The Cité Internationale des Arts is an arts complex of 260 studios in the heart of the Marais district in Paris in which there are six Australian visual arts residency studios. Prue Gibson checks it out. [February 2006]
The world of Australian visual arts has, on occasion, been accused of parochialism. If there are some elements of truth to this claim, it is most likely due to the prohibitive expense of international airfares, language barriers and ignorance. Even though there has been a long tradition of Australian artists venturing to Europe, Asia and the US to join the world stage, it can be difficult. After all, artists have never been notoriously cashed-up.
However, far away in a distant city where art galleries stretch for miles around, there is an answer: a magical place for artists to stay and work. The Cité Internationale des Arts is an arts complex of 260 studios in the heart of the Marais district in Paris and it sounds like a fairytale. For many Australian artists who win residencies at the Cité, the Parisian experience is euphoric, while for those who suffer culture shock, it is closer to a tale by the Brothers Grimm.
There are six Australian visual arts residency studios at the Cité where artists, curators and art writers can live and work for three to six months at a time: the Moya Dyring studio (est. 1971) and the Denise Hickey studio (est. 1986), which are managed by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Power Institute studio (Sydney University, est. 1967), the COFA studio (UNSW, est. 1995), the Rosamond McCulloch studio (University of Tasmania, est. 1992) and the Australia Council studio.
The complex is a huge converted 18th century town house which, according to artist Peter Sharp who stayed in the Dyring studio in 1997, “looks like a 1960s boarding school with green linoleum and brown furniture”. Many of the studios have views across the Seine to Ile Saint Louis. Occupying other studios are engineers, architects, musicians, writers (Australia has a Nancy Keesing studio available for writers), dancers, choreographers and film-makers from around the world.
The Cité complex is strictly managed by matriarch Madame Bruneau, whose husband Félix lobbied the French Government and established the long-term art project in 1965. Madame Bruneau has a reputation for being an iron-fisted ruler.
Tony Bond, Curator of Contemporary Art at the AGNSW, who has been on many of the judging panels for the Dyring and Hickey studios, says “she is a magnificent character whose hair holds up in a beehive. If artists don’t get on with her, they may as well catch the next flight back to Australia”. Madame insists on interviewing each artist upon arrival, which can be a formidable experience.
Ben Quilty, who received a residency through the Brett Whiteley Scholarship in 2002, says he was “scared to meet Madame because everyone talked her up. I had to meet her in this regal office with this massive desk and I tried to speak French to her. But she was fantastic. She understood that Australians don’t get much chance to practise their French, so she spoke English to me. She was interested in my view of world politics and in generalisations about French people”.
All artists at the Cité pay a service fee of 287 euros per month, which is around $478 for a single studio. Doubles are extra. All Cité residents are entitled to a free pass to most Paris museums. Winners of the Brett Whiteley Scholarship receive $25,000 in addition to the residency. The Power Institute provides $7,500 in addition to the six month stay and the Rosamond McCulloch studio comes with $7,000 assistance. Management of the Australia Council studio is rotated between the various boards, for example, Visual Arts Board or the Literature Board, and is currently being administered by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Board, which grants $15,000 along with the studio. The Dyring and Hickey studios, however, are administered without any financial assistance.
The criteria for each residency varies only slightly, the common denominator being that the artist can be emerging or established but must have considerable experience as a practising artist, must have a project that Paris and proximity to galleries and culture will enhance and have a project that is well-planned and achievable. Any field of the visual arts is considered, be it performance, installation, video et cetera. All applications require support material.
Tony Bond, an experienced residency panellist, says: “We assess whether artists will see their projects through, so we look at their work and make sure it’s firing. An artist might say they want the studio because they would use the opportunity to contact [renowned French artist] Christian Boltanski to discuss art. This is probably not appropriate.”
Once the artists have been selected, it is up to each individual to make their Paris experience worthwhile. In 1997 Peter Sharp made use of the Cité’s printmaking workshops. “I made mono-prints pressed on glass, with watery surfaces that turned into things about nature,” he says. He also made etchings inspired by Paul Ucello, made friends with French master print-makers in the Marais district and made a set of lithographs with Michael Casse. Through a meeting with a German colleague, he held an exhibition of his work in 1999 in Stuttgart.
Sydney artist Ann Thomson’s residency was in 1978. She now visits Paris every couple of years. “Paris is the doorway to Europe,” she says. “Paris is like ‘thinking time’. I make a lot of work in small sizes and sell work in Paris through the dealer Stephane Jacob [who also represents Euan Macleod] and I have a gallery in Berlin now, Walter Bishof Gallery. Being in Europe is so different; it is a deep source of information.”
Ken Unsworth had an exhibition at the Australian Embassy as a result of his 1978 Power Institute residency. “I made drawings and maquettes,” he says. “I made contact with the government and they helped me get cut Parisian stones — pavé — and I installed them in the Seidler Embassy. There is also an opportunity to show inside the Cité... but I know a lot of the younger ones who’ve been to the Cité find it very hard.”
Not young-gun painter Ben Quilty. He loved his Paris experience: “I made big drawings with oil crayons on sheets of linen — there’s no tax on art materials in Paris. [The drawings were] my gestural response to the view out the Cité window. Then I rolled them up and brought them home."
And, of course, that’s the point. The Paris studios are a chance to bring a little bit of Paris… and Europe… and the world… back to Australia. No matter how far away we are, we have to participate globally or our art, culture, politics and morals will stagnate.