Curating the Contemporary Display for the Paris Embassy

Among the many aspects involved in being Deputy Director and Senior Curator at the Government Art Collection, Eliza Gluckman shares insight into one of her projects: curating the contemporary display in Paris. A renewed display of contemporary art is installed with every new Ambassador who comes in to post in the historic building’s Glazed Galleries - it is one of the most frequently renewed international displays managed by the GAC

Three art technicians installing a picture on to a wall at the Ambassador's Residence in Paris

Installing a work by Haroon Mirza at the Ambassador's Residence in Paris, Spring 2019 © Crown Copyright

an interior with works of art in the British Residence in Paris

Installing works by Zarina Bhimji, Jennifer Douglas, Susan Derges and Thomas J Price at the Ambassador's Residence in Paris, 2019 © Crown Copyright

As arguably one of the UK’s most stunning diplomatic buildings in the world, with a long and fascinating history, the Ambassador’s Residence is host to numerous daily events nearly every day of the year. From small but significant meetings with heads of state or royalty, to large social gatherings in the garden, around fifteen thousand people pass through the door of the celebrated Faubourg St Honoré Residence each year.

Contemporary artworks converse with the Residence’s historic features and artefacts. Gluckman points out how “the building is full of significant historic works from the GAC”, some of which document key moments of diplomatic relations between Britain and France. In one of the guest rooms, an aquatint by Auguste Charles Pugin and Joseph Constantine Stadler, The House in Portman Square of His Excellency L. G. Otto, Minister Plenipotentiary from the French Republic, to the Court of Great Britain as it appeared on the night of the general illumination for Peace, the 29th of April 1802, evokes one of the celebrations following the signing of the Treaty of Amiens between Joseph Bonaparte and Marquess Cornwallis.

The space over which Gluckman casts her expert eye is the three connected long glazed rooms which form a ‘C’ plan, attached to the back of the building, that “face the enviable, vast green lawn that hides in central Paris”. The extension was in fact added by the Ambassador’s wife in 1825-6 “without permission from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. Over twenty years ago these Galleries were adorned in a Victorian style with historic portraits, dark wood furniture and lace curtains. GAC Director Penny Johnson took the decision with former British Ambassador, Sir Michael Jay, to start afresh and turn the galleries into a contemporary space that would reflect a forward looking Britain and showcase some of the Collection’s contemporary art.”


An airy and bright hallway overlooking the gardens, with a brightly coloured light work displayed on the left

The Glazed Galleries at the Ambassador's Residence in Paris with Walldella VI, a light sculpture by David Batchelor, and Clear Red Koan, a kinetic sculpture by Liliane Lijn

So how does our Deputy Director go about realising these displays? Eliza Gluckman takes us behind the scenes:

“As curator of this project it is important to understand this beautiful yet complex space. At the GAC we are used to working in a non museum environment and with each new display we have to gain an understanding of the function of the space. This helps us to make decisions about which works will make an impact and also to make sure the works are not put at risk.

Our selection aims to bring together works that have a relationship to one another and create a dialogue that we hope a visitor will be curious to explore further… The latest display was installed in 2019 and was selected in conversation with HM Ambassador to France, Edward Llewellyn, both in situ and during a visit to the Collection. It is incredibly important that anyone involved in a selection can physically see the works in order to really understand their impact, scale and texture. In this case I chose to focus on the glazed nature of the space which offers both a lot of natural light and the presence of night. A few works that had entered the Collection in the past couple of years were obvious starting points for this selection; notably Haroon Mirza ‘Energy Power (Solar Powered LED circuit 36)’ which reacts to light by way of it’s solar panel base and LED lights. The wide, long spaces offer long vistas that frame sculptural work perfectly. In this case we were able to show a kinetic cone work from 2008 by Liliane Lijn that glows at night.

Once the selection is agreed the Collection management mechanics get in to motion. Works are assessed by the technicians and Head of Collection Care (Are they suitable for the space? Do they need framing? How will we hang them?) and then the Registrars arrange transport and contract a local company to hang the works. In this case I was accompanied by GAC technician Anthony Lindsay who knows the works well and oversaw them going up. We happened to coincide with a fleeting visit by the PM Theresa May on our first day so the working day was cut short. Being flexible is very much part of the job!

Retreating to our rooms in the 18th century mansion is also a perk of the job. When travelling to visit these spaces of international exchange, it is really important to understand how they work and there is no better way than staying in the building. Every residence and embassy is run differently, and each location is influenced in different ways by the country it is in, as well as the character of the Ambassador. Getting an understanding of how a space is used, and the culture of the country the building is in, is so important. Staying at a residence is a treat but it is also as key as seeing the art work in the flesh. My presiding memory of my first long haul visit was arriving at the Tokyo residence one morning and finding myself that evening at an event celebrating Wales, watching a Japanese elderly Welsh Male Voice Choir. Adding jetlag to that it can make the job seem somewhat surreal!”