Why private donors are important in preserving a country's cultural heritage
Conserving the past is a means of safeguarding the future.
Ever since the first stone was laid in 1163, the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris has become an enduring symbol of France – and its most popular tourist destination – that has borne witness to centuries of history, from the coronations of kings and emperors to the liberation from German occupation during the World War II. So imagine the horror when flames engulfed the 856-year-old masterpiece of Gothic architecture in April. The building’s spire later collapsed, before the fire destroyed the church’s wooden roof. Thankfully, Notre Dame was saved from total destruction.
French president Emmanuel Macron vowed to rebuild the cathedral and immediately launched an international fundraising campaign for its restoration. Within days, more than €1 billion (S$1.54 billion) was raised from some of the country’s wealthiest families, among them Francois‑Henri Pinault of Kering, which owns fashion labels including Gucci and Saint Laurent, who started the ball rolling with a €100 million donation; while Bernard Arnault of LVMH, home to such brands as Louis Vuitton and Givenchy, gave €200 million.
The lightning speed of how the funds started rolling in just hours after the catastrophe sparked controversy, among them criticism on the priorities of philanthropists when it comes to charitable giving, but that is a story for another day. What is pertinent to note here is the affection luxury fashion houses have for the preservation of historical landmarks. Cases in point: Fendi and the Trevi fountain, Bvlgari and the Spanish Steps, and Tod’s and the Colosseum.
Chanel has pledged €25 million for the four-year restoration of the Grand Palais, which is expected to start in December 2020. The French maison is also backing the new exhibition spaces at the Palais Galliera, which is set to become the first permanent fashion museum in France when it reopens in January.
Aside from the generosity of the luxury fashion brands, organisations such as Fonds pour Paris – Paris Foundation, which was founded in 2015 at the request of Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, are tapping on capital from the private sector to fund public projects. “Fonds pour Paris is the first endowment fund that works full-time for a local authority. Our aim is not only to raise funds to restore the Parisian heritage, but create a link between the past and the future by renewing the heritage through contemporary art projects,” said its president Anne-Sylvie Schneider.
In March, the organisation unveiled its first patron-funded project – six fountains that sit on newly renovated 19th-century basins installed on the Champs-Elysees roundabout between Place de la Concorde and the Arc de Triomphe. Renowned French designers Erwan and Ronan Bouroullec were commissioned to give the fountains a fresh new look. Each fountain consists of a central bronze mast embellished with 258 custom-made Swarovski crystal elements that are illuminated by LEDs. The combination of light and waterfall running through the crystals offers changing looks at different times of the day.
Almost all of the projects that Fonds pour Paris has lined up until 2024 have been fully funded. In September, Paris will welcome American contemporary artist Jeff Koons’ Bouquet of Tulips, which will be planted in the Gardens of the Champs-Elysees, behind the Petit Palais museum. Early next year, the iconic Arc de Triomphe will be illuminated permanently by Danish-Icelandic conceptual artist Olafur Eliasson. The organisation is also involved in the effort to turn the Palais Galliera into a permanent fashion museum.
Perhaps its most ambitious project is the artistic illumination of historical Parisian bridges to reflect the soul and history of the City of Lights. Fonds pour Paris will seek out proposals to develop illumination projects for the nine bridges around the Ile de la Cite through an international competition for artists.
Schneider explained, “The public-private partnership is key to the preservation of cultural heritage, especially in France. Fonds pour Paris is proof that we can join forces to create emblematic projects. The private sector can offer more opportunities to public projects in terms of artistic choice, vision and funds. Our private donors allow us to finalise our projects more quickly because of their financial support and resources.”
It’s a slightly different story in Singapore when it comes to preserving our built heritage. There are currently 72 national monuments here and, of these, 31 are owned or managed by non-profit or religious organisations.
Jean Wee, director of the Preservation of Sites and Monuments division under the National Heritage Board (NHB), said, “We are fortunate to have monument owners who are committed to preserving the legacies of our national icons, as well as religious communities who want to see their heritage preserved. Our architects work closely with them in the restoration and maintenance of their buildings, carrying out periodic inspections. We also offer advice and funding to eligible monuments in the form of the National Monuments Fund (NMF).”
First introduced in 2008, NMF is a co-funding scheme dedicated to monument restoration and maintenance works. These can include the stripping down of layers of decades-old paint to reveal the original granolithic exterior like that of the Church of St Teresa or engaging traditional craftsmen to repaint the intricate Hindu deities on the structure of the 165-year-old Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple. Other outstanding costs are usually covered by private donations raised by the monument owners.
“Many of our monument owners have worked tirelessly [to take care of] their monuments – this is clear evidence that they take ownership of their own heritage to ensure they continue to tell the story of their beginnings for generations to come,” enthused Wee.