The "train cathedral" in the Parisian suburb Saint-Denis (all photos © Lionel Boulanger, courtesy SNCF)

The “train cathedral” in the Parisian suburb Saint-Denis, one of the sites available to artists submitting proposals for the SNCF’s open call (all photos © Lionel Boulanger, courtesy SNCF)

In May, France’s national railroad, the SNCF (or Société nationale des chemins de fer français), put out an open call for artists to propose temporary projects for 16 of its properties that are disused or currently awaiting renovation. At first glance, the request for proposals looked very appealing, the photogenically decrepit spaces scattered all over the country just begging for big murals, dramatic performances, site-specific installations, and other artful interventions. There’s the charming abandoned train station in Marignac in the south, the 18,000-square-foot “train cathedral” in Paris’s Saint-Denis suburb, or the vaguely medieval water tower in Tionville in the northeast. All seem ripe for creative reuse.

But it didn’t take long for artists to notice the crooked terms of the SNCF’s offer: chosen artists will not only receive no payment for their proposals or to help cover the costs of their projects, but they will have to renounce any rights to the works they create, and must accept that they may be forced to stop their projects or destroy them at any time, without receiving any compensation or damages. In sum, the SNCF is asking artists activate and beautify its derelict properties for free, while reserving the right to exploit the resulting cultural cachet without compensating them.

The water tower in Thionville, one of the sites the SNCF is looking to invigorate with free art. (click to enlarge)

“The SNCF is peddling a completely false image of art and artists,” artist Didier Courbot told Le Monde. “The SNCF is suggesting that art is merely a means to entertain, easily and for free, through ephemeral events.”

Though some 200 artists have already submitted proposals, a petition denouncing the SNCF initiative has garnered over 5,500 signatures. The petition, which calls on artists to boycott the project, is supported by six artist unions and organizations including the Syndicat National des Artistes Plasticiens CGT (the national union for visual artists), the Union Nationale des Peintres Illustrateurs, and the Comité des Artistes Auteurs Plasticiens.

“This arrangement is unreasonably unbalanced, without any real counterparty, and perfectly contestable on legal terms,” Agnès Tricoire, an intellectual properly lawyer, told Le Monde. “It’s urgent that legislators investigate open calls like this that ask for proposals without compensation and on top of this demand that artists waive their rights to royalties.”

The SNCF has not responded to criticisms that its contest is exploitative, and such uncompensated open calls are unfortunately common in France — a request for proposals with similar terms launched by the Opéra Comique a month ago engendered a similar outcry. However, the director general of SNCF Immobilier (the national railroad’s real estate branch), Sophie Boissard, reassured concerned artists that their work “will not be unduly appropriated at the end of the project. But most of the sites will be rehabilitated one day, and we cannot commit, for legal reasons, to conserve the works.” Why they cannot compensate artists for the works, however, remains unknown.

The abandoned train station in Marignac, another possible site for an uncompensated SNCF art project.

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Benjamin Sutton

Benjamin Sutton is an art critic, journalist, and curator who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. His articles on public art, artist documentaries, the tedium of art fairs, James Franco's obsession with Cindy...