Stepping into an art gallery, we always see the final product of an artist’s work. We are saved from the mess of the artworks’ creation and are presented with something finished and polished, which is why a peek into artist’s studios like 59 Rivoli can be such a wondrous experience.
The walk-in, open-house 59 Rivoli is a stand-out along rue de Rivoli with its brightly painted façade and banners hanging from its balconies. The Hausmannian building, which used to house a Credit Lyonnais branch, had been boarded up for almost a decade until the KGB (a group of artists named Kalex, Gaspard and Bruno) decided to occupy it and turn it into a creative space for artists. The formed group then called themselves “Chez Robert Electron Libre”. Exhibitions, show openings, and concerts, attracted fellow artists and curious attendees, and a merry time was had by all as word of this unconventional place spread. The French state was less enthusiastic, though, and made a complaint against the artists. 59 Rivoli lived under the threat of eviction until the present mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoà«, stepped into the picture. The City of Paris purchased the building, and after several years of being closed for renovations, 59 Rivoli reopened to the public in 2009.
Several days before Christmas, I found myself standing in front of 59 Rivoli’s colourfully painted doorway at 1pm, waiting for the building’s doors to open. On the sidewalk, waiting as well, was a woman carrying a camera, a couple who were busy making out, and two middle-aged Japanese women. A strange mix, but I guess 59 Rivoli attracts all kinds of people, from those who intentionally seek out the place to curious onlookers who happened to pass by. As the third most visited contemporary art center in Paris, it attracts around 40,000 visitors a year–not a bad number in the city where the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay reign supreme.
Finally the door opened, and a woman welcomed us, apologizing for the delay. “It’s cold, it’s winter, so nice in bed, you know how it is,” she said ruefully, shooing us up the stairway, which was covered in murals. “Go on and have a great time! Say hello to the artists!”
Most of the studios were silent. The artists of 59 Rivoli still hadn’t arrived, and some of them had taped signs to the walls: NO PHOTOS, I HAVE A GOOD LAWYER! or I’LL BE BACK AFTER LUNCH. Some artists were already there, setting up their paints, getting back to work on a project from the previous day. I had a chat with several artists, but most of the time I was content to watch them go about their day. It’s definitely worth asking about an artwork if you see something you like, because some works are for sale. They also leave calling cards with their contact information in their studios, so just look for a stack of cards and take one for future reference. Some artists are okay with taking photos of their space and some aren’t, so make sure to ask permission first.
Thirty artists are housed at 59 Rivoli (20 are permanent artists and there are 10 slots for artist residencies), and they pay a modest sum for rent. I made my way from floor to floor, each room transporting me back to art school. The smell of linseed oil, the canvases propped up against the walls, the paint-splattered chairs, and the unfinished sketches lying on tables or taped to the walls reminded me of how important an artist’s space is, how wonderful it must be for them to create art in such a gorgeous building, and how lucky Parisians are to have been given a portal to the contemporary art world.
As we were leaving the building, we happened upon the elderly Japanese ladies on the stairs. To our surprise they pointed to the graffiti-laden walls and gave me a thumbs-up sign and a huge grin. “Good art,” one of said. We couldn’t have said it better myself.