With cultural venues off limits due to Covid-19, the French find refuge in art galleries

A man looks at pictures by US artist Lucienne Bloch showing Mexican artist Frida Kahlo displayed as part of the exhibition entitled "The artist's vision" on February 6, 2021 in the "Galerie de l'instant" in Paris.
A man looks at pictures by US artist Lucienne Bloch showing Mexican artist Frida Kahlo displayed as part of the exhibition entitled "The artist's vision" on February 6, 2021 in the "Galerie de l'instant" in Paris. © Bertrand Guay, AFP

Spared the shutdown orders imposed on other cultural venues, French art galleries have seen record numbers of visitors in the last three months and have come to symbolise the last bastion of a pre-pandemic world. For arts professionals, more patrons are a welcome relief for a sector hard hit by the health crisis and uncertain of its future.


It is barely 11am on a Saturday morning and already about 30 people are waiting outside the Galleria Continua in Paris. Recently inaugurated by the famous French street artist known as JR, this 800-square-metre hybrid grocery-gallery has become the new cultural space everyone is talking about. Its concept is both innovative and visually striking: Half art gallery and half delicatessen, visitors can enjoy pecorino with truffles alongside a sculpture by Anish Kapoor or a drawing by Kiki Smith.   

"There are no theatres, no cinemas, no museums – and there comes a time when Netflix is not enough," says Joël, a student determined to brave the queue that stretches out onto rue du Temple in the heart of the Marais, home to so many of the capital’s art galleries. 

The Polka gallery, which opened its doors in 2007, is among them. Named after a photography magazine, it is currently showing works by Marc Riboud, a photographer known worldwide for his work in Asia. The exhibition "Chine(s)" includes some 40 photos taken between 1957 and 2010 that transport viewers from cities pulsating with energy to mysterious landscapes featuring misty mountains.

"It feels like travelling with the photographer, the pictures are magnificent, they make you dream," enthused Hélène, who came as soon as the exhibition opened.

Sidonie Gaychet, the gallery's deputy director, noted that the gallery is busier than ever. "But above all, we see a different audience, an audience that is not used to coming to a gallery. Some people look for the souvenir shop or ask if there is a charge for admission. We explain our job: to help them discover artists who will perhaps one day end up in the collections of a museum."

Loss of sales

But while more people are visiting art galleries, it has not led to more sales. At Polka, there was a 50 percent drop in turnover in 2020. A recent study commissioned by the Professional Committee of Art Galleries (CPGA) shows that 78 percent of galleries saw their sales drop last year. 

Even so, very few galleries have been forced out of business and the dreaded scenario of mass closures has yet to occur. "Government support is keeping the vast majority of galleries afloat. It's when that support decreases, in 2021 and 2022, that the true situation will become clear," warns Géraldine de Spéville, general delegate of the CPGA.

For galleries, the cascading cancellations of international fairs such as Paris Photo, Art Basel and the International Contemporary Art Fair represent a huge loss in revenue. Arts professionals eagerly await these events every year because they get to meet collectors from all over the world at the same place and at the same time.

"The resumption of art fairs will be important," says de Spéville. "We hope that will coincide with a reopening of the borders and the arrival of foreign collectors. At the moment, the galleries have to compete for the same domestic clientele, and this is starting to become difficult."

To keep in touch with foreign collectors at a distance, galleries have had to adapt. Polka has launched podcasts about its artists and 3D virtual tours on its website.

"People like it, but it doesn't replace seeing the works in real life," says Gaychet.

"There's an indulgent pleasure in seeing works that you don't quite get with digital. Collectors like to hear the stories of the works, anecdotes about the artists. We can't have that particular connection at the moment." 

Towards a reopening of museums

Calls to reopen art centres have increased in recent weeks, encouraged by the relative stability of the Covid-19 situation across the country. The president of the Palais de Tokyo, Emma Lavigne, launched a petition that attracted 10,000 signatures in support of the reopening of the museum and which has promised to “welcome our visitors in reinforced security conditions".

Several other elected officials have taken up the fight to reopen museums. In Issoudun, Socialist Mayor André Laignel announced Friday that he would reopen the doors of the Hospice Saint Roch museum to private visits only, defying judicial authorities. The controversial move follows that of Perpignan Mayor Louis Aliot, deputy leader of the far-right National Rally party (formerly the National Front), who had also decreed the reopening of four municipal museums in a decision that contravened the courts. 

Other cities, such as Strasbourg and Beauvais, have lobbied the ministry of culture to set up "test visits" based on the model of the "test concerts" that are scheduled to take place in March and April. 

But there is no sign yet that the government, which has kept museums closed since October 30, intends to change tack.

Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot has promised that museums and national monuments would be the first cultural venues to reopen, but only when infection rates drop.

In the meantime, the works of David Hockney, Lucienne Bloch and Christian Boltanski can be seen free of charge in Parisian galleries, the last vestiges of a cultural world upended by the pandemic.

This article has been translated from the original in French.


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