STEFAN KALMÁR AND MARTA FONTOLAN wish people in Marseille would listen. The Artists Space director and Gavin Brown Enterprise dealer both sit on a seven-person committee of “artistic” advisers for Art-O-Rama, a pocket-size fair that just celebrated its tenth anniversary in the French port city. “You can see the potential,” Kalmár said, when I arrived the day before the fair’s August 25th VIP opening. Indeed, I would.
I’d needed persuading. An art fair on the last weekend in August? Give us a break. Then again, it’s in Marseille, where Walter Benjamin became a convert to hashish, Le Corbusier built La Cité Radieuse, The French Connection got its start, and the French national anthem got its name.
I joined Kalmár, who’s been taking holidays in Marseille for years, at the welcome dinner he organized on the deck of the Erre, a sloop advertising “slow cruise and slow food.” For us, it remained docked in Marseille’s vieux-port (now a marina), in the shadow of the regional MuCEM, which offers optimum views of the sunset over the sea. Chef Christian Qui—aka SushiQui on Instagram and Facebook—leases the boat for a few weeks each August, another good reason to be here at this time of year.
Over a splendid en plein air meal, prepared topside and served as the mood struck, I met my multinational cohort for the next few days. One was MoMA’s vacationing chief of media and performance, Stuart Comer. “I’m not really here for art,” he confided—as if anyone in our world ever took actual time off. Certainly not Project Native Informant founder Stephan Tanbin Sastrawidjaja or Glasgow dealer Emma Astner, who (like everyone else) investigated beaches and shops but were here to indulge a certain curiosity about the fair. Danish-born, Berlin-based artist Benedicte Gyldenstierne Sehested came to meet up with Fontolan, an old friend. Berlin dealer Lars Friedrich, a participant in the fair, brought artists Georgie Nettell and Inka Meissner. Editor Mattia Ruffolo came for Davide Stucchi, a young Milanese artist who was at the tail end of a residency in Marseille, where he made the soap sculpture that his Munich-based dealer, Deborah Schamoni, would show at Art-O-Rama.
Friday morning began with a preview of several exhibitions at Friche La Belle de Mai (or La Friche), an enormous arts complex spread over several buildings of a former tobacco factory. “This is the biggest cultural center in Europe,” La Friche director Alain Arnaudet told me. He was too modest. Taken together, the buildings offer more than a million square feet of space for seventy different organizations and their exhibitions, films, concerts, studios, residency programs, and classrooms.
There was a lot of twin-city action among the group shows, where artist collectives in Glasgow and Montreal, for example, presented collaborative projects with their cousins in Marseille. The most elaborate, communal project by far gave a retrospective to the life and work of a fictional, hyperlinked artist named Raoul Reynolds, as imagined by Marseille’s artist-run Tank Art Space and a group of Glaswegians put together by curator Francesca Zappia.
The Goethe-Institut brought work by half a dozen young artists to an exhibition that cocurator Francziska Glozer described as “not a show but a presentation of individual positions by artists of one generation.” On another floor was an exhibition from Triangle France, one of the country’s better residency programs for foreigners—the one where Stucchi had been working. Opening that day was “Labor Zero Labor,” an exhilarating attempt by artist-organizer Benjamin Valenza to take YouTube hostage through an artist-run television channel that streamed live performances throughout the fair and will run another three months. “It’s about our use of screen devices and skill sharing,” explained Triangle France director Celine Kopp. The schedule included a sitcom, a magic show, and even a cooking show. Inevitably, one drama, by artist Virgil Fraisse, was partly a parody of the Netflix series Marseille. Like the commercial version, said artist Richard John Jones, “It’s really trashy.”
After a fine lunch at La Cantinetta, an Italian place that would become a clubhouse for the group from the boat, Art-O-Rama threw open its truck-size doors on a hall that has never known the pleasures of air conditioning. It was three in the afternoon, and it was cooler outside in the concrete garden between buildings that served as the fair’s main social space—drinks only, no food.
Perspiring collectors from the city and the region, distinguishable by their jewelry, hairdos, and advancing age, dutifully checked out the stock on hand, stopping first at galleries run by French-speaking people such as Axel Dibie and Alix Dionot-Morani of Crèvecoeur (Paris) and François Ghebaly (Los Angeles). Another busy stand was Bologna’s P420, where dealer Chiara Tiberio (late of Milan’s Raffaella Cortese) barely had a moment to say hello. However, the Mexico City–based artist Rodrigo Hernàndez gave me a personal tour of the new works he had on show there, before moving over to Madragoa, his other European gallery, opened in Lisbon just three months ago by former Franco Noero dealer Matteo Consonni.
And there lies the rub, or one rub, anyway. Can collectors trust such a young business to have the longevity needed for an ongoing dialogue? Consonni wasn’t worried, but it might do the fair some good to introduce more experienced independents into the mix. “It’s not so much about selling as building relationships and getting exposure for artists,” said Schamoni, expressing a sentiment echoed by Friedrich and fellow Berlin dealer Daniel Marzona. “It’s worth it,” Friedrich said. “At what other fair could I get a space this large for $1,500?” Or risk presenting two artists (Mathieu Malouf and Nettell) who silk-screened the same Op art image in different colors on the same size canvas, but offering them at different price points? I liked Friedrich’s nerve.
The publicly funded Art-O-Rama, which gets a boost from private and corporate sponsors, basically is two people: director Jerôme Pantalacci, who cut his teeth on the late legend of a Marseillaise dealer Roger Pailhas, and Nadia Fatnassi, the fair’s dynamo of a managing director. She was the point person who arranged the requisite VIP visits to collectors’ homes and artists’ studios, shuttles to openings or performances at galleries and to art sites elsewhere, and parties for opening and closing nights. She seemed to be everywhere at once—except perhaps at the one competing fair (helpfully listed on the VIP program), Paréidolie, for drawings—very popular, according to collector Frédéric de Goldschmidt, of Brussels, who did go to everything, as far as I could tell.
At the fair, dealers designed booths with walls and—in the case of Schamoni and Crèvecoeur—without, opting to place objects on the floor in open space. (Collectors awarded Crèvecoeur the Roger Pailhas stand prize.) There weren’t really aisles, just partitions. Four actual rooms were dedicated to solo shows by artists barely out of school; another had a very cool film by the Turkish artist Özlem Sulak. Two booths were given to nonprofits: Barcelona’s Green Parrot, and the homegrown M-Arc/Le Box, founded by shipping executive Marc Féraud and his wife, Marie-Helene, the culture czar of Marseille.
She was among the officials gathered (in an air-conditioned auditorium) that afternoon for a crowded press conference announcing Manifesta 13, taking place in 2020. Host city: Marseille, curator TBD. One featured speaker was the indomitable Hedwig Fijen, president of the Manifesta Foundation, who emphasized the importance of affecting a broad, nonart audience. But her thunder was stolen by the city’s long-term (twenty years) mayor, Jean-Claude Gaudin, who is nothing like the person portrayed by Gérard Depardieu on the Netflix show.
In an emotional address, Gaudin laid out the many strong points of Marseille, European Capital of Culture in 2013, largely thanks to him. But he overreacted, Donald Trump–style, when asked why he’d closed a city museum on which he’d lavished many euros. Because, he said in French, it was placed in an immigrant quarter in the hope of diversifying (er, gentrifying?) the neighborhood. “But no one ever went!” he thundered. “No one!”
By contrast, everyone—a big crowd—went to Art-O-Rama’s tenth anniversary beach party that night, including new arrivals Nicolas Trembley (from Paris) and Rodrigo Feliz (from Mexico City’s Material Art Fair). And there wasn’t an empty seat on the buses that took collectors and journalists through the Provençal countryside to Arles the next morning. First stop: an illuminating (and surprising) show of thirty-one van Gogh paintings curated by Bice Curiger from loans to the Van Gogh Foundation, a jewel-box museum established a few years ago by the late Luc Hoffmann, environmentalist father of collector Maja Hoffmann, whose LUMA Arles art center was on the itinerary as well.
Looming above its home in the Parc d’Ateliers is the construction of a Frank Gehry building that some say will be the tallest in the region. At 180 feet high, it dwarfs every other structure in Arles and, needless to say, looks nothing like anything else in France outside of Paris. Closer to the ground are several humongous hangars—sheds that once serviced railroad cars—cleaned up for the exhibition of übercontemporary art by that estimable queen of the retrofit, Annabelle Selldorf.
Jordan Wolfson’s wham-bam-no-thank-you-ma’am Colored Sculpture had just arrived in one gallery; an installation by William Kentridge was in another, small building. The main event was “Systematically Open,” an artist-curated group exhibition that showed self-portraits by the South African photographer Zanele Muholi to great and searing advantage, and suggested that Collier Schorr and Anne Collier should show together always.
Back in Marseille, a few of us went on to a strip mall behind a supermarket to meet Sébastian Peyret, leader of a group of younger collectors who support even younger artists by pooling their purchases for a common entity, Atlantis, named for the atmospheric former physical therapy facility where they show recent acquisitions. It was hotter in there than the sauna it once was so I didn’t stay long. Besides, the one gallery dinner of the weekend was that evening—a birthday party at a tapas bar on the port for Ghebaly and Dibie, hosted by Schamoni, Crèvecoeur, and Ghebaly.
Sunday morning brought the fair VIPs to La Fabrique, the airy, multilevel home of psychologists and seasoned collectors Marc and Josée Gensollen. They are the Rubells of Marseille, but with a taste for small-scale, provocative work by artists who run from Buren, Boltanski, Andre, Nauman, and Dan Graham to Cattelan, Orozco, Tiravanija, Gonzalez-Foerster, Gillick, Bonvicini, and Monk. “It’s not a very speculative collection,” Marc Gensollen assured me. Indubitably not.
Lunch with Ghebaly, Marzona, and the French artist Gerard Traquandi at the Féraud’s hilltop home followed. “I think Art-O-Rama is a good fair to start the season with energy,” Marc Féraud said. “But who is its audience?” Kalmár challenged him. “Young collectors? The Maja Hoffmanns of the Côte d’Azure? Curators? It needs focus.” Marzona supported the scene. “There are good collections here,” he said. “I suffered, but only from the heat.” Kalmár took that as our cue to have a swim with our new best buds off a calanque, a limestone outcropping in the Bouches-du-Rhône, before dining at a Tunisian couscous place near the Hotel Residence du Vieux-Port.
Monday brought a day of architectural epiphanies, starting with La Vieille Charité. Built in the seventeenth century as a homeless shelter and now the site of a few museums, it’s said to have inspired Le Corbusier. The architect’s Brutalist wonder of a housing project, La Cité Radieuse, where Kalmàr rents an apartment, was my next stop (amazing), followed by a private view of the Féraud’s serene Helmut Federle show at Le Box. Then, with attention paid to the list of regional art sites in the VIP brochure, we drove to Chateau La Coste, hotelier Patrick McKillen’s unbelievable winery and contemporary art center outside of Aix. Guided by center manager Daniel Kennedy, we toured a vast tract of land populated by grapes and extraordinarily sited artworks by Richard Serra, Franz West, Lee Ufan, Liam Gillick, Andy Goldsworthy, and many more, including the steel towers that Louise Bourgeois made for the opening of Tate Modern, and the pavilion that Gehry built outside of the Serpentine Gallery in 2008. The center’s main building is peak Tadao Ando. And the winery, OMG: Jean Nouvel maybe should stick with industrial architecture.
Back in town, Fatnassi told me that Art-O-Rama’s opening weekend had attracted 3,500 visitors and logged some €150,000 in sales. (Its artworks, by the way, stay put as an exhibition for two weeks.) By 2020, the little-fair-that-could ought to be a creditable anchor for Manifesta—hopefully with livelier galleries and a new, cooler location.
Still, as long as it has Marseille, it’ll be in the right place.