Bill Viola’s ‘Hall of Whispers’ (1995)
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People have been saying for years that Paris’s art market is not commercial enough, that it has suffered from not being at the forefront of the contemporary art scene and that its taxes are too off-putting,” says arts writer Melanie Gerlis. “But the recent openings of major international contemporary galleries – with more on the cards – suggest that this isn’t necessarily the case.”

Indeed, the commercial sector in the French capital seems to be motoring a little faster. Berlin gallerist Max Hetzler plans to open a new space next May near the Centre Pompidou, citing the growth in private foundations as a reason for expansion. Last week, the auction house Phillips unveiled an office and exhibition space in the fashionable Saint-Germain-des-Prés district on the Left Bank.

Trade figures also rate the French auction house Artcurial, which, as one gallerist observes, is “decidedly local with an international network”. A stratum of less well-known but serious contemporary art collectors such as ecommerce entrepreneur Steve Rosenblum, dentist Philippe Cohen and Laurent Dumas, founder of the Emerige property group, makes the mix even more interesting.

Austrian art dealer Thaddaeus Ropac, who runs two galleries in the city, says that “Paris is less driven by artists, and more by amazing exhibitions.” He represents the veteran Russian artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, who have been commissioned to create the Monumenta 2014 contemporary art installation at the Grand Palais (May 5-July 22).

Monumenta 2014 will be overseen by the influential curator Jean-Hubert Martin, who is making his mark all over Paris, 24 years after organising the influential show Les Magiciens de la Terre at the Centre Pompidou. He is also behind the Theatre of the World exhibition at La Maison Rouge, comprising 340 works from the eclectic collection of antiquities and contemporary art amassed by gambler David Walsh, founder of the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Tasmania.

But it is the return to the Parisian art world of France’s highest-profile prodigal sons, the rival luxury goods magnates François Pinault and Bernard Arnault, that is the talk of the champagne-fuelled vernissages. Pinault, founder of the PPR group, whose stable of brands includes Gucci and Balenciaga, could not have chosen a more dramatic setting for A triple tour, an exhibition of works drawn from his collection that launched on October 21. Some 50 pieces by 22 artists are on show in the Conciergerie, a medieval building on the Ile de la Cité. Works by Bill Viola, Julie Mehretu, Mona Hatoum, Javier Tellez, Chen Zhen and others are set against the vaulted ceilings and dark alcoves of the former prison where Marie-Antoinette was incarcerated during the French Revolution.

James Lee Byars’s sphere in the Jardin des Tuileries

“The exhibition theme of imprisonment immediately came to mind when the Centre des Monuments Nationaux offered us the chance to host the exhibition,” says Pinault’s curator Caroline Bourgeois of the “historically charged Gothic location”. Most of the pieces have not been exhibited before, she adds, so this is the first chance for Paris’s art-hungry public to see the Pinault collection.

This flight back to the Parisian nest is significant for Pinault, who abandoned plans to build his own gallery on another island in the Seine, the Ile Seguin, in 2005 (he opted instead to show his art at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice). One Paris-based art adviser said: “The move is hugely symbolic, especially in light of Arnault’s new gallery, which will be the most important development on the contemporary art front in Paris for years.”

Arnault, chairman of luxury goods group LVMH and France’s richest man, with a fortune estimated by Forbes to be $29bn, plans to open a museum in the Bois de Boulogne district next year. Designed by Frank Gehry, the €100m building will house the Louis Vuitton Foundation for Creation in Paris. What will go on show in the cloud-shaped, glass-covered complex remains largely under wraps but Arnault’s representative stresses that “young artists from emerging scenes worldwide” will feature. An exhibition of works drawn from the Vuitton Foundation at the Hong Kong Museum of Art in 2009 included works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Cao-Fei, Ryan Trecartin and Cyprien Gaillard.

Should Arnault and Pinault wish to bolster their collections, this is a good week to do so: Fiac, France’s premier modern and contemporary art fair, launched its 40th edition at the Grand Palais with 184 galleries from 25 countries. “The fair’s profile has been transformed in the past decade,” says Ropac, who adds that the event is attracting more museum groups.

CGI of the Frank Gehry-designed Louis Vuitton Foundation for Creation in the Bois de Boulogne

Dealers at the fair were buoyed by the news that a proposed rise in VAT affecting works of art imported into France from outside the EU had been scrapped by the government. A report co-authored by Guillaume Cerutti, chief executive of Sotheby’s in France, says a planned increase to 10 per cent would have had “disastrous consequences for the French art market in its entirety”, but in fact the tax was reduced from 7 per cent to 5.5 per cent.

Veterans of the Paris art scene know they cannot afford to be complacent, however. Capital gains tax on art has, for instance, risen from 5 per cent to 6.5 per cent to offset the VAT import reduction. “The taxes keep changing here; basically, it’s a mess,” says Patrick Perrin, founder of the PAD art and design fairs.

The consensus in the trade is that London, with its booming auction sector and new spaces established by major US dealers, is still the art centre of choice for collectors from the “new frontiers”: Russia, Asia and the Middle East. “London is a hub while Paris is a destination,” says the Paris dealer Franck Prazan.

But Ropac says he saw no Chinese collectors at the Frieze London fair last week. He cannily adds that he recently met the mega-collector Budi Tek in Paris; the Indonesian-Chinese businessman is in town for an exhibition of works by the Chinese-born French artist Yan Pei-Ming at Ropac’s gallery in the Marais.

Another must-see is the late US artist James Lee Byars’s huge golden sphere which sits on the surface of the Octagonal basin pond in the Jardin des Tuileries. Part of Fiac’s “Hors les murs” public art programme, the bronze ball is a striking symbol in a city gaining momentum on the art front; the question now is whether Paris can keep the ball rolling.

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