Parisian Art Market Faces Uncertain Future: A Sour Economy and Lack of Private Funding Affect French Galleries and Artists

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Following World War II, Paris lost its title as the modern-art capitol of the world to New York City. But recently, Parisians--and the French in general--have struggled to keep up, not just with Americans, but with the Germans, Swiss, English and Italians as well.

Private funding for French contemporary art has never been strong by American standards, and some claim that the French tendency to value only government-supported artists has prevented deserving new artists from finding mainstream audiences. Moreover, a shaky economy a weak American dollar and declining tourism are hurting sales at some of Paris's fabled art galleries. Even more damaging is the fact that French artists are being under-represented at the world's most influential art fairs.

Though Paris may be down, it is certainly not out. A series of new private initiatives, including two new arts foundations supporting contemporary art, may be a sign that things are looking brighter in the City of Light.

A Storied Past

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Paris attracted some of the world's best artists, including Picasso, Chagall, Man Ray and Modigliani. Moreover, Fauvism, Cubism and Surrealism all had their origins in France.

"But in 1964, when Robert Rauschenberg won the Grand Prix at the Venice Biennale, the Paris art world underwent a trauma from which it still hasn't bounced back entirely," said Henry Bellet, who writes about art for Le Monde, France's leading newspaper.

Since then, Paris has reacted to more modern-art trends than it has instigated, and today's top artists are just as likely to head for New York, London or Berlin since, these days, they can live almost anywhere and still tap into the international art market.

The Fair Rewards

France, like other countries, faces an accelerating globalization of the contemporary art market thanks to a proliferation of art fairs, festivals and biennales that take place around the globe.

Such events aren't new, but in the last decade their influence has grown. Today's fair and biennale selection committees are like itinerant academies that greatly influence which galleries and artists come to the forefront.

Indeed, they've helped solidify the international reputations of French artists such as Daniel Buren, Christian Boltanski and Bertrand Lavier, among others.

While Switzerland's Art Basel is a powerhouse among contemporary art fairs, Paris's International Fair of Contemporary Art has slipped into a more regional role, showcasing French and Italian galleries but few important American ones.

Figures from 2003 give an idea of France's second-echelon participation in two of the world's leading art fairs.

Of 260 galleries at Art Basel, 58 were from Germany, 53 were from the United States, 38 were from Switzerland but just 24 were from France (Great Britain had 22). At New York's Armory Show, non-U.S. galleries included 22 German galleries, 15 British but only 10 French galleries.

Still, being a Parisian artist does not present any disadvantages in the art world. "When an artist is strong, word gets out fast--no matter where they're from," said Yvon Lambert, who has galleries in Paris and New York. "There's no longer a Paris School or a New York School. None of that exists any longer. You have different generations of artists, that's all."

But Alain Quemin, a French sociologist, disagrees. "Which artistic styles come to the fore is a function of where the money is," he said. "The globalization of art is the globalization of American art, and to a lesser extent, German art."

Strain On the Middle

Since many of Paris's mid-sized galleries cannot afford to play the fair circuit, they depend on French collectors and foreign visitors who buy art in France. But a falloff in both groups during the last couple of years is straining many galleries. …