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An understated lunch took place at the Museum of Modern Art in New York Tuesday afternoon that drew about 300 people or so, but they were just the right 300 people, some of New York’s most powerful titans of industry.
On an atrium in the museum’s second floor, one particularly striking huddle consisted of the three amigos of the private equity world — Stephen A. Schwarzman, Leon D. Black and Henry R. Kravis, founders of the firms the Blackstone Group, Apollo Global Management and KKR & Co., respectively. They seemed to be in good spirits, and they had reason to — the day before, securities filings showed them to be among the five highest paid executives in their field, with Black alone earning more than half a billion dollars in dividends last year.
They were there to salute one of their own, if of French extraction, a billionaire several times over, Bernard Arnault, chairman and chief executive officer of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, “the king of luxury,” as Kravis’ wife, Marie-Josée, referred to him. Arnault was receiving the museum’s annual David Rockefeller Award, which is bestowed on major supporters of the arts and public works.
The high-powered congregation was a reflection of Arnault’s influence — it’s not every day he makes a pit stop in New York, and with a little more than 12 hours to go before the Louis Vuitton debut of Nicolas Ghesquière no less. Also in attendance were David Rockefeller Sr. and Jr.; Steve Schwartz, the ceo of Hearst Corp.; Jerry Speyer, the real estate magnate; Vera Wang; Tory Burch, and artists Jeff Koons, Chuck Close and John Currin. Dick Parsons met Arnault “back when I was still running Time Warner, but that was a long time ago.”
Eli Broad attributed the turnout to the respect the French mogul commands and the award itself, which has gone to some impressive folks in the past, like the late Katharine Graham, Michael Bloomberg and, of course, Broad himself. “Well, this Rockefeller lunch, I was honored a few years ago…you get about 200 interesting people here and it’s a great event, once a year,” he said.
Wang, who came with Alice Tisch, does not know Arnault personally, but came to pay her respects.
“It’s amazing that someone with those resources and the passion and the taste to really influence the art market is being honored in America,” she said. “It doesn’t get better than that. It’s kind of nice it’s not about fashion.”
For Arnault personally, the award also held special significance. He is one of the few, if only, French executives to be honored with such awards from American cultural institutions, a recipient three years ago at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. He set a precedent, of a kind, Tuesday by becoming the first non-U.S. citizen to receive the Rockefeller award.
“I am very honored and very impressed,” he said shortly after he delivered some brief remarks. “Because French philanthropy is coming from the U.S. I may have been one of the first to really do it on a certain scale in Europe. I imagine it’s one of the reasons that I’m getting the prize today.”
In his speech, Arnault paid tribute to the example set by American philanthropy, a tradition he said he has embraced personally in his efforts to make LVMH a socially conscious conglomerate and in the creation of his own museum project, the Louis Vuitton Foundation. He emphasized the project is set to open in October.
“In France today, philanthropy is playing an increasingly important role. We have come to understand that government cannot and should not be responsible for everything,” he said before saying something unintelligible under his breath that drew a huge laugh, presumably a crack about the French government. “And I am pleased to see that private donors determined to contribute to the general well-being are taking their rightful place alongside public initiatives.”
His appearance in New York would be a short one, he told WWD. “Just after lunch, I fly to Paris not to miss Nicolas,” he said.