I remember the exact moment I decided to leave Marseille for good. I was driving up the city's main drag, past the blackened facades that line the once-grand Canebière, which links the Old Port to the city centre. ‘What on earth am I still doing here?’ I wondered to myself. For a 20-year-old art nerd, everything in my hometown seemed small, narrow-minded, provincial. Six months later, I was gone.
Fast-forward 15 years, and I'm having second thoughts. Marseille and its art scene have developed in ways that would have been unthinkable back then. Spurred on by the award of European Capital of Culture in 2013, the city is on the rise as a cultural destination, freeing itself – at least partly – from its sulphurous reputation as France’s grimy crime capital.
New flagship buildings now grace the city. The photogenic Mucem flaunts its metal lace cube against the Mediterranean’s turquoise backdrop. La Friche de la Belle de Mai – a former tobacco factory, home to several non-profit cultural organizations – has had its exhibition spaces radically transformed by a new annexe. The FRAC PACA has swapped its dingy premises in the old town for an elegant new venue, designed by Kengo Kuma and set in the rapidly changing neighbourhood of La Joliette, a stone’s throw from the industrial port.
A fresh wind is blowing and there are signs that the international art circuit is finally paying attention. The Friche-based boutique fair art-o-rama, held on the last weekend of August, has a growing number of visitors, who come in flip flops to start the season en douceur. Artists, too, are increasingly keen to swap the grey skies of Paris or Brussels for a spot in the sunshine. Last but not least, the roving European Biennial of Contemporary Art, Manifesta, announced it would dock in Marseille in 2020.
‘2013 was a real milestone,’ says FRAC’s director Pascal Neveux. Besides the shiny buildings, the city’s various players were mobilized like never before. Following in the footsteps of Mécènes du Sud – a network of businesses that, for over a decade, has embedded artists within companies – new art patrons have emerged. Privately-funded initiatives are now driving a local scene that until recently was mainly reliant on public subsidies.
Two weeks ago the talk of the town was the inauguration of a new cultural hub, Rue du Chevalier Roze, on 26 August. Property developer ANF is trying its hand at art patronage, and has given seven organizations – big and small, commercial and non-profit – a rent-free shop in a street behind the faded thoroughfare of Rue de la République. The hip Parisian gallery Crèvecoeur and the Brussels-based art consultancy Catherine Bastide have moved in, artist Wilfrid Almendra has opened up a studio, and local print workshop Tchikebe has launched its first boutique. The collectors’ group Lumière is also involved, and has devoted the second iteration of its project space Atlantis to a thoughtful presentation of Martin Soto Climent's work, curated by the globetrotting Chris Sharp.
‘Marseille is the new Los Angeles,’ enthuses Ombline d’Avezac, who is spearheading the Chevalier Roze project for ANF. ‘We’ve had so many requests from people who want to do projects here.’
It won’t be easy for commercial galleries however. Like everywhere in France outside of Paris, the art market in Marseille is tiny. The local collector-base mainly operates internationally, and galleries often struggle to generate the kind of income necessary to secure a presence at major art fairs. By a bittersweet turn of fate, ANF opened its art hub on the very street which, for years, was home to the much-loved galerieofmarseille, which shut in 2013. Many others have come and gone.
The issues raised by the opening of the Chevalier Roze hub dwarf art-world economics. When I was a kid, the Rue de la République – once a prestigious address in the 19th century – was gloomy and deprived. Now – despite the scrubbed up facades – it feels gloomy, deprived, and empty. More than 40 percent of people in the neighbourhood live below the poverty line (against a quarter in the city at large). Over a decade ago, an American trust tried and failed to turn it into a high-end shopping destination. Real estate changed hands. According to local association Un Centre Ville Pour Tous, in 2015, more than half of the commercial premises in Rue de la République, and a third of the housing stock, were unoccupied.
I can only welcome an initiative that carves out a space for art in an area I've heard described several times as ‘moribund.’ There's clearly genuine good will from all parties involved, and ANF assured me that the gallery rent would never go up to market rate. True success, though, would involve not only spaces staying put after their free three-year leases run out, but preserving the social diversity that is the DNA of this part of town. It's the kind of success that won't be measurable for years, until long after Manifesta’s fairy dust has settled.
When it comes to contemporary art, Marseille has a strong history to build on. Locals here remember with nostalgia the 1990s golden age, back when gallerist Roger Pailhas was the city elite’s tastemaker. A larger-than-life character who didn’t speak a word of English, so the legend goes, before his death in 2005, he linked Marseille to the global art world like no one before or since, regularly exhibiting the likes of Sol Lewitt, Mario Merz, Dan Graham, and Jeff Wall.
Pailhas’ close friendship with Marseille collectors Marc and Josée Gensollen had a major influence on the shaping of their collection, one of France’s finest. The Gensollens’ house, La Fabrique, is set out as a showroom displaying conceptual grandees (Joseph Kosuth, Lawrence Weiner, Stanley Brouwn) alongside their heirs Douglas Gordon and Maurizio Cattelan. ‘La Fabrique is incredible,’ Centre Pompidou director Bernard Blistène tells me. ‘They could have done it somewhere else. What [the Gensollens] do for their city is absolutely amazing.’
Blistène is another to have played a key role in Marseille’s artistic history. Director of the city museums from 1990 to 1996, he created several institutions, including the contemporary art museum, which he entrusted to a then 28-year-old Philippe Vergne. Among the exhibitions that took place in Marseille under Blistène's helmsmanship were the first French retrospectives of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paul Thek, Robert Smithson and Gordon Matta-Clark. ‘We tried to build the programme in relation to Marseille,’ he recalls. ‘When I did [Robert] Smithson, I explained that his work had an entropic dimension which had something to do with the story of Marseille. It was a prosperous time. There was money.’
Blistène was appointed by mayor Robert Vigouroux and left his post in 1996, one year after Jean-Claude Gaudin, the still-incumbent mayor, rose to power. What followed for Marseille’s institutions was a long spell in the wilderness. Today local politicians seem to have finally realized the benefits of supporting the arts. In 2014, collector Marie-Hélène Feraud-Gregori was elected as city councillor dedicated to Opera, Odeon and Contemporary Art – the only councillor in the country with ‘contemporary art’ in her title. One of the driving forces in securing Manifesta for Marseille, Feraud-Gregori, and her position at the crossroads of private commitment and public office, is emblematic of Marseille’s new dynamic.
Despite this developing infrastructure, Marseille remains a place where improvisation prevails. ‘As soon as we arrived here, we were able to be free,’ says Charlotte Cosson, praising the mutual help that, she says, characterizes the local scene. Cosson and her accomplice Emmanuelle Luciani are among Marseille’s most visible young curators. The duo settled in Luciani’s hometown in 2012. Their move is symptomatic of a phenomenon which sees creatives leaving traditional art hubs for more affordable cities on the periphery – a reaction against the pressures that led me to leave Marseille all those years ago. ‘Thanks to the internet, there are no more centres,’ says Luciani. ‘You can have a kind of visibility which is much more floating and global.’
After exhibitions including ‘COOL as a State of Mind’ at the MAMO (located on the rooftop of Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse) and a regular moving image programme at the Leclere auction house, the pair have chosen to ground their practice in production. They rent a former garage, next to the coffee roasting plant that has been in Luciani’s family since the 19th century. Artists including Samara Scott and Matteo Nasini were among those invited to spend time there and benefit from the skills of the Luciani factory workers. Cosson and Luciani hope that this informal residency will expand to welcome up to six artists at a time. They also opened an office-cum-showroom at the Chevalier Roze last week, looping the loop from art making to exhibition.
Marseille-based artist Emmanuelle Lainé, whose work was much noticed at the Lyon Biennale last year, tells me how much she enjoys living in Marseille and striking up new collaborations with fellow artists passing through town. But she is concerned for the younger generation, particularly those trained at Marseille’s somewhat lacklustre École des Beaux-Arts. What’s needed, Lainé says, is more connection between the art school and the city. ‘Students need to have real possibilities to show their work in town,’ she adds, ‘and to be identified as coming out of Marseille’s art school.’
While some studios are available for artists coming from elsewhere, for locals finding studio spaces can be tricky. Artist and Marseille native Benjamin Valenza might have one of the few City of Marseille's official studio spaces, but he is acutely aware of the city’s inner workings. ‘It’s not like Brussels, where you can find a studio for 300 Euros,’ he says. ‘That means that if you are not a rich kid, you can’t find a space to work, you simply don’t have the economic scope to operate.’
Despite these difficulties, and thinking about Marseille now that I'm back London, I can't help but be amazed by how much the city has changed. The sheer number of people keen to make of this noisy, ebullient Mediterranean port a place where the visual arts thrive is exhilarating. Blistène has a word of warning against the ‘city renaissance’ cliché: ‘Marseille trips up, Marseille starts again’ he said. ‘It will never just go well, but it will never just go badly either. It will always go both well and badly.’ Still, to an exile’s eyes, things have never looked so promising.
Main image: Mucem, Marseille, 2017. Courtesy: Flickr, Creative Commons; Photograph: Paolo Gilberto