Strong Economy, Top Location Heat Up Geneva’s Art Scene

Strong Economy, Top Location Heat Up Geneva’s Art Scene

Paul Michaud

GENEVA, Switzerland–Geneva looks poised to become one of Europe’s leading art gallery capitals, indeed a major world art center, if present trends continue. Genevas galleries are being buoyed by the influx of U.S. dollars. The city is also increasingly becoming a refuge for galleries that are having problems making ends meet over the border in France.

“The way things are going,” said Emmanuel Grandjean, an arts specialist and writer, “Geneva may soon be playing in the same league as New York.”

Geneva, which in the not-so-distant past was considered a cultural backwater, with many galleries pulling up stakes to move elsewhere, has recently become an importer of galleries and auction houses.

Phillips, the British art auction house recently acquired by French industrialist Bernard Arnault, has decided to turn Geneva into a major international showplace. In conjunction with the French auction house Tajan, it has announced an ambitious schedule of art events to be held over the coming months. Many of the sales and exhibits would normally have been scheduled for Paris and Monte Carlo.

Indeed, the decision by Phillips and Tajan to switch some of the sales over to Geneva reflects an overall trend that has become evident in recent months. Many of the galleries moving over said they abandoned Paris because they are fed up with the antiquated and expensive regulations that govern their activities in France.

Edward Mitterrand, the 31-year-old grand-nephew of former French president Francois Mitterrand, said he chose to set up shop on the Rue des Bains in the Plainpalais district of Geneva for a number of reasons, not the least being that he wanted to make a name for himself.

Mitterrand also admitted it was the low cost of rent in the Plainpalais district of Geneva–where a number of galleries have decided to set up shop–that attracted him to the city. “In New York, the rents are out of sight, and as for London, not only are the rents expensive, but the market seems to be interested only in British artists.”

“And,” noted Mitterrand, “living in Geneva is agreeable. One can exist on relatively little. And then there are surprisingly more collectors than I’d imagined.” Mitterrand also cited the proximity of Geneva’s Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MAMCO) as another reason he established his gallery in the Plainpalais district.

Parallel to the arrival of the new galleries, Geneva itself has gone out of its way to build up its reputation as a major international exhibition center, notably through the city’s richly endowed network of museums and cultural institutions. Presently being mounted are a number of exhibitions that have received much attention in the international press. Among them is a major exposition at the Musee Rath of the work of Swiss impressionist painter Cuno Amiet. Another museum is exhibiting work done by French painter Fernand Leger. A third museum, the Maison Tavel, has just opened a photography exhibit which spotlights Geneva and its suburbs as seen through the eyes of known and unknown photographers. The museum network also includes the Musee de Horlogerie (dock museum), Musee d’histoire des sciences (the history of science), Musee Ariana (porcelain and other such objets d’art), Cabinet des estampes (a museum devoted to engravings), and the Bibliotheque d’art et d’archeologie. Geneva, in spite of its small size, has a highly educated population, which possesses a great appetite for the arts.

Another major figure of the French art world, Marc Blondeau, said he too is planning on relocating at least part of his gallery to Geneva. Blondeau said he would like to open up a gallery in Geneva next year, and that, like Mitterrand, he also has a predilection for the Plainpalais district. He plans to specialize in such masters as Picasso, Warhol, Yves Klein and Sonia and Robert Delaunay.

Among the reasons cited by Blondeau for his decision to resettle in Geneva: “the French government has made operating a gallery impossible, given taxes and all other kinds of red tape. Then too, he pointed out that Switzerland has not yet adopted the “droit de suite” tax, a three percent levy on the sale price of a work that is paid by the buyer to its originator. And, like Mitterrand, Blondeau admitted he was surprised to see Geneva has a largely untapped pool of collectors.

And, certainly maybe one of the biggest reasons many new galleries have chosen to set up shop in Geneva is that existing galleries have gone out of their way to welcome the new dealers. Said Geneva gallery owner Daniel Varenne, “Their arrival does not in any way bring in new competition, but rather a new clientele, as the stimulus they provide will force us to turn our attention more to the other international markets. They will undoubtedly attract a new public that we’ve been unable to attract ourselves.” And who knows, said Blondeau, “our presence may very well turn Switzerland into a bridge between the new and old worlds, and therefore take away some of America’s predominance in the fields of contemporary and modern art.”

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