A former swamp in the middle of Paris with a rich, fascinating history has developed into a trendsetting area know for its chic boutiques, hot restaurants, and top contemporary art galleries. Le Marais, literally meaning swamp or marshland, had its humble beginnings in the early 600s, when monks inherited the land and tilled vegetable gardens and small farms for hundreds of years. In the late 1500s, the nobility bought up much of the land and constructed over 250 grand palaces and mansions, with the culmination of the Place des Vosges, the first royal square of Paris. Real estate winds shifted in the early 1700s, and the royals abandoned Le Marais for the newest fashionable quarter across the Seine, Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
The abandoned mansions in Le Marais were converted into workshops and factories in the early 1900s, and the area became a working-class neighborhood for factory workers. By the 1960s, all but forgotten by the city, Le Marais was one of the most impoverished areas of Paris; families were still living in one-room apartments with no running water and the former palaces were in shambles, desecrated and neglected by the factory owners. André Malraux, the minister of culture at the time, shocked upon seeing the area in such ruins, became its savior by implementing laws to protect and renovate the former palaces. He also started a movement where the state would buy or lease them, refurbish and turn them into government organizations. The crowning achievement of the ambitious conversion of Le Marais was the inauguration of the Picasso Museum in 1985, a gorgeous, limestone mansion stretching a full city block, now displaying a vast array of Picasso’s works donated by his family.
The Picasso Museum attracted thousands of new visitors to the area, fueling gentrification at a blinding speed. Suddenly the neighborhood mom-and-pop shops were turned into fashion boutiques, trendy restaurants, and cafés, much like SoHo in NewYork in the 1980s. Real estate values dramatically increased, making it one of the most desirable and most expensive places to live and work.
The other unexpected bonusthe Picasso Museum brought to the area wasthe proliferation of contemporary art galleries.Young gallerists took advantage of the large warehouse and garage spaces available with reasonable rents in the northern section of Le Marais.
In 1990, Thaddaeus Ropac who already had a gallery in Salzburg,Austria, fulfilled his dream of opening a gallery in Paris. Introducing the work of Joseph Beuys, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Georg Baselitz to Parisians, the gallery became a resounding success. In recent years, the gallery opened a second space in Pantin, on the fringe of Paris. The massive industrialspace of 54,000 square feet in a formerironworksfactory, now displays large-scale pieces, sculptures, and installations. Plus, it’s sometimes used as a performance space for music, film screenings, talks, and satellite events, accompanying exhibitions. A high point in the career of Thaddaeus Ropac was when he was bestowed the French Knight of the Legion of Honour award in 2003. The Marais gallery contains four stories and features a stable of international artists: established artists Alex Katz, Anslem Kiefer, Robert Longo, Not Vital, Jack Pierson, and Gilbert and George; newly emerging artists Oliver Beer, Claire Adelfang, and Nick Oberthaler; and classic modern artists Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Irving Penn. (Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, 7 rue Debelleyme, Le Marais, and 69 Ave. du Général-Leclerc, Pantin. www.ropac.net).