It is one of the world’s great free arts events: a rare chance for artist and audience to meet face to face. Geneva’s Quartier des Bains, once mundanely named as its public baths were the most noteworthy feature, is now Switzerland’s stylish response to New York’s arty SoHo.
Three times a year in March, May and September, 14 contemporary art galleries simultaneously launch new exhibitions – La Nuit des Bains. For three hours, between 6pm and 9pm, the galleries open their doors, offer complimentary drinks and welcome huge numbers of art fans. Not surprisingly around 3,000 visitors pack into an area little larger than a football pitch. The next event is on Thursday 17th May 2018.
Many of the galleries have the artists on hand to talk about their work. For the artists that three-hour window is their best opportunity to sell. But they are artists, a diverse and eclectic bunch, sometimes with paint still under their fingernails, not smooth-talking sales people. They admit to school boy errors, “It never crossed my mind that the canvass would be too big to get through the studio door. Eventually I had the window taken out. I’m not going to make any money on this one.”
Some reveal the trauma of the creative process, their artistic angst still evident from wringing of the hands, “I can spend hours with a brush in my hand not knowing what to do next.”
Occasionally they reveal driven ambition, “I have pictures of the greats, Cezanne and Monet and Turner, in my studio. They mock me, they scowl at me, they drive me on. That is why I will become better than them one day.”
And then there’s brutal honesty, “Sometimes my work is rubbish. I destroy it. Slash it with a knife. I hate it.” As I said, not natural sales folk. La Nuit de Bains draws a diverse audience to a working-class area that has undergone the ultimate gentrification to contemporary cool: metre after metre of white walls, kilometres of wooden floors, litres of dry white wine. The Quartier de Bains is big on original brickwork and internal gleaming brass-piping – in a hipster sort of way.
There are aspiring students eager to quiz and learn from the artists who’ve “made it”. Art aficionados of more mature years, who, if the price is right, are looking to add to their collection. Then there those just seeking a sophisticated night-out. Befriend the right Gallery owners and you’ll get invited back for the post-show party to finish off the surplus booze.
These arty nights draw a cosmopolitan and sophisticated clientele. As the United Nations is just one of hundreds of supranational organisations who have bases in Geneva there’s a global village feel to an audience who bring diverse artistic experiences to the party, expressed in a range of languages.
La Nuit des Bains is a great opportunity for talent spotting, identifying the next big thing, backing your hunch with a fistful of Swiss Francs. Some art investors strike early, putting in pre-emptive bids even before the doors open, which rather spoils the fun. Inevitably, there are one or two artists, who’ve just had a big payday, enjoying the adulation and sparkling wine. Shrewd businesses buy an artist’s work as office decoration, off-setting the cost against tax, and then wait for the work to appreciate.
Fuelled by a few glasses of wine there’s a refreshing directness to some of the questions fired at the artists from DIY wannabe art critics: “Don’t you think it’s too ambiguous / depressing / geometrical / indulgent / morbid?” as the interrogator struggles to come to terms with contemporary issues.
But the real buzz of the evening comes from the creative energy of the artists and their connection with the crowds. Then there’s the exciting moment when a viewer “gets” the artist’s intention and becomes a buyer: and the gallery staff place a “Sold” sticker by the piece.
For the evening the glassy MAMCO, La Musée d’art moderne et contemporain, grants free admission. Opened in 1994, the former factory is vast, providing Switzerland’s biggest contemporary art museum. Similarly the Centre d’Art Contemporain joins the party throwing its doors open too.
Arriving in Geneva for La Nuit des Bains on a Thursday kick-starts a long weekend in Geneva, frequently topping Europe’s league table of City Break Destinations. On the Friday you could tour the United Nations whilst it is still in session. Then over the weekend there’s the sometimes traumatic Red Cross Museum, a dinner cruise on Lake Geneva and shopping in the exclusive artisan shops of Carouge.
La Nuits de Bains is merely the appetiser.