Sitting opposite McDonald’s and H&M on one of the busiest shopping streets in Paris, 59 Rivoli sticks out like a sore thumb. The front walls of the building are constantly changing, covered in balloons, streamers, and banners, and for a time they featured an enormous face sculpted into the facade. They are a stark and silly response to the commercial hustle of the city center. A unique spark of creativity amidst the usual collection of clothing and shoe stores.
The building, also known as ‘Chez Robert Electron Libre,’ is located between the Louvre and the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall). A modern, thriving art studio so close to the most famous museum in the world, which may not have existed at all without the assistance of the Mayor’s office.
In 1999, three artists named Kalex, Gaspard, and Bruno (playfully calling themselves ‘the KGB’) forcibly gained access to a building which had lain dormant for 15 years. Abandoned by the state, 59 Rue de Rivoli became their home and office. Only three months later, the eviction notices began arriving. Thanks to some crafty legal work, and good publicity from the Parisian press, the group was still enjoying their new home in March 2001, but remained ‘squatters’, hence the term ‘Squart’.
They found a sympathetic ear in Mayoral candidate Bertrand Delanoë, who promised, if elected, to make 59 Rivoli a legal art studio and gallery. Delanoë was elected in March 2001, and remained true to his word. The city bought 59 Rue de Rivoli in 2005, and granted the space for use as a studio and performance space. The building needed to be closed for renovations in 2006, but has been open to the public since re-opening in 2009.
There are 20 permanent artists in the building, as well as ten positions for temporary residents. These residents stay for between three and six months at a time. For this reason, a visit in June can be vastly different from a visit in November. Although the artists no longer live on the premises, each artist’s studio space is theirs for the length of their residency, with each floor hosting four or five artists.
It can feel a little odd walking into someone’s workplace. But the artists at 59 Rivoli are invariably cheerful and easy to talk to — often in English. This is the whole point of the building: to see the artists at work, and to interact with them and their space. So visitors shouldn’t feel shy or awkward. There are six floors, each with four or five artists displaying their wares. Some spaces are very clearly defined as belonging to a particular artist. In others, it is not immediately clear who has sculpted or painted what.
Unlike a classic art gallery, the art is not divided by style or medium. All of the works are contemporary, ranging from fairly traditional portraits, to huge wall-sized explorations of color and mood, to a full-room installations using old junk and used metro tickets. More importantly, whenever you visit, half of these artworks will be different, if not half of the artists themselves. In the sense that this is a gallery, it is a reflection of what each artist is working on that day, week or month. It may be that your favorite work will be a half-finished portrait, propped up against a chair.
Photography is allowed in many of the rooms, although this is dependent on the wishes of each artist, so it is worth checking first. Most sell their work on site, and many can be commissioned for one-off portraits and other original pieces.
59 Rivoli is not simply a home for the visual arts. The building hosts concerts every weekend, and twice a year the collective organizes a weekend-long music and art festival, filling the whole space with live music.
59 Rue de Rivoli, 75001 Paris is open daily from 1pm to 8pm, except on Mondays. Entrance is free.