ART CENTRES DRIVING CONTEMPORARY CREATIVITY FOR OVER 20 YEARS
Unlike France's contemporary art museums and Regional Contemporary Arts Funds (FRACs), art centres describe themselves as "places for artists": the aim is the production of works and exhibitions and not the building up of a collection. Each centre pursues this vocation in terms of its own specific character and geographical identity.
The majority of the centres are non-profit associations, although some are directly managed by their Region, département or municipality, and others are state-owned. The model is that of the semi-public company, with the centres' own earnings complemented by subsidies from cities, départements, the Regions and the state.
Mostly founded at the instigation of art militants in the 70s and 80s, and mostly rooted in "alternative" approaches, the centres have been real hubs for experimentation and artistic outreach for more than twenty years, serving creators and the public alike.
As a focal point for contemporary creativity, for over twenty years now the art centres have been playing a decisive part in the discovery and promotion of the artists of our time. While their resources and facilities vary, they have exhibition and documentation spaces, educational teams and technical workshops; and while, unlike museums, they have no collections, they are totally devoted to contemporary art in terms of production, dissemination and promotion, as well as providing education and guidance for the public.
Art centres and the alternative experiments of the 1970s
These distinctive places were in most cases created at the instigation of intrepid militants working for new art experiences and new models of production and dissemination. One founding act worth citing is Jean-Louis Froment's project, which led to the creation of the CAPC in Bordeaux and was based on four notions that can be considered as fundamental in the art centre context: to offer artists a place where they could have their say and experiment; to provide the public with the keys to an understanding of contemporary art; to ensure that art centres were in tune with the times; and to initiate a dialogue between different artistic and cultural milieux. In 1973 the first exhibition, significantly titled Regarder ailleurs (Looking Elsewhere), foreshadowed ten years of ongoing activity. The 70s saw a proliferation of ventures resulting in the founding of art centres, with examples including: in 1977 the association Le coin du Miroir, which would become the Consortium in Dijon; in 1978 the creation of the New Museum, a roving art centre in Greater Lyon which became the Institute of Contemporary Art in Villeurbanne in 1997–98; in 1979 the centre in Meymac, in Limousin; and in 1980 the CCC in Tours. Beginning in 1985 the Ministry of Culture gave a decisive boost to the development of Regional art centres, either directly, by creating new facilities – the Villa Arson in Nice (which already existed as an art school), the Magasin in Grenoble and the CIRVA in Marseille – or indirectly, by backing local government or community association projects: the International Centre for Art and Landscape in Vassivière, the Creux de l’Enfer in Thiers, Hérouville Saint Clair in Basse-Normandie, the Grand Café in Saint-Nazaire and the Crac Languedoc-Roussillon in Sète, which celebrates its tenth birthday this year.
In 2002 two new Paris centres of national and international standing, the Plateau and the Palais de Tokyo, became part of a network whose siting – mostly in rural, semi-rural and peripheral urban contexts – means that the art centres have a significant role in territorial planning.
Major players on the French art scene
As institutions with national and even international ambitions, the art centres have really succeeded in making their presence felt and are now vital nuclei for art production, exhibitions, dissemination and education. Some of them have their own specialities: the CNEAI in Chatou focuses on the printing arts, the CIRVA in Marseille conducts research into glass and the International Centre for Art and Landscape in Vassivière specialises in – art and landscape. Not to mention other centres with interests in photography (Lectoure and the CPIF in Pontault-Combault) and video (Roubaix).
This specialisation – other fields include printmaking, industrial design and artists' books – has also meant a broader reach in art education terms. And so the art centres have become user-friendly outreach spaces that expand the audience for contemporary art; and this makes them major players on the French art scene. It is worth recalling, too, their contribution to most of the recent big advances: art centres are where some of today's internationally famous French and foreign artists were discovered; where very many of the significant works presented in museums or at major art events were produced; where much important critical work was published; and where many French artists were given access to the international residency and exhibition networks. In recent years some centres – the International Centre for Art and Landscape in Vassivière, for example – have shifted the focus of their artistic and cultural projects, while others have integrated their work into a broader programme. Still others have undertaken renovation or redevelopment like the synagogue in Delme, in Lorraine; or extension, as at the Hérouville Saint Clair centre in Basse-Normandie.
Places for artists to work, plus an emphasis on other aspects of creativity today
Since the outset art centres have sought to offer living artists the chance to produce work. As a laboratory and transmitter for ideas, utopias and innovative forms, and a context for encounters with artists that can generate debate and exchange about current social trends, the art centre remains above all a place for artists to work.
The centres also represent a broad range of activity. All of them – with the exception of CIRVA, devoted exclusively to the production of works of art – average five exhibitions per year. The great majority also produce publications and 25 of them – over 50% – offer artists' residencies.
A special relationship with the public
Outreach is a major feature in all the centres, including initiation into contemporary art, provision of information to teachers, educational ventures and evaluation of activities. There is a real emphasis on educational diversity and on receptiveness to such potential partners as universities and local government. Involvement with schools has thus become a prime concern, with all centres offering a varied range of services and programmes. Spending is significant, with outreach staff averaging two per centre. Community education is a frequently used means of bringing young and adult visitors into close contact with an artist's thinking and his vision of the world.
In 2005 some forty art centres drew over 900,000 visitors to their exhibitions and other events, with current estimates running at more than 1 million. But the statistics are only part of the story: the priority for the centres is the creation of a special relationship with their audience, with a view to making contemporary art increasingly accessible. A recent survey by BVA/ Beaux-arts magazine pointed out that 67% of French people have an interest in contemporary art, but that 66% admit finding it hard to understand.
Official recognition "Art Centre" is not a registered label and the term is used by many different venues. However, only fifty of these bodies receive full official recognition – from the state and local government – in the form of regularly renewed subsidies.
Art centres are often small affairs, most of them being community associations. In 2006 their resources comprised 87% public sector subsidies, and 25% of their paid staff were in subsidised posts.
For the global 2006 budget of 51 centres (excluding the Palais de Tokyo and the Jeu de Paume in Paris), state input represented 32.89%, that of the Regions 22.21%, of the départements 11,51%, of the municipalities 20.38%, and the centres' own resources 12.98%. European funding remains minimal at 0.04%.
In this respect the art centre network can be considered a successful example of cultural decentralisation, founded on dialogue and highly fruitful partnerships between community associations, the state and local government.
A network unique in Europe
With each of them having its own historical, artistic and structural characteristics, the art centres represent a unique, extremely productive network. Comparison with the situation of similar structures in many foreign countries reveals that, apart from the Kunstvereine system in Germany, there is no other contemporary art presentation network offering such a varied range of activities and ventures.
This summary was based on the study "An Art Centres Panorama", carried out for the DCA in January 2006 by the research body Master 2 – Management des Organisations Culturelles