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An interview in two parts with Jennifer Flay, Director of FIAC

 

by Pauline Autet  |  published 30.01.17

PART 1 - FIAC YEARS 2003-2016

Since 2003, New Zealand-born Jennifer Flay has headed Paris' international contemporary art fair FIAC, becoming an extremely influential figure of the contemporary art world in Paris and beyond. In the first chapter of our discussion with Flay, we find out how a collapsing art fair was revived and transformed into the major event FIAC is today; permeating throughout the French capital and making its presence known significantly more every year.

 

In the second part of our interview we look back at Flay's departure from New Zealand 36 years ago and her initial years in France, before she became involved with FIAC. We ask how she was introduced to the gallery world, and about operating her own gallery in Paris, from 1991 to 2003.

Jennifer Flay in her Paris home. Photo Marc Domage.

 

 

You’ve been the Director of FIAC (Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain) in Paris for the past 13 years. Nowadays you’re leading one of the world’s most renowned contemporary art fairs but it wasn’t always the case.

 

JF: When I came in as Artistic Director in 2003, FIAC was a far cry from the influential cosmopolitan event it had been in the eighties. As a gallerist I had pulled out by 1997 and so had most of the important local and international galleries. Heading the fair certainly wasn’t a coveted position. In fact some of my friends tried to discourage me from taking it on. But the benefits that myself and many of my contemporaries—Jean de Loisy, Nicolas Bourriaud, Olivier Zahm, Emmanuel Perrotin to name but a few—had derived from it in the eighties when we were younger were very present in my mind. I was very conscious of the fact that we often referred back to past events as having occurred at FIAC. Indeed that is where some of us met. I wondered what that would say about my generation if we sat back and let FIAC completely disintegrate—if we chose not to care. What would we leave to the subsequent generation?

What was your vision when you took the job?

 

JF: I had been a highly regarded gallery, active on the international scene throughout the nineties. I was therefore keenly aware of the requirements and ambitions of the gallery world at the highest level. My ambition was to return the fair to international prominence; to restore its pertinence and legitimacy as a major international event. I wanted FIAC to be the fair that France deserves and for it to contribute fully, not only to cultural life here, but also to the role that France plays in the world at large. I’ve realised over time that events like FIAC have a tremendous impact economically and socially, far beyond the frontiers of what would appear to be our sphere of activity. Fairs play an important role in cultural diplomacy and are a powerful instrument in what is known today as ‘soft power.’

 

We have come a long way. The fair is looking very good, particularly this 2016 edition which saw the fruition of many major long-term initiatives. But I always remind myself that it still is—and always will be—work in progress. We still have a clear margin of progression and must maintain the impetus if we are to hold our position and remain relevant.

 

When I took on the fair in 2003, I told Reed Exhibitions not to expect to see concrete results, financial or otherwise, before a three to five year period. In 2003 for the 30th anniversary of FIAC, the media headline had asked if it was our ‘birthday or funeral?’, so in 2004, I was hoping for some positive commentaries on the changes that were already underway, in order to begin to change public perception.

 

But even more important than public perception is exhibitor perception. Without the galleries the event cannot exist, and their input and feedback is crucial. Even that very first year, some of the good Parisian galleries came back to FIAC, some of them explicitly (by their own admission) to be supportive of me. They were not really counting on exhibition results right away but they wanted to get behind the attempt to save FIAC. These galleries are still with us today. They can be proud to have participated in rebuilding the event.

 

 

Who did you work with?

 

JF: Martin Bethenod (now Director of Palazzo Grassi, Punta della Dogana in Venice) became Commissaire General in 2004 while I was Artistic Director and until 2010 we formed a duo which was super effective—the best working partnership that I have ever been part of because we were so complementary but shared an identical vision for the event and enjoyed working together. During that time, we moved FIAC back to the Grand Palais, away from its previous venue at the Porte de Versailles on the periphery of Paris, a step of crucial importance for us. We had to build a new business plan, then convince Reed Exhibitions that it was an essential strategic development despite the fact that we were losing a third of our exhibition space, and therefore the equivalent in revenue. But returning to this very prestigious venue in the centre of Paris allowed us to begin building relationships with the museums and cultural institutions in the city, and with the City of Paris itself. This would be invaluable in our effort to redefine FIAC.

 

Working in close association with other cultural institutions in Paris is a defining facet of FIAC.

 

JF: Precisely. FIAC is owned by Reed Exhibitions, the world leader in trade fair organization, and is therefore 100% private. We do not request nor receive grants or financial aid of any kind from the public sector. However we work in close partnership with both the City of Paris and the French Ministry of Culture—the city and the state—and have established partnerships with major institutions across the city.

 

Initially when we returned to the Grand Palais, there was so little space available that we needed a second venue in order to be able to house the number of galleries that we felt was needed to attain a critical mass. It was in this context that the Louvre Museum became our first institutional partner. The then President of the Louvre Museum, Henri Loyrette, granted us permission to construct a temporary structure in the prestigious Cour Carrée within the walls of the Louvre palace and welcomed an exhibition of sculptural works and installations within the world renowned Tuileries garden. This close dialogue continues until today with the new President Jean-Luc Martinez. Other institutions have followed, and little by little their exhibition programmes have been phased to match the FIAC calendar. Simultaneously to FIAC 2016, Maurizio Cattelan was showing at the Monnaie de Paris, Tino Sehgal at the Palais de Tokyo, Jean-Luc Moulène at the Centre Pompidou. The Louis Vuitton Foundation presented the Shchukin Collection and the Musée Picasso unveiled a new Picasso-Giacometti show. The list is long... No other fair can boast such an impressive cultural agenda. These synergies are the result of the joint will and determination of all the actors of Parisian cultural life.

 

 

Now ranked in Europe’s top three contemporary art fairs, along with Frieze in London and Art Basel in Switzerland, what’s FIAC’s point of difference?

 

JF: Beyond our Hors les Murs programme which is truly a defining feature of the event, it is our deep inscription in the city together with the beauty of our venues which all resonate with French history. There’s something very special about the Grand Palais but since 2016, with the additional venue of the Petit Palais and the pedestrianisation of the Avenue Winston Churchill between the two Palais, it is grand in the full sense.

 

Do you see these elements as new permanent elements of FIAC or is it about a constant transformation?

 

JF: They are definitely developments that we envisage as permanent. In creating an esplanade between the Grand and Petit Palais across the avenue Winston Churchill—while recalling the original configuration of the 1900 Exposition Universelle—in some ways, we are also pioneering a kind of utopian urban plan for the city of Paris that I’m not alone in wanting to see become permanent.

 

Because of the importance that it has acquired in terms of cultural politics and the vibrant image of the city of Paris that it projects across the world, there is a lot of good will and support around FIAC. This was crucial in enabling us to obtain the authorisations we needed to secure the temporary closure to traffic of this busy thoroughfare, something that has never been achieved before. I have to admit to having being almost surprised myself that we succeeded, particularly in a post-Nice climate...

 

 

Since the attacks of 14 July 2016 in Nice, the state of emergency implemented in France has been extended. You had concerns even before FIAC took place for the colossal Ugo Rondinone work that was going to be installed on Place Vendôme.

 

JF: Since the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015, France is in a very different place in her history. Although it is a difficult thing to have to face up to, this is our 'new reality.' It is not going to go away any time soon. In the post Nice (and now post Berlin) context, anything that brings crowds of people out onto a road is potentially dangerous. Actually when Nice happened, past the initial shock and dismay, I thought, ‘we have absolutely no chance of pulling this off.’ The Avenue Winston-Churchill is a sensitive site, not only because it is a busy road but especially because it is the principal axis of arrival and departure to the Élysée Palace [official residence of the French President.] We had security features such as an anti-ram barrier system and safety corridors subtly integrated into our scenography which was elaborated in full respect of the prerequisites and recommendations of the central police station, and pre approved by the authorities. The CRS (French armed police) was on patrol constantly, discreet but nonetheless present.

 

Large scale installations like the one Ugo Rondinone conceived for the Place Vendôme are challenging in other ways. Beyond the issues involved in securing the authorisations for intervening on such an iconic square with deep symbolic charge and in close proximity to a protected historic monument, we've never had such a large a footprint on the Place Vendôme.

FIAC includes many public components besides the core ticketed event of the fair in the Grand Palais, such as the 'Hors les Murs' programme of outdoor sculptures in several public spaces of Paris, the performance programme 'Parades for FIAC' and installations in the Petit Palais as part of 'On-Site.' What’s the importance of producing those free entry, public elements to what is otherwise a relatively private and commercial event?

 

JF: For me it is critically important. Early on, my studies led me to consider the way art circulates within society, the conditions of access to culture and the role it plays in sociological terms.

 

I believe that if FIAC is able to fulfill its primary role as a market place—and let’s say that we achieve that at a high level by creating the conditions for unit transactions that reach the 10 million mark (and once in recent years almost 40 million for a Mondrian)—we have an absolute duty to face the issues that have made art a supposedly elitist field. I really cannot fight more energetically against this conception of art and culture. Clearly artists do not work for 0.2% of the population. Art is not about that, it’s about everybody’s potential interaction.

 

As responsible insiders, our efforts must be concentrated on broadening the conditions of access to art and culture, creating the conditions for a real democratisation of cultural wealth. As a former gallerist, I know how intimidating the art world can be. Pushing open a frosted white glass door with almost imperceptible lettering to enter the white cube of the gallery space is very specialised behaviour. Many don’t know how to behave. As a gallerist, I was so frequently asked if it was free to come in.

 

When you’re in a position like me, Director of FIAC, with such incredible public spaces at my disposition and the knowledge that so many people feel excluded from culture, I really feel that it’s an absolute obligation to provide the conditions of a potential interaction with the general public. I believe that it just takes an instant to change somebody’s life, and that art can make deep personal and societal changes. I’m very interested, for example, in the work that Olafur Eliason is doing with his Little Sun and Green Light projects. I believe that art and artists can change the world. Even the apprehension of beauty, on a less interactive level, can be life-changing.

The main free and public component of FIAC is the temporary installation of outdoor sculptures throughout the Jardin des Tuileries (public gardens) in the heart of Paris. This past year, it also included architecture scale-models.

 

JF: As I mentioned previously, the Tuileries garden is the historic venue of our Hors les Murs programme. From 2006 onwards, thanks to our partnership with the Louvre Museum, we were able to provide sites with incredible prestige in this patrimonial pleasure garden adjacent to the Louvre. The works are selected by a joint FIAC/Louvre Museum selection committee from submissions made by exhibiting galleries. Galleries take on the costs of production, transport, installation and so on. We are responsible for logistics, coordination, curatorial aspects, communication and mediation. Instead of putting art in the public space and just waiting for something (or nothing) to happen—even, in some cases, aggressing people by invading their recreational space with something that is unfamiliar and for which they have no point of access, we take an active, pedagogical approach. For each work installed in public space, two mediators from the École du Louvre are present to exchange with the public if they manifest the desire to do so.

 

We also have an extensive programme of artists' performances that is free of charge. The general rule is that everything that we do outside the Grand Palais is free because we want to create favorable conditions for the neophyte public to engage with the art works which we present. I was very happy with the opportunity provided by the pedestrian zone we created on the Avenue Winston-Churchill to create a convivial atmosphere with food trucks and cafes, the possibility to sit down and enjoy a hamburger or a coffee, watch kids skateboarding and simultaneously discover major works by the American giant of conceptual art Lawrence Weiner and the French artist Jacques Villeglé. I believe that endeavors like this contribute to breaking down the barriers between art and the general public, and also between different segments of the population. There were high-level art collectors, art professionals from all over the world, families out for a walk, teenagers from the suburbs, tourists that had braved the potential terrorist threat across Europe and people that had probably never visited the Grand Palais or its environs previously. Art cannot survive within the confines of an elitist club with restricted membership. I would love people not to think of FIAC as an elitist event. I think that we are making some ground in this respect, because when the fair is on, the whole city is aware of it, not just people who visit the fair in the Grand Palais. There is a sort of FIAC fever which gives a special colouration to the city, generates excitement and is an incentive for many parallel initiatives.

 

What’s the verdict on FIAC 2016 and what can we expect in 2017?

 

JF:  It takes a while to digest it but as I said to my team recently, it’s the only FIAC I’ve done since 2003 that I have been completely happy with. I knew that we had done the very best we could and even more, especially given the tense socio-political climate. It was exceptional and I know it provided a breath of fresh air, an allégresse, that was so necessary in the Parisian post-Bataclan context. Paris was pretty morose last year but the deputy mayor of Paris told me recently that something changed around FIAC time and that tourist numbers went up in November and December. The Guardian article ‘A year after the Bataclan, Paris uses art and activism to regain its soul’ centred on our initiatives at FIAC and artist Kader Attia's opening of La Colonie. I am happy and proud to be able to make a contribution to the broader societal context. If I had been told 36 years ago when I came to France that I would be able to make a contribution on that scale—scale is for others to judge but it seems that they have—I would have been surprised and very moved, which I am, deeply.

FIAC is true to its name with a record 186 galleries from 27 countries in 2016 but so far no New Zealand galleries have participated. I think the only New Zealand artist at FIAC in 2016 was Simon Denny represented by Galerie Buchholz. What is the relevance of a gallery’s country of origin in the context of an art fair? Most artists now work internationally and sometimes even resist those national labels.

 

JF: It’s not uncommon. For example we don’t have any galleries from the African continent but there are many African artists that show at FIAC with galleries that are based elsewhere.

 

I’d love to have New Zealand galleries showing at FIAC in the future. There are a couple of galleries that I’ve been keeping my eye on and that I hope to see on this trip to New Zealand. Usually when I go to New Zealand, it’s not a very good time to visit galleries because everything is closed for vacation, but this time I’m not only going to visit the Faculty of Arts at the University of Auckland where I studied, but also I intend to do some long overdue gallery visits. I have spoken to them when I see them at other art fairs, Liste 2016 for example.

 

That’s Hopkinson Mossman Gallery.

 

JF: Yes. It can be weird going up to someone and saying ‘I’m from New Zealand’ but I did because I really liked what they were showing. I look forward to visiting them in Auckland.

 

What do you think is the obstacle for New Zealand galleries to show at art fairs here?

 

JF: It’s distance for sure, and the costs that this implies in terms of transport for example. In France there’s another barrier which is completely imaginary: language. Generally speaking, the French are quite embarrassed about their English because they believe that native English speakers do not tolerate mistakes of any sort and that we find their accent particularly unpleasant. Of course this is completely untrue, but it seems this is what they are taught in schools. Not so much the younger generation but certainly people of my age. Sometimes their reluctance to speak English is interpreted as arrogance; sometimes as the proof that they don't know how. But when they manage to get over their apprehension or have no choice, you realise that their English is actually fine. Many times over the years I’ve had to convince non-French speaking galleries that language is not a barrier. Today it is no longer an issue.

I think there’s quite a vibrant and ambitious art scene in New Zealand and at the same time I think it suffers from being undervalued – arts and culture in general.

 

JF: For sure. I really look forward to being more familiar with it I have to say. I’d like to have the opportunity to do a study trip because the truth is that I haven’t lived in New Zealand since 1980.

 

You’re off to New Zealand tomorrow, do you go back regularly?

 

JF: Yes I go for many reasons. All my family is there apart from my sister in the States and my niece that lives here in Paris because she dances with the national ballet company of the Opera de Paris. I also return for the strength and inspiration that I get from the beauty of nature. I feel that from a young age I had an intuitive notion of the sublime, just by growing up in New Zealand. There are things that I miss and can reactivate in my brain, like the sound of the ocean, the heat of the iron-sand—you know when it’s crusty at the top and you crack it,—pohutukawa flowers against a blue sky, the smell of cow dung! That beauty has always been a source of strength for me in the times when I feel homesick, or challenged by living so far away with no support structure. I will even confess that sometimes I sing Pokarekare Ana under my breath when I am melancholic. New Zealand is like a secret garden I carry around in my mind. It gives me strength. I know other New Zealanders who’ve lived away for a long time who feel the same way. I really believe it’s a privilege to come from a country like New Zealand.

 

Are you incognito when you go back? Conversely you received the highest award for civil merits by the French government, the Legion d’Honneur, in 2015.

 

JF: I’m completely incognito and just as well!

 

New Zealand is internationally renowned, deservedly, for its natural landscape, sports... With your experience building FIAC from the ground up, convincing and changing people’s mind about the societal role of art, where do you begin in terms of cultural advocacy?

 

JF: You need to do a lot of ground work in the communities. Culture has to be readily and easily available in the local environment. It is important that there are large museums such as Te Papa that do prestigious shows but I strongly believe in the role of art centres in local communities and the work that they can do on a more modest scale. You need to get people involved at a very wide level. It’s a complex issue. In a country like France you’d think that everybody would have a natural inclination towards the arts and we know that that is not the case at all. New Zealand is no different. No better and no worse. But I firmly believe that art resides in each one of us because it tends towards an ideal and we all have ideals. I think the real encounter with art is when you meet—always by accident and almost by magic—something in an artist’s work that resonates within you because it touches your own ideals. That’s what makes it so important and so beautiful.

 

 

And in Part 2...

In the second part of our interview we look back at Flay's departure from New Zealand 36 years ago and her initial years in France, before she became involved with FIAC. We ask how she was introduced to the gallery world, and about operating her own gallery in Paris, from 1991 to 2003.

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