For many, artothèques are would-be ‘Sleeping Beauties’: we have definitely heard of them, we know the principle generally, but they remain somewhat mysterious. Distributed very unevenly over the national territory, with a strong presence in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, for example, but almost non-existent in the Grand-Est, artothèques are not entirely unknown. At least, while they mainly fall within the so-called ‘specialised’ milieu, this is because their primary vocation lies elsewhere. Artothèques were dreamed up in France under the first mandate of François Mitterrand, under the impetus of Jack Lang, as an umpteenth attempt at decentralization. In their initial form, their creation was encouraged by André Malraux about twenty years earlier, but it was Mitterrand’s seven-year term that accelerated the project. Artothèques develop in city councils with strong socialist majorities in cities of varying dimensions, depending on the cultural investment of mayors and elected representatives. The collections are constituted over the years, with one important guiding principle that sometimes deviates slightly: all of the artothèques are founded on the purchase of multiple artworks, and, more marginally for some, on a few original artworks, mainly drawings. So in the vast majority of artothèques, you can find engravings, but also very often photography. Some also choose to orient their collection towards other forms, such as the BM de Lyon, where you can come away with art videos or artists’ books, or the MLIS de Villeurbanne, which has sculptural multiple editions.
The priority role of artothèques is not that of exhibiting, but of genuinely direct dissemination: within them, the artworks rub shoulders and are subject to comparison, vying for attention before being taken home. Despite the fact that at most artothèques community institutions – schools, associations, hospitals, municipal services, and sometimes businesses – represent a non-negligeable proportion of their borrowers (often between 20 and 30%), it is clearly the individual audience that is targeted. For a relatively modest sum (or even completely free for some categories of the public at a few artothèques) any user can take away an artwork to hang in their interior, in any way they like: irrespective of whether they wish to decorate their water-closets in accordance with the colour of their wallpaper or to educate themselves with respect to the history of conceptual art of 1970s Los Angeles. All of the artworks present in the collection have legitimacy, as does any selection of them by future borrowers. This is what makes the artothèque system so beautiful: while the museum institution elects, removes, showcases, or excludes, artothèques present themselves first and foremost as places where tastes are formed differently, where artworks by little-known artists sit on the same shelves or in the same display trays or cabinets as other, particularly famous artists. In general, everything is presented to the public as a whole, with no desire to patrimonialize artworks (and therefore to stop lending them out) or to constantly rejuvenate the collection so as to follow the latest art news. Within this context, artothèques emerge as emancipatory places, whose discourse is not heavy-handed, where aesthetic desires are formed through handling, selection, and daily association, over the short- or medium-term, with works of art within a domestic context. All of the directors of artothèques questioned confirmed this: their collection does not aim to circulate within France or abroad, to be loaned to major institutions, or to be ‘recognized’ by the art world. It is above all designed to suit a city, a department, or a region, without necessarily succumbing to the siren song of localism.
The situation of artothèques disseminated across the territory that La Belle Revue covers is particularly heterogeneous; it would be almost impossible to establish an identikit profile. Some have been established within media libraries or libraries (Villeurbanne, Lyon, Annecy), others in museums (Chambéry) or art centres (Saint-Fons). Others still have experienced more complex byways, as ‘hot potatoes’ circulating from department to department before finding definitive lodgings. The funding varies, with acquisition budgets that are sometimes frozen, sometimes restrained, with spending of up to around 30 000 euros per year. In museums or even FRACs, such sums would barely serve to buy a few lone artworks, whereas the multiples market enables acquisitions of high-calibre works made by renowned artists at relatively low prices. This means that most of the artothèques buy from living artists, committed publishers or specialised galleries (such as the Galerie de multiples, Florence Loewy, or Semiose, to name only a few), but also from reputable addresses in the field of printmaking and engraving, like the URDLA in Villeurbanne. Some collections are constituted over many years, according to specific orientations, such as the one in Annecy targeting younger audiences (and more recently, with different guidelines like bestiaries or writing), that of Chambéry, which opened its collection up to illustrations and graphic novels a few years ago, or the MLIS, whose many recently acquired works are related to sound and music. But, generally speaking, artothèques are designed in generalist terms, accommodating works by regional, national, or international artists, with no clear preference. Some key artists of the Jack Lang years are overrepresented in the collections: among the inevitable, we can obviously cite narrative figuration (Jacques Monory, Valerio Adami, Erró, Henri Cueco, Vladimir Veličković, Gérard Fromanger, etc.), free figuration (Hervé di Rosa, Robert Combas, François Boisrond, etc), Supports/Surfaces (Claude Viallat, Louis Cane, Jean-Pierre Pincemin, etc.), and the survivors of Restanysm (Arman, Jean Tinguely, Niki de Saint Phalle, Daniel Spoerri, etc.) and lyrical abstractionism (Hans Hartung, Zao Wou-Ki, etc.). All of these artists who have now entered the history of art have been supported and acquired, and these collections now constitute an invaluable heritage representative of the contemporary art of the last forty years. But this primarily applies to the contemporary acquisitions at the time of the artothèques’ creation, which subsequently sought to open up not only to other geographic origins, but also to different aesthetics. The collections have since been internationalized, feminized, and have sought out younger artists, at the same time as they have sought to continue to acquire major names in art history. This is how at the MLIS, prints by Flora Moscovici, Romain Gandolphe, or Claire Tabouret mingle with multiples by Lars Frederikson, Dorothy Iannone, Sister Corita Kent, or Piero Gilardi. In Saint-Priest, Lucie Chaumont, Frédérique Loutz, and Françoise Pétrovitch were collected several years after Erik Dietman, Jean Le Gac, or Jean-Michel Alberola.
The heritage of artothèques is eminently precious, even if it remains little-known: these libraries, very often supported by a fervent and loyal following of regulars firmly rooted in their territory (whether it be individuals or resource-persons belonging to local institutions, particularly teachers) are nevertheless fragile owing to their relative discretion. However, for regional and local councils they constitute an incredible asset, both from the point of view of the quality of the collections, and that of their very singular means of dissemination, designed to circulate as widely as possible, but each time for a very restrained circle of viewers. The vast majority of artothèques aim to be exemplary in that respect: they devote a not inconsiderable amount of their operating budget to mediation, welcoming school groups, educating them in art without the somewhat daunting aura of the museum, often providing access to a space to exhibit their collection, and some of them do not hesitate to hold thematic presentations for local institutions. At most of these sites, it is possible to come and freely browse through the cabinets, make your own selection or enjoy the guidance of a mediator, take the time to return, to discover new acquisitions, to adopt an artwork that you might not have liked the first time around. Unlike most of today’s aesthetic experiences, especially since the recent upheavals, artothèques very happily place themselves outside of the ‘all-online’, since they are founded on a hands-on approach with the artworks. In other words, nowadays: an essential commitment.
I would like to warmly thank all of the interviewees who so generously gave me their time and welcomed me into their establishments, or, when that was not possible, answered my many questions: Aurélie Carrier and Thaïva Ouaki (Bibliothèque municipale de Lyon), Romain Gandolphe and Valérie Sandoz (Maison du Livre, de l’Image et du Son de Villeurbanne), Valentin Godard (Artothèque de Saint-Priest), Marie Pontoire (Artothèque d’Annecy), Alessandra Prandin (Centre d’arts plastiques de Saint-Fons), Didier Venturini (Artothèque de Chambéry).