DAVOS, Switzerland — Around midnight on Wednesday, Nicolas Berggruen, the billionaire investor, philanthropist and art collector, walked into a loud party in a cozy Swiss chalet co-hosted by Jimmy Wales, a founder of Wikipedia. As dance music blared and colored lights played on the ceiling, Mr. Berggruen greeted Boris Johnson, the mayor of London.
“Mayors and governors make all the difference,” Mr. Berggruen told Mr. Johnson, in response to Mr. Johnson’s praise for his Berggruen Institute on Governance, a research council. The party was one of many events surrounding the World Economic Forum, the famous networking blitz for the global power elite, whose annual edition wraps up here this weekend.
As he stood sipping schnapps, Mr. Johnson, a sometime Davos detractor, said he had become a fan. “I have made more money for London at Davos than virtually anywhere else,” he said. “Pounds, not zlotys,” he added. Just then, a woman passed around a plate of blinis topped with what she insisted was sustainable caviar from sturgeon farmed in Italy.
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Nicolas Berggruen, center, and Arianna Huffington during the World Economic Forum. René Tanner
Although the forum still has lofty aims — this year’s theme is “Reshaping the World” — it has become over the years something of a parody of itself. Here, talk about “sustainability,” “transparency” and, this year, “mindfulness” coexists with speeches by leaders from some of the most repressive regimes in the world. (One by President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, seeking greater engagement, overlapped with a panel on the power of meditation, in which the actress Goldie Hawn was a speaker.)
Part religious pilgrimage, part political convention, above all, the forum is a glorified four-day-long cocktail party, where titans of business and politicians can meet informally, do deals and occasionally perform karaoke in the bar of a local three-star hotel, in a picturesque Swiss resort town where the air is thin and the snowboarders coming off the slopes have to fight for space in cafes with visitors in suits talking about “implementation.”
But it is also increasingly a place where leading museum directors, arts leaders and university presidents clamor to be heard above the engines of capitalism, to make a case for culture and the humanities as a vital part of the global economy and where ideas take root.
It is that convergence of worlds that brought Mr. Berggruen, the chairman of Berggruen Holdings, a private investment firm, back to Davos this year. A slightly impish 52 with blue eyes and a cool charm, Mr. Berggruen flies a bit below the radar, albeit on a private jet. Best known as “the homeless billionaire,” for his penchant for staying in luxury hotels instead of owning homes, this year he is starting to raise his profile as a global connector.
Mr. Berggruen is also one of the people attending who seek to bring together culture and politics. His institute holds frequent mini-summits, not unlike those of the World Economic Forum itself.
He is also extremely active in the arts. He is the chairman of the Berggruen Museum in Berlin, a showcase for works by Picasso, Matisse, Klee and Giacometti collected by his father, Heinz Berggruen, an art dealer who had befriended Picasso at an auspicious stage.
In November, the institute’s 21st Century Council of blue-chip politicians and business leaders pulled off a conference in Beijing — attended by the entire senior leadership of China.
Mr. Berggruen was in Davos to promote his most visible venture yet: the creation of The WorldPost, a partnership between The Huffington Post and his Institute on Governance, which will effectively become The Huffington Post’s foreign news portal. The site, which began this past week, provides a platform for members of the Institute (including contributors like Lawrence H. Summers, the economist and former secretary of the United States Treasury, and Eric E. Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google) with reporting and opinion from around the globe, also drawing from The Huffington Post’s 10 international editions. It is the latest enterprise in Arianna Huffington’s ever-expanding media empire.
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Participants on the first day of the forum, whose theme was “Reshaping the World.” Laurent Gillieron/European Pressphoto Agency
“The idea is a global conversation at a very high level,” Mr. Berggruen said.
The forum in Davos was a perfect place to spread the word. The meeting began on Tuesday when a cardinal read a message from Pope Francis — essentially calling on the 1 percent not to forget the other 99 percent — and the forum gave awards to Matt Damon, in his role as water activist, and the Iranian artist Shirin Neshat, who had a message for Mr. Rouhani. “Artists have protected the dignity of Iran in the world,” she said. “Now it’s your turn.”
Several of the panels were on cultural themes, and speakers included the Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, the rising starchitect David Adjaye and the Turkish novelist Elif Shafak. Though the main show was clearly politics and economics.
That balance should change, said Thomas P. Campbell, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who was attending the forum this year for the second time. “A major missing part of the dialogue is cultural sustainability,” he said. “It feels like an add-on. We’re the entertainment.” Instead, he continued, “discussion of the culture industry needs to be involved at a deeper socioeconomic level. We need to make our case with metrics, framed in a language that businessmen understand.”
In this cacophony of capitalism, Mr. Berggruen is trying to help connect these spheres. A small dinner he co-hosted here with his friends Nathaniel Rothschild, the financier, and Ian Osborne, an Internet investor and influential consultant among technology companies, drew together representatives from the worlds of publishing, politics and technology. Marissa Mayer, the president and chief executive of Yahoo, chatted over fondue at a table that also included Neil Shen, who runs one of the biggest hedge funds in China, and Stefan von Holtzbrinck, the chairman of the eponymous publishing group.
Ms. Mayer, an art collector, has bought work from Mr. Berggruen’s half-brother, John Berggruen, who runs a gallery in San Francisco. The evening was capped by a party hosted by Google with a performance by Mary J. Blige.
“It’s easy to ask, ‘What’s been accomplished?’ ” Mr. Schmidt, who is a friend of Mr. Berggruen, said of the institute. “But is he the sponsor of conversations?” He added, “All he can do is get the ideas teed up.”
Still, the convergence of so much wealth and brainpower in one place generates its own momentum.
A quick stroll through its main site, the Congress Center, yielded a series of “Overheard in Davos” moments. “It has no natural resources to export,” someone said about India. “I underestimated Mexico,” another said. Within a matter of hours on Friday, Bono took the same seat where the Saudi finance minister had chatted with Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund.
Back at the party at the Swiss chalet, as Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” played, Mr. Berggruen talked about his fascination with which governments work and which don’t, about his interest in East and West. He said that he hated the “homeless billionaire” moniker, and that anyway it would soon no longer apply. He had recently bought houses in New York and Los Angeles, which are under renovation. “I haven’t moved in yet,” he said.