At the art gallery, which has just opened on the fourth floor of Paragon, artworks are offered in fixed, mostly square sizes, much like on an Instagram grid. The largest is over a metre wide, enough to make a statement on a wall in your home. The smallest would fit nicely on your bedside table.
For the most part, though, the artworks are comparable to vinyl record sleeves. In fact, you’ll have to do a little crate digging to look at them. Yes, you read that right: at Carré d’artistes, the “Please Do Not Touch The Art” rule that is de rigueur at other galleries do not apply. Instead, the works, protected by a plastic cover, are displayed in racks for you to peruse.
Just like a record store, or Instagram’s Explore page, there’s a sense of discovery that inhabits the art gallery. You never know what you’ll get, given its democratic curation. The works of seasoned artists sit next to those who were students not too long ago; their training doesn’t matter so much as their talent. And where their talent lies is another liberty, be it abstract or figurative paintings, natural landscapes or surreal dreamscapes, mixed media art or even sculptures.
Like the Carré d’artistes concept, its artists can be found around the world, but they mostly hail from France. That’s where entrepreneur Stephanie Tosi established the first Carré d’artistes gallery 20 years ago.
Tosi had a radical proposition: art is for all. She propped it with the practice of pricing artworks by size; the smallest could be yours for just S$190. It was completely unorthodox to elitist art institutions, which measured the value of art through boardroom concepts like “market demand” and “liquidity”.
Still, just as Instagram brought the wonders of photography to the masses, Carré d’artistes galleries have since opened doors, quite literally, for those who shied away from art buying before — including Sebastien Chen, the owner of the new Singapore outpost.
Below, the French native tells us how he fell in love with art for the first time, why he decided to bring Carré d’artistes to Singapore, and why the gallery’s accessible approach to art will win over anyone who steps inside.
One day, when I was working in Paris, I stumbled upon one of their galleries. I’m not an art lover, so I rarely go into art galleries. But, from the outside, there was something attractive about this one. I didn’t know what but I went in, I walked around and I quite enjoyed what I saw. I started to talk to the gallery manager who explained to me the concept of Carré d’artistes. And I really liked it. Also, in this gallery, there was one artist that caught my eye, to the point that I was really thinking of buying an artwork, which is something that never came to my mind before.
I wanted to go back to Asia. Previously, I was working in China for eight years. When I quit my corporate job there and went back to France in 2018, I wanted to do something on my own. But the situation in France was such that I did not feel like staying there and I wanted to experience the market in Singapore. I’ve been here many times. I thought the lifestyle is quite pleasant and very attractive. Also I felt that there was a market potential for businesses, for French brands, and also for for arts and for the concept of Carré d’artistes.
The next stage was to meet with the founder and the team at the Carré d’artistes headquarters. I decided to sign a franchise agreement with them at the end of 2019. And then, on March 2020, I landed in Singapore, just before the circuit breaker, to launch the gallery.
Carré d’artistes is a franchise, so there is not much difference from the galleries you may visit in other countries. The way the artworks are displayed is the same across all galleries. One objective is to make the gallery pretty warm and welcoming from the outside. The only thing that differentiates one gallery from another is the selection of artists. At any one time, no two galleries have the same artworks on display. Also, there are some artworks that are specific to the city. For example, here we have Steffi Coupette, who has painted some landmarks of Singapore.
The curator team in France seeks new talents out from school or at art fairs to be part of the Carré d’artistes network. They are also the ones who do the planning and the selection of artists for each gallery. There’s usually a mixture of new artists and experienced ones who already have some commercial success in other Carré d’artistes galleries. The selection in terms of style and subject is also very diverse. We want to make sure that all the themes are covered, whether it is abstract, figurative street art, pop art, landscape, et cetera. This is so that anyone who visits our gallery can find something they like. As part of the concept, we also rotate the selection of artists every few months, so that people will find something new whenever they visit.
The most senior artist here is Gerard Clisson, who’s 78 years old. He’s actually the first artist to sell his work in the very first Carré d’artistes gallery 20 years ago, so he has a bit of a historic connection with the founder. In terms of the range of artists, like I said, it’s very diverse. For example, we have artists not just from France but also from Canada, Italy, Switzerland and Cuba.
I’m quite grateful that so far all 18 artists have sold something. There are definitely some who are quite popular here, like Kikayou with his pop art featuring cartoon characters. But we really treat all artists equally. When visitors come in, I let them discover everyone’s works because what is important is that they buy something that they like — not because there’s a particular name attached to it, or because the value of the artwork is going to triple in a few years.
As part of the concept, four times a year, we usually invite one of our artists to the gallery for a weekend and he paints an artwork here. It’s a very good opportunity for visitors to interact with the artist, to see them create, or buy an artwork that comes with a small note written for them. I think that can be quite touching for the buyer, to get something special from the artist they like. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has restricted us from planning much here, but I do have artists in mind who are interested to come to Singapore. Also, this year, Carré d’artistes celebrates its 20th anniversary, so there should be something in store.
I think that although the pandemic impacts many businesses around the world, it also created some opportunities — like finding a good location, in a good mall, with slightly lower rent than usual. You could do nothing and wait until everything returns to normal, or you could decide to start and take the opportunity, even if you know that the next six or 12 months will be hard.
If this were a traditional art gallery, I would say it’s a tough time. But I see our concept more as a traditional retail business, with the aim of home decoration and gifts. I think gifts are always in demand, whether for Christmas, or in a few weeks’ time, Mother’s Day. For example, some customers have bought Steffi Coupette’s works for friends who are expats and are now returning to their home country. Her art makes a very nice, unique gift that reminds them of Singapore.
A lot of visitors tell me that they have just moved into a new place or renovated their homes and they’re looking for decoration. After the circuit breaker, a lot of people realised, looking at their walls, that something is missing. So I have customers who bought art for their kids’ room, or for themselves. There was also a couple who bought Raphaële Lennoz’s art to decorate the room of their newborn baby.
I would say it’s the human connection. I get to meet very nice people. Working with the team in France is very pleasant, they’re all very passionate and motivated in what they do. I’ve had a corporate job for some time and I’ve seen everything, so it’s very refreshing to work with people like that. Working with artists is also very nice because they are people who don’t do this to be rich, or for the money — they really have a passion for art. When they know that their paintings are travelling in other countries, other galleries, even ending up in people’s homes, they are very happy. When they talk about their art, they’re very enthusiastic.
It’s an artist who’s not in this gallery right now, unfortunately, because he’s very popular. But in May, I will receive some new artworks, including those by him. We’ll showcase two of his large paintings, so if you come back to the gallery then you’ll get to find out who it is [laughs].
Carré d’artistes is open daily from 11AM to 8PM at Paragon Shopping Centre, 290 Orchard Road, #04-08, Singapore 238859.
Header photo credit: Carré d’artistes