Marseille: City on the Verge of a Culture Buzz…
Things are changing fast in Marseille. The southern city, still sometimes called “the Naples of France” for its reputation as being messy and unruly, is undergoing a major facelift, and Zaha Hadid’s aquamarine high-rise overlooking the industrial port is but one sign of this rapid transformation.
In 2009, the contemporary art spaces’ network Marseille Expos began Le Printemps de l’art contemporain, a three-day event during which daily itineraries focus on the city’s key artsy neighborhoods. The initiative quickly found its audience: the first year it attracted 3,000 people, the second 5,000. More than 7,000 art enthusiasts were expected for the third edition, which ends this weekend.
Marseille’s forthcoming status as European Capital of Culture in 2013 doubtless contributes to the momentum: here is a not-to-be missed chance to upgrade the city’s cultural infrastructure, expand on its existing artistic landscape and dream of what it could become. “Among all the French cities that applied to be European Capital of Culture, Marseille was the one which needed it most,” said Bernard Latarjet, the former director of Marseille-Provence 2013 (the organization in charge of the event), who spearheaded the city’s application.
Beside the expected behemoth exhibitions, in situ art commissions and street interventions taking place throughout 2013 — loosely articulated around the theme of the Mediterranean Sea — several key venues are to be unveiled. For the contemporary visual arts alone, these will include a €25 million building designed by the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma for the Fond Régional d’Art Contemporain Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur — the regional art center known as the FRAC — and a €23 million renovation and extension of the Friche de La Belle de Mai , a former tobacco factory dedicated to the creative industries and not-for-profit cultural associations since 1993.
Marseille-Provence 2013 is building on an active local art scene, but one that has suffered in recent years from a lack of visibility, and, many art professionals say, a desperate need for a museum of international stature. “We can’t play the role of a museum,” said Dorothée Dupuis, the director of Triangle , an arts association primarily dedicated to providing artists’ residencies in the Friche. “But if we had in Marseille two contemporary art museums really doing their job, the art scene here would be even more vibrant than in Lyon,” she added, in reference to France’s second largest city, which has built up a buzzing cultural scene over the past decade with its critically acclaimed biennial and Musée d’art contemporain.
“A FRAC is not a museum,” said Pascal Neveux, the FRAC’s director since 2006. “It’s a place for research and experimentation.” Marseille does have a large and once-prestigious contemporary art museum — the city-run Musée d’Art Contemporain , or MAC — but the city council has allocated it such a small budget in recent years that it now barely survives (having co-curated an exhibition there in 2010, I’m acutely aware of its situation). In the past, a significant acquisition budget allowed the MAC to purchase key pieces by luminaries like Michelangelo Pistoletto and Gabriel Orozco. Those days are gone — and despite its new projects, Marseille-Provence 2013 has no revitalization planned for the MAC.
“The city council hasn’t at all understood that culture is an important vector for development both in regard to a city’s image, and to its economy,” said Mr. Neveux. “The MAC has an incredible collection, but it isn’t shown off or looked after.” Accusations of this kind against the city council’s cultural policy cast a shadow over the enthusiasm surrounding the forthcoming Capital of Culture, and they come up repeatedly. Representatives of Marseille’s museums did not respond to requests for comment.
Marc and Josée Gensollen, prominent collectors in Marseille, have taken things matters into their own hands. Through word of mouth alone, they welcome up to 5,000 visitors per year to their converted-workshop private home La Fabrique, the ground floor and basement of which are transformed into pristine viewing rooms. The banquet table is by Franz West, the lighting by Liam Gillick; the rest of the Gensollens’ collection features works by the likes of Sol LeWitt and Laurence Weiner that wouldn’t be out of place at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “We also do conferences, because the museum can’t do them anymore,” Mrs. Gensollen said.
But however important the Gensollens’ open-handed initiative, the bulk of Marseille’s contemporary art scene is to be found at the other end of the wealth spectrum. It is driven by grassroots, not-for-profit art spaces supported, or partly supported, by local authorities and often run on a shoestring.
“Marseille’s strength lies in its numerous laboratory-like art spaces,” said Erika Negrel, the former manager of Marseille Expos, the art spaces’ network, which was set up in 2007 and today counts 20 organizations.
The network started with a simple idea: publishing leaflets mapping the members’ locations and allowing art lovers to navigate gallery spaces in the city’s artsy areas, including the market place La Plaine, the Vieux Port, Marseille’s oldest quarter Le Panier and the old industrial zone of La Belle de Mai.
The prominence of non-commercial art spaces gives Marseille’s art scene a particular slant. “Since we are not going to sell, we might as well experiment,” said Gilles Desplanques, a founding member of Marseille Expos who, in 2005, co-opened the bookshop-viewing room Histoire de l’oeil/Galerie Ho near the La Plaine district. The space’s commitment to the experimental can at times seriously affect its other activities: in 2010, the artist Elisabeth S. Clark displayed the bookshop’s 10,000 volumes with their paper edge facing out, turning the shop into a beautiful but unusable monochrome collection of possible literature.
Video Chroniques operates in the same vein. The 20-year-old organization has relocated recently to Le Panier, a picturesque but deprived neighborhood that shot to nationwide fame with the TV soap opera “Plus Belle La Vie.” Its paved streets shout gentrification; corner shops sell savon de Marseille and Provençal tat to tourists by the bucket load. Yet clashes between the newly established crowd and less wealthy inhabitants are not unheard of. The artist Jean-Baptiste Ganne, shown at Video Chroniques in March, smartly picked up on these local tensions. With white spray paint, he reproduced on the white gallery walls some of the graffiti spotted in the area. “Bobo, at night, watch out,” reads one of them, using the French term for “bourgeois bohemians.”
Further north, the Friche de La Belle de Mai is a key visual art hub, but a visit to this former factory can be unsettling. There’s not always an exhibition, hardly any signage and one can easily get lost in the endless spray-painted corridors. All this may well change with the extension of the space scheduled for 2013, which includes the Tour-Panorama, a new space to be shared by several art organizations. The difficulties are not over though; at the time of writing, no agreement had been made on the Tour-Panorama’s running costs post-2013.
The Belle de Mai also plays host to Marseille’s unusual annual art fair, Art-O-Rama , which takes place in September. While fairs are usually prohibitively expensive — pushing exhibitors to play safe — the subsidized Art-O-Rama is able to invite galleries to participate for free. The result is a hybrid, half-fair, half-exhibition.
“We offer galleries the possibility to take risks in Marseille,” said Gaïd Beaulieu-Lambert, the fair’s co-director. “The idea is to show that gallerists can also be curators.” Marseille galleries are not represented on site but Art-O-Rama’s team organizes tours of local art spaces for visiting collectors. “We try to take advantage of their presence to benefit the local area,” added Ms. Beaulieu-Lambert.
And, in terms of the art market, much remains to be done. The city is yet to become an art destination and very few Marseille-based collectors buy locally. Private galleries have had to find alternative ways of working; most of them — such as La GAD , Bonneau-Samames or 3e Rue — have been set up by individuals with day jobs.
“There are some really important collectors in Marseille,” said Yannick Gonzales, the director of what is perhaps Marseille’s most successful gallery, Galerieofmarseille . “The problem is the lack of education. We have to educate people. But that takes time — generations.”
For some, this might be a bit long to wait. After five years, the gallerists Sam Dukan and Marc Hourdequin have chosen to relocate their space to the French capital. “In five years in Marseille, we sold only once to a local collector during one of our exhibitions,” said Mr. Dukan. “Just to compare, we work with 15 collectors in Lyon, and at least 50 in Paris.”
Despite the absence of a genuine art market, Marseille’s art scene is gaining in force. Art-O-Rama and the Printemps de l’art contemporain are now landmarks in the city’s art diary. Almost half of Marseille Expos’ organizations are five years old or less, and with the Capital of Culture on the horizon, others are likely to soon to join their ranks. Didier Gourvennec Ogor, who is about to begin his own venture next September, is confident: “There is money in Marseille,” he said, “and there are cultivated people — there are loads of possibilities.”
Article by By COLINE MILLIARD – New York Times