In December 2015, an article published in Apollo asked a daring question: "Why are there no Young French artists?" This much-respected English-language magazine clearly forgot to reboot its old software! Because it's now been a long time since French artists were decreed "official", with income from the FRACs (regional contemporary art funds), or listed with public institutions' purchasing commissions. It's been ages since the French scene was considered too intellectual, designed for museums not the market, fatally local and non-international. "When people used to talk about French artists, this reflected France's position in the global market," says Nathalie Moureau, a cultural economics specialist. Today, there's definitely a difference between France's standing in the global contemporary art market (barely 2.4 % of bids, according to the Artprice database) and the spread of its artists throughout the world. Each year, at least fifteen or so French creators feature in major exhibitions abroad. And the term "French" no longer bothers players in the art world. A new generation of mobile, laid-back visual artists, like Neil Beloufa, Davide Balula, Latifa Echakhch, Cyprien Gaillard, Claire Tabouret and Camille Henrot, are acclaimed throughout the world, and their nationality has never been an issue at any time. A French artist, Laure Prouvost, even won the prestigious Turner Prize in 2013.
Why are these artists successful while their elders were not? "They are more strategic," says Paris gallery owner Nathalie Obadia. "They realise that they have to take their lives into their own hands." Often bilingual, this generation has followed in the wake of artists like Pierre Huyghe, Philippe Parreno and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster who established themselves abroad in the early 2000s. Making the most of study abroad opportunities and cheap airline tickets, young visual artists have gone to seek training and experience outside France ; Laure Prouvost went to Belgium, then England ; Neil Beloufa studied at CalArts in California ; Alexandre Singh went to Oxford and the School of Visual Arts in New York, where he now lives ; Marguerite Humeau cut her teeth in Eindhoven, then at the Royal College of Art in London. "I had nothing to lose," she said. She was right to try out new pastures: the work she produced for her diploma in London eventually entered the MoMA collections. "These artists didn't rely on the French public system to get ahead," continues Nathalie Obadia. "The previous generations, pampered by the policies of Jack Lang [the then Minister of Culture – Ed.] since 1982, thought they had no other choice but institutions, and that's what established the image of institution-bound French artists abroad." But the actions taken by public operators in favour of artists on the French scene "have changed a great deal, fortunately," says Isabelle Alfonsi, co-director of the Marcelle Alix Gallery in Paris. "The Institut Français programmes designed to introduce foreign exhibition curators to the French scene are far subtler and more effective than those of the AFAA [the institute’s former name] in the early 2000s. The exhibition for the Prix Marcel Duchamp nominees at the Centre Pompidou, introduced two years ago, and the actions undertaken by the Fondation Ricard to put foreign art critics and French artists in contact also create the impression of a dynamic, international scene, supported in a good way by institutions and the private sector alike."
Unequal representation in the market
While French artists in the 1970s were content with a single appearance in foreign galleries, the younger generation foster more enduring relationships. Cyprien Gaillard has joined the Sprüth Magers Gallery; Laurent Grasso has become part of Sean Kelly's stable in New York, and Tatiana Trouvé that of the all-powerful Larry Gagosian. Meanwhile, Camille Henrot, who is taking up the entire Palais de Tokyo in Paris until 7 January, is represented by the New York gallery Metro Pictures. It is true that price-wise, young French visual artists cannot compete with their American counterparts. But it's impossible to compare a broad, protectionist market like America's with the French market. On the other hand, these artists are totally on a par with their British colleagues. A film by Cyprien Gaillard might garner up to $300,000, while works by Laure Prouvost can sell for up to $95,000. However, there is one big downside: auctions. No young artists acclaimed outside France appeared in the 2016 list of French artists with the highest price indexes published by Artprice, dominated by artists of a venerable age or unknown to some in contemporary art networks. Young French artists' prices are just not taking off at auction. In 2013, the "Scène 21.1" sale staged by Artcurial during the FIAC was far from an unmitigated success, and works by Tatiana Trouvé and Mathieu Mercier didn't sell. The same went for the Christie's Paris sales of the collections of Claude Berri and of Jean-François and Marie-Aline Prat, organised in 2016 and 2017. In the Berri sale, a drawing by Trouvé fetched €14,375: a modest sum, given that the artist has had a string of projects abroad. But we wager that the most tactical of these artists will manage to smash this final glass ceiling.