Like an ambassador from an alien land populated with smarter, taller and richer blond bombshells, Louise T. Blouin MacBain stood behind a podium in a Columbia University auditorium. She asked the assembled spectators if the leaders of the planet Earth did “not require a new, more creative brain in this new evolution of mankind?”
The Nobel Prize–winning scientists, famous artists and esteemed professors in the audience stared at her curiously. She wore a red blazer on top of a black turtleneck. Leather stiletto boots shot out from under her tapered black skirt. Milky skin stretched over her high cheekbones. “We are now in a new era,” Ms. MacBain said in hushed and halting tones. “We must now develop our brains—with new energy, and the commitment we once used to develop our factories.”
And let’s not forget our media empires, which is what the 47-year-old Canadian has been putting together with breakneck pace over the last five years. She has used the cultural cachet that comes with owning a slew of arts publications, including Art + Auction, as entrée onto the boards of some of the city’s top institutions. But on the morning of March 24 in the Casa Italiana, as she opened her Louise T. Blouin Foundation’s daylong symposium in a room ornately decorated with coats of arms and heavy burgundy curtains, it was clear that her passion really is for “Art and the New Biology of Mind.”
That refrigerator-poetry title not only brought together a seemingly random string of words, but a curious cast of characters. Neuroscientist Ray Dolan illustrated empathy’s role in responding to art via the old “rubber-hand illusion.” Performance artist Marina Abramovich added, “I stage pain.” Other panelists talked about mirror neurons and Cézanne’s apples. During a coffee break, a jittery Calvin Klein tripped over a carpet before riding in an elevator with architect Richard Meier. Goody bags full of Ms. MacBain’s magazines were labeled with guest names that included Oliver Sacks and Michael Kimmelman.
“I can understand that term ‘eccentric,’” said Eric R. Kandel, Columbia’s bow-tied Nobel Prize–winning neuroscientist, whom Ms. MacBain recruited at a dinner a few months ago under the glow of the Great Temple in Petra, Jordan. “She really wants to understand what are the biological underpinnings for creativity of response to a work of art.”
And New York’s cultural elite want to know more about Ms. MacBain. “Everybody is talking about her,” said one source active in the New York cultural scene. “With enough money, people can easily push their way into the system. That’s clearly what she is doing. She is being seen as on the move.”
And it is in New York that the self-described “citizen of all countries” is increasingly conducting her business and laying down roots.
Top staffers at Ms. MacBain’s Modern Painters magazine are now moving to New York from London. Last year, she bought a $20 million four-bedroom duplex penthouse with 20-foot-plus ceilings on Charles Street. It’s a vast space, with extraordinary views of downtown and the George Washington Bridge, and it catches the light bouncing off the Hudson. It’s a pied-à-terre for an ethereal media empress who has what one associate called an “outer-space” quality.
“She was very specific about what she wanted,” said Mr. Meier, who designed Ms. MacBain’s apartment and who described her as an intelligent and energetic friend. “She wanted a home in New York, and this is it.”
She also has a place called La Dune on Southampton’s Gin Lane, and a sprawling mansion in England where she threw parties and hosted the cream of thin-lipped society. Yet the tabloids there seemed more preoccupied with her alleged romance with Prince Andrew, Duke of York, than her $26 million Louise T. Blouin Institute in West London.
“She was really trying to make it in that British upper-class aristocratic society, and they just hated her because she was Canadian,” said Judd Tully, a longtime contributor to Art + Auction, which he believes improved after Ms. MacBain bought and remodeled the magazine in 2003. “People were just cutting her down while sipping her champagne.”
Her critics are still taking whacks at her.
Many look at her business model with skepticism. This month, she shuttered the art magazine Spoon. The Art Newspaper took her to task in April 2005 for allowing people to believe that her Harvard Business School O.P.M. diploma was equivalent to graduating from Harvard Business School.
“It is a highly regarded course for entrepreneurs, taught by Harvard Business School professors, with selective admission based on professional achievement and organizational responsibility,” Ms. MacBain bristled in a letter to the Art Newspaper’s editor.
But according to James Truman, the former Condé Nast editor who now runs LTB Media, everything is going swimmingly. In addition to Art + Auction, Museums Magazine and Gallery Guide, a new magazine, Culture & Travel, will hit newsstands in September. She is also significantly increasing the size of her auction-sales database for artinfo.com, an arts portal that will soon offer cultural travel guides and a job-search section. She has poached staff from her competitors and signed marquee names like Mr. Truman.
“We are delighted with the advertising we have garnered,” Mr. Truman wrote of artinfo.com in an e-mail. “We are extremely pleased with the interest and commitment we have received thus far.”
Still, her competition dismisses her as little more than a dilettante.
“They’re crappy, crappy, crappy competition. You would hope that a competitor would help force us to get to the next level in the game,” said Bill Fine, president of Artnet, a leading Internet arts portal for gallery networks and illustrated inventory. “This is a person who takes her bows before the curtain goes up. I get the sense this is some sort of social passport for her.”
That is not the first time that criticism has been leveled against her.
The youngest of six children, Louise T. Blouin was raised in Montreal by her parents, both insurance brokers. After a marriage to David Stewart, the heir to the RJR-Macdonald tobacco fortune, fell apart in the 1980’s, Ms. MacBain became a businesswoman herself. In 1987, the investment banker co-founded Trader Classified Media with her second husband, John MacBain, a Rhodes scholar. They had three children and built a nearly billion-dollar corporation with 400 publications and scores of Internet sites in nearly two dozen countries.
In 2000, the MacBains divorced, and she cashed in on 22 percent of the business for roughly $200 million. After more than a decade selling car and boat ads, she began dealing in more rarefied merchandise. She hooked up with Simon de Pury of the upstart auction house Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg. In February 2002, he hired Ms. MacBain as C.E.O.
“She was the girlfriend of Simon de Pury, and she presented herself as an accomplished businesswoman. It was his decision,” said Daniella Luxembourg, who has since left the auction house and works as a private dealer based in London. “She was probably not happy, and we were not happy. It was a mismatch.”
Ms. MacBain left just 10 months later.
Some women get over a breakup by eating bonbons; Ms. MacBain filled the emptiness by gobbling up arts publications.
In April of 2003, she bought her flagship, Art + Auction, and gave it the same sleek makeover she underwent when she waded into the arts world. In 2004, she bought Museums Magazine and the yellow pages of arts publications, Gallery Guide.
That really started paying off a few months later, in November 2004, when she was elected to the Guggenheim Board. She had already spread around enough money to become an honorary member of the chairman’s council at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and a board member of the Bard Graduate Center in New York, with Susan Soros and Shelby White.
She added more than just an artistic sensibility to that board.
“She looks attractive when I look across the boardroom,” said Edward Lee Cave, a real estate broker and fellow board member at Bard.
In May 2005, she inaugurated her foundation with an awards ceremony at the Nomadic Museum at Pier 54. Honorees included former President Bill Clinton, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel and Clive Gillinson, the newly appointed artistic director of Carnegie Hall. He joined Guggenheim Museum director Thomas Krens and artist Francesco Clemente, who painted Ms. MacBain’s portrait, on the foundation’s advisory committee.
Since then, she has dedicated much of her time to saving the world and probing the mind with her foundation. She invested about $175,000 in a production of A Soldier’s Tale, which rehearsed in Iraq. She donated another $100,000 to rebuild culture in New Orleans and is supporting a research paper entitled “Music and the Brain” for November’s Global Creativity summit in New York.
On Friday morning, Ms. MacBain hinted at why such cerebral pursuits mattered so much to her.
“I am ambidextrous and dyslexic, with a lively creative spirit. As a child, I didn’t know which hand to use, or which side of my brain to use,” she said, before diagrams of flashing amygdalae and slides of Rothko paintings filled a screen behind her. “It took me a long time to develop confidence in my creativity. I realized that thinking out of the box didn’t make me out of my mind.”