Komunuma: the model for Grand Paris?

“If you are looking for avant-garde art, you don’t need to be able to go to Aesop two minutes before”, says dealer Jocelyn Wolff to a small group of journalists balancing champagne in one hand and a construction worker’s hat in the other. “Gallery districts in Paris are all gentrified. This is the case of Saint-Germain-des-Prés and of downtown Marais, but also increasingly the Belleville area”. We are standing amid a huge construction site in Romainville north-east of central Paris, where a sprawling new art district named Komunuma is still in the process of being built. Some buildings have been here since the 1940s, huge red brick factory spaces with characteristic glass-wall windows. Others seem new, freshly renovated, bright, shiny, and white, still smelling of the fresh paint that left marks on some of the tracksuit-clad gallerists.

Florence Bonnefous, co-owner of the Air de Paris gallery, emerges from one of those spaces – she had just been putting up tapestry. The door sticker is done, Google Map location is running, but the floor is flooded. Her four-story space will open as planned, like all four gallery spaces, on 20 October. Last summer, she and Edouard Merino, the other co-director of this iconic French gallery, said goodbye to their twenty-three-year-old space in Rue Louise Weiss in the 13th arrondissement. In Situ Fabienne Leclerc follows Air de Paris in permanently moving their space to Romainville, while they are joined by Jocelyn Wolff and Vincent Sator, who will keep their existing spaces, respectively in Belleville and Marais.

Komunuma, partners, October 2019 Photo: © Stephanie Füssenich; Courtesy Komunuma

Komunuma, partners, October 2019 Photo: © Stephanie Füssenich; Courtesy Komunuma

Komunuma is the name of the larger project led by Fondation Fiminico, a non-profit foundation created by the real-estate group of the same name, and includes three additional spaces. Fiminco’s own foundation space includes exhibition spaces and a residency program for eighteen artists and is set to open in December. Jeune Création, a 70-year-old artist-run non-profit, temporarily settled in what should have been gallery Imane Farès’ space (who dropped out of the project a few weeks ago), will later join the Foundation in its brick building. Private art school Parsons Paris School of Design will open a second campus on-site, while the construction of a brand-new building for the FRAC Île-de-France, led by Freaks Architects, has just begun.

“I have been looking for a new space since I arrived”, explains Xavier Franceschi, director of FRAC Île-de-France, a regional collection of contemporary art. “I needed a solution for housing the collection and for developing the FRAC’s reach. I did not want to opt for a huge building including everything inside. This works wonderfully for so many of those other regional spaces, but our context is a specific one. We needed to build a multisite project that would reflect our geography and audience: in the centre of Paris in Belleville, in the great suburbs with Le Châeau de Rentilly, and near Paris with the Romainville space that will open next fall”.

Accessible by metro, the area is only one or two metro stops away from several spaces already implanted in the area: CND, the national dance centre in Pantin, CNAP (national art centre for visual arts), art centre La Galerie – Centre d'art Contemporain as well as Thaddaeus Ropac’s second gallery space, all reside within walking distance in the Seine-Saint-Denis department.

“If you know someone living Place de la Madeleine, I’d like to meet this person”, jokes Jocelyn Wolff, referring to the Hausmanised part of western Paris, close to where FIAC and other fairs, like Paris Internationale or newcomer Salon de Normandy, are currently taking up their temporary residencies for the week. “In this giant urban area of twelve million people, we are actually in the centre. A lot of people work here, you see them every day commuting on bike along the nearby Canal de l'Ourq. This is today’s reality. It does not even feel like a radical move to me. Rather an acknowledgement of the fact that gallery districts have been moving way slower than the agglomeration’s sociology”.

Komunuma, site, Summer 2019 © Axelle Poisson; Courtesy Fondation FIMINCO

Komunuma, site, Summer 2019 © Axelle Poisson; Courtesy Fondation FIMINCO

The equation seems simple enough: to see progressive art, you need to go to progressive areas.

While walking from the metro to Komunuma along a sparsely built area lined with various storage spaces, some will recognise the surroundings from semi-legal parties and raves over the last summer – that Komunuma now inhabits the postal service’s veterinary services is an appropriate coincidence not lost on the horse tranquilizer-consuming club scene. Komunuma solidifies this informal process. It makes it permanent, as well as inscribing it within a private-led real-estate development logic. At the end of the month, group Fiminco will also inaugurate Paddock Paris, a 20,000 square meter complex with shops, restaurants, and a three-star hotel. Since 2016, BETC, one of the biggest French advertising agencies, has its offices in a clean-but-make-it-concrete former abandoned-and graffiti-clad building, complete with a first-floor exhibition space seamlessly blending into a bar and food-truck area with occasional DJs. So sure, as Jocelyn Wolff explains, the new collectors are already living here, or will do so in a new future. And certainly, the Fiminco and FRAC will help make art more accessible to artists, thanks to the residency spaces, and to local residents, old and new, of the surrounding area. As for the galleries, they are no Gagosian looking for huge showrooms to grow soilless art like exotic plants in greenhouses. Most of them were pioneers in setting up their spaces outside of the established centres.

The much-needed mutation of postcard Paris into a more diverse whole integrating its outskirts is a process named Grand Paris, or Greater Paris. To many, it is already a lived-in, daily-life experience. Still, Paddock Paris brands itself as “the new Parisian Brooklyn”, while BETC mentions a “post-peripheral culture”. As a whole, as a mix of independent spaces, commercial, public non-profit ones, Komunuma, which name means “community” in Esperanto, is a complex space of coexistence and dissonance. As such, it simply feels real, an opportunity to be grasped, and might actually mark a departure from the overly simplistic storytelling that has till now surrounded most incursions into anything else than the rapidly moving former centre of Paris. Komunuma marks a fresh opportunity to normalise the fascination of a certain suburb roughness as well as its opposite, a stifled, but still present, demonization and fear of the unknown. Some indicators are positive, such as Eric Baudelaire winning the 2019 Duchamp Prize with a movie co-signed with the class of a school from the same region, a tale about those kid’s unbridled poetic and political imagination. Others are alarming, with city-funded art-spaces closing their doors in the same department: Kiasma last fall, and now Mains d'Oeuvres, evicted a week ago. Komunuma is what it is: a welcome initiative on the map, no matter what position it occupies on this map, and an opportunity to go see for oneself what can’t be predicted, or judged from afar. Take the metro, bike there, maybe hop on one of those green electric two-wheeled 21st-century horses. Go visit those four galleries’ exhibitions, and while you’re there, press yourself an orange juice in artist Michel Blazy’s bar, installed on the roof as a part of Frac Île-de-France’s collection.

43 rue de la Commune de Paris, 93230 Romainville
Opening: 20 October 2019, with the inauguration of new gallery spaces by Air de Paris (est. 1990), Galerie Sator (est. 2011), Galerie Jocelyn Wolff (est. 2003) and In Situ Fabienne Leclerc (est. 2001).