Jennifer Flay, director of FIAC. © Max Tetard
Jennifer Flay, director of Fiac © Max Tetard

Jennifer Flay, the director of Fiac (Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain), insists that France’s most important modern and contemporary art fair can weather future storms.

The 46th edition opens this week in Paris, bringing together 199 galleries from an unprecedented 29 countries, with the Ivory Coast (Galerie Cécile Fakhoury) and Iran (Dastan gallery) represented at the fair for the first time. With French galleries totalling 28 per cent of the dealer tally this year, the fair also stakes its claim as the mainstay of the Gallic art scene.

New Zealand-born Flay, a former art dealer who opened her first gallery in 1990 in the Marais district, is straight-talking and approachable. She joined the fair as artistic director in 2003, moving up the ladder to director in 2010. The general consensus is that Fiac has flourished under her watch; Hors les Murs, the sometimes underrated public art programme, has excelled with commissions this year from artists such as Shana Moulton and Moataz Nasr.

Her mission statement is admirably clear. “Our primary role is to provide the conditions of a marketplace where our exhibitors can present works to the public in optimum conditions, and function commercially throughout the fair at all levels of the market, including the very highest. That is our primary role, I would never lose sight of that. But very high up there is our cultural and social role. Artists work for a large audience,” she says.

23.05.2018 -2018 - © Magnus Plessen, Courtesy Mai 36 Galerie, Zurich - cardboard, charcoal and paper - 60 x 69 cm
‘23.05.2018’ (2018) by Magnus Plessen © Mai 36 Galerie

Not everything has gone to plan. Fiac’s satellite fair L’Officielle, held across Paris at the Docks-Cité de la Mode et du Design, was shelved after only two editions, in 2014 and 2015. It was considered to be too far away by the galleries and by members of the public in particular, Flay admits.

The decision to reintroduce a section for design dealers at Fiac in 2017 has also received a mixed reception. She says that “the design section [made up of five galleries this year including Galerie Kreo of Paris] is working. The galleries are very, very happy. The only thing they’d like is to be able to exhibit on larger surfaces, when more space is available.”

On the thorny subject of stand costs, she says Fiac led the way before the issue flared up in mid-2018. Early last year, the basic tariff of €579 per square metre was reduced to €550 for the smaller stands, helping younger galleries, while the fee for the largest stands increased by 2.2 per cent on average.

“We’ve always believed in helping emerging dealers; indeed, our Lafayette Sector has had a real impact,” Flay adds. Young galleries in this section can benefit from subsidies of up to 50 per cent; the 2019 selection includes Mariane Ibrahim Gallery of Chicago and Soft Opening of London.

The Space That Contains a Flag -1965 - pastel and pencil on paper - 31.8 x 25.4 cm COURTESY The artist and The Box LA
‘The Space That Contains a Flag’ (1965) by Barbara T. Smith The Box LA ©Fredrik Nilsen

Yet other challenges loom. Within two years, the fair will move out of the Grand Palais, its venue on the banks of the Seine, while the historic building undergoes renovations. The building will close in January 2021 and reopen for the Paris Olympic Games in 2024. For its 2021 and 2022 editions Fiac will decamp to Grand Palais Ephémère, a temporary venue in the Champ-de-Mars gardens near the Eiffel Tower that will host the events usually held at the Grand Palais. The location of the 2023 edition is yet to be confirmed, however.

When the Grand Palais closed for refurbishment from the mid-1990s to 2005, Fiac relocated to the Pavillon du Parc at the Porte de Versailles, a convention centre on the outskirts of the capital. It is widely acknowledged that the move dented the reputation and commercial clout of Fiac.

Ugo Rondinone’s ‘Blue Pink Green Yellow Mountain’ (2019)
Ugo Rondinone’s ‘Blue Pink Green Yellow Mountain’ (2019) Esther Schipper © Studio Rondinone

This time, exhibiting dealers seem far more bullish about leaving the iconic Palais, although it is an essential part of the Fiac package.

“I would never take it for granted, but I think galleries will remain on board; they’re excited and want to participate in this new chapter of Fiac,” says Flay.

“Fiac is a brand. Wherever it moves, we shall follow,” declares Franck Prazan, the director of the Paris-based modern art gallery Applicat-Prazan, who will be showing works this year such as “Paysage de Provence” (1953) by Nicolas de Staël.

Gordon Veneklasen, co-owner of Michael Werner gallery, says that “it’s hard to say whether or not we would be willing to stay if they move, but it will be a factor certainly.”

Bas-Meudon, 28 janvier 1991 - Courtesy Galerie GP & N Vallois, Paris - © François Poivret
Jacques Villeglé’s ‘Bas-Meudon’ (1991) Galerie GP & N Vallois ©Francois Poivret

For Fiac as for art fairs everywhere, location issues and other logistics pale in comparison to the climate change crisis, which fair organisers will soon have to confront head-on. The environmental impact of these mammoth pop-up events — with the packaging and transportation of thousands of works and attendees — is becoming increasingly difficult to justify.

Flay points out that all art-world individuals may soon need to re-evaluate their carbon footprint. “It may happen in the future that people think twice about travelling long distances to see a show. It is interesting that this will potentially bring the focus back to regional and local situations. Paris is well placed. We are also looking closely at other things to ensure we are producing as little waste as possible,” she says.

‘kRIST’ (2018) by Romuald Hazoumé
‘kRIST’ (2018) by Romuald Hazoumé Magnin-A © Kleinefenn

She is keen to highlight the practical measure of reusing fair furniture. “[Parent company] Reed Exhibitions rents the Grand Palais for a fixed period, from setting up Fiac to taking down the Paris Photo fair [in November]. This avoids taking thousands of square metres of walls in and out of the Grand Palais; the dismantled wall panels are taken to storage and renovated for use the following year. We’ve been recycling walls since I’ve been here,” she says.

Fiac has also held its own in one of the art world’s favourite jousts: Frieze London versus the Paris fair. In previous years, the fairs were back to back, making it easier for international collectors to take in both events. More recently, a week-long gap has opened up between the two. “Frieze and Fiac dates are not quite close enough . . . if you are coming from the US, many of us have to choose one or the other. Fiac has been getting better every year, and of course it is Paris in the autumn,” says the US collector Carole Server.

Flay says she would like to see the fairs revert to running one after the other. “I’m not responsible for any rivalry between Fiac and Frieze. I think we can coexist, that’s always been my aim,” Flay opines.

How Paris and Fiac will fare if the UK leaves the European Union on October 31 is obviously a hotly contested topic. “Brexit does not mean the UK art market will crumble, and we are not depending on Brexit to grow stronger, we’re growing stronger intrinsically,” Flay says. But, she adds, “It’s all such a terrible, terrible shame.”

October 17-20,

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