Another French museum is losing a senior director to the private sector – but could it actually be good for the cultural ecosystem?

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When it was announced earlier this week that the Musée d’Orsay’s deputy director, Sylvie Patry, was leaving her position as deputy director of collections and curatorial affairs to join Paris’s Kamel Mennour gallery as artistic director, jaws dropped in France .

The news was a “clap of thunder,” an “explosive announcement” and “total surprise,” wrote the French daily Le figarowho reports that someone with Patry’s storied institutional background and vaunted expertise in Impressionism and Post-Impressionism would choose to work in the private sector—and a lucrative contemporary art dealer to top it off.

Hailing for the Mennour gallery’s media announcement, which featured a photo of Patry and Mennour smiling in front of artwork by Daniel Buren, the left-leaning daily liberation asked, “Is it really reasonable to be so excited about the outsmarting of public institutions?”

For many in the French media, Patry’s move to Mennour’s 23-year-old gallery – with four rooms in Paris – is another blow to public cultural institutions already struggling to compete with an encroaching private sector.

The latest addition to the Paris scene is the Bourse de Commerce, the public art space for Francois Pinault’s contemporary art collection, which opened in May 2021. Its CEO, Emma Lavigne, has also left a career in public museums to lead the private collection, three museums and various projects. The same goes for Suzanne Pagé, who left the Paris Museum of Modern Art in 2006 to become artistic director of the private Louis Vuitton Foundation for Creation. She was followed there by a group of former museum employees.

Emma Lavigne. Photo: © Manuel Braun, courtesy of the Biennale de Lyon

With Patry’s departure, “it seems like we’ve crossed a threshold yet again,” he commented liberationtaunts private arts foundations that “drain as much staff as grants that once ran rampant for public institutions.”

The debate between public and private in state-heavy France is old, especially as state-funded museums are losing artworks they can no longer afford because their well-heeled private counterparts are picking them up. But the success of private museums and the growing appeal of the Paris art scene and market seem to be convincing at least some that privately funded art initiatives deserve a try after all.

Le Monde and the other media mentioned above realized that the French art scene has changed, as unimaginable as it may have been in the past. “In the United States or in other European countries, it is [news of Patry’s move] will be less fascinating than in France, where until recently such shifts from public to private seemed virtually unthinkable,” Le Monde recommended.

Patry herself wouldn’t have thought of it if Mennour hadn’t pitched the idea to her, she told Artnet News. “I was pleasantly surprised at first when he suggested this possibility, but it’s true, it’s not exactly what I had in mind,” she said. “Nevertheless, I took the opportunity and accepted his suggestion.”

Why did she quit what she calls “one of the best jobs out there”? There are several reasons for this, including Mennour’s track record, “which is a true example of energy, dedication and a demanding ethos,” she said.

Working more directly with living artists is another. Mennour represents around 40 artists and estates, including Alicja Kwade, Ugo Rondinone, Lee Ufan, Zenib Sedira and Latifa Echakhch. “I’m at a point in my professional life where I’ve also wanted to make a change, even though I love what I do,” she said.

“My deep motivation, whether at Orsay, in my previous positions or soon at Kamel’s, is the idea that in my humble way I can work with everyone towards Paris becoming, or continuing to hold, a position as the world’s leading cultural capital and artistic world,” she added. “We’re seeing a really dynamic movement in Paris right now.”

Patry noted that art dealers have historically been important supporters of local art capitals by connecting artists with an international audience. Rather than working against public institutions, “I fervently believe in the museum as a public service, as a tool and forum of accessibility for all,” she said.

Installation view, “Ouverture”, Bourse de Commerce – Pinault Collection, Paris, 2021.
Urs Fischer, Untitled (2011). ©UrsFischer. Courtesy of Eva Presenhuber Gallery, Zurich. Photo: Stefan Altenburger, Bourse de Commerce — Pinault Collection.

Patry ran for president of the Musée d’Orsay last summer but lost to current president Christophe Leribault, who replaced Laurence des Cars when she became the current director of the Louvre. Patry’s candidacy “showed that I wanted to do other things, so if I wasn’t presiding over Orsay, I would be doing other things. I wanted to develop further,” she said.

Mennour and Patry have known each other for more than a decade, having met while Patry was working on an exhibition about a pioneering French art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel. They worked together again when Patry was curator and collections director at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia for a number of years, presenting an exhibition of works by Mohamed Bourouissa, represented by Mennour. Patry said Bourouissa was one of the first people to let her know about her move to the gallery.

In fact, Patry has collaborated with contemporary artists throughout her career, including at the Orsay, where living artists are invited to exhibit as part of a special programme. She “has always been extremely sensitive [to contemporary artmaking]’ Mennour told Artnet News, ‘so it was natural to go through with a concept that’s very important to me: that there are no chapels [or hierarchies]and that instead there is only art with a capital ‘A’.”

Patry, the dealer added, “is one of the world’s greatest specialists in 19thCentury, but she has a very keen eye for contemporary art and modernism.”

meMennour said his goal for more than 15 years has been to build a gallery where sales are not the driving factor. “We have to sell to pay the artists and staff, but we’re not a commercial gallery,” said Mennour, who views gallery shows and projects where most of the work is not for sale, as well as curated shows from different generations and movements of artists.

In February, Mennour also hired former director of the Giacometti Foundation in Paris, Christian Alendete, as the gallery’s scientific director. And during the height of the global pandemic, Mennour decided to expand the gallery’s museum role as a free exhibition space for the public to view artworks. “Less than 1% of our visitors buy something,” he said.

France needs institutions of all kinds to build a robust arts scene, Mennour claimed. “It’s very important that our public museums are strong – I grew up in public institutions and I love them,” he said. “I wouldn’t have the pretension to say that art galleries are a substitute.”

Instead, he advocates a close “back and forth with a lot of tolerance and intelligence,” he explained. “It’s about enabling dialogue and having the opportunity to make the best possible exhibits. That’s what’s really important to me.”

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