Estelle Francès: art for the sake of “opening doors towards paths where we would not go”

Photography : Photokiff - Text : Elisabeth Grosdhomme
017 EXP - Estelle Francès

Estelle Francès and her husband Hervé are both entrepreneurs. Hervé runs Oko, a communication consulting agency which he created more than twenty years ago and brought all the way up to ranking amongst the major independent agencies in France. Estelle, after starting a career in marketing for the automotive industry, founded Arroi in 2004, a cultural engineering venture, which aims at helping businesses build philanthropic investment strategies.

But first and foremost both of them are passionate about contemporary art. Together, along the years, they have assembled an impressive collection of paintings, drawings and sculptures. Six hundred works of art in total, acquired without a predefined strategy, simply following their shared preferences (« we decide together ») and the conviction that art is not there to please, but to trigger reflection, debate, even controversy, « open doors for us towards paths where we would not go ».

And then one day, precisely because they believe that art has a role to play in society, the idea dawned on them that such a treasure had to be shared. This is how they came to create a foundation in their name, the Fondation Francès, designed to open their collection to the public. Hervé chairs it, while Estelle has taken charge of its management and dedicates to it a hefty share of her time.

They first had to find a location: an old house, patiently restored during two years, in Senlis’s town centre, aiming to demonstrate that contemporary creation has a fully legitimate place even in a historical and patrimonial setting, that it appeals to our roots and identity just as well as monuments from the past, and that tomorrow it will also be, in turn, a chapter of art history.

Then began a learning curve made of trials, errors and adjustments to find a way to bring the art pieces to the public. At the outset, the emphasis was put exclusively on exhibitions: three rotations per year on the Foundation premises. It soon became clear that it was better to slow down on this effort – from then on, only one exhibition a year – but in return dedicate more energy to projecting the Foundation outside of its physical walls.

Estelle has henceforth started lending works to other art spaces, galleries or exhibition centres, and above all she has invested in developing educational programs. The experiment began during the 2015-2016 school year with the technical high school Amyot d’Inville in Senlis; it will be multiplied in 2016-2017 with ten educational facilities around the Oise district. The idea is simple enough: identifying, along with the headmasters and teachers, a few sensitive topics that they would like to talk about with the students – typically identity, gender, respect, their own bodies, … ; then assembling a selection of art pieces, from the Foundation collection or more broadly from the pool of works that art history has to offer, in order to create a basis for discovering, thinking and debating the issues at hand.

The next challenge on Estelle Francès’ agenda is the launch, in 2017, of an artists’ residence in Senlis around the theme of “bio-inspired” art. With the support of the regional council and the city of Senlis, the project will be housed at the CEEBIOS, the local innovation campus dedicated to bio-mimicry. Four artists will be selected to participate. They will have access to partnering businesses to pursue their personal projects; in exchange, they are commited to creating a collective piece which will stay on site. A prime illustration of what Estelle Francès is up to: weaving together art, business and society.

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