I didn't know I was putting my head into a noose
One month ago the French Minister of Culture dismissed Nicolas Bourriaud from his post as director of the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, in an astonishing decision that caused a storm in French - and international - media, replete with rumors of high-level intrigue and allegations of nepotism.
Now Bourriaud tells his version of events. What did the renowned curator and theorist's dismissal have to do with Ralph Lauren? How come the students couldn't work in their studios for six days beforehand? And what are his hopes for the future of the institution?
The board of directors of the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Paris – the National School of Art in Paris, of which I was director – was scheduled to meet on July 2nd 2015. There were major items on the agenda: firstly I was to present the project for 2015-2018, which was drawn up after multiple meetings involving seven working groups that included students. Next I was to announce the contacts I had made with the Moroccan Sovereign Fund with a view to setting up an annex of the school in Rabat – a venture that would make the Beaux-Arts de Paris the first art school in Europe to expand abroad.
Since my appointment as director in December 2011, I had been working on what you might call a “branding mission” that emphasized the school’s historical model, its DNA: atelier teaching comparable to the German system, but balanced out by theoretical and practical classes very similar to those of British art schools. The Beaux-arts de Paris is something more than just a school. It is home to a collection of 400,000 works and an exhibition space on the banks of the Seine. It is also a publishing house that issues some ten titles a year. This makes the school an educational complex, an art world writ small. This original model is exportable, and my job was to manage the school, not as just another tertiary institution, but as a giant art centre whose students would be both exhibitors and the initial public. These characteristics go back two centuries and I was simply trying to adapt them, one by one, to the demands of our time. The creation of an annex in Morocco would have given the school a foothold in Africa, which is a vast pool of talent sometimes inadequately guided by a network of art schools insufficiently receptive to the international art scene.
The third point I wanted to bring up at the board meeting was the plan for a university foundation, a body that would provide the school with funding along the same lines as the great American universities. A law firm had been hired to design the foundation and all that was needed to set the wheels turning was approval by the board of directors.
A week before July 2nd, however, the Ministry of Culture cancelled the meeting. Instead, I was called in by the minister to “discuss the school’s future”. As soon as discussion got underway I realized that nobody in the room had the slightest idea of what was involved. The minister and her advisers were technocrats with no notion of the international issues at stake in art schools, or of our plans, or of what had been achieved in the preceding year. And that year had been a fruitful one: I had been able to reorganize the administrative team and replace a bureaucrat director of studies with a teacher/artist. For the first time, an artist, Jean-Luc Vilmouth, was the school’s administrative head, as is the practice in Germany. We had abolished the age limit for applicants, set up a working group with our foreign students to make the school more international, reformed the fifth year so as to let students concentrate on their graduation exhibitions, reorganized student services, and created a new post specifically devoted to facilitating contact between students and the administration. These were the things I thought would be up for discussion. But the day before the meeting, the weekly newspaper Canard Enchaîné revealed that I was going to be fired and replaced by a friend of President Hollande’s companion, Julie Gayet. There was such an outcry in the media that the minister had to launch an urgent call for candidates in the month of August, when everyone is on holidays.
The previous year, after certain disturbances in the school, a small group of teachers together with a few members of my team and a handful of students had already tried to get me sacked. The pretext was a dinner organized as a thank-you for an important sponsorship venture: Ralph Lauren was donating 1,500,000 euros to restore the school’s main lecture theatre; an extraordinary room, but decrepit, unrenovated for a century, and unusable for teaching. As a rule, this kind of festive event takes place in the glass-roofed Palais des Études and causes a minimum of inconvenience. As we had already signed an exclusive fashion-use contract for that space with Lanvin, however, we suggested to Ralph Lauren that we could use the Cour de Chimay, which is in the open air but surrounded by ateliers. This was in late September/early October 2013: there weren’t many students around.
But neither the communication department nor the director of studies thought to warn the teachers that access to the ateliers would be problematic for six days, from Thursday through Tuesday. And that’s how it all got started.
Those teachers who had already contested my appointment were delighted to find the perfect excuse, going on about my “neoliberal” project and how the school was being sold down the river. No one made a connection to the recent budget cuts: since 2012, 800,000 euros had been sliced off our annual allocation, and the kind of money needed for renovation simply wasn’t there. This was why we needed Ralph Lauren, not to mention the other sponsors I had brought to the school and the appointment of a sponsorship and partnerships coordinator. This proactive policy, which I’m very proud of, enabled the Beaux-arts de Paris to double its resources from three to six million euros between 2008 and 2011. And apart from those six fatal days, all this had been achieved without the slightest interference with the school’s programs and teaching.
During the academic year that followed, I had to deal with a ministerial inspection carried out by a sour official hostile to everything I stood for as well as resignations by teacher representatives, venomous rumours spread by some of my own assistants, and even the publication of a report by the government auditor. The funniest thing was that this report covered the management period of my predecessor, from 2001 to 2011; but the media left out that little detail and I kept being called to account for it, as if I were to blame for all the world’s problems and the inertia of the people who had been there before me.
It might seem surprising that I chose to keep on the two assistant directors appointed by my predecessor. But you have to understand that when I arrived at the Beaux-Arts, the propaganda campaign against me and the Palais de Tokyo [where I had been co-director] was running so hot that some students were convinced that I was bent on shutting down the drawing classes and scrapping painting. So I opted for playing the continuity card, not knowing that I was putting my head into a noose.
During the two years prior to the Ralph Lauren affair, I couldn’t carry out a single project without people throwing a wrench in the works or being told that what I was suggesting was “impossible” and that my ideas didn’t fit with tradition. Cronyism, backdoor deals, departments working in isolation: the Beaux-arts de Paris was in a sorry state. The school doors closed at 8pm (I managed to change this to 10pm, but my ideal would have been a school open 24/7); there was no place to get together and relax (the café will open in October 2015); students’ works were unceremoniously junked the moment they left the ateliers (in 2014 someone was put in charge of managing the production flow); and none of the students could experiment off the beaten track (whereas now all you have to do in order to blow up a sculpture in the courtyard is put in a request to the director of studies).
My absolute priority has been to restore the students to their rightful place at the heart of the school and to create connections with graduates through a comprehensive support system that consists of production grants, prizes, and off-site exhibitions organized by the school. Systematic appeals to student initiative, setting up working groups, reforming the postgraduate section, creating a doctorate based on practical work, developing the future café as a project space, creating a web radio; all these things – as well as ongoing support for initiatives by the school's young artists – have laid the foundation for a more creative school. This general policy has also taken the form of hundreds of small, sometimes invisible decisions stemming from a full-time commitment to teachers, students, and staff. This is the path the school needs to follow. Given the way things are headed, the independence of art teaching will soon be a major issue. I have fought for this independence because where training young artists is concerned, I don’t subscribe to blind alignment with the university system. I’ve tried to create a school that is a hub between the academy and international art circles; a school whose administration works in the interests of art. And I’m sure that this vision still has a future.
Cultural diversity is a crucial factor in the school’s existence. Apart from the international links I’ve established, which have led to student projects in Nunavut, Guyana, London, and the United States, the teacher-artists recruited during my term of office are a testimony to this: Pascale Marthine Tayou, Ann Veronica Janssens, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster. Not to mention contributions from Thomas Hirschhorn, Urs Fischer, Tim Eitel, and so many others for whom space is lacking here.
I can now go back to my true métier: curating. But this experience will bear fruit, of that I am sure. The students who were trained at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Paris over these last four years will keep the flame burning. . .