Imagine that a very wealthy businessman offers his unique art collection to a city as well as offering to pay a considerable amount for the construction of the necessary structure to house the collection. One’s first impression would be that the city would graciously thank the businessman for his offer of the collection and helping to pay for the structure. But no, the Geneva authorities have been deeply divided about whether or not to accept the offer. What’s the problem?
Jean Claude Gandur has had an extraordinary career. Son of an Egyptian doctor who practiced in the small village of Barbeleusaz in the Canton of Vaud (Disclaimer: His father was my family’s doctor), Gandur made a fortune in the oil trading business, mostly in Africa. He became one of the most successful traders in the world and along the way an important collector of African art. He was Chairman and CEO of Addax Petroleum until its takeover by Sinopec Group in August 2009 for $7.3 billion.
Jean Claude Gandur has a most impressive art collection, to say the least. It includes: over 1000 archeological objects from Egypt, Greece, Rome and the Near East; over 500 European paintings from after World War II, and a collection of over 300 decorative art pieces from medieval sculptures to French furniture from the 18th century. Gandur is not only very rich and a knowledgeable collector, he is also someone dedicated to showing his collection to the public and helping museums in the future. The Gandur Foundation for Art created a Chair at the Ecole Polytecnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) to foster research in how to valorize the study of art with new technology. He is interested in the public, not just hording his collection for himself.
So, what’s the problem? Some Geneva politicians are violently opposed to his offer. They are against any extension or modification of a public museum for a private collection. From the extreme left and extreme right, there is opposition to the privatization of a public good, the local Museum of Art and History. The extension of the building would cost SF 132 million, with Gandur willing to pay SF 40 million. But the point is not his generous contribution; the opposition is against any form of public/private partnership.
Public/private collaboration is a vital part of many of today’s activities well beyond the arts. Isn’t the auditorium in the new Maison de la Paix called the Ivan Pictet Auditorium, the library of IHEID the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Library, both named after generous benefactors? The Hans Wilsdorf Bridge, named after Hans Wilsdorf, the late founder of Rolex, crosses the Arve River and is an important thoroughfare connecting the city’s Vernets and Plainpalais neighborhoods. The City of Geneva owes much to public/private cooperation, historically with the Rockefeller and Carnegie Foundations and recently with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Jean Claude Gandur has never before been attacked as a Robber Baron or someone involved in criminal activity. We are not here talking about Ken Lay, who gave generously to the University of Texas before the Enron scandal tarnished his image. While it is true that certain American universities have refused offers from potential donors because of the questionable source of their income, Jean Claude Gandur has never been attacked in this way. As he said in an interview in the Tribune de Genéve: “For 40 years I have been in my business and I have never had problems.”
So, again, what’s the problem? A simple answer is that there is a clash of civilizations between a self-made man who became successful in a cut-throat business and government officials used to political infighting and bureaucratic tugs of war. From Gandur’s perspective, he has been extremely patient since the original deal was signed in 2010. One can only imagine how quickly he made oil and gas deals. Seconds? Perhaps even minutes? As he said in the interview, “One is in the process of dynamiting, for political reasons, that which should have led to a magnificent museum that would have placed Geneva on the map of great institutions.”
The Parliament of the City of Geneva finally passed a resolution for the necessary credit to build the extension to the museum to house the Gandur collection. However, this has not ended the 15 year saga – a short time if one compares it with the decades-old saga involving the crossing of Geneva’s harbor. However, the opposition has promised to launch a referendum which will allow the citizens of Geneva to have the last word, in the Swiss tradition of direct democracy
While many extol the virtues of public/private partnerships, the civilizational clash between Jean Claude Gandur and the public sector over the museum extension highlights the fact that collaboration between the two worlds is not at all evident, often to the detriment of the general public.