Think contemporary art in France and it is Paris’s still radical-looking Centre Pompidou that springs to mind. But for all Beaubourg’s status as a cultural powerhouse, the French have been anxious not to neglect their regions. In the past 30 years state-funded collections of contemporary art have quietly sprung up across France, bringing big-name artists such as Cindy Sherman and Sophie Calle to remote corners of the country, from Brittany to Provence.
The Fonds régionaux d’art contemporain (regional contemporary art funds, or Frac) were initiated by culture minister Jack Lang in 1982 as part of a decentralisation plan, the aim being to present the artists of the day to a diverse public in a spirit of fraternité. Now numbering 23, Frac are present in every French region, with more than 26,000 works by 4,200 French and international artists comprising the third largest public collection of contemporary art in France (behind the Paris-based Cnap, the Centre national des arts plastiques, and the Pompidou’s Musée national d’art moderne).
Outreach and the idea that the Frac could be crucial cultural hubs were a key part of the early community-led approach. “The idea was to organise, almost everywhere across the region, contemporary art exhibitions,” says researcher Dr Pierre-Alain Four, who evaluated the role of the Frac for his doctorate. “So you’d see shows in schools, railway stations and town halls. At the time, there was a backlash against museums, which were viewed as conservative.”
From 2000 the Frac began to equip themselves with exhibition spaces, forging further their individual identities. The Frac Centre in the northern town of Orléans, for example, has, like its sister organisations, devised its own acquisition policies; architectural items, including 800 maquettes by “starchitects” such as Kengo Kuma and Sanaa of Japan, are its forte.
But as the top end of the art market booms, isn’t there a danger that the Frac, which have annual acquisition budgets of between €80,000 and €300,000, will be priced out? “The Frac Centre is extremely conscious of the high rates in the art market,” says Aurélien Vernant, the centre’s head of research. Its strategy, he says, is two-pronged, focusing on works by historic international figures and emerging artists. “The Frac very often deal directly with architects and artists who have not, or only recently, entered the art market,” he stresses.
Head west, where Frac Bretagne has adopted the same policy of purchasing pieces by both veteran foreign practitioners and younger artists, with a nod to influential local heavyweights. Its annual acquisition budget of €230,000 has enabled it to buy works by US sculptor Robert Morris, Canadian photographer Iain Baxter and the key Breton artist Yvan Salomone.
Down south, Frac Aquitaine in Bordeaux puts the accent on acquiring works by under-the-radar artists, pointing out that it was one of the first public collections to own a work by market darling Jeff Koons. Frac officials also forage for works at auctions and have made their presence felt in recent years at art fairs worldwide, especially Fiac, which is held every October in Paris.
Harry Bellet, the art critic of Le Monde, argues that the Frac have, in the past, been “unloved” but stresses that different directors have acquired important pieces, such as Gerhard Richter’s painting “Candle” (1982), bought for FFr100,000 in 1984 by the Frac Rhône-Alpes.
Jean-Jacques Aillagon, former French culture minister, also vouches for the “quality and coherence” of the Frac holdings, singling out the “impressive” inventory of Frac Nord-Pas-de-Calais in Dunkirk, which includes works by Angela de la Cruz and Saâdane Afif in its 1,100-strong collection. Andreas Gursky’s imposing photographs of local grain silos, commissioned by the Frac Centre in Orléans in 1994, are another highlight.
But has Frac helped demystify contemporary art for the French public? Four thinks it has. “The idea that contemporary art and its various forms can address essential issues and raise key questions is beginning to take root beyond the inscrutable art world,” he argues. “Frac has played its part in spreading this message.”
The success of Pompidou Metz, the northern satellite of the Paris-based museum, and Monumenta – an annual ministry of culture commission previously awarded to Anish Kapoor and Christian Boltanski – at Paris’s huge Grand Palais – have also made contemporary art less impenetrable, comments Aillagon. “In this context, the Frac, vilified over time, have not played an insignificant role,” he says.
But there are serious sticking points. Gripes about insufficient budgets often emanate from Frac representatives. All of the branches are funded in the main by the government and France’s powerful regional councils, and money is tight. According to the French web publication Le Quotidien de l’Art, Frac Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur in Marseille, known as Frac Paca, receives €1.8m annually but requires €2.2m. Appeals for sponsorship stand out: Frac Aquitaine’s website, for instance, emphasises that tax breaks are available for prospective patrons.
Funding is not the only problem. “Public access to the Frac collections seems limited and marketing and audience development is not taken seriously,” says Stephen Snoddy, director of the New Art Gallery Walsall, who visited a number of Frac spaces on a research trip this year. He adds, though, that the philosophy of decentralisation should be applauded.
Four reiterates that the Frac have made contemporary art more accessible but says they lack the resources to reach out to a large audience. In 2011 the Frac Centre in Orléans was open for 141 days, drawing 5,423 visitors, though its previous Archilab “architectural laboratory” shows have attracted audiences of up to 20,000.
However, Frac’s profile looks set to change dramatically, with a spate of striking new buildings opening by 2014. A new 3,000 sq metre structure designed by Jakob+MacFarlane, set to open next year on the site of a former military barracks in central Orléans, should transform the status of the Frac Centre, which is currently housed in an unremarkable 200 sq metre venue. Next month an extraordinary new €18.3m venue designed by Odile Decq will open in Rennes, the new home of Frac Bretagne’s 4,700-piece collection. Kengo Kuma’s new building for Frac Paca in Marseille, meanwhile, should make the southern port city an important art destination.
Significantly, this raft of new buildings has prompted soul-searching among Frac’s directors about why their institutions matter in the 21st century. Won’t these shiny new Frac galleries just end up as civic art museums in everything but name, with limited links to local communities?
“With a collection, you automatically think about the notion of a museum, but how you use that collection is key. Our ambition is to act like a centrifuge,” says Catherine Elkar, director of Frac Bretagne. And on their 30th anniversary, the Frac still display art in out-of-the-way places: Frac Bretagne is showing challenging works by Yuna Amand and Pat Steir this summer in a church at Pontivy, an unobtrusive market town – proof indeed that Frac are still bringing art to the people.