Art has been a constant in the life of Hélène Nguyen-Ban. Even when she was young, moving about between Asia, Africa, and Europe, she looked to art to help make sense of the mix of cultures around her. After studying finance and business in college, she spent one glamorous decade as the fashion director of Marc Jacobs’s collections for Louis Vuitton. Yet even there, at the center of the French luxury complex, she imagined herself venturing into the art realm.
She did just that, exiting the luxury sector to pursue art studies at the Ecole du Louvre. In 2013, she co-founded VnH gallery, taking over venerated gallerist Yvon Lambert’s historic space in the Marais district of Paris. During VnH’s six-year run, Nguyen-Ban sought to bring together a range of generations and geographies through unconventional exhibitions, eventually selling the space to David Zwirner.
Her tastes in collecting, too, reflect a certain worldliness. She began by acquiring artifacts and antiquities, ranging from religious works to classical Chinese ceramics. She soon brought Asian contemporary art into the mix, followed by its Western counterpart. Further, since buying a home in London and splitting her time between the two capitals, she’s served as the chair of Fluxus Art Projects, a nonprofit supporting contemporary artists and residencies across the channel. She remains involved with the International Council of the Tate and the Asia-Pacific Committee at Centre Pompidou.
All of this has been a prelude to her most recent endeavor. For the last several of years, Nguyen-Ban has been building Docent, an art-discovery app she founded with the award-winning French mathematician Mathieu Rosenbaum. She likens the mobile platform, powered by A.I. technology, to “Spotify for art enthusiasts,” connecting artworks culled from 100-plus participating galleries in 30 countries with collectors around the world. “I believe in advocating for contemporary art,” she said, “as it can play a crucial role in promoting cross-cultural understanding, particularly during pivotal moments in history.” Docent launched during Art Basel in June 2023, with more events around it set for Paris+.
We caught up with the entrepreneurial collector on the works that have informed her worldview.
What was your first purchase?
My initial significant encounter with contemporary art unfolded in 2001 as I happened upon the Enrico Navarra gallery in Paris. It was there that Zhang Xiaogang‘s portrait in the window caught my eye, its fixed gaze masking profound emotions. This resonated deeply with my own Asian upbringing, where expressing feelings was considered impolite. The inception of my collection was serendipitous, and I consider myself fortunate to have chanced upon this path. As if faith had a hand in it!
As a complete novice exploring my roots, I naturally gravitated toward the works of Danh Vo, Mai Thu-Perret, Thu-Van Tran, Thao Phan Nguyen, and others. This sparked my interest in delving deeper into the diversity of Asian cultures by exploring the works of artists who merged their cultural heritage with contemporary Western art. I vividly recall being awestruck by Huang Yong Ping’s Noah’s ark installation, (2009) at the Chapel of Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, a powerful juxtaposition of cultures and a fusion of Chinese philosophy with Western avant-garde and Dada heritage.
What was your most recent purchase?
Jem Perucchini, an Italian artist with Ethiopian roots, currently based in Milan. His artistic exploration revolves around the history of art, the imagery of various cultures, and the interplay between them. He is particularly interested in the neurological processes that elicit sensations and emotions through the observation of an image—which happens to be one of my favorite topics at Docent.
Tell us about a favorite work in your collection.
Choosing a favorite among my artworks is akin to asking a parent to pick their dearest child—an impossible task. All these works hold a distinct place in my art family, and my connection to each of them is unique. I don’t play favorites; instead, I cherish them all for the diverse ways in which they nourish and inspire me. My relationship with each piece evolves over time. In truth, the finest pieces maintain an enduring sense of mystery and soul, transcending the era in which they were created. Quality art truly is timeless.
Allow me to share a few overarching themes that, though never intentionally planned, have consistently touched, challenged, and enriched me over the years.
I started collecting various objects, artifacts, and antiquities, spanning a wide spectrum—including Western religious art like Madonna and Child figures, relics from ancient civilizations like Tang terracotta figurines, classical Chinese ceramics, and ritual art from Africa and Asia, encompassing Vietnamese Buddha statues, 18th-century Burmese pagan disciples, and regal Congolese ceremonial totems.
After my serendipitous first art crush at the Enrico Navarra gallery, my art collection metamorphosed into a form of therapy, helping me weave together my fragmented identity under a single roof. In a way, the works I chose to surround myself with could be perceived as totems representing my upbringing, even though the themes they embody often reveal themselves to me in retrospect, never as premeditated choices.
In the context of art, the human body transcends mere aesthetics or form; it serves as a symbol of the intricate nexus where social, political, and emotional realities converge. This is exemplified in my collection by artists such as Auguste Rodin, Camille Claudel, Marlene Dumas, Robert Mapplethorpe, Thomas Schütte, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Jenny Saville, and Sin Wai Kin.
Surrealism has always been a great interest of mine. I collect works by a new generation of this movement, including Jean Marie Appriou, Marguerite Humeau, Bendt Eyckermans, Issy Wood, and Julie Curtiss.
I’ve been particularly intrigued by the exploration of painting’s potential in an era marked by technological reproducibility, particularly in the works of Wade Guyton and Christopher Wool.
Which works or artists are you hoping to add to your collection this year?
I dream of one day living with a work by Julie Mehretu, a contemporary abstract artist whose ability to create unique visual representations by drawing inspiration from the history of art and human civilization fascinates me. Her works are a fusion of Western painting and African symbols and will undoubtedly leave a lasting impact on the art world. As one of the few female artists championing the significance of painting, she stands as a true role model for her generation.
What is the most valuable work of art that you own?
My most prized artwork is a portrait of my dog, , painted by the talented Issy Wood, a London-based contemporary artist, painter, pop musician, and memoirist. During one of my rare Covid trips, I had the best dog sitter but, above all, one of the purest and most respected gallerists, Vanessa Carlos. Opium spent many long hours in the studio of the talented Issy Wood, who ended up immortalizing him forever. My painting is currently traveling to an exhibition in Paris, and I can’t wait to get it back!
Where do you buy art most frequently?
I primarily acquire art through galleries that have been steadfast companions on my art collecting journey, and have been a constant source of inspiration. I hold great admiration for these gallery owners, recognizing the challenges they face as entrepreneurs in the art world.
In Paris, I’ve had particularly enriching and inspiring relationships with galleries such as Enrico Navarra, Yvon Lambert, Thaddaeus Ropac, Kamel Mennour, Sultana, Balice Hertling, and more recently a very young gallery called Parliament. In London, it’s Sadie Coles, Carlos Ishikawa, Corvi-Mora, and Emalin. For more U.S.-based and international galleries, I buy from Clearing and David Zwirner.
Moreover, my enduring obsession has been to widen the field of possibilities and to go after galleries and artists from around the globe, leading me to discover gems like Quynh, Proyectos Ultravioleta, Commonwealth & Council, Blank Projects, Cécile Fakhoury, and Dastan, to name a few, which are part of the ever-growing Docent gallery roster.
Is there a work you regret purchasing?
The best answer is that I’ve kept all my work for over 20 years!
What work do you have hanging above your sofa? What about in your bathroom?
Above my sofa, I have a series of portraits by artists like Elizabeth Peyton, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Jenny Saville, Sin Wai Kin, Maja Ruznic, Luc Tuymans, Nathanaëlle Herbelin, Danielle McKinney, Raphaela Simon, Pol Taburet, Xinyi Cheng, Maja Ruznic, and Steven Shearer.
What is the most impractical work of art you own?
I’d have to say the Anselm Kiefer book is the most impractical. It’s one of the first books he ever created, making it exceptionally special to own. Made of lead sheets, this gigantic book by Anselm Kiefer, laying flat, must weigh half a ton. You supposedly can turn the pages, but I don’t think anyone has ever done it.
What work do you wish you had bought when you had the chance?
I would say David Hammons for a contemporary artist. Or even before that, any artwork by Nabi artists like Bonnard—for instance, (1891). Bonnard was very inspired by Japanese art, which was very much in vogue (Japonisme) at that time.
Additionally, there’s a portrait of me by Henry Taylor that seems to have vanished into his phantasmagorical world. I hold out hope that it will one day reappear just as enigmatically as it disappeared. I long to see it again and possess it, not because it’s a portrait of myself, but because it encapsulates all the enchantment of the countless hours I spent with the most captivating and touching character I’ve ever encountered!
If you could steal one work of art without getting caught, what would it be?
I would probably steal one of the beautiful that can be found at the Museum of Primitive Arts in Paris. These incredible artifacts from other belief systems have often been stolen by the colonial powers to be exhibited in Western museums, so I would maybe feel less guilty because it’s already been stolen.