Art and Society: An Art Space in Marseilles

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In France, a nation famous for its culture, there is an organization that is designed to handle art that has not yet become established. In this article, producer/musician Ferdinand RICHARD, explains the organization, its organic support system for a multitude of interdisciplinary art activities, and its unique management policy, in addition to AMI, the group oversees the management of the internationally respected "MIMI Festival." In January of this year, Richard visited Japan to participate in "Acte Kobe" at Xebec.

Ferdinand RICHARD (AMI producer, musician)

*La Friche Belle de Mai

La Friche Belle de Mai (*) is located in a large, forty-thousand-square-meter former tobacco factory, a little to the northeast of the historic center of Marseilles. It can be described as a new form of culture center. It was created in 1992 at the initiative of Christian POITEVIN, an elected member of the city council in charge of culture at the time.  AMI image 1

His idea was to create a working place for artists, and a platform for new multi-disciplinary forms, exchange, and works in progress.

AMI image 2 The owner of the site, the National Public Tobacco Company, very aware of the depressed building and land market (the City of Marseilles has gradually lost many of its industries between the first Oil Crisis in 1972 and the early 90s), knew that no other business would dare rent or buy a place of this kind for industrial use in the middle of town.
This and the overabundance of empty office space, led them to accept the city's proposition and lease the factory to a non-profit organization run by two theater companies free of charge. The loan has been extended after an annual renegotiation, and will continue to be unless a more profitable deal seems possible at the site. Besides the obvious practical advantages, this is an interesting way to secure and maintain buildings. In fact, when the condition of the building today is compared to that of neighboring buildings, which are mostly abandoned, it is clear that the company had an excellent strategy. The project has also been an extraordinary boost for the company's image, with no investment necessary.

Both the artists and Poitevin were concerned with avoiding the consequences of an authoritarian central administration and artistic head at the center.

In fact, it is clear for an increasing number of people in this country that, even though the cultural policies initiated by Général DE GAULLE's Ministre de la Culture, André MALRAUX, which led to the building of the prestigious "Houses of Culture," the framework for culture in this country for the past 25 years, included a lot of positive changes, the slogan "Culture for Everybody" has been replaced by the slogan "Culture from Everybody." Questions regarding the framework and the tools of culture have become central: Should culture centers be places designed by the artists themselves for use by artists? How can artists with a strong potential for innovation be supplied with the tools they require?

AMI image 3

At the center of this new site lies the relationship between the artist and the producer, the artist and the town, the import and export of culture in this region of Europe and the world, the amateur and the professional. Some basic and simple ideas related to this:

  • There are no high-level professionals without a large, well-equipped amateur field. In other words, without good amateurs there are no good professionals.
  • There is no possibility for an artist to reach a professional level without "exporting" outside the region.
  • There is no possibility of creating an "export" without some kind of original signature. In fact, there is no chance to sell a bad French copy of an Anglo-American artist in Berlin or Tokyo, since they already have good copies of their own. This immediately leads to the question of innovation.
  • Based on these ideas, La Friche Belle de Mai chose a specific strategy to determine its direction:

  • The organization would not be pyramidal, with a boss at the top, and departments under him (music, theater, visual arts, dance, etc.) and a central budget. The limits of this structure had become apparent in the official "Houses of Culture," where bureaucratic changes brought more and more administrative officials to the top and less and less artistic directors, with the direct consequence of more and more boring programs, and an obligation to produce very local or standardized products to attract a reasonably sized audience.
  • The experience of sharing space divided into several little boxes of artistic or cultural activity, with no common artistic direction, had proved to be largely negative. It was even more expensive than the normal, official "Houses of Culture" when the budgets of each section were added together. Also it was full of conflict, as each producer tried to rule the others. Therefore, it was also clear that La Friche would not be subletting little spaces to independent producers without having some kind of common policy, at least on an artistic/social level. The idea of a "parking lot of producers," each with their own "garage" and one little central organization with no other job than holding the keys and depositing the rent was not enticing.
  • Finally, after several tries, temporary failures, and temporary successes, La Friche now consists of a big "host structure," which employs all the technicians, provides security, lodges visiting artists, and oversees some part of the communication process etc.

    The director of La Friche (at present, Philippe FOULQUIÉ) chose some producers to be responsible for choosing the artists and financing their visits (their fees and the cost of transportation). Each is independent by choice, and must find their own means of financing a project. At the beginning of each year, everyone, in collaboration with the host structure, decides what kind of programs will be done.

    There is a theater producer, a music producer (the AMI Association), two dance companies, three collectives of visual artists (about 25 studios), a radio station, a major local culture and entertainment weekly magazine, a formation facility (handling arts management programs, for example), a cyber cafe, and a bar/restaurant. All of these are independent organizations that deal with the host structure to establish the terms and limits of their activities on the site, and, moreover, engage in an ongoing policy debate.

    They also focus more on the concept of being a daily work place rather than a nightly consumption place, and the pre-production of culture instead of the consumption of finished products. In all, 120 jobs have been created, not including the artists.

    This system has some bad and good points.

    Some negative points:

  • Each operation is slower and less precise than it might otherwise be because other producers are also involved.
  • There are always more difficulties in explaining one's own system to other producers, whether public or private--confusion within the organization is frequent.
  • Some positive points :

  • Each producer has the opportunity to have their work spill into other artistic fields, frequently leading to the birth of unexpected and marvelous "children."
  • When all of the budgets are combined, it is clear that the system is much more economical than it would be if each producer paid for everything involved in their own activities.
  • Each producer, no matter how small, is much more powerful than they would be if they were operating alone in the middle of the city.
  • After a four-year program to decide the basic direction of the site, La Friche has had some success regarding the press and received numerous applications from all kinds of artists, producers, projects, etc. However, La Friche is facing an uncertain future:

    The city council and government changed in the last elections (1995) and have still not clearly stated what their general policy will be in terms of culture and society.

    The owner of the building would like to finalize the occupation of the site, and therefore, would like to sell it to the city or some other institution. The site is located inside (just on the edge of) a huge urban renewal project called Euroméditerranné, the second such project in the country to receive federal financing. Although the project has officially recognized La Friche as a cultural site within the area, this means that the building will probably be bought by the city to pursue its cultural activities--nothing about the future is clear at the moment.

    What remains to be seen is whether or not this place will be left to follow its original direction.

    The outcome of the project, though, will no doubt have a strong influence on Marseilles's cultural policy in the coming years.


    AMI stands for Aide aux Musiques Innovatrices (Aid for Innovative Musics), and is a non-profit organization that has existed since 1986. It was founded for a unique reason: the creation and development of the"MIMI Festival."

    Besides having just completed the eleventh"MIMI Festival," AMI has developed a full range of different tools, which, together with the festival, provide musicians with a variety of services.

    Today, it focuses mostly on what is necessary for musicians to improve the quality of their message.

    Therefore, it is always developing residencies, workshops, rehearsal studios, exchange meetings, school management courses, a record shop and record label, and tour management for musical groups.

    For example:

    In 1993, AMI invited Maggie NICOLS, (a Scottish singer well-known in the improvised and avant-garde music scene) to set up a female vocal workshop in Marseilles. After three intensive months, the work was presented publicly at La Friche (at this stage, it was not yet a concert), and following its success, the group became a permanent unit.

    We asked them to record their first CD a-year-and-a-half later on our Stupeur et Trompette label. We invited them to play in the "MIMI Festival," and we sent them to play all over Europe in small and large festivals (they recently found great success in Weimar Germany). Three years later, the group survives, still plays, and we have re-released the CD. Of course, we have no way of guaranteeing that all eight of these women will be professional musicians forever, but it is certain that they have had a powerful experience and received information directly from a variety of social and musical groups. Their activities, however slow, will help them to break out of the ghetto, and will provide each member of the group with new sources of information. These are the basic elements for a good, durable development of local music.

    Finally, it seems most logical for AMI to use local public funding in an attempt to develop (and export) local culture than to have this money end up in the mailboxes of private entertainment corporations.

    It is AMI's belief that if there must be a public policy concerning music, it should be concerned with pre-production, and not try to compete with private industry. What's more, it should not attempt to subvert private interests through underhanded activities.

    This policy places AMI at the crossroads of a debate that is now taking place in institutions throughout Europe, where a desire for projects that benefit society in the form of public works still exists.

    AMI's attitude is also seen by many artists as an open door to their own development. This year more than 600 propositions arrived on AMI's desk, and I'm happy to say that nearly 15% of them were of a very high artistic level.

    (*)"Friche" is a general term to specify a site that is not in use at the present. In this case, an industrial site. "Belle de Mai" is a district of Marseilles, rather popular and poor, with a high rate of unemployment (30%).

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