France’s New Culture Minister

Who is Françoise Nyssen?

The May election of Emmanuel Macron as President of France was celebrated as a new way of doing politics. His subsequent appointment of respected former publisher Françoise Nyssen as Culture Minister has been welcomed by professionals from across the arts. One of Nyssen’s first tasks has been to deal with Emmanuel Starcky, director of the Palais de Compiègne in northern France, accused of living like a king in the chateau he was supposed to manage on behalf of the public. Nyssen’s solution has been to transfer Starcky to the Musée des plans-reliefs, a museum of architectural models in Paris. From leading a team of 130 to one of just 12, it’s quite a demotion. But French culture has more deep-rooted problems than Starcky. Will Nyssen be able to deal with these so neatly?

Since the charismatic Jack Lang led the Ministry of Culture for most of the 1980s and early ’90s, few have held the role for more than two years. Under the previous president, François Hollande, France went through no less than three Culture Ministers. Despite changes in government from centre-right to centre-left, cultural policy in France has remained static. It is exactly the kind of political impasse that Macron – who strode to victory after launching his own political movement, En Marche – has pledged to end.

myop_om_francoise_nyssen_001olivier-monge_600.jpg

Françoise Nyssen. Photograph: Olivier Monge

Françoise Nyssen. Photograph: Olivier Monge

Hence the appointment of Nyssen, one of several of Macron’s much-heralded appointments from outside politics or the civil service. Nyssen is the daughter of Hubert Nyssen, who founded French publishing house Actes Sud in 1978, and she has been president of the company since 1987. She is therefore a figure of significant credibility. Actes Sud has produced beautiful books for French institutions such as Mucem in Marseilles and Galerie Azzedine Alaïa in Paris, as well as artists Sophie Calle and photographer Charles Fréger. The company is based in Arles in the south of France, where Nyssen recently returned for the opening of La Rencontres d’Arles, a major photography festival that takes place in the town every year. Actes Sud also produces the catalogue for the festival.

Like Macron, Nyssen is someone who has carved their own path. She and her husband Jean-Paul Capitani established the Association du Méjan, which runs exhibitions and events in the Saint-Martin du Méjan chapel in Arles. In addition, following the tragic death of their son in 2012, in 2014 the pair founded a school, Domaine du Possible, housed in a farm outside the city. Since Nyssen’s appointment, however, the school has come under attack: left-wing politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon (who, like Macron also launched his own party in advance of the 2017 election) has criticized its links with Steiner-Waldorf, an alternative form of education whose origins stem from a belief in reincarnation.

Aside from such politicking, Nyssen has a potentially difficult brief. French publishing sales may have risen by 4.25 percent in 2016 and the Louvre still remains the most-visited museum in the world. Funding for France’s major institutions has remained relatively stable in recent years – at least compared to the more severe cuts experienced by their Anglo-American counterparts. France still spends 0.8 percent of GDP on culture, compared with 0.3 percent in Britain. However, following a number of terrorist attacks, Paris’s overall museum visitor figures have been falling. Many have high hopes for Macron, but aside from a ‘Pass Culture’ consisting of 500 euros for every 18 year-old to spend on books, access to museums etc. – his manifesto is notably light on cultural policy.

Grow Together: the boom in Parisian, artist-run spaces 

Furthermore, while there is a widespread acknowledgement that changes must be made to ensure the global repute of France’s cultural output, there is no consensus on what those changes ought to be. Several curators I’ve spoken to have expressed concern over a growing gap between Paris and the provinces. Others see it differently. Gallerist Thaddaeus Ropac, for example, who has two spaces in Paris, cites shrinking budgets for contemporary art museums: ‘This lack of a strong political support threatens particularly Parisian museums, [as] they have to defend their leading role by continuing to set the level of excellence challenged by New York and London.’

Arguably more pressing, however, are the difficulties faced by living artists. Although France’s most prestigious arts schools remain free, there is comparatively little support for artists, especially those who don’t have gallery representation. Many work second, even third jobs, as gallery technicians, installation photographers or assistants to more commercially successful artists. Some simply leave – for London or Berlin. In 2009 the ‘auto-entrepreneur’ tax scheme was conceived to help freelance workers such as artists, but the scheme does not include the kind of benefits enjoyed by more traditional employees. Macron has pledged to reform the economy and this summer he will take on the unions over labour reforms. Could this lead to increased support for those in such precarious employment? With Macron an avowed advocate of the ‘gig economy’, the 5,500 who graduate each year with arts degrees should not expect life to get much easier any time soon.

Tom Jeffreys is a writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. His first book, Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on Foot, was published by Influx Press in April 2017.

Most Read

With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The museum director, who resigned last year, acted with ‘integrity’, an independent report finds
In further news: study finds US film critics overwhelmingly white and male; woman sues father over Basquiat
With the government’s push for the controversial English baccalaureate, why the arts should be an integral part of the...
From Bruce Nauman at the Schaulager to the story of a 1970s artist community in Carona at Weiss Falk, all the shows to...
Sotheby’s and Christie’s say they are dropping the practice of using female-only staff to pose for promotional...
For the annual city-wide art weekender ahead of Basel, the best shows and events to attend around town
For our second report from BB10, ahead of its public opening tomorrow, a focus on KW Institute for Contemporary Art
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
In further news: declining UK museum visitors sees country fall in world rankings; first winner of Turner Prize,...
The Icelandic-Danish artist’s creation in Vejle, Denmark, responds to the tides and surface of the water: both artwork...
In further news: Emperor Constantine’s missing finger discovered in the Louvre; and are Van Gogh’s Sunflowers turning...
The opening of a major new exhibition by Lee Bul was delayed after one of the South Korean artist’s works caught fire
The LA-based painter’s exquisite skewing of Renaissance and biblical scenes at Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London
Lee Bul, Abortion, 1989, performance documentation. Courtesy: the artist and PKM Gallery, Seoul
In a climate of perma-outrage has live art self-censored to live entertainment?

A tribute to the iconic New York journal: a platform through which founder Andy Warhol operated as artist, hustler and...
A distinctively American artist who, along with four neighbourhood contemporaries, changed the course of US painting...
From Assemble’s marbled floor tiles to Peter Zumthor's mixed-media miniatures, Emily King reports from the main...
From Ian White's posthumous retrospective to Lloyd Corporation's film about a cryptocurrency pyramid scheme, what to...
Kimberly Bradley speaks to ‘the German’ curator on the reasons for his early exit from the Austrian institution
In further news: #MeToo flashmob at Venice Architecture Biennale; BBC historian advocates for return of British...
German museums are being pushed to diversify their canons and respond to a globalized world – but is ‘cleaning up’ the...
Sophie Fiennes’s new film Bloodlight and Bami reveals a personal side of the singer as yet unseen 
‘At last there is a communal mechanism for women to call a halt to the demeaning conventions of machismo’
The German artist has put up 18 works for sale to raise money to buy 100 homes
The novelist explored Jewish identity in the US through a lens of frustrated heterosexuality
Artist Jesse Jones, who represented Ireland at last year’s Venice Biennale, on what is at stake in Friday’s Irish...
‘I spend more time being seduced by the void … as a way of energizing my language’: poet Wayne Koestenbaum speaks about...
To experience the music of the composer, who passed away last week at the age of 69, was to hear something tense,...
In a year charged with politicized tensions, mastery of craft trumps truth-to-power commentary
In further news: women wearing rainbow badges beaten in Beijing’s 798; gallerists Georg Kargl and Richard Gray have...
‘Coping as a woman in France is a daily battle: the aggression can be subtle, and you always have to push harder to...
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s portraits of a fictional aristocratic Nigerian family push toward an expanded definition...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018