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Translated by Anna Knight

Centre d’Art Contemporain de Meymac, abbaye Saint-André

by Fabrice Gallis

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Meymac, 14 October 2019, 11 am, cuisine by Caroline Bissière and Jean-Paul Blanchet.

A pile of potatoes dominates the table.

Fabrice Gallis: I’m preparing a focus for La belle revue on the Centre d’Art Contemporain de Meymac, and I’m wondering how the desire for this project emerged?

Caroline Bissière: Grab a peeler.

Jean-Paul Blanchet: The desire? When we met at the Biennale de Paris, we had both made the observation that the provinces were a cultural desert. So, in 1975, we drafted a project for an agency for cultural projects designed for towns that lacked a Culture Department – villages or towns with
1 000 to 10 000 residents. 

In 1978, by a stroke of luck, we met a marquis in Pierre-Buffière who was easily convinced. He presented our project at a farmers’ committee meeting to a newly elected mayor in Meymac, Corrèze. The latter hoped to energise his city, particularly through cultural animation.

We then discovered the exceptional architectural heritage of the village, but also a restaurant, the Hôtel Moderne, where we had delicious meals and that had a Château Taillefer on its wine list that was absolutely remarkable! We couldn’t let that get away! We got started very quickly, as early as 1979, with a summer exhibition. From the outset, we launched the idea of programming autonomy. In 1982, the mayor bought back the Abbey, which was then a summer camp, owned by the city of Dieppe since the sixties. That’s how the story of the Centre began. 

CB: This story is important. The way in which we considered the mission of the Art Centre, designed primarily for the audience, here, in Meymac, finds its origins in these encounters. We didn’t initially design it as a mission in support of artists, but more as a tool for raising awareness of contemporary practices within a community. 

JPB: Art can be an instrument of awakening. This community was in decline. The project of the Centre has, in a certain sense, demonstrated that a small town can capture the world’s imagination and thereby recover a form of dignity. If it was possible in Meymac, it was possible anywhere. 

FG: Do I cut the potatoes into cubes? How did you chose the artists for the early exhibitions?

JPB: Yes, cubes. We started with a relatively pedagogical approach. The first two exhibitions were on the themes of farming, then on forestry, two of the components of the economic identity of the Plateau de Millevaches, with artworks in relation to these activities. We then developed a programme based on fundamental principles present in modern and contemporary art: trompe l’oeil, hyperrealism, and kineticism. Then we laid milestones throughout the history of contemporary art, from one exhibition to the next, through overviews of the dominant strands of a given period, with major works featured each time. 

CB: The idea was to form an audience and give them references, as a way of educating their gaze. 

JPB: This was also the case with the Advent Calendar, designed this year by Portuguese painter Gabriel Garcia. From 2005 onwards, we built this proposal on the basis of collaborative funding provided mainly by the people of Meymac, artisans, retailers, private individuals and a few people from outside the village. It was a collective way of appropriating an artistic project. 

CB: The exhibitions are mainly thematic at the Art Centre. They are designed like a book read in chapters. Based on a significant body of artworks, we develop a pertinent and sensitive message that facilitates the public’s access to contemporary creation.
This year, in a way, we retraced the steps of this approach in reverse! Over the years, by welcoming to our table the artists who were exhibiting at the Centre, special connections were created with some of them.

This guild mentality is the main theme of the exhibition Le réel est une fiction, seule la fiction est réelle [Reality Is a Fiction, Only Fiction Is Real] which has just finished. The guests, for instance Claude Lévêque, Saverio Lucariello, or Daniel Firman, are artists to whom we have dedicated monographs – often their first solo exhibition. Artists whose work the public has seen on several occasions in thematic exhibitions or for the creation of the Advent Calendar. The thirty-year anniversary was a kind of “best of” of the past thirty years of activity, the forty-year celebration is cosier.

FG: What I hear is that the Art Centre is a familial and hospitable place. The artists come back, encountering a long period where the way of life is an integral part of the operation. Every year, you also host very young artists in the same conditions.

JPB: Since 1995, yes. With the exhibition Première, the Centre is presenting a selection from the young graduates of the year from the École européenne supérieure de l’image Angoulême/Poitiers, the École nationale supérieure d’art de Bourges, the École supérieure d’art de Clermont Métropole, and École nationale supérieure d’art de Limoges. Most of the time, it’s their first exhibition outside of their school. They rub shoulders with more experienced artists – this is the case this year with the four exhibitions that are underway until next 12 January (Vendange Tardive [Late Harvest], Gabriel Garcia, Nuno Lopes Silva, and Première).

To return to the conviviality evoked in your question, we would be incapable of running a venue that was purely institutional and hierarchical. The team who accompany us, from the design to the organisation of the exhibitions, comes from a network of friendships. I think that’s also the reason for your presence here today! 

FG: It’s true, the Centre doesn’t strike me as a seat of power, but more as a zone of cooperation where relationships develop with a sense of shared necessity. During the installation periods that I’ve participated in, the relationships were convivial and non-hierarchical, the team ate at the same table as the artists, the installation team were present according to their primary skills (artists, graphic designers, etc.) and not as basic employees. So it was possible to actually meet.

CB: It’s a mammal-logic, not a purely social logic. I often draw a parallel between the Centre and a ship; the whole crew needs to work together, otherwise nothing is possible, because if there’s the slightest squall, it’ll be a disaster. We like to think that professionals like Solenn Morel, who came through the Centre, and who now directs the Centre d’art contemporain Les Capucins in Embruns and has just taken on the curatorship of the Résidence des Arques, has inherited here, alongside us, a kind of empathy, modesty, and a healthy relationship with public service.
Have you finished the potatoes? I’ll put them in the oven. Can you slice the tomatoes?

JPB: The Centre has a flexible enough structure for trust to be built up between its stakeholders, keeping competitive relationships at bay.

CB: The relationship with the artists Séverine Hubard or Nicolas Guiet, present in the fortieth anniversary exhibition, are clearly built on the basis of an interest in their artworks, but also through a shared taste for this familial context that conditions the working relationships. You have to enjoy communal living, spending time with the team. 

FG: The tomatoes are done. I’ll start on the vinaigrette! Today we are observing among young artists a desire to revive this kind of conviviality by creating spaces, workshops, or residencies based on communal living (résidences bi-1, De derrière les fagots2 or Monstrare Camp3, for example). As an extension of this, how do you see yourselves in the years to come? 

CB: Passing on the baton is obviously one of the things we’re starting to be concerned with!

JPB: It’s clear that we’ll eventually hand over the reins, but first we will have to ensure that the Art Centre’s resources are boosted to enable a new team to make it work, without the logistical contribution that our house here and our partly voluntary management represents.
The next step for us also has to do with a residency project that we launched in 1991. The idea is to offer five or six long-term residencies in houses in the heart of the village, mainly with artists, but also philosophers, musicians… Since each resident will have their own house, the city becomes the space where meetings can happen: in the street, supermarket, or at the bistro. Our primary concern is to make art every day, that this small community not spread itself too thinly, that we restore a dynamic and make life more enjoyable.

CB: Shall we eat now?

Centre d’Art Contemporain de Meymac, abbaye Saint-André


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