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Grand Dame: Helene David-Weill's New Mission

The elegant and very private Helene David-Weill discusses fundraising for Les Arts Décoratifs museum.

Hélène David-Weill

Hélène David-Weill

Photo By Lexie Moreland

In another life, Helene David-Weill could have made a very good international spy. The petite, soft-spoken — and, one imagines, secretly formidable — president of Les Arts Décoratifs in Paris, one of the largest decorative arts museums in the world, is so intent on keeping her private life, well, private, that she deflects all questions of a personal nature with the skill and grace of a seasoned diplomat.

As a well-known collector, who are some of her favorite artists?

“Oh, I can’t tell you.”

Well, has she seen any newcomers recently she liked?

“Yes.”

Will she name them?

“No.”

Was she surrounded by beautiful objects growing up in France?

“Yes.”

Any specific ones come to mind?

“No.”

While any endeavors at probing her background and tastes become an exercise in futility, David-Weill is more than happy to wax on about her work. Seated on a sofa beneath a Picasso nude in the palatial Fifth Avenue apartment she shares with husband Michel (a former head of Lazard), she explains her passion for the objects in her museum between sips of cranberry juice that has been brought to her on a silver tray.

“Decorative arts is not as highly considered as modern art or paintings. It was considered like an everyday use and, therefore, not beautiful. Which I think is totally wrong. When you have a carving of ivory or wood, they’re as beautiful as a painting and I don’t see why they shouldn’t be as highly prized,” says David-Weill, who, in her role as president, oversees the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Musée de la Mode et du Textile and Musée de la Publicité, in addition to a library and school of design. “Our museum is more like your house because it’s been a mixture of what people gave us. And people gave us what they thought were their most beautiful objects…so we have anything that man created since medieval time up until today. It’s really the history of the creativity and imagination of man. And his designs and goal to make everyday life more beautiful.”

On Saturday, David-Weill hoped to spread her mission to New Yorkers when she hosted a casual dîner de famille for Oscar and Annette de la Renta, Nina Griscom and Leonel Piraino, Frédéric and Marie Malle and Pierre Durand in the Millbrook home of Nigel and Julia Widdowson, both members of the museum’s International Committee.

“Americans are more open, they’re more used to giving money to museums,” she explains of her outreach. Indeed, unlike most state-owned French institutions, Les Arts Décoratifs is private and therefore relies heavily on donations from friends and, by proxy, the efforts of its president. (She initiated a five-year renovation of the museum, which reopened in September 2007.)

“I’m just begging,” quips David-Weill of her pitch. “I try to explain that the decorative arts is very important because it’s an important way for artisans to express their imagination and that shouldn’t die.”

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