Simon’s World: Svetlana Kuzmicheva-Uspenskaya and Jeff Koons Unite For Charity

The global art market is having repercussions in the charity world.

Svetlana Kuzmicheva-Uspenskaya, a Paris-based collector and philanthropist, founded Project Perpetual. It is a privately funded initiative that harnesses the creative energy of the world’s leading contemporary artists and global influencers to raise funds and facilitate advocacy for high-risk children. Each project personally engages influencers in government, business, entertainment, and culture to part with an object of particular significance.

Prominent artists then use these as inspiration to create unique works, transforming meaningful gestures into everlasting statements. For its inaugural edition, Project Perpetual will benefit Shot@Life, a program of the United Nations Foundation. The Shot@Life campaign came into existence when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation asked the United Nations Foundation to lead a new campaign to build support for inoculation of under-fives wherever they are born. Millions of people die year after year simply because they didn’t vaccinate. Being very passionate about art, it is no wonder Svetlana Kuzmicheva-Uspenskaya decided to turn to artists to gain their support. Being a particular admirer of Jeff Koons, she dreamt of him donating a major work for this project. All her friends in the art world told her that there was no way she was going to be able to pull that off. A person of immense charm coupled with unwavering determination, she didn’t take No for an answer.

She approached the artist directly and their conversations not only led to Jeff supporting Project Perpetual, but to him deciding he was going to create an entirely new work especially to raise funds for this noble cause. He took inspiration from one of Pablo Picasso’s Blue Period masterworks, La Soupe (1902–03), which hangs at the Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto. On that painting a female figure with a curbed back is holding a bowl of hot soup that a little girl is reaching for.

It is a gripping work that conjures up poverty and hunger, as well as compassion. This is the first time that Koons, towering figure of 21st-century art, looks to Picasso, towering figure of 20th-century art, for direct inspiration. Koons took the figures of mother and child, transfigured them into the third dimension, in white plaster, and added a gazing ball (exhibited for the first time at David Zwirner in New York in 2012) at their feet.

It is, however, completely different from those works in as much as the artist here doesn’t refer to antiquity but to Picasso. As an ultimate twist and tongue-in-cheek action, Jeff Koons decided to attach two Hermès Birkin bags to the arm of the mother. (One of the bags was donated by Princess Caroline of Hannover and the other by Svetlana herself.) By doing so he combines one of today’s supreme symbols of luxury and affluence with the prevailing mood of frugality of the original work. He gave it the title La Charité, the French word for charity. By combining these elements the artist is completely taking us by surprise while making use of humor and positive energy which are so evident in his overall oeuvre.

As a break with tradition, Jeff Koons has decided to make this sculpture totally unique by not producing editions plus artist’s proofs, as he has done with most of his sculptural work in the past. As if all of this was not enough, Jeff Koons transformed nine additional Hermès Birkin bags that were donated by formidable ladies such as Marie-Josée Kravis and Diane von Furstenberg. On November 9, Svetlana Kuzmicheva-Uspenskaya will host a gala dinner at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York. During dinner I will have the privilege of selling La Charité and the Koons Hermès bags at auction. The proceeds will go towards the United Nations Foundation.

This is, to my knowledge, the first charity auction ever solely consisting of works done by a single artist. Jeff Koons is pioneering this new concept while following in the footsteps of Damien Hirst, who this year raised the bar of artist-led charity and generosity and took it to an entirely new level. In the May amfAR auction in Cannes and Leonardo DiCaprio’s auction in Saint Tropez—both of which I had the pleasure to conduct—Hirst’s works raised more than $20 million. It is wonderful to see that the strength of the global art market has its repercussions in the charity world.

Project Perpetual - Jeff Koons - Pablo Picasso, La Soupe, 1902-03

Pablo Picasso, La Soupe (1902–03)

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