A soft-spoken Irishman, painter Tom J. Byrne has lived in France since 2004. Previously, he had studied at the Dublin Institute of Technology and the National College of Art, where he ended up lecturing for a while. Then he met a Frenchwoman from Provence who dreamed of establishing a Montessori school in Paris. They married and Byrne left his native country to "paint under the influence of the art in Paris." Once they'd settled outside of the city and he and his wife had established the school, Byrne began to show and sell his work in London, Dublin, New York and Paris.
When I caught up with Byrne in Paris, he was minding the Greenlane Gallery on Paris' exclusive Ile Saint Louis, watching the space for friends from Dublin who own it. Sitting in the back of the gallery, he was working on a painting of a rooster.
"Just got back from an artist retreat I organized in Bourgogne at this lovely chateau and the place was full of chickens and roosters," he said by way of explanation. "I did some sketches and now I've started painting this one."
Located on Rue des Deux Ponts, the main street of Ile Saint Louis, one of the two natural islands in the Seine River in the heart of Paris, the Greenlane Gallery sees a lot of foot traffic. The neighborhood in Ile Saint Louis is a very old part of Paris that is home to a wealthy community, but the shops and bistros that line the streets are very, very small. The Greenlane Gallery is no exception. From the front window to the back wall, it is only 30 feet, making the whole gallery less than half the size of an American storefront. But the gallery's location more than makes up for its lack of space. Tourists and locals fill the street that connects the wealthy Right Bank to the tourist attractions of the Left Bank.
Looks can be deceiving, however. Despite its great location. Greenlane Gallery is struggling. Historically, Paris has been a haven for artists, but for artists trying to establish themselves on the ground, today's reality is often quite harsh.
"The landlord raised the rent and my friends are trying to figure out what to do," explains Byrne. "Paris is a city with a hundred museums dedicated to the arts and artists, but it's a tough place for a gallery or a living artist."
A Changing Landscape
Paris has iconic status in the hearts of art lovers around the world, but many things have changed since the Belle Epoque of the 1890s, the wild days of the 1920s and 1930s and the ebullient atmosphere of the 1950s immortalized by Hollywood films like Moulin Rouge and An American in Paris. In conversations with Byrne and other Parisians over the course of my two-week stay, I was told repeatedly that "Gay Paree" has become "Gray Paree."
Photos of Greenlane Gallery and Ile Saint Louis
In the heart of Paris and near Ile de la Cite, the small Ile Saint Louis is one of the loveliest and oldest districts of Paris.
Globalization and the recession have shaken France and its social structure. In the face of worldwide competition, the traditional laid back lifestyle, with its emphasis on social gatherings and group work is vanishing. Long lunches and leisurely evenings are being replaced by a more strident work ethic of short lunches and long hours.
As Byrne puts it, "The French have lost job security and income. Suicide is up in the last couple of years. We've had loads of people who just step in front of Metro trains or a bus."
That morning's newspaper backed up Byrne's chilling assertion, reporting that in just one company, France Telecom, there have been 24 suicides since the company was privatized two years ago. The depressed economy has even affected the sale of art to the rich, forcing artists like Byrne to go to other cities to sell their work.
In such a climate, art is increasing relegated to the past or to museums. "Art is something you study in school and it's in museums, but it's all about the past," Byrne muses as he paints. "It's taught as something historical and intellectual, not to something to appreciate and respond to. I think it makes (French people) afraid to buy art because they are unsure of themselves and what they like. I don't know how many apartments I've been where there is simply no art on the walls."
"I love France," Byrne admits, "but until I got established with galleries overseas, (my wife and I) survived because of the Montessori school."
A Tough City, Not for the Faint of Heart
After a half hour of conversation, Byrne suggests we get a couple of coffees at a nearby bistro. As he sipped his coffee, he spoke of how it had been difficult at first to get his footing in Paris when he'd first arrive in the city due to the formalized gallery system that exists in France:
"In American, England or Ireland, an artist can walk into a galley with a portfolio and based on the quality of work, have a chance of getting a show. In Paris, you don't just go into a gallery and show your portfolio or work. Before they will even look at you, you need to have a letter of introduction, various recommendations, copies of criticisms and reviews of your work, your school certificate and on and on. Like everything else in France, the galleries are little bureaucracies that require all the proper paperwork before they can act. The last thing they will do is take a chance on an unknown artist."
The Artwork of Tom J. Byrne
Byrne studied and worked in Dublin for 20 years before he moved to Paris.
Unprepared for these circumstances, many artists from overseas who dream about a career in Paris leave frustrated and disillusioned.
"I meet a couple of American artists every month who want to move here," says Byrne. "I try to tell them what to expect but even so a few actually come anyway. They usually last for 6 to 12 months before they go back home."
Byrne cautions newcomers to accept that the French have their own way of doing things.
"The French are conservative and Paris is a tough city," Byrne points out. For example, language is often a hot-button issue amongst the French. Although Paris is very much an international city, gallery owners and collectors expect artists to speak French.
"Americans don't understand that many French people judge you by how you speak. If you're not fluent in French, the more conservative among them won't give you the time of day, much less buy your art. It is changing among some of the young (people) who realize they need to know English, but then they aren't buying art."
In short, artists who want to survive in Paris must be resilient, have thick skin and be able to adapt to these trying situations.
Just then there was a tapping on the bistro window. We looked up to see the shopkeeper from the store next to the gallery. He was gesturing towards the gallery and then towards Byrne. We got up and said our goodbyes. Byrne went back to unlock the gallery and I headed toward the Metro. I suspect both of us were feeling a bit down after the interview.
But Paris is a temperamental lady who will often surprise you when you least expect it. The day after our meeting, an e-mail came from Byrne that read in part, "It was a great afternoon after you left. Seven paintings sold and much conversation with the buyers who were all French. Amazing." As the French say, "C'est la vie." AC
Steve Meltzer (www.SteveFotos.com) has photographed art and craftwork for more than 30 years. He is the author of Photographing Arts, Crafts & Collectibles: Take Great Digital Photos for Portfolios, Documentation, or Selling on the Web and his newest book Capture the Light: A Guide for Beginning Digital Photographers. Steve can be reached at Steve can be reached at email@example.com.