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Sunday, July 08, 2007

Art Gallery As Retail Inspiration

My parents are visiting from DC this holiday weekend. My daughter has been hungrily asking my mother for 'more stories' about me, my sister, and my mom. Naturally, the more the story captures bad behavior, the more delight my daughter expresses and the more persistent she is about asking for more....

I, too, have gotten to hear stories and ask questions about when my mom was a little girl in France in a world so different from today's. It's delicious to imagine what it was like...

For example, my grandfather - Paul Jachiet - was the first to BRAND knitting yarn. He and his friend, Paul Buirette [with connections to champagne producers in Reims] established a yarn spinning mill in Reims after WWI [in which they both served as pilots]. The knitting yarns, once packaged in skeins, were wrapped with the label "Les Laines du Petit Moulin." The image of the 'moulin' [windmill] appeared subsequently atop a building he owned in Paris [possibly 2, rue Caffarelli]. He died before WWII so I never got to meet him, but I knew my grandmother well. She was a true Grande Dame and shared with me her love of music and the arts [she also taught me how to read and write in French].

My mother often talks about our Bourgogne wine connection -- which explains how discerning her nose is. I found a web trace via Les Vins Chansons. No mention of Jachiet, but my mother remembers l'Oncle Chanson visiting regularly at 20, rue de l'Abbe-de-l'Epee across from the Jardin du Luxembourg.

My romantic version of these stories mashes up Madeline, Marcel Proust, Marcel Pagnol and Eloise [My mom has no recollection of this, but I remember her telling me that her friend knew the Kay behind Eloise...].

What led to some of these discoveries and discussions was a Wall Street Journal article from June 9/10, 2007 in the Leisure & Arts section titled "What Dominique de Menil Wrought" about "the museum she built for the works she and her late husband collected turned Houston into an art mecca" by Anne S. Lewis.

[In addition to the article, also check out the website The Menil Collection.]

Now, to put this into perspective: Dominique de Menil's family founded Schlumberger - the French oil company. Her sister-in-law, Therese de Menil, lived above my grandmother's Paris apartment at 72, rue du Cherche-Midi in the VIeme, and the two were friends. Therese regularly regaled my grandmother with tales of the art exploits of Dominique and her brother and their frequent travels to the United States.

As I read the article, several parts caught my attention. Yes, this is about an art gallery, but it definitely translates to a retail space. Note how much attention has been paid to creating an environment that engages the senses to enhance the overall art appreciation experience:

What [Dominique de Menil] wanted was a building that looked small on the outside but was big on the inside. "Big on the inside" meant a space conducive to the private, contemplative, spiritual experience of art that Mrs. de Menil cherished. Too many masterpieces vying for attention induced what she called "museum fatigue."

Mrs. de Menil wanted her art to be experienced under the changing conditions and moods of natural light, as it fluctuated with the seasons, the movement of the clouds and the sun. Mr. Piano's solution was an overhead system, in most of the nine galleries, of ferro-cement louvres, or leaves, which bounce, reflect and filter light into the gallery....

One enters the Menil through a tall, spacious foyer with floor-to-ceiling windows. The space is unfurnished save for a huge brown suede ottoman in the middle of the room, and a small desk off to the side. The loudest sound is the clack of footsteps on the floors of ebonized pine, a soft wood chosen for the stories its wear patterns would tell. There, one might find oneself in the middle of a dialogue between three works of art triangulated on three walls. Or be struck by the presence of, say, a rare, billboard-sized painting by Walter de Maria, "The Color Men Choose When They Attack the Earth" (1968)...

Works are exhibited without explanatory wall notes, identified only by title, artist, medium and date; more information is available in brochures and catalogs. "Here is one of the few remaining refuges where you can come and have an experience of your own without being told what you have to feel or have to do, or what you have to buy," says the museum's current director, Josef Helfenstein....

How inspiring. Now, quickly, go back to The Menil Collection website and click through the images and read the descriptions. What do you think? I'm amazed at how the focus on fewer items creates such a powerful statement. And, what about the interest in incorporating ever changing lighting effects? It meant the art work and the gallery constantly change [think of Monet capturing hundreds of different views of the same haystacks] -- unlike what we have done with so many of our retail environments!

I can't wait to get to Houston.

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