Originally published in Frieze, March 2017.
Art in Paris has long been dominated by the city’s major institutions but the landscape is changing. While funding cuts under Presidents François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy have made life difficult for many smaller public institutions, recent years have seen a proliferation of commercial galleries, art fairs, auction houses and private foundations. There are now over 1,000 galleries in Paris and new artist-led initiatives are springing up in small pockets across the city. Artists are repurposing disused buildings for multiple uses – as studios or exhibition spaces, for living or working, meeting or eating. Some of these are collective ventures, like ChezKit, DOC, La Villa du Lavoir or Occidental Temporary (which was launched by Neil Beloufa). Others, such as Palette Terre or XOXO, revolve around one individual.
The most trumpeted recent addition has been La Colonie, launched in October 2016 by the artist Kader Attia. Located near the Gare du Nord station, the gallery complex faces out onto the busy rue La Fayette, its red neon lettering a nod to the surrounding shops. The ground floor serves as cafe, bar, restaurant and event space, while two further floors dedicated to debate and exhibitions are scheduled to open in the summer. So far, the programme has focused on political activism as much as art. ‘I don’t want to represent any more. I want to act,’ Attia told me.
At the core of La Colonie’s political agenda is a focus on community. Attia himself is a successful international artist, currently dividing his time between Paris and Berlin, who in 2016 was awarded the prestigious Marcel Duchamp Prize. But he is also very familiar with the local area and used to come to the building that now houses La Colonie when it was a salsa club in the early 2000s. This mix of the local, national and international is vital to Attia’s vision. In addition to holding large-scale symposia every two months, La Colonie also aims to act as a meeting place for political groups and as a venue for alternative book or magazine launches. A focus on family is important too: Attia’s mother cooked a couscous meal for the opening and three of his brothers work there. He describes the place as an ‘an emotional arena in which everyone meets’.
This inclusive approach is a recurring priority for Paris’s artist-led spaces, of which one of the pioneers was Le 6b. Cofounded in 2010 by architect Julien Beller, it is housed in a brutalist former office block on the banks of the Seine in Saint-Denis, to the north of Paris. The surrounding area is a mix of village vernacular and colossal social-housing projects. Nearby, goats graze under graffitied archways. Le 6b now provides work spaces for some 300 people, with additional areas for exhibitions, dance and other public events, as well as a homely canteen. The ethos has always been to collaborate with surrounding communities. For example, Le 6b worked with the children who lived nearby. ‘We’re not being generous,’ says Beller. ‘We’re just connecting with the people in the neighbourhood in order to grow together.’
Even the Paris authorities, who have traditionally responded to social problems via vast segregating ‘solutions’, now appear to share Beller’s interest in fostering more integrated communities. In 2016, when Mayor Anne Hidalgo announced the opening of a new humanitarian centre for refugees in northern Paris, she asked Beller to design it. Meanwhile, the former Saint Vincent-de-Paul hospital has been re-opened as Les Grands Voisins (The Great Neighbours); the sprawling site is currently home to offices and studios alongside a shelter for homeless people. SNCF, France’s state-owned rail company, is also allowing artists to set up studios in disused buildings. All these projects, however, are temporary.
It is in the suburbs that more permanent solutions seem possible. As part of the Métropole du Grand Paris, a new urban plan, nearly 35 billion euros will be invested in connecting the suburbs with the existing transport network. While the commercial galleries cluster in the Marais and Belleville areas, the artists themselves continue to move out – in particular to the towns of Saint-Denis and Aubervilliers in the north, and Pantin and Les Lilas to the east. This is by no means unique to Paris: London, too, is seeing artists gradually pushed outwards. But it feels different in the French capital – partly because of the city’s deep-rooted division between centre and outskirts, and partly because artists have been moving to the suburbs not just to save money but to create something new.
A major obstacle remains in the form of the Périphérique, a multilane circular motorway that slices a deep physical and psychological ravine between the centre of Paris and its neighbouring towns, or banlieues. These areas have become renowned internationally as sites of poverty and sporadic violence, but they are also home to lively and diverse communities. The division epitomized by the Périphérique is symbolic of a larger problem: ‘We have a huge identity crisis here in France,’ says Mélanie Bouteloup. In 2003, Bouteloup founded Bétonsalon in order to foster collaboration between all the different factors that make up a successful art ecosystem: artists and galleries, museums and art schools, communities, corporations and public funding bodies. So far, this seems to have proved successful: ‘There are increasing numbers of private companies that are ready to trust and support small artist-run initiatives,’ she says. But if the gap between public and private is closing, then other divisions may be deepening. ‘Many Paris institutions are not in contact with initiatives taking place outside the capital,’ she says. ‘People don’t feel recognized by them.’
A number of artists I spoke to share this sense of detachment from the city’s major institutions, but many don’t seem to mind. The artists at Atelier W – a mix of studios and exhibition space in a former repair garage in Pantin – relish their stories of critics who won’t venture beyond the Périphérique or of a curator too scared to emerge from the nearby Metro station. Artist Clément Roche laughed: ‘It’s Pantin, not a favela!’
For these artists, being in Pantin is not simply a question of affordability; much more is at stake. ‘Even if we had the choice, we would not be in Paris,’ says Fanny Châlot, one of the eight artists who cofounded Atelier W. ‘It is [born of] a political resistance to be here.’ If so, then this stance is of an intriguing and positive nature. Like Le 6b, who work productively with the city and developers seeking to regenerate parts of the area, Atelier W’s approach is co-operative rather than obstructive. They have collaborated, for example, with children from a Red Cross hospital as well as on exhibitions with the archives at Pantin City Hall. ‘At our openings, our neighbours come here with their children,’ says Châlot. ‘It’s good to have this kind of human exchange – it’s very simple but we love that.’