrons at the Museum of Decorative Arts (MAD) in Paris. She looks back on a decade of acquisitions.
© Justin Creedy Smith
How did the idea of creating a design patrons’ circle come about?
Through experience and connections. As soon as the Quai Branly Museum opened in 2006, I became active in the société des Amis (Society of Friends) as a member of its Board of Trustees. Three years later, my husband Georges and I took an active part in the creation of the Cercle Lévi-Strauss. Meanwhile, Pierre Bergé asked me to establish and lead the patrons’ circle of his three institutions in Marrakesh: the Yves Saint Laurent Museum, the Museum of Berber Arts and the Majorelle Garden. I relied on my work experience in the field of corporate communications together with the networks I’d created back then, which helped me a lot with the approach. I was trained in law but I also studied at the École du Louvre. I’m passionate about design and co-authored a book on Mathieu Matégot (1910-2001) with gallerist Philippe Jousse. Lastly, as a collector and patron, I’ve always been close to museums, but the Paris musée des Arts décoratifs (MAD) is the one that’s closest to my heart. However, without its own budget for acquisitions, it must systematically appeal to benefactors. It’s got a very large, active society of friends, but contemporary design suffers from a lack of resources. With the approval of Beatrice Salmon, who was then the director, I created the circle in 2011 with the goal of enriching the museum's design collections.
How is the circle structured?
It’s kind of like a club that brings together design enthusiasts, connoisseurs and collectors. We currently have about 30 very loyal members. I hope we’ll reach 50, but not many more: first, because the museum already has a large society of friends and second, because the present size allows us to easily meet, get to know each other well, make decisions quickly and stay close to the people running the museum. At first, in order to avoid conflicts of interest, there were no gallerists or art dealers. Now there are, but obviously, none of them can propose one of their artists. The €3,000 member fee, 66% of which is tax-deductible, may seem low, but it allows the group to be more diverse. We often receive peripheral or occasional donations: some members make contributions for purchases we can’t afford. In ten years, we’ve spent over €600,000 on pieces that are worth much more today. This also allows the museum to make acquisitions on a recurring basis.
How does it work?
We’re in the service of the museum and help it expand the collections. The director, Olivier Gabet, and the contemporary design curators, Dominique Forest and Cloé Pitiot, tell us which pieces they want to acquire. Every year, they give us about 12 to 15 proposals that we discuss together. Usually, we choose one beautiful piece and three or four more that are a bit less important. Sometimes we can point their attention towards this or that object or designer, but they’re the ones who draw up the list of possible choices beforehand. Then our selection is submitted to the acquisition committee for approval. We regularly visit museums, exhibitions, galleries, artists' studios, etc. in order to debate, argue and give the most informed opinions possible. It’s not our personal tastes that guide the purchases, but the museum’s needs, the importance of the creators, the opportunity.
In addition, we organize activities, trips and meetings with designers and collectors. Sometimes we do some prospecting, drawing the museum's attention to designers we’ve spotted. The other advantage is being able to acquire pieces from dealers or directly from artists in the best possible conditions—and before prices take off. We thus provide a form of flexibility and reactivity. It’s a very friendly group, but at the same time very professional. As its leader, I invest a lot of time on a voluntary basis and contribute my skills. We also work closely with the museum’s patronage department, which is highly efficient. As you can see, we’re very involved with the museum.
Do people donate to the Circle?
Of course, they do! Sometimes we receive gifts from dealers or designers that enhance our own contributions. After acquiring Dutch designer Joris Laarman’s very beautiful Starlings Table he gave the museum a video about his work. Our role is also to foster these connections, promote relationships between the various players in the design world and introduce new talent.
What kinds of works have you acquired since 2011?
It’s a mixed bag, from furniture to objects made of ceramic, glass, metal, etc. All formats, purposes and techniques are represented. We don’t focus on the most imposing pieces, but rather, we want the museum to be as representative as possible of design’s rich diversity. Olivier recently brought non-Western pieces into the collections, including the Sansa armchair by Malian designer Cheick Diallo, the Mjojo cabinet, the Tutu lamp by Thabisa Mjo of South Africa and the Mudha Walla Throne by India’s Gunjan Gupta. We’ve acquired about 50 pieces in ten years. We wouldn’t be able to afford some of them today.
Has your circle been imitated?
Not really, or not yet. But our work has a growing impact and raises the museum’s profile with certain interlocutors and cultural players. Our approach benefits the institution we support, but it also creates dynamics for designers and donors. It’s a kind of echo chamber.
The Cercle Design is ten years old this year. what are your new projects?
We’d like to create a financial reserve to be able to buy at auction when the opportunity comes up. Currently, we can’t due to a lack of flexibility: we don’t have a dedicated budget earmarked for this type of acquisition. To celebrate our 10th anniversary, we’ve asked a design school to create our new logo.
What are your favorite pieces purchased by Cercle Design 20/21?
There are many for plenty of different reasons, but one is our first acquisition, Grandfather Clock, by the Dutch designer Maarten Baas (see photo). It’s an amazing piece that visitors always find interesting. We wouldn’t be able to afford it today!