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Why the Big Apple still lures French artists

A century after Marcel Duchamp first arrived, New York’s appeal is as strong as ever

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New York. If New Yorkers feel a bit of the mistral blowing this spring, they might look to the influx of French artists who have been making their way to the city. As Pierre Huyghe takes over the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Roof Garden and the street artist JR continues to draw visitors to his haunting installation in the abandoned immigrant hospital on Ellis Island, other contemporary artists from France, including Camille Henrot and Amélie Chabannes, have put down more permanent roots.

The latest arrival is Anita Molinero, who has won the first artist’s residency run by the Claudine and Jean-Marc Salomon Foundation for Contemporary Art, which is based in Annecy, France. The annual six-month residency provides an artist from a Francophone country with studio space at the International Studio and Curatorial Program in Brooklyn and an $18,000 grant. Speaking at the French Institute Alliance Française in Manhattan last month, Jean-Marc Salomon said that the foundation chose to base the residency in the US “because, since 1964, New York is the heart of the world of art”.

Marcel Duchamp decided to emigrate in 1915; others discovered New York by chance. “It was Arman who offered me the trip, in 1966,” says the conceptual artist and sculptor Bernar Venet, referring to his fellow French-born artist, who gravitated first to the Chelsea Hotel. “My encounters on the avant-garde scene inspired me to move there permanently,” Venet says, and he was among the first to move into a SoHo loft. 

The French painter Jules de Balincourt also recognises the attraction, although he does not live in New York. “Everyone is in Brooklyn. It’s the new SoHo,” he says. The move may not be as easy for more recent transplants, however, such as the illustrator Christine Rebet has shifted from SoHo to Williamsburg to New Jersey—a restlessness caused by exorbitant rents. “Artists can’t live in New York. They find spaces that they fix up, or go to California where prices are lower,” she says.

Of course, there is also the allure of the almighty dollar. “For US millionaires, art has become a sexier business than property or stocks,” says De Balincourt, although he regrets one of the results: that “young talent is subjected to the politics of buzz”.

Culture shock As a self-taught photographer who moved from Alsace to Harlem and is showing at Flux Art Fair (14-17 May), Capucine Bourcart finds it easier to work in the US than in France, which is more institutionalised. “I don’t know if I could have arrived at this level elsewh ere,” Bourcart says.

As well as high rents and a busier market, some French artists may experience a culture shock. “In the 1960s, the French were not always welcomed,” Venet recalls. “The Americans have qualities we don’t. Their way of getting straight to the point and their lack of concern when faced with large dimensions certainly encouraged me.”

“America is like an 18-year-old, simultaneously arrogant and naïve,” De Balincourt says; in France, “people are suffocated by their heritage”. But the Paris-born, Brooklyn-based multidisciplinary artist Prune Nourry finds it easy to wear deux chapeaux. “I’m French and a New Yorker. The two are not contradictory, but complementary,” she says.