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A Gallery Grows In the Galeries: The Grandest Shopping Center in Paris Turns to Contemporary Art

‘Public financing is decreasing, budgets are low, so it’s our role to support art,’ says the director of Galeries Lafayette's art space

Installation view at Galerie des Galeries. ©Thibaut Voisin

Installation view of ‘Idées Multiples’ at Galerie des Galeries.©THIBAUT VOISIN

The department store Galeries Lafayette in Paris is an orgy of commerce that may be not be matched anywhere in the world, with its swarms of tourists sporting Saint Laurent clutches and Chanel frocks, and Louis Vuitton booths popping up seemingly every ten feet, all clustered beneath a massive glass dome. Past all this, and after a few more bodega-sized shops stuffed with Fendi, you’ll find a contemporary art space.

It’s called, appropriately enough, Galerie des Galeries.

“Half of our visitors come to the Galeries to see the exhibition, and half came here by chance—of course, we have a lot of foreign people,” said Elsa Janssen, the stylish (naturally) director of Galerie des Galeries, basking in the space’s high-powered A/C on a scorching Paris afternoon, sitting on a cool-looking but slightly uncomfortable chaise lounge facing a John Armleder painting.

Installation view of 'Grand Magasin' in 2014.

Installation view of ‘Grand Magasin’ in 2014.

“Today, a department store has to support art, because we have 60,000 square meters inside of Paris,” she continued. “Public financing is decreasing, budgets are low, so it’s our role to support art.”

Since the space was inaugurated a few years ago, Galerie des Galeries has built a strong little program nearly hidden by so much commerce. There have been shows out of works by odd and ambitious Paris artists showing in far-out galleries. It let a very young Simon Castets (now the director of the Swiss Institute in New York) take over the space and have his way with it. David Lynch showed the lithographs he had been making at a studio in Montparnasse. For its current show, “Idées Multiples,” it took editions by eight different artists—including Josh Smith, Pierre Bismuth, Daniel Gordon, and Rafael Rozendaal—and then had six local designers and artists surround them with furniture, architectural harnesses, and ready-to-wear clothing from the racks outside. Rozendaal is flanked by some Jean-Paul Gaultier dresses. Daniel Gordon gets Marc by Marc Jacobs. Everything is for sale.

“Everything—this, this, this, this, this, it’s all for sale,” Janssen said, pointing at various lamps and ottomans and desks and doohickeys clustered around each work of art.

In some ways, this falls in line with the recent (or, really, eternal?) collaboration between the high-fashion world and the contemporary art world. It’s happening outside the city here (Foundation Louis Vuitton) and outside Milan (Fondazione Prada). The luxury goods conglomerates are the cash cows, and they’re lending their excess funds to earn art world cache, while providing artists with carte blanche for what they want to do.

“When I work with artists, I realize how excited they are,” said Janssen, as she flipped through old catalogs, pointing again, matching previous installation with the state of the place right now. “They are very inspired by the place—they conceive crazy things each time, because it’s new, and they feel more free maybe. It’s not a museum—they can have fun with it.”

Installation view of 'La Tyrannie des Objets,' 2013.

Installation view of ‘La Tyrannie des Objets,’ 2013.

Fashion collaborations aside, Janssen wants Galerie des Galeries to be more than a speck of culture under the pretty byzantine dome of consumerism. She wants it to be a destination, a gallery visited by art lovers who have no interest in the clothes being sold all around it. The institutional support is certainly there: Guillaume Houzé—the son of Philippe Houzé, the head of Galeries Lafayette Group, the company’s worldwide arm—is planning a contemporary art space in the Marais, opening next year, which will be designed by none other than the auteur de jour of such edifices, Rem Koolhaas.

In the meantime, Galerie des Galeries’ most high-profile offering to date will open this October during FIAC: it’s the first-ever solo show in France for Alex Prager, the Los Angeles-based photographer represented by Lehmann Maupin in New York. At first, Janssen said, Prager wasn’t quite convinced that she wanted to show in Galeries Lafayette. After coming to Paris to see the space, though, the artist was won over, and the opening will coincide with a big opening reception and a celebration at David Lynch’s nightclub in the Montmartre, Silencio—making it a marquee event during FIAC, France’s biggest art fair. “She realized that we were true, and sincere,” Janssen said.

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