What do Champagne and Art Have in Common?

Photo:  Frédéric Dufour, President of Ruinart.

Photo: Frédéric Dufour, President of Ruinart.

Each year, the longstanding champagne house Ruinart commissions an artist to engage with the brand and its history, presenting the work first in Paris, before it tours to some 31 art fairs around the world. We met Frédéric Dufour, president of Ruinart, before the opening of Art Basel in Hong Kong, the first stop on this extensive circuit. He spoke of art, champagne, and emotion.

Could you start by telling us about Ruinart’s Liu Bolin collaboration? How did it come about, and how did you meet him?

I have a list of artists that I'd like to work with, and he was on it for a long time. I find a theme every year, a story to be told. For me it was about highlighting the savoir faire of the house, but then he as the artist brought in a much more human element. The process itself went very fast. Within 48 hours Liu had already agreed in principle, out of interest in the historical culture of the house. He came in June, and that was an extraordinary 24 hours that we spent together. First, he likes wine and food, which is very important in my world. He decided to include all the workers in the pictures, and then came for 20 days at the end of August, when he executed the photographs.

What do you hope Ruinart gets out of these collaborations? Is it about conveying certain types of values, or something else?

The champagne house is almost 300 years old. There is a huge legacy, a huge tradition in winemaking. But you also need to counterbalance this with a lot of creativity in order to make your brand attractive in this world. For me, using creative artistic talents provides this balance to tradition. We have always been involved in art. It's part of the DNA. The company was started in 1729, and the Ruinart family has always collected. They were the first French company to commission an artist, in 1896. In some ways we don’t even need to ask ourselves why we do it. The typical consumers of Ruinart are idealists, people who like great things in life, from wine and food to art and lifestyle. It's also very attractive for us to meet these consumers in the art fairs, because they are our natural consumers.

How do you judge the success of these projects? Artistic quality aside, of course.

It is largely irrational, I think. If I start with the only rational measure, it is the press we get out of it. But what’s more important us the emotion we get. Champagne is all about emotion. You drink a glass of Ruinart and you get a lot of emotions, as much as you get when you look at the art we present. The message this year is a lot about conscious luxury, about sustainability, about the humans behind Ruinart. To us, a good collaboration means that the message is getting through and the values that we want to convey are obvious. It's also about the excitement that the piece creates. This will stay when the coverage goes away. The emotion that you've created is something that you never forget.

What happens to the work in the end, speaking of staying power?

They come into our collection. We have a collection back in Reims. The choice I've made is not to make a museum. We are integrating the art with the house. It's a way for us to explain the story when you visit. Soon we'll need additional space because we have more and more art. We are renovating a new space within the house, part of the building that was used for production and maintenance. Now we have around 30 pieces. I would also like to involve some new, up-and-coming artists moving to the digital scene in order to bring this artistic creativity to our digital networks. 

Liu Bolin taking a selfie

Liu Bolin taking a selfie

When you look back at the artists you've worked with, do you see anything that defines them or brings them together?

It’s Ruinart, of course. The artists bring different approaches, but they all bring their visions to the same place. In the past we have mostly talked about our history and the past, but now I think we want to be much more about the values we convey. Our care for the planet, and the challenges that we all face in this modern world. Liu Bolin’s project has been an eye-opener. It’s the first time we have been able to involve the whole company. The whole company has changed its mentality since that project. As a result we've evolved the brief in order to continue finding artists able to do something similar.

You are personally involved with selecting and working with the artists to a very high degree, which is unusual for a top-level executive.

I don't think there is any other way, because the artistic program is one of the key programs we have to talk about the brand and what we care about in life. At the end of the day, I have to make the decision of how to define the theme, based on what I believe the artists can really bring to the idea. But I’m not always the one bringing the names of the artists. It only works if there is a good feeling between the artist and me, because I am the one who tours around the world with the artist. If there is no emotion between the two of us, it won't work. I am not a creative man, I am a businessman, so I love to work with creative people. It brings emotion to the project, and I think it brings lot to the success of the project.