“Philanthropy, especially in the arts, is part of the DNA of Los Angeles.”
Lionel Sauvage is a French philanthropist and 18th Century French art collector based in Los Angeles, California. Sauvage’s successful career in finance led him to philanthropy where he became deeply involved in supporting the arts. He is currently a board member for the American Friends of the Louvre, Société des Amis du Louvre, the Los Angeles Opera, American Friends of Chantilly, INSEAD Foundation, and Abraham Path Initiative. In 2003, Sauvage also co-founded FLAX, the foundation connecting France-based artists with opportunities in Southern California.
In this interview, Lionel Sauvage shares why he left engineering to get his MBA, what drew him to collecting Watteau's paintings, and the role philanthropy plays in his life.
TGL: How was your childhood?
LS: I was born in Switzerland. My father was working at a UN agency in Geneva, so I spent the first five years of my life there, and then we moved to Paris. We were a typical French family with five children, I was number two. My father was a professor of economics and my mother worked in administration at Science Po.
I had a normal life. I was a bit of an adventurer. I was a Boy Scout for a long time, but I did not enjoy school. I would spend my days at the movie theater instead of school, which got me into trouble and my school kicked me out. That's when my father told me either I start working or I go to the army. So I started working, and I took some classes in engineering.
TGL: Was there a defining moment in your childhood?
LS: Two events were very important in my life. First, my father taught at Stanford University for a semester in 1970, so our entire family went for three months. In 1970, you didn't go to the United States. We would travel by car to neighboring countries, but not to the United States. It was really far away and too expensive. I probably did not realize the impact it had on me until much later in my life when I actually moved to the United States in 1992.
The second was in 1971, when I was 16 years old. I convinced my parents to let me bike down to Florence, Italy, for a month. I don't think I would have let my children do that at 16, but my parents did. I went on a trip for a month with a friend, and we rode our bikes all the way to Florence. Things were not expensive back then, 100 Euros each lasted us the month. We slept outside, anywhere we could. The world was safe at the time, it was not a problem for two boys. That's when I found my independence. The following year, when we were 17, in 1972, we traveled all the way to Dubrovnik in what was then Yugoslavia.
But, still nothing prepared me for my future life. I started my life as an engineer. I was not particularly interested in the arts, I was not particularly interested in the US, and I had absolutely no interest in the financial industry. A big transition happened in my late twenties when I got my MBA at INSEAD.
TGL: Why did you decide to stop being an engineer and go back to school?
LS: I worked as an engineer for six years. I came back to study because my engineering company was in charge of building two subway systems, one in Cairo, Egypt, and one in Athens, Greece, and they thought about giving me one of those projects to manage. I thought that I was missing some skills, so I decided to get an MBA with the idea of returning to my old firm.
Life takes unexpected turns and sometimes you just have to follow them without knowing exactly where you're going. I met with an investment management firm in Los Angeles called the Capital Group, and it was love at first sight. I loved the people, loved what they do, loved their ethics. I had no idea what investment management was but I knew I wanted to join that firm. I went through a series of interviews in Paris and London and in 1987, I joined Capital Group in their London office. I went from being an engineer who managed large projects, such as the subway in Athens, to becoming an investor and managing equity portfolios. That's what I did for the following 30 years and enjoyed every minute of it.
TGL: When did you move to Los Angeles?
LS: After five years, Capital offered me a position at the Hong Kong office. I had just married my wife, Ariane, two years before, so I asked her if she wanted to move to Hong Kong. She said, "No, but I wouldn't mind going to Los Angeles." Los Angeles was the headquarters of Capital. I went back to Capital and said, "No, I can’t go to Hong Kong but I would go to Los Angeles." And they said, "Oh, that's a good idea." So I came to Los Angeles in 1992 on assignment for a couple of years.
TGL: What was your experience in Los Angeles?
LS: We arrived the month before the Rodney King riots started. That was a wake up call. You'd see places in the city burning. I still remember leaving our rented apartment, and in front of it was a liquor store and the owner was standing on top of the store with a huge gun waiting for the rioters to loot his store. It was a scary sight. After 30 years in Los Angeles, you get sort of used to violence in the city, which is not good.
We settled in Los Angeles, and we never moved. Even though 1992 had the riots, in 1993, we moved to the Palisades and were evacuated because of the fire, and in January of 1994, we had the earthquake. We went through all of that and we stayed.
TGL: What did you love the most in Los Angeles?
LS: As a French person, I've always loved working with Americans. I like Americans' curiosity, sometimes French people take that as naivety, but it is actually curiosity. Americans want to know, they want to learn, they want to meet other people. They have that appetite for the rest of the world. Sometimes the French are too cynical.
I love the climate, of course, and Los Angeles is a city where you get the feeling that people are creating their own lives. It's not a city that emulates what other people are doing. There is a lot of creative energy in Los Angeles, which is fairly independent from the rest of the world.
TGL: How has Los Angeles changed since you first moved here?
LS: When I look back to 30 years ago, I've seen the creation of the LA Opera, two major museums, the Getty Museum and the Broad, a major concert hall, The Disney Hall, and many other cultural institutions and small theaters. The development of culture in Los Angeles is absolutely astonishing.
TGL: What did you like most about being an investor?
LS: When I started in the field, I was focused on some industries and then I became a generalist. What I like the most is the ability to discover new companies, understand how companies work, understand the impact of management on companies and understand deeply what the companies were made up of and invest accordingly. The investment part is not the most important part. It's the research part that is the crux of what we do at Capital, understanding the fabric of a company and trying to decide what makes a company and what is going to be good for the company shareholders. I was extremely lucky because I was the right fit for a company in an industry that grew tremendously. The finance industry grew tremendously from the 1980s to the 2000s.
TGL: How did your relationship to art start?
LS: I've always been around the arts. As a child, my parents would take me to museums in France and across Europe. Collecting came from my wife who brought with her two posters of the great Watteau exhibition of 1984. Having those posters for 20 years in our bedroom gave me the collecting virus.
TGL: Why did you retire early?
LS:I always said I wanted to retire at 60, and there were other things I wanted to do after 27 years of work. I felt that younger people should take my place in the company, it is important to renew people. I gave some of my best years to the company and it rewarded me accordingly. It was time for me to move on and follow my passion for the arts.
TGL: When did you start collecting art?
LS: I got familiar with the art market when I moved to Paris and worked in London in 2007. Then I realized that Watteau paintings, although rare, sometimes were sold at auctions and that is what happened in 2009. I remember it was the first time I bid in an auction. I was scared. It was a painting in terrible condition. No one was interested in it, because it was fairly damaged and glued on a piece of composite wood, which was a horror. I got that painting called La Chute d’Eau and this started my collection.
TGL: How long did you stay in Paris?
LS: We stayed in Paris and in London, where I worked, until I retired in 2015. We stayed for eight years. I actually worked in London and commuted from Paris. That's where I discovered the old master art market. This is how I first came to buy a Watteau painting. In Paris, I met with Pierre Rosenberg, the former director of Louvre and one of the most important scholars on Watteau. When I showed him the painting, he looked at it and said, "Can you hear Mr. Sauvage? You can hear the water flowing."
He directed me to the right people to help restore it, and the restoration was very successful. I actually gave that painting back to the Louvre, so they could lend it to the Museum in Valenciennes, birthplace of Watteau, a nice museum but with very few Watteau paintings. That's the story of my first painting.
TGL: Why did you give your first painting away?
LS: By giving a painting away, I will always be its last owner. It is in the public’s hands, but my name will always be attached to it. It is vanity. The museum programmed an exhibition on the occasion of the gift of that painting, and it was a lot of fun. When we opened this exhibition, the whole city of Valenciennes was into it. There were pictures of the painting in storefronts, et cetera. It's a nice story of a painting that was lost and in really bad shape, and now has come back to life and is in the museum for everybody just to enjoy. It's a good ending for the life of that painting.
TGL: What made you go back to Watteau?
LS: I'm now working as a junior scholar on Watteau paintings with Professor Eidelberg based in New York on the catalog raisonné of Watteau’s paintings. That's my new job today. I do menial tasks, my professor sends me to the Getty Museum library to go through books and do research on Watteau. This academic activity complements my activity as a collector of Watteau and his followers, the school that emerged at the beginning of the 18th century in France known as Fête Galante.
As Louis the XIV was ill and died in 1715, Watteau emerged and invented a genre that fit what people wanted. People, mostly the nobility who had moved back from Versailles to Paris, were moving away from the grand style of history painting into something that reflected their new lifestyle. Watteau was an extraordinarily successful painter in his lifetime, which was short because he died at age 37. He was followed by many other painters French like Jean-Baptiste Pater and Nicolas Lancret, but also Mercier in England and Quillard in Portugal. All throughout Europe, this genre of painting developed, and to this day some of the most beautiful paintings by Watteau are in museums in Germany and England.
TGL: Do you know other collectors of Watteau?
LS: I don't know any other obsessive collectors of Watteau. There are great collectors of 18th-century French paintings, but they tend to be more eclectic and open to the 18th century in general. We sometimes meet in the auction houses.
TGL: How did you start your relationship with American Friends of Louvre?
LS: I'm very involved with the Louvre in general. I think the Louvre is a unique place, I call it a Museum of the world for the world. It encompasses so many of the world’s most important treasures. It is for the world because 75% of the visitors are foreigners, and, little known fact, it is the biggest lender to other museums with 1500 objects lent to museums outside of France. The Louvre takes this responsibility very seriously, and we should encourage them to do so.
Being French American and very involved with philanthropy. I see it as my responsibility to help the Louvre develop its philanthropic activities. They have no choice but to look for alternative financing sources, as the state has been reducing its contribution year after year, in 2018 down to 40% of its budget from 50% three years before. At the same time revenue from philanthropy has grown from 3% to 8%. The American Friends help the Louvre with their financial contribution as well as the gift of works of art, but we are also a constant reminder that the Louvre should be the museum for the world.
For example, one project that the American Friends of the Louvre financed was the translation of all the labels into English. That sounds very little, but when you have thousands of labels throughout the museum, it became a budget of several million that were given by the American Friends of the Louvre for that translation. In a way, we are here to keep pushing the museum to be more open to foreign tourists and other museums.
TGL: What are you currently working on with the American Friends of the Louvre?
LS: My family is sponsoring a residency for conservators and senior staff from the Louvre to come to Los Angeles for a month, study museums, and connect with their colleagues in Southern California. Again, it is all about opening up the Louvre to collaboration with American museums and particularly the Southern California museums, that is one of my interests.
I’m also on the board of the Louvre’s Endowment Fund, which is the second-largest endowment fund in France, roughly €280 million. That's small compared to endowments funds in the United States, but it's an interesting initiative because it shows the way for other museums to follow and work with endowments.
TGL: Why are endowments important for a museum?
LS: Endowments are an essential aspect of American philanthropy, because an endowment supports the activity in perpetuity. The Fonds de Dotation du Musée du Louvre, as it is called, is professionally managed, it has a board composed of half independent directors and an Investment committee composed principally of independent outside finance specialists. It's been a way for the Louvre to engage people in a long-term relationship with the museum.
TGL: When did you get involved with philanthropy?
LS: When I moved to the United States. I learned philanthropy from my U.S. colleagues at Capital Group. Capital Group was always generous and encouraged the associates to get involved in philanthropy. I got engaged quickly, because it was part of the culture of the company to give back. It is also remarkable that philanthropy, especially in the arts, is part of the DNA of Los Angeles. Today, I deeply think that if you have been lucky like I have, philanthropy is not an option, it's a duty.
TGL: What is the duty of a philanthropist?
LS: There's no hierarchy in individual philanthropy, there's no bigger or smaller philanthropist, just do as much as you can. Give to any organization: humanitarian, the arts, it doesn't matter. Give talent, give time, give treasures. In other words get involved not only financially, as nonprofits benefit greatly from your experience and expertise coming from the for-profit world.
TGL: How has your philanthropy evolved over the years?
LS: At the beginning of your philanthropy journey, you give to save the world. You give to Doctor Without Borders, you give to fight hunger, et cetera. Then, as you get settled, you think more about your community, so you give to the local food bank, the arts organization, the hospital. Finally, when you age, maybe because there isn’t much time left, you give to change the world. Along with other causes, I have chosen to give to the arts. It seems counter-intuitive that art is saving the world, but art is the common language of humanity and our humanity needs more communication and understanding.
TGL: Can you talk more about the importance of giving to art organizations?
LS: Art is a way for people to understand each other. The other night I watched the movie Shawshank Redemption again. There's a scene where Tim Robbins gets into the prison director’s office and puts Mozart on the speaker system throughout the prison. The entire prison, and all the guards stop and listen in awe of the two voices singing a duet, and Morgan Freeman, the narrator says: "Essentially, at this very moment, every man felt free." In this scene, the prisoners did not understand the singing in Italian, it did not matter if it elevated their souls. Art is a universal language because it speaks to human emotions. Art gets us closer to one another because it has us focus on what we share in common and forces us to recognize our differences. That is how you change the world.
TGL: You made a 5.5 million dollar donation to INSEAD, the business school you attended in the suburbs of Paris. Why did you decide to make this important donation?
LS: INSEAD is my alma mater. I did not make that gift out of gratitude. Of course I am grateful for having spent a year there that helped change my life. But I made that gift to acknowledge and support the unique vision INSEAD is promoting: "Business as a force for good." Of course you should teach future businesswomen and businessmen accounting, finance and marketing, but teaching them how they, as CEO of companies, can make a better world is essential. This is what is going to change the world: teaching future businesswomen and businessmen how to impact the world in a positive way. If we want to change the world we need to start with those learning institutions, schools, universities.
TGL: You created FLAX Foundation, what was that experience like?
LS: We are closing down FLAX after 15 years, and it was a fabulous adventure. We brought 50 artists to Los Angeles with the vision to create a connection between artists in France and artists or institutions in Los Angeles with each time a specific project connecting the two. We did remarkable work, and I am grateful to our Executive director Elisabeth Forney and our curators Anna Milone and Martha Kirszenbaum. I'm sad to be closing down, but it was time to move on, and we are proud of what we have achieved and the impact it has had on the French artists.
TGL: How would you describe your relationship with the artists?
LS: I had a wonderful relationship with the artists. Some gave me little pieces, I have a sketchbook from Kathleen Bass, a wonderful drawing from Philippe Mayaux and one from our last resident Guillaume Bresson who is a very talented artist. The relationship with artists is always rewarding. I actually collect some contemporary art, but only from artists I know well, and in many cases they have created works specifically for me.
TGL: What does a conversation between a collector and a curator or artist sound like?
LS: It's a very interesting dialogue between a collector and an artist. When you can really create that dialogue, it enriches both of us. Jonathan Hirschfeld is a Canadian sculptor who lives in Paris and Los Angeles in Venice Beach. When I first met him, I wanted him to imagine my tombstone, but he refused. He said, “I don't want to do a sculpture of a tomb, when I do a sculpture, I think about life.” From there we discussed our love for Los Angeles, its landscapes and its light and that was the inspiration for a sculpture now in my home. The artist interprets the world (of the collector) with a language that the collector is trying to understand.
TGL: With COVID-19 and your desire for new philanthropy, what do you want to do?
LS: I involve my children in our philanthropy. I created a small foundation that we manage as a family. It has opened me up to different areas, because my children's priorities are not my priorities. They crafted the mission statement for our foundation, and they decided to give into five areas: the environment, health, international relations, education, and heritage. We meet on a quarterly basis to discuss our gifting strategy and the non-profits we will give to. COVID-19 was an opportunity to have a special meeting and we decided to give more to the not-for-profits that we were already giving to, because it's a difficult time for not-for-profits. And we decided on three new not-for-profits we would give money to, which are specifically related to COVID-19 and its consequences. The first is a fund created by the California Community Foundation to help people affected by COVID-19, usually people who have lost jobs, food banks, et cetera. The second is a similar organization in France called Secours Catholique. And the third is the Pasteur Institute for Research. Two are local organizations helping people and one is for research.
TGL: How do you think COVID-19 will impact the arts?
LS: It's going to be hard for artists, and we forget about that. I think the artist community is going to be the most impacted. The museum community probably less so, because they hopefully depend on philanthropy more than income from visitors. Artists are the ones who are going to suffer, because they are cut off from their patrons, galleries and museums. This lockdown has been a disaster for them. There have been attempts through social media and Zoom, but that's not making up for the human connection that we need between the artist and their sponsors and collectors.
TGL: You're French and Californian, what are the benefits of creating a bridge between Paris and Los Angeles?
LS: There is a great opportunity to learn from being in France and in the United States. My American experience is helpful for the philanthropy I do in France. Whether it was with FLAX or now with the Louvre, I know how to create connections between artists in both countries, and now between curators. Everybody benefits from those connections. I can create those connections because of where I am.
TGL: Do you see a French influence in Los Angeles?
LS: The first exhibition in Los Angeles that FLAX did was called Pioneers and Entrepreneurs. It was about the making of Los Angeles by the French, because in the 19-century Los Angeles was a French city after being a Spanish/Mexican city of course. There was a large immigration of French here in the 19-century. Because Los Angeles was a Spanish city and essentially Catholic, they did not accept immigration from the Protestant, but they accepted immigration from the French in particular from the Basque region where they mostly spoke Spanish. Entire Basque villages moved to Los Angeles and to this day, they congregate once a year in San Bernardino. There had been four mayors of Los Angeles that were French. The area of Los Angeles we call Chinatown was the French area. They have buildings there from those days such as Pico House, in front of Union Station which was the Hotel de Paris. The department of water and power was created by a French immigrant. We found a trove of photography about all the French in Los Angeles from the 19-century.
It is a part of the history of France in Los Angeles that people often ignore. You realize that there are many boulevards named after the French in Los Angeles. The first hospital in Los Angeles that closed down a few years ago was a French hospital. In front of it there was a statue of Joan of Arc.
TGL: Who would you like to have dinner with that you don’t already know?
LS: I would have loved to have dinner with John Fitzgerald Kennedy. First, because the first news event I remember is the death of JFK. Second, because I would love to have dinner with him today and learn what he would have been able to do had he stayed alive. I think that man was in a position to change America, but I'm not sure what he would have wanted to do.
TGL: What advice would you like to give to The Genius List’s readers?
LS: I have one quote that I repeat to myself quite often from Theodore Roosevelt, the first Roosevelt, in a speech that he did in 1910 at the Sorbonne in Paris, it's called "The Man in the Arena." He says, "The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who spends himself in a worthy cause. Who at best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls, who neither know victory nor defeat." I say something else that precedes this to my children: "Follow your own tracks, there is none better. Don't try to follow someone else's track, just follow your own and you'll be happier that way." Journeying is important in life.