Art Market

How French Galleries Are Adapting to Survive the Pandemic

Amah-Rose Abrams
Apr 27, 2020 4:05PM

Pilar Albarracín, installation view of “No apagues mi fuego, déjame arder” at Galerie Georges-Philippe & Nathalie Vallois, 2020. Courtesy of Galerie Georges-Philippe & Nathalie Vallois.

On April 8th, the Comité Professionnel des Galeries d’Art (CPGA), France’s main association of art dealers, released the results of a poll of its nearly 300 member galleries about the toll of the coronavirus on their businesses, and the results were shocking. The consensus was that one-third of France’s commercial galleries would likely close by the end of the year, making the impending financial crisis caused by COVID-19 less severe than that of 1990, but worse than the financial crash of 2008.

Comparisons to the market contractions of 1990 and 2008 don’t fully explain why the 2020 prognosis is so bleak for France’s galleries. Many of them were already hurting before COVID-19 swept across Europe. The majority of the Comité’s members are located in Paris, where protests from the Gilets Jaunes dominated 2019 and galleries were hit hard. This played into CPGA’s decision to survey members before the pandemic even hit, and made the results all the more prescient as they came at a time when most of Europe’s art galleries and institutions are closed indefinitely.

Marion Papillon, director of Galerie Papillon, is new in her post as head of the CPGA and has spent the majority of her time grappling with the current crisis. This has meant dealing with her members as well as the French government’s culture and finance ministries. Right now, she has one main goal: setting a date for Paris galleries to reopen.

Sophie Thun, Feichtinger, 13-14.05.2019, CA, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and High Art, Paris.

Agata Ingarden, detail of L’heure de chien, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and High Art, Paris.


“It will take time for things to get going again, so we need time to do this step by step, and opening is the first step in that process,” she said.

Papillon explained that the decision to check in with galleries was expedited by the cancellation and postponement of many art fairs in the spring—from Art Cologne and Frieze New York to Art Basel in Basel—that usually kickstart what is normally a lucrative time of year. It was also to inform the best way to rejuvenate the market when the pandemic eases.

Georges-Philippe Vallois, the former head of the CPGA and director of Parisian gallery Vallois, took issue with the analysis of the survey’s findings. He believes the galleries most likely to close were already financially vulnerable and at risk from any market disruption, large or small.

“When they say one-third of galleries or maybe more might go bankrupt because of coronavirus, my opinion is that first of all, this precocity predates the coronavirus,” he said. “In our committee we have many structures that are doing less than €500,000 a year and sometimes less than €400,000.”

A.K. Burns, installation view of “Globster Soot, Medium Rare” at Michel Rein, Paris, 2020. Photo by Florian Kleinefenn. Courtesy of the artist and Michel Rein, Paris/Brussels.

The French government was one of the first in Europe to announce it would be partially supplementing salaries. This has been well received, but it has also been pointed out that the €2 million ($2.2 million) currently allotted to relieve France’s culture sector nationwide pales in comparison to the €500 million ($540.9 million) assigned by the city of Berlin alone—though it dwarfs the £0 currently set aside specifically for culture in the U.K.

Michel Rein, a dealer and member of the board of CPGA, has been running a gallery in Paris for the last 30 years (and expanded to Brussels in 2013). He saw firsthand the impact of the crash in 1990, after which 46 percent of French galleries closed, and the crash in 2008, after which about a quarter of French galleries closed, Rein said.

“I think I am working much harder than in normal times,” Rein said. “It’s a strange situation because I am sheltered at home but my main focus is maintaining our links with our community.”

Nora Berman, Self Love (The moment I am crowned (tail fuck)), 2020. Courtesy of the artist and High Art, Paris.

Bracha L. Ettinger, Not Yet Titled, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and High Art, Paris

The lockdown in Paris is set to end on May 11th for some retailers, but there is no clear opening date for commercial galleries and cultural institutions. This doesn’t mean Rein is pushing sales, though; he said that it is not in the gallery’s “DNA.” Instead, he is preparing applications for the annual FNAC art commissions and Enrique Ramírez’s section in the shortlist show for the Prix Marcel Duchamp, France’s top art prize.

Despite the exceptionally difficult conditions, some dealers are managing to make sales. Philippe Joppin, a CPGA board member and director of the relatively new Paris gallery High Art, said that although buying art is not a priority for most at this time, collectors are keeping an eye out for sought-after pieces and business is still taking place over email.

“You have some collectors around, we have had some sales,” Joppin said. “We have some people who are selling during COVID, but it’s really special artists that people are waiting for.” He added, “People are asking for discounts, but that’s normal.”

Installation view of “Borderlinking” at High Art, 2020. Courtesy of High Art, Paris.

In a world where human interaction is all but forbidden, many galleries have pinned their hopes on online sales. Viewing rooms, free digital content, and personal messages from artists have provided much-needed solace for art lovers around the world, but do they drive sales for any but the blue-chip galleries?

Joppin, Rein, and Vallois were not wholly convinced by the idea of transforming their galleries into online sales platforms for myriad reasons, including the loss of face-to-face interactions and the shift in consumer power that occurs when prices are visible to everyone at all times.

“To thrive online we have to forfeit our main role: our knowledge on a work of art; our capacity to transform an object into a story,” said Vallois. “If the solution is to go online, we need to stay mindful about the fact that this is totally contrary to what our business is.”

Dealers also voiced concerns that while photography and some forms of painting can be displayed realistically online, media such as sculpture may suffer.

Installation view of “Modes & travaux” at Galerie Georges-Philippe & Nathalie Vallois, 2020. Courtesy of Galerie Georges-Philippe & Nathalie Vallois.

Installation view of “Modes & travaux” at Galerie Georges-Philippe & Nathalie Vallois, 2020. Courtesy of Galerie Georges-Philippe & Nathalie Vallois.

As the outbreak peaks in Europe, thoughts turn to the future. Galleries in France and beyond are preparing as best they can for the trifecta of Art Basel in Basel, Frieze London, and FIAC, currently scheduled to unfold in a six-week span this autumn. In 2019, Paris was being tipped to grow to compete with London post-Brexit, and the gallery scene has become increasingly international of late, with a raft of smaller galleries and initiatives championing emerging artists who struggled to show in London’s increasingly top-heavy scene.

While the government in France has stepped up in terms of salaries and institutions are coming up with innovative ideas—the Centre Pompidou is using the budget for its annual dinner gala to buy art from artists living in France and represented by French galleries—all eyes are on collectors.

“Collectors have a responsibility now and I don’t know if they realize this,” Joppin said. “If you like art in general and you are wealthy enough to support, it’s the moment to support. Tomorrow, if you only have big galleries open, you will have a big hole in the art world and you will see less interesting new artists.”

Discover works at galleries in Paris on Artsy.

Amah-Rose Abrams