OFTEN REFERRED to as the fair before la rentrée (France’s official “back to work” date), Art-O-Rama provides a perfect excuse to spend the last weekend of August in sunny Marseille. This year, in addition to being well situated to attract the art crowd returning from fabulous vacation destinations in Provence and the Côte d’Azur, Art-O-Rama benefitted from Marseille’s status as 2013’s European Capital of Culture. The city has enjoyed a fast and furious urban renewal, boasting brand new museums and public monuments, an impressive program of concerts and performances, and pop-up art projects galore.
Nowhere is Marseille 2.0 more apparent than at the Vieux Port—the city’s heart and soul. En route to our hotel last Friday, I was surprised to find the gritty docks immortalized in Marcel Pagnol’s novels transformed into a modern pedestrian-friendly esplanade, with Norman Foster’s gleaming, stainless steel Ombrière providing welcome shade (and a great photo op) for tourists.
Art-O-Rama, now in its seventh year, has always had a pleasantly unfair-like open layout and relaxed atmosphere. This year, the booths (all curatorial projects selected by the fair committee) and the crowd alike did their best to bring summer fun indoors. Boat shoes and brightly checked shirts were de rigueur at Friday’s opening, and dealers, artists, and collectors showed off tans and traded holiday recaps. Artworks on view, like the large-scale beach landscape by Nicolas Milhé shown by Galerie Samy Abraham (Paris)—underscored the pervasive (and persuasive) Mediterranean vibe.
When I caught up with Art-O-Rama’s director, Jérôme Pantalacci, he reiterated the general enthusiasm around Marseille’s ramped-up art emphasis but asserted that “the fair itself has not changed much.” It’s hard to complain about that. With its intimate size (seventeen galleries this year, plus a handful of “guest projects”) and off-the-beaten-path location (an old tobacco factory along the train tracks), Art-O-Rama is a hip mélange of local pride and cosmopolitan flair. In addition to French galleries, this year’s exhibitors hailed from Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Mexico. Stopping to admire a solo presentation of Jimmie Durham by Mexico City’s Kurimanzutto gallery, I asked director Daniela Zarate what makes Art-O-Rama appealing. Smiling, she simply pointed to the long stretch of wall and open floor space that made up her “booth.” Meanwhile, local artists also received due attention. Shanaynay, a nonprofit art space in Paris, collaborated with four Marseille-based artists to offer specialized tours based on each artist’s expertise and personal relationship to the city.
Opening-night festivities kicked off with an artist-led tour of Joep van Lieshout’s solo show “The Butcher” at the Tour Panorama, a vast newly opened art space located in the same industrial complex as the fair. Hearing van Lieshout describe an upcoming performance/meal for five hundred people (for which he raised and prepared an entire cow) quelled my appetite, but by then it was time to head down to the dinner reception. There was an animated performance by electro techno-punk band Sugarcraft, and the crowd began to migrate from the dance floor to the outdoor picnic tables. Opting for a change of scenery, I scored a ride with Parisian dealer Guillaume Sultana and artist Olivier Millagou to an afterparty at the house of local collector Sébastien Peyret. Clear across town at a Bauhaus-style residence in the hills of the tony twelfth arrondissement, the DJ played pop hits—including Daft Punk’s ubiquitous summer anthem “Get Lucky”—well into the night.
The next morning, too early for some, we headed off to Château la Coste—a vineyard near Aix-en-Provence distinguished by the modern architecture of Jean Nouvel and Tadao Ando. We passed Zaha Hadid’s graceful skyscraper known affectionately as le phare (the lighthouse), and soon we were winding along country roads through fragrant fields of lavender. During a tour of the La Coste property we discovered a treasure trove of site-specific artworks nestled among the cabernet sauvignons and grenache noirs. After debating whether a series of bronze foxes by Michael Stipe (of REM fame) passed muster in the company of Tracey Emin, Sean Scully, Richard Serra, and Hiroshi Sugimoto, we piled back in the car to return to the city.
Having rested up in preparation for another late and boozy night, we made our way past the Vieux Port’s packed cafés en route to La Vieille Charité—a former almshouse that dates to the seventeenth century. Illuminated with purple, green, and orange floodlighting, the Baroque chapel and surrounding arcades provided a fairy tale–like setting for the gala hosted by artist-residency nonprofit Triangle. We sipped local quaff pastis and checked out the silent auction, which included works by François Morellet and Raphaël Zarka, while a solo pianist crooned sappy “slow dance” songs. Though the program credited the “overly familiar pop-musical hits with strange lyrics” to London-based artist Cally Spooner, yawns in the crowd suggested folks were in the mood for livelier entertainment. Luckily, the tempo picked up when Memphis rocker Harlan T. Bobo took the stage.
Topping off the weekend was a brunch at Le Corbusier’s famous housing development, La Cité Radieuse, whose rooftop has been reimagined as an exhibition space. Here, against a mise-en-scène of Xavier Veilhan’s “Architectones” sculptures and sweeping views over the city, I debated the merits and shortcomings of Le Corbusier’s utopian vision with artist Adam Vackar. However, when a frisky dog stole the show by jumping into the turquoise wading pool, it suddenly occurred to me that with all the excitement and activity of the weekend, I hadn’t managed to so much as dip my toes in the water. I followed the mischievous pup’s lead, beelining for the beach before boarding the TGV back to Paris, feeling refreshed and ready for la rentrée.