As they stroll through the rooms, one of them points his finger at an oil: “I like this one with the red one more!” Another continues: “Ah, me, anyway, I stop at Picasso!” The small group of tourists, Parisians on vacation, took the day to visit the castle of Ratilly (Yonne). Inside the 13th century building, Serge Fauchier, a contemporary artist, presents his paintings in an exhibition entitled “Continuité et ruptures”. On each of the works, the same movement springs up, a sort of undulation reminiscent of the sea and the painter’s childhood, then, in places, breaks. The Château de Ratilly is one of those atypical places where contemporary art is now settling.
A precursor, the place has been offering exhibitions of artists such as Alexander Calder, Jean Bazaine and Balthus since the 1960s. Many places have followed suit in the last decade, contemporary art has come out of the trendy galleries. Better, it attracts. At the Chaumont-sur-Loire estate (Loir-et-Cher), which has been using this approach since 2008, the number of visitors has increased from 200,000 to 550,000. The approach is a balancing act, because it must be able to make the works understandable to as many people as possible, while preserving their evocative power.
François, in any case, is delighted. This 35-year-old executive followed the thread of the twelfth edition of Voyage à Nantes, showcasing sculptures and statues of contemporary art around the bends of the streets. “I like that art comes to the public and not the other way around. Then, everyone is free to enjoy.” These unusual routes offer a new gateway to contemporary works, usually confined to museums and galleries. Mathias Pierlot, son of the curator of the Château de Ratilly exhibition testifies: “When my grandparents started, this art was largely reserved for a privileged Parisian elite. They were only a handful of daring to want to make art outside the “official” walls”. This democratization movement also benefited from several political boosts. Initiated by André Malraux, who created the Ministry of Cultural Affairs in 1959, it was carried out in the 1970s by Claude Pompidou, the wife of the President of the Republic, a great lover of art, then extended fifteen years later by Jack Lang and Francois Mitterrand.
A diversely appreciated art
Walkers have very varied and sometimes surprising reactions: insiders show themselves to be impervious while neophytes fall in love with the paintings. Claudine, for example. The septuagenarian, who came to the Château de Ratilly to follow a painting course, finds the work she has in front of her “very linear”, and does not feel, she says, any “emotion”. Her friend Nathalène is not so severe, trying to capture the interest of the pattern that is repeated on the canvas. Both are great lovers of contemporary art. Franck and Rachel, they vibrate in unison. “The rooms are so large that they showcase the works well,” enthuses this couple in their fifties from Bou, near Orléans (Loiret).
“Placing the works at the heart of an area is strategic, explains Chantal Colleu-Dumond, exhibition curator at the Château de Chaumont-sur-Loire since 2007. Gardens or heritage are a real way of familiarizing people with the contemporary art.” The compositions, often abstract, nevertheless remain difficult to approach. “This form of art can be scary, concedes Mathias Pierlot. We can go very far in simplicity”. Nathalène and her husband often discuss the subject. Lui says that “a 4-year-old child could do the same thing.” She is interested in what the artist meant. Anne-Laure, a Parisian who met at the Château de Ratilly, says that it took her no less than twelve years to learn that the metro entrance she takes every day at the Palais-Royal station was signed by the artist. Jean-Michel Othoniel.
“The first time I saw the sculpture, I wondered what that thing was.” She would have liked a panel giving some keys to the meaning of the work. A need for education frequently expressed by the public. Aware of this demand, the exhibition curators strive to set up media for mediation. In Chaumont-sur-Loire, texts present the artistic process and recorded interviews make the voices of the artists heard. At the Château de Ratilly, last year, a video of the artist Ernesto Riveiro in his studio completed the catalog. A great success, from which Mathias and his father Martin wish to be inspired in the future
Need for cultural mediation
But in some places, the budget is insufficient to offer this type of mediation. “The DRACs* are unable to release a cent for us, when we have seventy years of high quality exhibitions behind us”, laments Martin Pierlot, curator of the exhibition at the Château de Ratilly. As for mediators, the profession is precarious, still little known and poorly structured, regrets Lucine Charon, coordinator of the BLA association! born in 2017 to meet the needs. Two hundred professionals joined her in 2023. “Games, cases, kits, digital platforms… It’s incredible what these shadow professionals do”, enthuses the volunteer. At the Château de Ratilly, Nathalène and Claudine do not budge: openness to contemporary art is first and foremost a question of education, a subject that schools should better grasp. But it is true that the institution has, today, other emergencies.
*Regional Department of Cultural Affairs.
3 questions to Chantal Colleu-Dumond, exhibition curator at the Château de Chaumont-sur-Loire since 2007
Why do you exhibit contemporary art at the Château de Chaumont-sur-Loire?
This was part of my missions when I arrived in 2007, the year the castle was acquired by the region. It was obvious to remove barriers and give access to art to people who do not visit museums or galleries. In a place like this, you are more relaxed and perhaps more open. In particular thanks to the plant dimension which immediately soothes the spirits and puts the visitor in a situation of receptivity.
How do you select the artists?
They must be in resonance with the spirit of the place, and in confrontation with their environment. We are never provocative. Rather in celebration of the beauty of the landscape and its interaction with the works. The area is extraordinary. We choose the precise place where the works can be installed. We must be able to imagine that they have been there for a long time. Each has its own territory: we ensure that they are not visible from one to the other.
Why is the presence of art so important?
Art is fundamental in existence and I live my job as a real commitment. I believe that society is very weakened by news that can be distressing: global warming, war in Ukraine, virus… The period is extremely anxiety-provoking and this climate is heightened by the continuous news media and social networks. We live in a sick society. There is a strong toxicity in the air and in the spirits. I think art in all its forms is a way to recharge and rebalance. Places of art and gardens are a way of repairing the world and people.
Heritage and contemporary art: places to visit
- The domain of Chaumont-sur-Loire Overlooking the Loire, the estate boasts a Renaissance mansion and a historic park, which each year host contemporary art exhibitions and the International Garden Festival. Certain works, specifically produced by renowned artists, such as the South Korean Lee Ufan or the Irish Claire Morgan, offer a journey rich in poetry. Information: domaine-chaumont.fr
- The Chateau La Coste Wine estate, restaurants… and art center: the castle has seen big. Here too, a course is offered between vineyards and hills, with original artistic installations that adapt to the terrain. An all-glass art center, built by Japanese architect Tadao Ando in 2011, also hosts exhibitions. Information: chateau-la-coste.com
- Ratilly Castle The architecture of this 13th century building, steeped in charm, is embellished with contemporary works. Each summer, one or two artists are exhibited. The welcome is warm and the owners are passionate. Information: chateauderatilly.fr