Established in 2003, Bétonsalon Centre d’art et de recherche has been located on the campus of the Université Paris Diderot since 2007. Collaborations with that institution include the Académie Vivante program, a research laboratory located within the university’s Epigenetics and Cell Fate unit. In 2016 Bétonsalon opened a second space, Villa Vassilieff, and launched the Pernod Ricard Fellowship, which supports residencies for four international artists, curators, and researchers each year.
Bétonsalon was founded sixteen years ago by a group of artists and curators. From the start, we were interested in giving artists who did not have gallery representation an opportunity to show their work. In Paris at that time there were many museums but very few alternative or artist-run spaces—perhaps only two or three. We also recognized that the discourse around the art shown in major French institutions was very Eurocentric. We decided that part of our role would be to challenge that Eurocentrism and give visibility to contemporary artists from non-Western cultures.
In France, we have a lot of young people who feel marginalized by the country’s institutions, who don’t see their culture and their experience reflected in them, young people who feel that they are not considered French. We wished to question the ideas and knowledge that are produced and disseminated in universities and museums, as well as in the culture at large, and to reflect, in the projects that we support, the complexity of experience of those artists and that audience.
For us, it was important not just to work against, but to work with. We really wanted to operate within the institutional system, to see how we could work behind the scenes—for example, by inviting artists to come and do research in museums. A lot of curators at institutions are willing to collaborate with us in that way on specific projects.
Then, when we relocated to the campus of the university, we thought it would be an opportunity to engage with many different disciplines. There was no art department there, but we connected with the literature and hard sciences departments and met some teachers who were interested in experimenting in their classes.
We strongly believe in the generative potential of spaces where heterogeneous—and even conflicting—practices and positions can come together. We currently work on a project-by-project basis with local, national, and international organizations, including schools, museums, and galleries; we organize exhibitions, seminars, roundtable discussions, and conferences; we offer residencies to artists, curators, and researchers.
This past spring, for example, we had in residence the photographer Mimi Cherono Ng’ok from Kenya. She wanted to experiment with film, so we not only helped her produce a new moving-image work, but organized visits to film archives in Paris and meetings with writers and filmmakers. This is what I’m currently focused on, more so than creating shows—how can we support artists in such a way that they can test new ideas and new materials and take a bit of time for research? How can we introduce them to a network of academics and arts professionals so they can maybe come back later and infiltrate our cultural landscape?
I think audiences today want not only to look at a finished object but to share a moment of thinking, of debating. What we try to do is open our space to this kind of activity through events associated with our exhibitions. I’m really impressed by the fact that more and more people want to participate in these events.
Now, however, our staff is spread very thin. If you work in network mode, the more you expand your network, the more people and the more conversations you need to keep up with. Clearly, we need to recalibrate, either by doing fewer projects or less ambitious ones, or by hiring more, and more specialized, staff.
We are a bit of an exception in the French cultural landscape because only 30 percent of our funding is public. We make up the rest from a wide variety of other sources, including grants, co-commissions, and private sponsorships. Our main sponsor is Pernod Ricard, thanks to whom we were able to open a second space, the Villa Vassilieff, which is funded by Pernod Ricard and the City of Paris. This kind of public/private collaboration is quite new in France, because most of the cultural institutions in France are publicly funded.
For us, though, things are different. When we were founded, there was a great deal less public money available. We thought, either we do nothing, or we just open and see how it goes. We’ve raised a lot of money and developed a program, created residencies, opened a second space, hired a larger team with better salaries, and developed a network of collaborators. But we are at a point now where we are going to have to select our main partners and work only with them. At the moment, we are in discussions with them to see how we might take the next step.
One thing that is important is we never compromise. No one has ever told me I needed to do this or I should do that. This is something that is very rare today, and I am very conscious of that.