The Under-the-Radar French Museum That Quietly Predicts Art’s Next Big Thing

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Three-Plus Decades of Art's Next Big Thing

CreditPhoto by A. Morin for Le Consortium

Speckled with Gothic and Renaissance-era architecture, Dijon, France is a historic art capital with contemporary clout. Once a destination for medieval pilgrims seeking out a taste of modernity, the sleepy city has become important to a new batch of believers, who pass over Dijon's handsome facades in favor of Le Consortium, an alternative art space co-founded by Xavier Douroux and Franck Gautherot, among others, in the late '70s.

A quick train ride from Paris, the still-under-the-radar nonprofit has become one of the most influential contemporary institutions in the country, if not the world, thanks to its Midas touch. Douroux and Gautherot, along with co-director Eric Troncy, who joined the space in 1996, have an uncanny knack for showing artists right before their careers (and their correspo nding markets) take off. Le Consortium gave Cindy Sherman her first solo show in 1982, and Richard Prince his in 1983. Jenny Holzer, Hans Haacke and Daniel Buren would all show before 1989. The '90s brought more firsts, including Maurizio Cattelan, who famously dug a grave in the gallery floor. "I believe in this idea that the artist should want to add something really new to art history — and I still admire courage," Troncy says. "It logically kicks out so many contemporary artists, but I think it's quite helpful when someone on a team says no.'"

The award-winning 1990 pairing of On Kawara "Date Paintings" and Alberto Giacometti sculptures, too, left an impression — despite relatively low attendance. "This show became a total legend, but very few people actually saw it," Gautherot explains. "For years, Dijon was this backyard; it wasn't dangerous to experiment. If it was bad, no one would remember. It was fun. We had many situations where the artist developed new bodies of work in Dijon." That freedom is partially afforded by Le Consortium's unusual, diversified financial structure. An endowment split between government funding, private donations and money the organization generates consulting on outside projects means the space's directors can program shows without worrying about donors, trustees and press the way more traditional museums do.

Today, foot traffic is higher — but the predictive power of Le Consortium's programming hasn't wavered. Recent success stories include Joe Bradley and Alex Israel, both of whom were picked up by Gagosian Gallery only a year after their inaugural exhibitions in Dijon. Last year, the painter Brian Calvin showed there; now, his pastel faces pop up everywhere, particularly at big-ticket fairs like Frieze and Art Basel Miami Beach. And the space itself has kept pace. In 2011, the architect Shigeru Ban expanded Le Consortium's compound, a former cassis liqueur factory it took over in 1982 after occupying a string of apartment-sized locations. Now, there is ample room for simultaneous exhibitions as well as a publishing house, Les Presses du Réel, and a production company, Anna Sanders Film, founded by the artists Pierre Huyghe, Philippe Parreno, Charles de Meaux and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster. "They had this fantasy to produce their own movie, but theater s work with production companies, so they needed to build a real business first," Gautherot says. "We said, 'We won't take the risk alone. If you want us to accompany you in this direction, let's build this company together.'"

Laure Prouvost, "Dropped here and then, to live, leave it all behind" Video by Consortium

Even today, though, the museum's curators recognize each exhibition as a gamble — and wouldn't have it any other way. Two weeks before the opening of this summer's marquee shows, a self-titled Wade Guyton exhibition and Laure Prouvost's "Dropped here and then, to live, leave it all behind," Troncy could only speak generally about what the shows might entail. (A video trailer for Prouvost's exhibition, above, is equally mysterious.) "You never know what to expect," Troncy says. "And that is exactly why we do the shows."

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