Contemporary art in the suburbs

The galleries and creative centres blossoming beyond the périphérique

© Laetitia Tura
Tadashi Kawamata, 'Gandamaison', La Maréchalerie, Versailles, 2008

Those who don't believe that contemporary art (think 'pretentious, highbrow, trendy, urban') and the suburbs ('rough, dodgy, uncultured, rude') could ever go hand in hand should pop over to the other side of the périphérique from time to time. In the last 20-odd years, between the narrow belt covered by the underground and the oh-so-distant terminuses of the RER lines, contemporary arts centres and galleries have been cropping up all over the place, each bolder and better than the last. Artists' residences, shiny new exhibition spaces, restored historical monuments: here, between concrete and countryside, is where you'll find all the region's best contemporary art.

The essential venues

Vitry • MAC/VAL

Opened just days after the 2005 banlieue riots ended, this contemporary art museum has earned a fearsome reputation for artistic savvy. Its collection offers a stunning snapshot of French art from 1950 to the present, including installations by Gilles Barbier, Jesús Rafael Soto and Christian Boltanski. Recent acquisitions have branched out into contemporary art, representing artists of all nationalities including Yvan Salomone, Tsuneko Taniuchi and Jesper Just... 

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Beyond the centre

Ivry • Crédac

In September 2011, Crédac (Centre of Contemporary Art of Ivry-sur-Seine) moved from its premises in the Centre Jeanne Hachette to a disused factory, taking its base of artists – emerging talent and established names alike – with it. Eyelets were once manufactured here; now the production of artworks takes pride of place, which also includes a large exhibition space and several smaller workshop studios – the result is a contemporary... 

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Val-de-Marne

Chelles • Les Eglises

When two adjoining churches in Chelles were earmarked for demolition, the local council intervened, determined to convert them into a contemporary art venue. Franco-Hungarian designer Martin Szekely and urban landscaper Marc Barani were called in, and they transformed the site into a model of stark, austere beauty: stained-glass windows, a jasmine garden, bold architectural lines. It’s unique among arts centres in that it focuses on art that above all questions notions of territory... 

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Noisy-le-Sec • La Galerie

Installed in the former notary’s house tucked away in the middle of the Noisy-le-Sec (Seine-Sainte-Denis) housing projects, the Galerie has been going since 1999. Since 2005 Marianne Lanavère has been at the helm, and under her direction the space, which welcomes painting, installations, photos and videos, has become one of the liveliest centres for contemporary art in the Parisian banlieue. Don’t miss the ‘Sunday tea’... 

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Saint-Ouen-l'Aumône • L'Abbaye

Once the site of a Cistercian convent, this building retains some of its medieval splendour: ribbed vaults, stained-glass windows and the like. The Val d’Oise council, which has owned the abbey since the 1970s, has turned it into a centre dedicated to the plastic and visual arts that uniquely fuses medieval and contemporary aspects. Exhibitions are now held in the former barn, chapter house... 

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Saint-Ouen • Mains d'Oeuvres

A hub for fringe musical and performance activity just outside Paris, the Mains d'Oeuvres is a huge former leisure centre for car factory workers that provides rehearsal and performance space for bands and specialises in leftfield electro, rock mavericks and multimedia artists. It also frequently hosts the Festival des Attitudes Indé (end Sept-early Oct) – an indie music festival for up-and-coming bands... 

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Beyond the centre

Créteil • Maison des Arts

With over 300 performances a year and a newly added third stage – the satellite – this suburban arts centre is a vibrant hub of artistic creation, featuring an eclectic programme of theatre, dance, music and digital art. Workshops and training days are held in the Studio, and the centre is also involved in local youth programmes, teaming up with social workers on educational projects. Don't miss the International Exit Festival of contemporary dance, which takes place during March.

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Beyond the centre

Noisiel • Ferme du Buisson

A recent facelift has turned Ferme du Buisson, formerly a chocolate factory, into one of the hottest spots on the city’s cultural map. The venue hosts all kinds of concerts and plays in its 800-capacity barn; two cinema screens and a three-floor contemporary arts centre complete the picture. With this setup, Ferme du Buisson is uniquely suited to multimedia events: here, theatre rubs shoulders with the plastic arts, and films merge with dance and music... 

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Gennevilliers • Galerie Manet

Despite bearing the name of the father of impressionism, the Galerie Edouard Manet is in fact one of the oldest dedicated contemporary art galleries in the city. Opened in 1994 as part of the Gennevilliers Fine Art School, the venue has been promoting and distributing new artworks for almost 20 years, often exhibiting them in its showroom. Its status as a mainstay of Paris’s contemporary art scene has been bolstered by associations with such notable artists... 

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Enghien-les-Bains • Centre des arts,

The Centre des arts d’Enghien (CDA) is a melting pot of different disciplines – a kind of hybrid venue that combines the plastic and digital arts with audiovisual and live performances. Its programmes are no less eclectic; the ‘Bains numériques’ festival may be the highlight of the CDA’s calendar: not only is it the first French festival dedicated to digital art from across the world, it also offers the public the opportunity to go behind... 

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More from our guide to the suburbs

Galleries

Those who don't believe that contemporary art (think 'pretentious, highbrow, trendy, urban') and the suburbs ('rough, dodgy, uncultured, rude') could ever go hand in hand should pop over to the other side of the périphérique from time to time. In the last 20-odd years, between the narrow belt covered by the underground and the oh-so-distant terminuses of the RER lines, contemporary arts centres and galleries have been cropping up all over the place... 

Read more
By: Tania Brimson

Theatres and cinemas

Théâtre Jean Vilar Created in the 1970s in grey, suburban Vitry-sur-Seine, the Théâtre Jean Vilar isn’t pretty.  But what it lacks in aesthetics it makes up for ten-fold on the stage, with top-class, wide-ranging programmes of contemporary dance, classical music, theatre, stand-up comedy and pop concerts - so you don’t necessarily need to speak French, to enjoy a night out or a matinee performance here. Théâtre Gérard Philipe This town hall has quite a history...  

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Music and nightlife

Le Mange Disc Now there’s another reason to head to Montreuil apart from the Marché aux Puces, in the form of great new neighbourhood bar Le Mange Disc. One major draw is the sun terrace, while the main attraction is the old-fashioned and charming rock’n’roll ambiance that harks back to the 1980s rockabilly revival. At the bar, a record player blasts out doo-wop, teen rock and rhythm and blues, while a bartender with slicked-back hair asks warmly, ‘What can I serve you, pet?’... 

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Things to Do

St-Denis and the north Stade de France Football- and rugby-crazy kids (and grown-ups) will absolutely love the behind-the-scenes tours of France's handsome national sports stadium. After a quick scan of the museum (photos, football shirts, electric guitars from the rock stars who also play here), the tour begins by sitting in the stands and ends with a runout through the tunnel to the sound of applause. On the way, you can visit the changing and shower rooms and learn about... 

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