Art Collector Questionnaire

Two French Art Collectors Share How Tech Has Changed Their Approach

On back wall: Georg Baselitz, Elke negativ blau, 2012. All images courtesy of Hélène Nguyen-Ban, Elliot James Kennedy, and the artists.

Hélène Nguyen-Ban

When Hélène Nguyen-Ban made her entrée into collecting, it was as an outsider. Now, she is a member of the Tate's International Council and the Asia-Pacific Committee at Centre Pompidou; and serves as chair of the board of Fluxus Art Projects, along with a host of other positions. To help others in their collecting journeys, she founded Docent, the first AI-powered app to offer personalized guidance on learning about and collecting contemporary art.

Where did your personal collection begin?

My initial significant encounter with contemporary art unfolded in 2001 when I happened upon the Enrico Navarra gallery in Paris. Zhang Xiaogang's portrait in the window caught my eye, its fixed gazes masking profound emotions. This resonated deeply with my own Asian upbringing, where expressing feelings was considered impolite. The inception of my collection was serendipitous, and I consider myself fortunate to have chanced upon this path. It's as if fate had a hand in it!

As a complete novice exploring my roots, I naturally gravitated toward the works of Danh Vō, Mai-Thu Perret, Thu-Van Tran, Thao Nguyen Phan, and others. This sparked my interest in delving deeper into the diversity of Asian cultures by exploring the works of artists who merged their cultural heritage with contemporary Western art. I vividly recall being awestruck by the Huang Yong Ping Noah's ark installation [Arche 2009] at the Chapel of the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, a powerful juxtaposition of cultures and a fusion of Chinese philosophy with Western avant-garde and Dada heritage.

What excites you the most about collecting today?

I'm most excited about the recent digitalization of the art world, especially in light of the lockdown. This transformation has multiplied the realm of possibilities, and it feels like the boundaries of the traditional Western art scene have expanded in a positive way.

Sharing my passion on a global scale became a priority during the pandemic, and led me to create Docent, an AI-powered mobile application designed to help art enthusiasts discover and acquire contemporary art. While collecting art individually had been fulfilling, the audience was limited. Opening a gallery 10 years earlier was definitely a step forward, but still felt circumscribed. By leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning, Docent helps art lovers make informed decisions and empowers galleries to reach a wider audience.

The contemporary art ecosystem is continually expanding in a myriad of ways, with exponential growth in the digital space. My ultimate goal with Docent is to create a virtuous cycle in the art market by empowering existing collectors, helping a new generation of collectors arise, bringing galleries and artists more revenue, and supporting creation.

What are your most cherished places in Paris to see art?

The galleries that have been steadfast companions on my art collecting journey, and a constant source of inspiration. I hold great admiration for these gallery owners and am well aware of the challenges they face as entrepreneurs in the art world. I've had particularly enriching and inspiring relationships with galleries such as Enrico Navarra (in the past), Yvon Lambert, Thaddaeus Ropac, Kamel Mennour, Sultana, Balice Hertling, and more recently, a very young gallery, Parliament. More U.S.-based and international: Clearing, David Zwirner, and Gagosian. And it’s very exciting that international galleries like Hauser & Wirth, Mendes Wood DM, Esther Schipper, and Stuart Shave/Modern Art have opened recently in Paris. 

Not to miss in Paris this week in Paris:

Vincent van Gogh and Peter Doig at the Musée d’Orsay
Amedeo Modigliani and Hermann Nitsch at the Musée de l’Orangerie
Dürer, Rembrandt, Goya, and Toulouse-Lautrec at the Petit Palais
Mike Kelley at the Bourse de Commerce
Mark Rothko at the Fondation Louis Vuitton
Dalila Dalléas Bouzar at Palais de Tokyo (represented by Cécile Fakhoury)
Lili Reynaud-Dewar at Palais de Tokyo (represented by Clearing)
Berenice Olmedo at Fitzpatrick gallery
Lo Brutto Stahl very young but talented Parisian gallery (onboard Docent)
Lorna Simpson / Gaëlle Choisne at Studio des Acacias

Best thing to do in Paris that’s not art related?

Ten years after the major retrospective devoted to him at the Palais Galliera, Azzedine Alaïa is back in the spotlight with an exhibition showcasing the remarkable heritage collection he amassed over the years, which has never been exhibited before … The exhibition features some 140 exceptional pieces tracing the history of this priceless collection, which Alaïa built up in total secrecy. Nobody saw it during his lifetime, neither in France nor elsewhere.

Artwork and design work by MadIn, Marc Newson, Virgil Abloh, Shen Yuan, and Garouste & Bonetti. All Sylvain Levy images courtesy of the artists and the collector.

Sylvain Levy

In 2005, Sylvain Levy and his wife Dominique founded dslcollection, which focuses on contemporary Chinese works. The collection, open to the public through in-person and virtual exhibitions, is dedicated to the stewardship and discovery of artists through innovative approaches. Among these approaches are a 3D-modeled museum and the use of video games—both of which have further broadened dslcollection's audience, putting its founders on the cutting edge of integrating technology into the practice of collecting.

Which work in your collection provokes the most conversation from visitors? 

I think it's not any specific work, but our journey as collectors. People are surprised by the diversity and coherence of the objects collected across the different categories of Western contemporary art, design, and Chinese contemporary art. They are fascinated by the choice of a Chinese contemporary collection created by a French couple who live 12,000 km away from China. They love the idea that it is a family collection with my children fully involved, and finally, that the collection provides food for thought by being an early adopter of digital tools.

What excites you most about collecting today?

We have been collecting for over 40 years. We have seen art collecting go from being a way of life for a few privileged people to a global and mass-market industry. There are still opportunities for ordinary people to live extraordinary lives through collecting. We have decided to apply some rules to achieve this goal. First, a collection should be relevant to its time—especially if you decide to open it up to the public. You should include all the tools, including the digital ones. Secondly, we see dslcollection as an entrepreneurial project that aims to build a cultural brand that is contemporary and timeless. The third point is to move from the idea of "just having" to "being.” What makes a great collection is its ability to influence and inspire.

An art fair can be a great place for young collectors to get inspired. What advice do you have for newcomers?

Visiting a fair can serve several purposes. The first, of course, is to collect. Most of the time, people who are serious about collecting have already received information by e-mail from galleries, so there are not many surprises. Nevertheless, it is important to confirm your intention to buy by seeing the works in person. Secondly, never forget to ask yourself whether the works you want to collect are just the flavor of the day or whether they will help you build a coherent collection. Thirdly, bear in mind that reselling is often a long and difficult process, so buy what you can afford.

Most importantly, an art fair is an opportunity to access the best galleries and works of art in one place at one time. So enjoy your visit, take your time, sharpen your eyes, and have great encounters with objects and people. There is no obligation to buy. As for Art Basel Paris+ this year, it will be interesting to see how gallerists react to the cooling of the market in terms of supply and prices.

What are your favorite places in Paris to see art?

My wife and I spend a lot of time in museums, mainly because we want to pass on the pleasure of discovering art to our grandchildren. There are many favorite places: public museums and private foundations are always organizing great exhibitions. Nowadays, art is also an important part of the luxury experience, especially at LVMH, Dior, or Jacquemus. In addition to art venues, Dominique and I cherish all that makes Paris unique in terms of cafés, bistros, and fashion boutiques.

Some of our best choices:

Le Bizetro
6 Rue Georges Bizet Paris 16

La Fontaine de Mars
129 Rue Saint Dominique Paris 7

Monsieur Bleu
Palais de Tokyo, 20 Avenue de New York Paris 16

Fashion boutiques: Le Bon Marché and Dior, Avenue Montaigne