The rise of Paris as an art market centre is crowned this week as the prestigious Art Basel fair opens its first event in France. Clément Delépine, director of the new fair, is no stranger to the market. He cut his art-fair teeth as co-director of Paris Internationale, a radical, nomadic fair that was founded in 2015 to support a younger generation of galleries and artists, but he now has a role at a major-league fair (officially called Paris+ par Art Basel) in a location becoming increasingly significant. His years at the smaller fair gave him “lots of autonomy but not a lot of resources”, he says, noting with a raised eyebrow that those dynamics have now been reversed.
“Of course, I want to shake things up and do it my way,” he says, “but [Paris+] has a different audience and history. I’ve been encouraged to shape this fair, just over time.”
For now, Delépine is enthused by the number of commercial galleries, private museums and wider cultural events that have been lured to the French capital in recent years. He concedes that Brexit plays a part in the city’s recent influx, but notes too that “these things go in cycles. Paris has certainly become more open, more porous than it used to be. In the 2000s, you could say Paris was quite hostile. For example, if you were vegan, it was impossible. Now, well, it’s still not easy, but it is feasible,” he says, with a wry smile.
Such understated humour is characteristic of the earnest 41-year-old. Beyond the gentle observational comedy, Delépine taps further into the French psyche. “As France has become a less dominant power, it allows for more humility in its relationship with the rest of the world, which I find more becoming,” he says.
Born in Paris, Delépine’s philosophical formulations and ready charm might make him seem like the cliché epitome of a Frenchman — for our interview he chose a corner café in Saint-Germain-des-Prés — but he too is more porous. When he was 10 his family moved to Basel and, after studying in Lausanne, he moved to New York, initially for six months. While there, he met his wife, also originally from Lausanne, and his short trip became nine years, working for the Swiss Institute and then Bortolami Gallery. Plans for a family of their own and ageing parents brought the couple back to Europe in 2016, when Delépine became co-director of the Paris Internationale fair for nearly six years.
As well as the usual responsibilities of running a new event with a sizeable team, Delépine has to negotiate with art-fair history. This year Art Basel, now part-owned by James Murdoch’s Lupa Systems, controversially took the calendar slot at the prestigious Grand Palais from Fiac, France’s leading art fair since 1974.
“From the outside it felt like an orchestrated coup,” says Delépine, who was then artistic director at Galerie Mitterrand, a space founded by the nephew of the former French president. The local mood swiftly changed, though, he says. “People were nostalgic for a minute but realised what Art Basel could do, in terms of its infrastructure, services, VIP relations and so on.” Among the Fiac staff who are now at the Art Basel fair are Delépine’s deputy, Maxime Hourdequin; next year Fiac’s longtime director, Jennifer Flay, will join as president of the new fair’s advisory board.
Delépine is conscious that his fair is both new and “inheriting a context”, requiring “some respect to continuity”. The fair’s sought-after slot, this year in the Grand Palais Éphémère, a temporary location until 2024 during the Grand Palais’ renovations, comes courtesy of the governmental body, RMN-GP. “Our landlord is the French state,” Delépine says. Many of the members of Art Basel’s selection committees for Paris+ are the same as for the fair’s previous incarnation, while Delépine says he has been “diplomatic” towards the event’s loyal French galleries when it comes to the floor plan.
France is also “very protective of its language”, he says, so organisers have ensured a bilingual event. “It would be a mistake to replicate Art Basel [in Basel] on a smaller scale. We have to develop an identity of our own, as a platform for France’s art scene, which is very active,” Delépine says.
Small changes to the wider event are already evident, though Delépine notes that these are not entirely his initiatives as he only started in March. The accompanying outdoor sculpture show, mostly in the Jardin des Tuileries and now called Sites, will have an external curator for the first time, namely Annabelle Ténèze, director of Les Abattoirs museum in Toulouse. It also includes a new venue, the Chapelle des Petits-Augustins in the city’s Beaux-Arts school. Delépine is excited by the installation by Omer Fast that will respond to the chapel’s medieval and Renaissance sculptures, but also by the tie-up with the art school.
For the future, Delépine places emphasis on the plus sign in the new fair’s name, which he says is about “creating bridges between art and France’s other rich creative industries”, including cinema and fashion.
Delépine confesses to imposter syndrome in his new role and winces a little when I refer to him as a millennial (he was born in 1981). He is not widely known on the international circuit but those who have worked with him speak highly. The London gallerist Sadie Coles, who worked with Delépine when he pulled together the in-person and online Galleries Curate collaboration during the pandemic, joins Paris+ with paintings by Alvaro Barrington, made during this year’s Notting Hill Carnival in the UK, and sculpture by the Venice Biennale artist Diego Marcon. She describes Delépine as “thoughtful, innovative and embedded in France” and believes he is “the right person to define the new fair”.
Timing counts for a lot in the maverick art market and a change of guard rather suits the post-pandemic mindset. Delépine places great emphasis on the “local” and the “specificity” of today’s art fairs. “Of course, [Paris+] is a business platform, but it is also a social event, a place to make connections,” he says. For him personally this involves creating more equality in a hierarchical world, the same ambition that drove him at the alternative Paris Internationale fair back in 2016.
“Every time I do something that further validates the might of the mightiest, I want to balance it with something different or unexpected in support of the less visible,” he says. It’s a collaborative mindset that bodes well for the latest fair of the 21st century.
October 20-23, artbasel.com