Collector Marie-Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre on Keeping the Conversation Going

The founder of philanthropic community Spirit Now London, which offers an annual acquisition fund at Frieze, explains how personal connections are at the heart of her collecting

BY Chris Waywell in Frieze London & Frieze Masters , Interviews | 13 DEC 23

Chris Waywell How long have you lived here?

Marie-Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre Six years. I love it. I like the spirit of an arts-and-crafts house: beautiful fireplaces and wood panels. I am a person who likes to be at home, surrounded by things that I like.

CW How did you come to found Spirit Now London?

MLdCT When I arrived in London, I was on the board of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, but I thought that it would be really interesting to have a group of collectors that were completely independent from one museum and that could really engage with art. I didn’t know London very well, so it was also a good way to discover it. I was very lucky to meet Ralph Rugoff, the director of the Hayward Gallery, quite early on, and he introduced me to artists and opened the museum for our group. Now I’m on his commissioning committee.

Marie-Laure with the zebra from Deyrolle in Paris
Marie-Laure with her zebra and the Take 5 Edition Book of Death (from the series ‘Eros and Thanatos’). Photo: Norman Wilcox-Geissen

Spirit Now London is a group of collectors, mostly women. I curate a programme for them of things that I want to share. It could be artists, exhibitions, museums, but always something special, exclusive and exceptional. The community part of it is very important to me; I only take people who I know really love art, who can engage, who can give support if we want to do a project together. I have about 120 people in the community and it’s very international. They’re all very different because their cultures are very different. But it’s always about discovering artists together, and I like to spot for them the young artists of tomorrow. Eight years ago, we went to see Annie Morris and Idris Khan in their studio. And ten of my members bought pieces from Annie. There’s a lot of young artists that we see – Alice Anderson, Mohammed Sami – and a lot of us have bought a piece.

‘We are not a club: we are a community. We are not passive, we are active’

CW And you’ve brought the Spirit Now London Acquisition Fund to Frieze.

MLdCT It began two years ago. Before I was doing it myself. I supported different places but then I decided to do a committee called Spirit of Giving. I asked 20 of my members over a weekend: ‘Do you want to put in some money with me? Together we’re going to buy a piece by a woman artist and donate it to a museum in the UK.’ Then Frieze Masters said we could do it together. I decided to choose from the selection of Camille Morineau in the Spotlight section. I think it was the fair’s tenth anniversary, so it was a good moment. Camille had made a selection of 25 women artists, and we bought from among them. 

Another bit of luck was that Luke Syson, Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, was suggested to me. At the beginning, I was thinking of giving the piece to a museum in London, but I met Luke and decided that the Fitzwilliam was a good choice, especially because they have their educational programme. It was a marvellous first edition, and we discovered this amazing artist, Sylvia Snowden, who was not very famous. She was eightysomething years old and she cried on the phone when she found out she’d won the prize. She wrote me a beautiful letter. We went to see her work in March at the museum. Then Sylvia came to London in September and we met her. So it’s a neverending story. I don’t want to do something in one shot. I want to keep the conversation going.

A Larry Bell work in the collection
Larry Bell, Deconstructed Cube SS, 2021. Photo: Norman Wilcox-Geissen

CW Tell me how it went with Spirit Now London at Frieze London this year?

MLdCT The second edition went very well. Eva Langret, the director of Frieze London is a really amazing personality, so it was a pleasure to work with her. Last year was about women born between 1919 and 1950. And some of my members said: We want to help younger artists. So I said to Eva: Maybe this year I’ll do it with you. We decided it would be artists under 40. And I chose the Hepworth in Wakefield. We showed the artists to the Spirit of Giving Committee to make a shortlist of ten. Very nicely, Eva let us go in one hour before Frieze opened, so we had time to really see the artists. This year we chose two, Bronwyn Katz and Rene Matić.

CW I saw Bronwyn’s Katz’s fantastic big metal curtain piece at the fair.

MLdCT Yes, it’s copper – it’s like copper over steel wire. Bronwyn was our first choice and it was the first choice of the Hepworth too. But because there was still a little money left, we bought the Rene Matić that the museum really wanted. It’s the first time we gave a prize to a non-binary artist. But this also posed a question. They asked us: ‘Can we be part of the competition? We are not a woman, we are not a man, we are non-binary. We feel we are a woman but coming from a non-binary place.’ And I said, yes, of course. Let’s do it.

Miles Aldridge, Like a Painting. Photo: Norman Wilcox-Geissen
Miles Aldridge, Like a Painting #1, 2005. Photo: Norman Wilcox-Geissen

CW Do you have other projects you want to do in the future with the Spirit of Giving Committee?

MLdCT I want to keep on with the prize, that’s for sure. I love it. There’s a lot of enthusiasm. It’s a real journey that I share with them.

CW And it’s a very practical thing you can do…

MLdCT Exactly. I love to help museums outside London. For instance, the Fitzwilliam really felt it was important at this time to acquire a work by a Black woman artist. And it was also great to be in conversation with the Hepworth about Bronwyn Katz. So I want to keep on with this prize. I would like to engage more and more with artists, to invite them like I did with Valerie Bélin, Eva Jospin, Prune Nourry. I know Valerie very well; I took my people to her studio in Paris. I really want to share the love that I have for some artists for my people.

The Spirit of Giving is very vibrant. I would like to ask my members if they want to do different projects. So, one with Frieze but it could be also one with the Camden Art Centre: we could do more and more projects but the problem is that I don’t have five lives so I can only do what I can do.

CW And you don’t necessarily want it to become some kind of institution?

MLdCT No. I would like to stay very free. I also have a charity foundation around education with my husband. And I want to involve the foundation in Spirit Now London more. Jean-François, my husband, is very much focused on science and I would like to do more and more things bringing science and art together. There are some projects that can be linked. So, for instance, I’m supporting a series of talks at Sciences Po [a university in Paris] with Edith Dekyndt, Kapwani Kiwanga, Tomás Saraceno and Tino Sehgal. The name is ‘Dans l’Œil des Artistes’, ‘in the eye of artists’. And my members were invited to the conference: they discovered artists, they loved it. Edith Dekyndt is super-interesting and now she’s in a group show at Tricia Felton gallery. She’s coming in January, so I’m going to host breakfast for her here with my members. Sometimes in the evening I’ll have a dinner for some scientist here. I have always been holistic.

Ceramic piece by Ryan Barrett and the Take 5 Edition Desire
Left: a ceramic piece by Ryan Barrett. Right: Eros et Pulsion de Mort/Eros and the Pulsion of Death (Editions Take 5, 2016). Photo: Norman Wilcox-Geissen

CW It’s rare to find people who do philanthropic missions as a community…

MLdCT Yes, exactly. We are not a club: we are a community. We are not passive, we are active. We are really engaged collectors and supporters. It’s a philanthropic mission that we do together to learn and have a journey together.

CW When did you start collecting art personally?

MLdCT I’ve always loved art and culture since I was young. My collection is a series of meetings; it’s not done in a very intellectual way. I meet a lot of artists, I do a lot of exhibitions, I’m on the board of museums. When I hear an artist talking about their inspiration, I cannot resist. I like to meet the artist behind the piece: I feel it’s a moment. Each piece here is a moment of my life that has a story. And so they are talking to me. And when I am very old, it will be like a book: I can read in them a story, a moment I was there in London with my husband and with the artist.

CW I like the idea that there’s a circle that you travel in and the circle that the artist travels in and at some point they meet.

MLdCT I prefer to buy art and to support artists than to buy a bag or a dress. When I’m in my living room and I'm surrounded by my art, I really feel happy. It’s like a conversation.

Marie-Laure’s first piece: an antique Chines avse (one of a pair). Photo: Norman Wilcox-Geissen
Marie-Laure’s first piece: an antique Chinese vase (one of a pair). On wall: a work by Zao Wou-Ki. Photo: Norman Wilcox-Geissen 

CW What prompted you to buy your first piece?

MLdCT I was 22. I was in China with my husband and we saw these pots. We didn't know anything about Chinese art, but we fell in love. I called a person who is an expert on Chinese art in Belgium. And she told me: ‘You picked well’, so we bought them. As I said: a story. There’s also a story with Pierre Soulages: we had a good friendship with him because we met him in the studio and bought a piece off him directly. We were so impressed by him and by his personality. We saw him two months before he died last year. And we had this marvellous conversation – a goodbye. When I see his pieces, I feel I’m still in conversation with him. So, I like to share what I like with people.

CW To champion artists you love?

MCdCT: Voilà! This Chilean artist, Catalina Swinburn, who works with paper like origami, I met her two years ago with Spirit Now: we went to her studio and I loved the way she was talking about the work so much that I bought her and now she’s just had an exhibition in London. The artists that I have at home, I believe in them. One of the first pieces I bought in London was by Alice Anderson. And it’s in copper. At the time, eight years ago, she was just beginning. Since then, she has been shortlisted for the Prix Marcel Duchamp [in 2021].

‘I prefer to buy art and to support artists than to buy a bag or a dress’

CW It’s like a Brancusi.

MLdCT Yes! that’s why I love it. So for instance, this piece is by Eva Nielsen. We met her when she was 20 at L’École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and we gave her a scholarship and we bought a piece. Now she wins prizes everywhere.

A work by Eva Nielsen. Photo: Norman Wilcox-Geissen
A work by Eva Nielsen. Photo: Norman Wilcox-Geissen

CW Do you buy works together with your husband?

MLdCT This Larry Bell. I bought it at Hauser & Wirth; I have a big story with Hauser, we do a lot of things together. And I took my husband and he was crazy about this piece – and me too, in fact – because you know, Larry Bell inspired a lot of other artists with light like James Turrell. We go to Hauser in Somerset every year with Spirit Now London.

CW Can you tell me about your Tomás Saraceno piece?

MLdCT I was on the board of the Palais de Tokyo when it had a huge exhibition on Tomás. We were asked if we wanted to support the exhibition by buying a piece. And we got a discount. So I bought this web. He’s an amazing artist. Tomás did an amazing talk for ‘Dans l’Œil des Artistes’ about ecology. He has a website where spiders can tell your future. In Africa, they put down little wooden things, and the spider moves them and it means something. He’s so interesting in the way he works and the way he sees his role as an artist.

CW: Do you have a sense from the artists you meet that they feel their role is changing?

MLdCT I do see that. The artists that were invited to the conference made us think about the responsibility of the artist, because they don’t do art for private acquisition but for collective acquisition. They want us to be more engaged. They are not doing it just for me to buy it and put it in my living room. It’s for everybody to see it and to share a moment with it. Kapwani is also very interesting. She’s going to represent Canada at the Venice Biennale. She’s Canadian, of African heritage, and lives in Paris. She is also an archivist, and she talks about the trauma of colonialism, but it’s collective trauma. It speaks to our unconscious. And Saraceno – I was very touched by his ecological responsibility and consciousness. He speaks a lot about nature and how we must be more bound to nature.

A work by Do Ho Suh. Photo: Norman Wilcox-Geissen
A work by Do Ho Suh, 2022. Photo: Norman Wilcox-Geissen

CW That’s another kind of dialogue, isn’t it? The idea that the artist maybe emerged from the shaman, someone who can interpret signs that the rest of us are not able to recognise?

MLdCT Exactly. So for me, it's so important to have to have a Tomás Saraceno at home, because I have a story with him. When I buy an artist, I don’t just buy it and say goodbye. It’s like this artist book, Desire, by Prune Nourry. I invited her to London, to show her pieces. I invited three women artists that I really love – Valerie Bélin, Eva Jospin, Prune Nourry – and I really believe in them. I showed these three artists not as a gallerist but as a supporter.

CW Quite a lot of the pieces in your collection seem to have a combination of delicacy and a very strong intellectual core.

MLdCT There’s strong personality behind those pieces; they have a message and they have a real inspiration. I feel they put a little of their soul in the pieces. Upstairs, I have two pieces by Pierre Le-Tan. It was six months before his death, and I bought them at Tristan Hoare. I admire him so much that I bought two big pieces by him. And I’m so happy to have them there in my room. I see them every day. Like this piece by Miles Aldridge, the photo one, Like a Painting. I bought it maybe eight years ago, when I began Spirit Now London. We went to his studio, and it was quite a lot… But I love this photo.

CW Finally, what’s the story with the zebra?

MLdCT He comes from the famous taxidermy shop in Paris, Deyrolle. He had to stay for a while in the street in front of our house because he was too big to get through our front door with his base. Everybody in the street was looking at him.


Marie-Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre with a work by Alice Anderson
Marie-Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre with a work by Alice Anderson. Photo: Norman Wilcox-Geissen

Main image: The zebra and a work by Margit Szilvitzky, a Hungarian artist selected for the Spotlight section at Frieze 2022 and part of the Spirit Now London Acquisition Prize. Photo: Norman Wilcox-Geissen

Chris Waywell is Senior Editor of Frieze Studios. He lives in London, UK.