When the shipyards disappeared from Nantes in 1987 and the city lost its main industry, an economic crisis followed. In the 1990s, the then mayor decided to invest in improving the city’s image.
Not a gray industrial city, but a city full of culture. It was the beginning of a slow process that led to the cultural project Les Machines de l’île in 2007 opened and the same year a first series of permanent works of art appeared along the Loire River.
There are now 120 public works of art in the city, and more are added each year during the summer event Voyage a Nantes.
The Dutch artist Krijn de Koning was also asked for the eleventh edition of this art festival. The organization was looking for an artist specifically for an area near the university where new buildings have been erected. A place where something could happen.
“They look at the place, make a list of artists they think could do something about it. Then there is a consultation, and in the end the choice fell on me,” says De Koning.
That’s not always the case. “For a work in the public space, as an artist you often have to compete with others to win the order.” Then more artists come up with a work and one has to be chosen.
“It’s frustrating for artists. It’s a shame too, because everyone does their best, and if you’ve already thought of a work in your head, you want to do it,” says De Koning.
That the city of Nantes immediately knew that it would cooperate with the King was therefore a luxury, but it was not the only thing that was special about the project. “Two years ago, I went to the square where the artwork was allowed to go for the first time, and they said to me, ‘Think big.’ It’s unbelievable,” he says.
Old underground car park
“So it was not about a statue somewhere, but I was really allowed to unpack.” The king saw an old parking garage surrounded by new gray buildings. “That garage is a beautiful, brutal building. I wanted to mark it as an object by coloring it. And then make those colors appear elsewhere in the square as well, so that coherence is created.”
The king was allowed to carry out his plans. The organization monitored the process from start to finish. “Really amazing as it went. They helped with everything, including the execution.”
Not that De Koning would otherwise have painted that garage himself with a paint roller. “Not at least, others can really do better, but in the Netherlands I am responsible for production, applying for the right permits and so on,” he explains.
The romanticized image that people have of an artist who is creative in a studio day in and day out is far from reality. It’s hard work to make a name for yourself and then actually earn a living through art.
“As an artist, you are just as much an independent entrepreneur. I do my own marketing, production and administration. All the things that have to happen in a company,” says De Koning.
Not a commercial product
But there is a big difference between other entrepreneurs. “My product is not commercial. It’s not like you as an artist can research the demand for your product and then put it on the market in a targeted way. That’s not how art works.”
And that sometimes makes it hard. Especially for budding artists. “If you as a country decide that you think art is important, you also have to understand that an artist is not a baker. You need artists who try things out, young people who start making art. They is not really going to make money right away. “
De Koning is asked about projects at home and abroad and has several tasks on his agenda. He does not have to worry about lack of work, even though he is never completely reassured.
“It’s always in the back of my mind that it can end tomorrow. You know when you choose art that nothing is safe. You are always on guard,” he says.
Hard work and a little luck
There have also been difficult periods. During the financial crisis in 2008, several projects were canceled and it was something to swallow.
“You can not call people and say ‘I’m tight, can you not give me a task?’ It is not possible as an artist ‘.
Then it’s about being patient, working hard and having a little luck. Stopping was never an option for De Koning.
“That image of wear and tear is also what people have with artists. But I had no alternative and it helps,” he says with a laugh. “I really did not know what else to do. This should work.”
The Voyage a Nantes festival lasts until September 11th. Some works were only created for the festival and then disappear. The artwork Extensions by De Koning can be seen permanently and is now part of the permanent collection of works in the public space.