Contemporary Art in Paris: Institutions

Once, when I had been asked to pick up the artist wife of a film-maker for “Festival America” (a biennial fair in American literature where numerous writers are invited to present their books and literary subjects in general), she asked me about where to see contemporary art. At the time I had to think a bit and did not get back to her until a few days later. Unfortunately she no longer had time to visit. Today, some years later, I have a plethora of recommendations, because, on the one hand I have been thinking about and following contemporary art, and on the other, because there are now so many venues that cater to contemporary art today. Beginning with Paris’ contemporary art museum, Palais de Tokyo and the regional contemporary art museum, Mac/Val, there are also a number of fondations, privately owned museums and museum-like galleries as well as various structures set up to encourage talented young artists.

Palais de Tokyo, Europe’s Largest Center for Contemporary Art Today

One of the three 1937 Universal Exhibition edifices built for posterity, the Palais de Tokyo is so called because it was constructed on the then “Quai de Tokyo.” While the street is now called “Avenue de New York,” the edifice has kept its original name. 

Originally slated to become a national art museum, the Palais has, during its turbulent history, also served as the Nazi’s collection point for looted art to be stored and inventoried before its transfer to Germany. 

After the war, it finally came into its own as a national museum of modern art until 1976 at which time the art it held was removed to the new Centre National d’Art et de Culture Georges-Pompidou. Employed for various purposes then, it fell into neglect until it became earmarked in 1999 as a contemporary art museum. The architects, Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal gutted the site down to its bare-bones cement structure, which is how we encounter the institution today.

Palais de Tokyo is devoted to exhibiting established contemporary artists, or those who are on the cusp of becoming so. Contemporary art being what it is today, I have seen extraordinary exhibitions of artists such as Le Parc, and Saraceno, Theaster Gates…a number of forgettables, and controversial others such as Miriam Cahn’s recent exhibition with her painting, Fuck Abstraction. Typically a number of artists will be exhibited at any one time and in the basement there is an area dedicated to video art. The museum also boasts a restaurant and a bookshop. 

The museum has also been used as a discotheque and for rave parties. Thus, locked under normal conditions, can be found walls and staircases covered with fantastic spontaneously-created art. These areas can only be visited on a specially organized guided tour.

A good place to go after other museums have closed, it can be visited until late at night (22h) and even later for evenings when an exhibition first opens. An added bonus for vernissage nights is that museum entry is free and therefore should be watched for.

Another important contemporary art museum, this one outside Paris, is MAC/VAL located in Vitry-sur-Seine. While a bit way out (approximately an hour by public transportation), this relatively new building houses a very good collection of specifically French contemporary art and presents two temporary exhibits per year. If time is not of a premium, this museum (free to the public), of very high caliber, is well worth a visit.

Establishments Exhibiting Contemporary Art

There exist both public and private organizations whose objective is to exhibit the work of living artists. 

In 1982 Jack Lang, the then-Minister of Culture, set up a network of institutions, named FRAC (Fonds Régionaux d’Art Contemporain) to encourage the collection and showing of contemporary art in all of France’s regions.  The FRAC of Ile de France is located at 22 rue des Alouettes, 75019.  Admission is free and it typically offers exhibits of living, contemporary artists, both French and international. It has a second location in the new, contemporary art center in Romainville. This extension is known as “Les réserves.” Although slightly outside Paris, it can be reached by metro line 5. 

The Cent-quatre-Paris is a multipurpose art space offering contemporary art exhibits (ticket fees apply) as one of many other activities. The center includes an auditorium for lectures and performances, various restaurants, a book exchange, activities for children…and a large central space where visitors can see various groups practicing their hip-hop dance moves and sequences. 

The beautiful 13th century College des Bernardins often provides a venue for artists to create and set up installations adapting and highlighting its Cistercian architecture. Whatever the exhibition, the sheer beauty of its rows of stone pillars and gothic arches offer the visitor a moment of tranquillity and spirituality. 

To create a marketable aura and gain a reputation as a patron of the arts, various private corporations have created exhibition spaces which can be as grand as a quasi museum. The largest and most famous of these have been created by France’s art-collecting billionaires: Bernard Arnaud who heads LVMH and François Pinault.  

The former had the architect, Frank Gehry, build an architecturally fantastic structure in the likeness of a ship in Neuilly, a near-western suburb of Paris. Visiting exhibits at the Fondation Louis Vuitton means following a bit of a labyrinthine course, but the tour offers artistic and architectural wonders around every corner. When there is no special temporary exhibit on show, the walls will be hung with Arnaud’s own collection of modern and contemporary art. This Fondation is also known for its blockbuster temporary exhibits, which are a must for any art lover.

The latter renovated the former Bourse de Commerce (Paris’ old stock market building) to create a center for exhibiting contemporary art, much of which is from his personal collection. Temporary exhibits may change every quarter or semester. Here can be seen the most well-known artists of today’s contemporary art scene. Constructed in a circle around a central atrium, this building is also well worth a visit for its architecture as well as for the art. For those on a tight art budget (and who isn’t?), it is important to note that the museum is free the first Saturday evening of every month where explainers are available to offer (sometimes very necessary) insights into the exhibitions. Be sure to reserve a time slot as early as possible for these tickets go quickly.

The Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art hosts temporary exhibits of contemporary art both on the ground floor of Jean Nouvel’s modern, light-filled, high-ceilinged rooms on its ground floor and in a more muted locale in the basement. Artists are typically already well-known internationally, such as Damien Hirst, Ron Mueck, Fabrice Hyber … Out back, there is also a lovely garden with a cafe which is a great place to spend some time on a sunny afternoon and discuss the current exhibition with friends.

Galéries Lafayette has taken over a building in the Marais to produce ever-changing temporary exhibitions in its contemporary art space, Lafayette Anticipations. Each exhibit is typically devoted to a single artist. No reservations are needed, except for their guided tours every day (except Tuesday when it is closed) at five in the afternoon; these are well-worth signing up for. 

Fondation Pernod-Ricard has moved its small art quarters near the Concorde to a spacious new building just behind the Gare St Lazare. Here they offer free entrance to temporary exhibitions of hand-picked contemporary artists. Vernissages, which are always of particular interest, are indeed open to all where Ricard cocktails flow free and freely to celebrate the event.

With an aim to promote their culture, a number of countries have reserved a space for art exhibitions in their embassies or cultural centers. Thus without leaving the city, any art enthusiast can feel the pulse of artistic creation in various nations around the world. Countries particularly engaged in presenting their contemporary art include ItalyCzech Republic, Canada, Australia, Korea

Artists’ Compounds

Then there are artists’ residences, where young artists are given a studio to work in and create. They also offer venues for these young artists to exhibit. 

In the center of Paris right on the Seine is the Cité des Arts, a complex where promising young artists have won a residency. Every Wednesday is open house from 6pm to 9pm when the general public can visit artists in their studios and see their work in progress. Every so often exhibitions are staged to display the residents’ works. In the lower level, there is a small auditorium, which offers conferences and concerts. Attached to this residence is a second compound of studios overlooking gardens located way up on Montmartre.

And far off the beaten track, in Clichy, as part of Greater Paris, an industrial site has recently been repurposed into a new artists’ residence.  Entitled Poush, it also offers visits and exhibitions to the general public, promoting the artists who are living and working there.

Les Frigos (the refrigerators) was once just that, a refrigerating edifice on the left bank of the Seine to store perishable foodstuffs until they were brought to Paris’ central market, Les Halles. Each distributor had its own refrigerator in the building. When the market was moved out of Paris to Rungis the building was abandoned no longer serving a purpose. It was then that the artists moved in, created windows, dismantled the refrigerator doors, installed plumbing and in a word, undertook all the installations necessary to make the various rooms viable and to set up work studios.  Once or twice a year Les Frigos are opened to the public to visit the studios housed behind each disabled refrigerator door.  A curious and totally unconventional art scene not to be missed.

Then there are the various open house days set up independently in different sectors of Paris and its suburbs where artists might have studios. These include, among others, areas such as Belleville, Père Lachaise, Ménilmontant, Montmartre, Glacière … most of the districts of Paris and suburbs such as Montreuil. Each neighborhood is free to decide on the dates for this type of event although typically they occur during the Spring months.

While what has become a plethora of institutions and venues offering exhibits of contemporary art, the above-mentioned list, as daunting as it might seem, is certainly not exhaustive.  It is only the beginning for a foray into the present day’s contemporary art, both French and international.

Photo taken outside the Palais de Tokyo/ Modern Art Museum in Paris.

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