Paris, the new London?

Louise Darblay on how Brexit is boosting the Paris artworld

By Louise Darblay

Representatives of Komunuma at the complex’s building site, Romainville. Photo: Axelle Poison. © and courtesy Fondation Fiminco


‘Brexit won’t change anything,’ Thaddaeus Ropac confidently declared as he announced the opening of a London branch back in 2017. Moving in the opposite direction, David Zwirner cited Brexit as a ‘game-changer’ when confirming in July that Paris would join London, Hong Kong and his adoptive city of New York (where he has three spaces) as host to one of his global network of galleries. In the wake of Britain’s departure, the London space will, he said, become merely ‘a British gallery, not a European one’. Zwirner is not the first megadealer to move to the French capital – Ropac set up there in 1990, Gagosian has kept an elegant townhouse in the 8th arrondissement and a vast hangar in Le Bourget since 2010, and rumours persist that Hauser & Wirth is next on the list – but with Brexit looming, every relocation reads like a statement on its implications.

This is not just a sentimental, pro-European gesture by the son of a Cologne dealer, but a strategic move in uncertain times (like the many Britons claiming European passports via a forgotten Irish or Austrian grandparent). Six weeks away from a deadline for exiting the European Union that the prime minister insists (antidemocratically if not illegally) is fixed, and with little prospect of a deal, it is almost impossible to forecast the effects on an industry so reliant on the free movement of artworks and people across borders.

If there’s one beneficiary of this tragedy, it is France – and specifically the French artworld. The newly released Artnet Intelligence Report reveals that in the first half of this year the UK’s auction sales plummeted 24 percent (‘its lowest level in more than six years’), a downward trend that is likely to continue as shipping companies warn of added costs, paperwork and delays in the event of no deal being struck. Auction sales in France, meanwhile, gained 13 percent. With an attractive VAT rate on imported artworks of 5.5 percent (close to the UK’s current rate of 5 percent, though who knows what will happen), and a president set on creating tax incentives that will keep the rich in the country, the French capital’s appeal for galleries and collectors alike is becoming more and more obvious.

From the perspective of younger or midsize galleries native to Paris, however, it might seem that you need to be a global dealership to afford the exorbitant rents attached to any reasonably sized exhibition space in the city centre. So while Zwirner is opening in the space previously occupied by iconic dealer Yvon Lambert in Le Marais, a group of local gallerists has taken a different approach, banding together and joining the new Komunuma art complex in the close suburb of Romainville. This joint venture with a utopian ring (the name translates as ‘commune’ or ‘community’ in Esperanto) fills an 11,000sqm pharmaceuticallab- turned-cultural-venue by real-estate developer and cultural foundation Fiminco.

Now, it might not be your classic anticapitalist utopia, but in the context of the Parisian artworld it certainly feels otherworldly. The four galleries involved are Air de Paris and In Situ – Fabienne Leclerc, both of which are moving in permanently, and Galerie Sator and Jocelyn Wolff, who will maintain their respective spaces in the 3rd and 20th arrondissements. Indeed the project is one part of a larger collaborative experiment: as tenants of Fiminco, the galleries will cohabit with the foundation’s artists-inresidence and the artist cooperative Jeune Création; the final part of the project, a bespoke building set to open in 2020 and bought by the Île-de-France region, will welcome the public collections of the FRAC (the regional art fund already has spaces in Belleville and at the Château de Rentilly, but will use this one for the storage, conservation and presentation of its collections to the public). The whole Komunuma complex, designed by French studio Freaks Architects (who were involved in redesigning another FRAC in Bordeaux), will converge around communal spaces such as a café and an auditorium.

This kind of partnership between public and private might seem natural to Swiss visitors to Zürich’s Löwenbräukunst arts complex, but in a French cultural landscape shaped by public money and historically suspicious of private patronage, it’s a new step. In the case of Komunuma, as gallerist Vincent Sator explains, it was facilitated by the city’s urban masterplan for ‘Grand Paris’, started in 2007 to better connect Paris ‘intramuros’ – outlined by the ring road built during the 1970s on the site of the city’s nineteenth-century fortifications – and its suburbs to create a more sustainable, less economically divided metropolitan area. (The arrival of the 2024 Olympic Games has lent the project a new level of urgency.)

Komunuma is also reminiscent of another city-led initiative of the 1990s, when President François Mitterrand’s Grand Travaux project sought to attract young contemporary galleries to the newly developed Rue Louise Weiss in the 13th arrondissement. If some of these new tenants were successful commercially (among them Perrotin and Almine Rech), the anticipated regeneration of the district as a new urban hub never really took off, and most of them eventually moved out to bigger spaces in livelier quartiers. And now Air de Paris, the last bastion of the original cluster, is migrating north. However the presence of galleries including Ropac (who opened a monumental space in the neighbouring banlieue of Pantin in 2012) supports Fabienne Leclerc’s claim that “it will be easier for collectors to come by car to Romainville than to the Marais”, and offers hope that emerging galleries can find a way to survive in a city that has suddenly become more attractive to the global power players. More space will be made available for other galleries to join in coming years, though as Vincent Sator says, these newcomers would have to share the vision: “It would hardly make sense to see Hauser & Wirth becoming part of Komunuma”, he explains by way of example. But who knows in the current climate: when the game changes, you have to be ready for the next move… 

From the October 2019 issue of ArtReview