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Swiss artist proves a successful export

Wahler in front of "Cathedral Evening" by Ronald Bladen and Nancy Grossman's leather heads at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris


Swiss artist Marc-Olivier Wahler, curator of the prestigious Palais de Tokyo in Paris, tells swissinfo about Switzerland's place in the contemporary art scene.

Wahler, who took over the French capital's contemporary art centre one year ago, says Swiss artists are recognised abroad and sell well to foreign collectors.

His own career really began when he set up Neuchâtel's first contemporary art centre with some friends. His last job was in New York, where he ran the Swiss Institute.

swissinfo: You have completed your first year in Paris and if the local media are to be believed, you have been well accepted.

Marc-Olivier Wahler: It's true that they seem to have accepted me, even if it surprises me somewhat. Nobody made me feel as though I was just the "little Swiss" guy, in fact quite the opposite. I think the Swiss have some credibility because the French think we do everything better in Switzerland, that there's money, sponsors and so forth.

There is a respect for Switzerland because it has a unique place in the art world: we have some of the biggest artists and art collectors, as well as many museums.

There are also art centres like those in Bern and Basel that were created by artists more than 100 years ago. We have a strong artistic environment, unlike in France where there are good artists without an international reputation. But this is starting to change.

swissinfo: Do the French authorities put pressure on you?

M.-O. W.: Constantly. I get phone calls all the time suggesting I should put on a show by some extraordinary artist. But a good curator must know how to stand his ground despite all the strong winds that buffet him (laughs).

swissinfo: What's your opinion of the booming art business, with living artists practically being quoted on the stock market?

M.-O. W.: There are different levels. As for myself, I'm in the research world that helps to launch little known artists. We are a link between galleries, museums and fairs.

Of course, exhibiting these artists gives them a helping hand into the market world. But we need this because artists have to sell their work to keep their heads above water.

There are some who try to find shortcuts to raise their "share prices" in an artificial way, these go up and down, but the good artists always remain.

swissinfo: What sparked your interest in contemporary art?

M.-O. W.: I don't really know, it just happened in a completely natural way. Some friends and I built a contemporary art centre in Neuchâtel from scratch... It's a passion and I cannot conceive of doing anything else.

I studied history of art but I only really discovered contemporary art through philosophy. An artist called Duchamp took an ordinary object – a WC – and put it into a museum, which led to a big 20th century debate.

From then on, everyone thought that if a work of art resembled an ordinary object, there had to be something else as well, but what? Since then everyone has been pulling their hair out over this enigma, which I find very exciting. It helps clear my mind.

swissinfo: You divide your time between Switzerland and France. You wife, a watch engraver, and your daughter have stayed in Neuchâtel and you go back every weekend. Do you feel like a commuter or a Swiss abroad?

M.-O. W.: In any case, Switzerland as such doesn't really mean anything to me, because art has no borders. I believe that Switzerland's great characteristic is that it doesn't really "exist", to use the words of [Swiss-French artist] Ben Vautier, who caused such as scandal [at the world expo in the Spanish city of] Seville in 1992.

Switzerland defines itself. It's not a country that defines itself through precise national claims, such as France, whose history is built on this theme, and which can't transfer this situation abroad.

Switzerland is much more subtle, more healthy, because we are always constructing our identity. Switzerland's strength is that the Swiss do well abroad because they are used to going from one canton to another, which is sometimes a bit more of a change than if you go from one country to another!

swissinfo-interview: Isabelle Eichenberger in Paris

Marc-Olivier Wahler

Born in Neuchâtel in 1964, Wahler is an exhibition organiser, art critic and editor.

In 1993, after completing his studies in art history in Switzerland, he was appointed curator at the Fine Arts Museum in Lausanne, and then went to the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Geneva.

In 1995 he co-founded the CAN art centre in Neuchâtel.

In 2000 he was appointed to run the Swiss Institute in New York.

Since autumn 2006 he has been the head of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris.

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Palais de Tokyo

The Palais de Tokyo was built in 1937 on the Quai de Tokyo to house works from Paris modern art museums during the international expo.

It was officially given its name in 1999. In this year it also became a "site for contemporary creation" – 50-100 events a year – with performances, film projections, concerts and debates, as well as being a site for picnics and walks.

The budget totalled SFr4.3 million ($3.8 million) in 2006. The programme is financed though patronage, sponsoring and tickets. The Palais employs 50 people and has around 19,000 visitors a month.

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