In the heart of Paris, along the same street as the Louvre, there is a place that defies the classic idea of encountering art. Welcoming the public to see not only contemporary pieces but artists working on them, 59 Rivoli is a colourful anomaly within the traditional art attractions.
On a Saturday afternoon, the Parisian shopping street of Rue de Rivoli is busy as usual. Filled with one mass retailer after another, there are people popping in and out of every store. One man stands out from the crowd. He is prancing the street in a colourful costume, blowing into some type of horn. Jaded locals and tourists walk by, seemingly oblivious to him. Looking at one of the street’s buildings, the man’s costume matches the decoration of the façade. He is indeed trying to call everyone’s attention towards it. People in similar costumes step outside and start dancing. More performers appear on balconies of the building, and eccentric Japanese music starts playing.
It is a celebration of the new façade of 59 Rivoli, the so called “aftersquat,” as it reads at the entrance. The name may simply be the address, but what’s inside isn’t simple at all.
The building is of classic Parisian architecture, beige stone with intricate balconies, now covered in contemporary Japanese art. Walking in, a person sitting at the reception desk greets visitors. There is no admission, but donations can be put in a yellow wooden box. In the back of the hall lies a spiralling staircase, painted in a print of multicoloured fish scale, underwater creatures and plants. Going up, the artwork changes on each floor. All rooms have open doorways. Around every corner there is an artist, working on their latest project or chatting to their colleague. Everyone has their own corner with a chair and a table, often covered in paint splatters with a laptop, unfinished lunch or a stained wine glass on top.
It’s a bohemian take on an open office. There is artwork everywhere: No corner or wall is empty. One man is drawing with a marker, the other is arranging textured fabrics together. There are paintings, drawings and accessories on display and origami flowers hanging from the ceiling. Altogether there are six floors and 30 artists from all around the world working in their designated spaces. The person at the reception desk is always one of the artists, they take turns in covering the shift.
During the celebration of the new façade, people appear in an open window, this time not in costume, but throwing confetti in the air. They are some of the artists working in 59 Rivoli. One of them is a man wearing orange overalls and a hat. He is Gaspard Delanoë, one of the place’s founders.
In 1999, Gaspard and a few of his artist friends squatted an abandoned office of a bank at this particular address. They lived and worked there and let people in to see their art. Eventually this illegal activity was noticed by the city, and they were told to leave. But the eviction came to a halt several times. A couple of years passed by, and interest and appreciation for the concept started to grow, also in the eyes of the Socialist Party’s mayoral candidate Bertrand Delanoë (not related to Gaspard). He said that if elected, he would order the city to buy the building and let the artists stay – to work, but not inhabit the place anymore. The Socialist Party won the election in 2001, and the ball was in the squatters’ court: they had to make a deal with the city or leave entirely.
“This was a big dilemma,” Gaspard says, sitting in one of the rooms in the building, surrounded by his own paintings.
“We organised a vote. A big majority said, ‘It’s not what we wished, but at least we get to keep the place. So we voted yes.”
Some might have perceived the decision as selling out and believed the place would lose its originality. Could a concept that was meant to support bohemian contemporary artists flourish under the watchful eye of the city?
“Of course things changed. Now we have an appointment with the city every year to say we have done this, we have done that. We have to pay the rent, the electricity, the water. Before, we were stealing everything”, Gaspard explains.
According to Anne-Laure Kopeikin, who works for the organisation, the changes have been more administrative than anything else. There has to be turnover in the artist residencies, and the city gets a vote when new artists are chosen. A team consisting of Kopeikin and a few others also makes sure the building is safe and facilities are taken care of.
“As for the spirit of the place… a lot of people who were there before, stayed after the legalisation. They kept the DNA of what it was and didn’t become a caricature,” she says.
Marc Olsen, an American artist from Philadelphia, has been working in 59 Rivoli for almost a year. According to him, the involvement of the city doesn’t show in the daily life of the place.
“There’s a couple of city folk and artists who review the applications, but that’s really as much of the city as I see in the operation of things,” he says.
Anita Savary is a French artist who became a resident in 2001 because she couldn’t afford an apartment with working space in the costly city.
“We were fucked, but it was a problem we couldn’t win. We need to have this kind of a place,” she says about the legalisation.
She is still proud of the status of 59 Rivoli, saying that it brings something different into the conventional art scene of Paris.
“It’s not like the museums that always have the same exhibitions. It’s younger. French people don’t know because they don’t buy a lot of art. They think we are a museum, some think we are paid by the town hall or something, but no. We pay the place. Many people don’t know the real story.”
The city doesn’t provide financial support to 59 Rivoli. The artists all pay a rent of 150 euros per year and donations are made by the visitors and private institutions. Even though nobody lives there anymore, working in 59 Rivoli is much like sharing a house with a big family. There are 30 artists spending most of their days working, and a constant flow of visitors. If an artist wants a residency in the building, they have to adapt.
“The collective part is really important,” says Kopeikin.
“If we feel that someone is not collective, then that is a problem. There’s everyday stuff to take care of, like taking out the garbage and cleaning. It’s not like you’re renting a space and don’t owe anything, you owe to the collective to be involved.”
Half of the residencies are permanent and the other half are temporary, between three and six months. Some 100 applications come in each year. Every six months the commission, including representatives of the city, has a meeting and chooses who gets a spot. Kopeikin says they aim for diversity but some art forms, such as dancing or sculptures, are not possible to take in because of limited space.
“We don’t want to be elitist. We try to take in amateurs and young artists. Of course we look for quality, but we take in people who have not been in the art world too much. We want to keep the place as a chance for them to improve their work”, she says.
Going through all the floors, there is definitely variety. The artists come from all walks of life and are of different nationalities and ages. There are mostly painters, but themes go from politics to scenery and portraits.
Anita Savary’s specialty is objects made of a specific material.
“I have a robot made of packs of cigarettes, so they come in and say, “Oh, wonderful!” and I let them take photos,” she says of visitors.
She describes them as funny and curious, even though most aren’t interested in buying anything.
“They like to be here because it’s very different from the shopping outside,” she notes.
While the concept is a great way for artists to meet potential buyers, they are not allowed to sell their work in the building. If a visitor is interested in purchasing a piece, they can contact the artist and a sale can be arranged, just not there and then. The artists are told not to put up any prices for their work.
“We want people to look at the paintings and see if they like it. If they do, they ask for the price. But if you put it near the painting, it changes the way you view it,” Gaspard says.
“We don’t like that at all, it’s horrible! The visitor is not only a consumer. They’re considered as a human being, who has to look, think and feel before starting to count their money.”
Gaspard is thankful that the legalisation has brought a sense of stability for 59 Rivoli, whereas before they never knew if the eviction would happen and when. Now they have a three-year contract with the city that can be renewed.
“The fact that we have so much time allows us to have large projects, which is happening now with Japanese artists who are making the façade. We have been working with them for three years and some artists from here have gone to Japan. This is only possible if you know you’re going to have time. We have always wished to be open to artists from the whole world,” he says.
Anne-Laure Kopeikin still expresses her worry for the future, because a big part of the place’s security lies in politics. If the city’s government changes, they might be at risk. Luckily, there are thousands of visitors each week, which will help if there was to be a debate. Nowadays something like 59 Rivoli could never emerge in the central area of a city known for its high prices, conservativeness and bureaucracy.
“In a place like Paris, in this building, on this street,” she says,
“It’s a miracle that this place is still here.”