Paris has definitively re-emerged as a major venue for contemporary art.
I arrived in Paris as a foreign correspondent four decades ago, in the midst of a bitter debate over the newly inaugurated Centre Georges Pompidou. Controversy swirled about the museum’s architecture—the building by Renzo Piano, Richard Rodgers, and Gianfranco Francini was unfavorably compared to a derelict factory—but equally acrimonious was the thought that so much space was needed to display postwar art. And when record crowds streamed into the building, the local press insisted that most visitors were American tourists—in other words, people of questionable cultural taste.
It’s good to recall those antediluvian times when considering the recent, unexpected emergence of the City of Light as a leading torchbearer for contemporary art. The building blocks of this turnaround are the collectors large and small, the path-breaking gallerists, and finally, the impressive privately and publicly owned spaces that are drawing astonishing numbers of viewers.
So let me begin with an example of the less-known contemporary art lover who is helping to propel the phenomenon. Jean-François Keller, 60, inherited an impressive Old Master collection from his father, owner of a textile business. But on a visit to New York in 1995, he had an aesthetic conversion while viewing a Piet Mondrian retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. “Suddenly, I realized this is the kind of art I want to collect,” he recalls.
Keller began to frequent the Paris galleries that were sprouting up between the Centre Pompidou and the Marais neighborhood. He was fortunate to connect early on with Galerie Lahumière, a pioneer in contemporary art. The owner, Diane Lahumière, recognized in Keller the symptoms of so many other recent converts among her compatriots. “Contemporary art came quite late to Paris, and French collectors needed time to absorb it,” she says. “But once that happened, they have gone about collecting with enthusiasm. And some want to acquire only works from artists of their own generation.”
That was Keller’s case. He focused on young, relatively unknown Europeans. “Sometimes I was one of the first to discover an artist,” he says. “And sometimes I made mistakes. But it’s exciting to take risks.” Nowadays, he’s confident enough to invite friends and others to his home to display and discuss his acquisitions. He is increasingly asked by museums around Europe to lend works from his collection. His commitment to contemporary art became irrevocable. “One day I began to think: ‘Why am I keeping my Old Masters?’” recalls Keller. “And I sold them all.”
While today nobody disputes Paris’s emergence as a focus of contemporary art, that wasn’t the case at the turn of the new millennium, when Anne-Claudie Couric, a gallerist, returned to Paris. She had moved to New York in the early 1990s because she was enamored with contemporary art but saw no future for it in Paris. Then in 2002, she surprised her friends by agreeing to become executive director of Galerie Templon, a leading Parisian gallery, a post she still holds today. “People told me there was still nothing happening here,” recalls Couric.
But she sensed that a new appreciation of contemporary art was stirring. The Centre Pompidou put on more provocative exhibitions. Regional initiatives by the government aimed at stimulating interest in late 20th-century art were finally bearing fruit, as the opening of smaller provincial museums and local galleries attested. With the lifting of legal restrictions on auction houses, sales of contemporary art boomed at the local outposts of Sotheby’s and Christie’s. “Paris very quickly developed a deep, large base of collectors,” says Couric. “And they buy from Parisian galleries—unlike London, where most of the clients are foreigners.”
French collectors also became less secretive. Traditionally, collectors feared that disclosing their art holdings might lead to tax audits. But over the last 20 years, well-known entertainment figures like actor Alain Delon and director Claude Berri lent out their collections to museums. They were followed by entrepreneurs, particularly in the fashion business, who not only showed their collections but built museums and exhibition spaces to display contemporary art.
In 2002, the Galerie des Galeries opened at the upscale department store Galeries Lafayette. This year, it was joined by Lafayette Anticipations, a contemporary art and performance space in a former 19th-century industrial building in the Marais. Next year, the luxury goods billionaire François Pinault will put his vaunted contemporary art collection on display at a private museum in the Bourse de Commerce building near the Louvre.
But for now, pride of place among the Parisian private museums belongs to Pinault’s great rival in the luxury business and art collecting, Bernard Arnault, whose architecturally startling Fondation Louis Vuitton was inaugurated in 2014. Designed by Frank Gehry in the shape of a deconstructed ship with a dozen glass sails, the museum is berthed in the Bois de Boulogne on park acreage with a 55-year lease. Afterwards, the museum will be donated to the city of Paris.
The use of public parkland by a private entity would have been unimaginable a generation ago. But there has been a retreat by the French state as financier and arbiter of the arts, due partly to budget cuts and also because of the rise of deep-pocketed private collectors like Arnault and Pinault as purveyors of contemporary art. “Private museums are more flexible and pay in advance to borrow and insure collections,” says Suzanne Pagé, artistic director of the Fondation Louis Vuitton and former director of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.
Pagé isn’t at all surprised that fashion entrepreneurs have leapt to the forefront of contemporary art as collectors and exhibitors. “Although they are not artists, they are involved in creative work,” she says. Partly to emphasize this point, one of the highlights at the museum last year was a selection of modern art from the collection of the early 20th-century Russian fabric magnate, Sergei Shchukin, with whom Arnault identifies both as a businessman and collector.
The Fondation then followed with an exhibition of some 200 works from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, ranging from Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso to Jasper Johns and Cindy Sherman, which ended this past March. Attendance for both the Shchukin and MoMA exhibits soared past one million. Those attendance marks will probably be shattered by the current blockbuster exhibitions of 120 works by Jean-Michel Basquiat and 100 works by Egon Schiele, on view in tandem through January 14, 2019. Between special exhibitions, Arnault displays portions of his own contemporary holdings. The most recent show from this permanent collection, which closed August 27, included works by 29 artists, among them Matthew Barney, Kiki Smith, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Dan Flavin, and Takashi Murakami.
The Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain, or FIAC, is yet another testament to the transformation of Paris into a center for contemporary art. Jennifer Flay, the New Zealand-born director of FIAC, took up her post in 2003, on the fair’s 30th year of existence. She recalls the headline on a leading art magazine’s cover about FIAC: Birthday or Burial? “And it was absolutely the truth,” says Flay. “FIAC was a mess.” At the time, the fair existed literally on the margins of the art world. It was held in a sprawling trade exhibition space at the Porte de Versailles on the southwestern outskirts of Paris. Traffic roared on the freeway over the roof. Flay remembers that the art stands were hemmed in by a lingerie trade show.
That was then. FIAC, which ran this year from October 18–21, is held in the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais and spills into the streets in stands between those two regal art venues. Among the 200 or so participating galleries, about two thirds are European. After the French, the Americans are the largest contingent and include the usual heavyweights—Larry Gagosian, David Zwirner, Marian Goodman, Paula Cooper—along with smaller upstarts from Brooklyn, the Lower East Side, Los Angeles, and other markets.
“Even people who cannot afford to collect—students, office employees, young families with children—come to FIAC to see what’s new,” says Templon director Couric. “Paris has become more confident about contemporary art. We no longer feel overwhelmed by the power of the Americans.” At the time, her gallery had on exhibit the latest works of Jim Dine. He may have been born in Cincinnati, but he has the good sense to now live and work in Paris.
By Jonathan Kandell