Welcome to 59 Rivoli, Paris’ most dynamic artist community and a hub of creative expression. We went here last weekend for our weekly parents’ night out; it was incredible, and not just because there were no children with us.
59 Rivoli was originally an artist squat, founded in 1999 when a group of local artists broke into an abandoned building – 59 Rue de Rivoli, to be exact – cleaned it up, and took up residence, establishing a collection of studios where artists could live, create, and display their work.
The collective that formed, calling themselves “Chez Robert, Electron Libre,” organized art exhibitions, musical performances, and concerts, and opened the entire six-story building to the public every afternoon and evening. The French government attempted to evict them in 2000, but the contemporary art space had become too prominent an attraction to dis-assemble. In the classically French spirit of “if you can’t beat them, join them,” the local authorities acquired the building, renovated it to allow for safe living spaces, and allowed the resident artists to move back in, where they pay minimal rent.
Today, the building hosts thirty artist studios and is open to the public every day except Monday, from 1 pm to 8 pm. All six of 59 Rivoli’s stories are connected by a central, gloriously-decorated spiral staircase. I could have admired the street art-inspired walls and painted stairs all day, and the skylight at the top made me wish I had visited during daylight.
The floors themselves are a warren of studios, working spaces, living spaces, and exhibits. Canvases cover the walls, paint splatters the floors. Artists work in all mediums here – drawings and sketches compete with jewelry, wood-working, sculpture, collage, metalwork, and paint. There are finished pieces on display, works-in-progress stacked in corners, framed pieces and scattered pieces.
The artists are there during the gallery’s opening hours of course – they live and work there. Some are more interested in talking to visitors than others; most continue working intently, accustomed to an audience. One was hosting a party when we walked through his spaces. Friends had gathered in his common area, chatting and drinking beer and being effortlessly cultural. The last of the tourists hung out on the margins, pretending to admire his work while soaking up the party atmosphere (we certainly did – wouldn’t you?).
I saved the best for last. This was my favorite painting:
59 Rivoli is a vibrant, alive, evolving space. The resident artists are always creating, so the spaces are always changing. There is perpetually new art, or a new direction, or a new experiment. It’s the most local, interesting, democratic expression of contemporary art in Paris. If you visit no other art galleries in Paris, if art galleries aren’t even “your thing,” visit this one.