When in Paris last, I visited Le Viaduc des Art. My good friend, Amy, born in Paris some 89 years ago, had taken me there once, but I welcomed another opportunity to discover and explore some of its certain surprises. It is, ironically, one of the more hidden, yet quite public treasures of Paris, located at the southeast end the city, in the 12th Arrondissement. Le Viaduc is only a few blocks from the Bastille Opera House (built over the demolished Bastille prison, where the historic ‘storming’ set off the French Revolution). Nearby, Rue de Lyon leads to Avenue Daumesnil, where the viaduct begins, hugging the tree-lined avenue all the way east to Bois de Vincennes.
Le Viaduc is a 19th century structure, originally used as an elevated rail line. Its path is supported by a series of supporting arches and the city has cleverly converted it into a long green walkway– ‘la coulee verte’. The promenade on top is planted with a profusion of plants, trees and luscious flowers–becoming a kilometer-long strip of verdant park ideal for long leisurely strolls. And underneath, the high vaulted spaces of the viaduct are now home to dozens of active studios, workshops, galleries displaying the work of artists and artisans and chic cafes. Le Viaduc itself and its series of arches, framed by sand-colored stone and dark red brick, take on the appearance of an elongated Romanesque-style structure.
As we walked along the Viaduc, Amy, a survivor of the Nazi occupation of Paris during World War II, reminisced. “Those were hard and frightful years. There wasn’t much food. We played cat and mouse with the Gestapo”, she said. “My family moved from Rue Vivienne to this neighborhood. I actually took the trains on the viaduct when I was a young girl. It’s wonderful to see something so utilitarian be transformed into something so aesthetically pleasing.”
At 23, Avenue Daumesnil, under one of the arches, a sign caught our attention: “Societe d’Encouragement aux Métiers d’Art” (Society to Encourage Professions of the Arts ) or SEMA. We entered through the large elegant glass doors and met the Societe’s stylish director, Marie-Francoise Brule, who shared a wealth of information with us. Funded by a French ministry, SEMA was established to encourage and support artists and artisans and the pursuit of their careers. It is so very French, and so sensible—for the government to view artists and artisans as professionals, deserving of respect and nurturance.
And why not a stimulus package for artists and artisans? In these hard economic times, as galleries close and participation in art fairs dwindles, the French government actively assists its creative community by affording them exposure and assistance in the marketing and sale of their work. Through SEMA, the ministry extends a helping hand and an avenue for young people pursuing a career in the arts and crafts—lives devoted to interpreting and creating beauty with one’s very own hands!
SEMA is housed in a multi-storied office built behind Le Viaduc. Its upper floors overlook the tranquil stretch of the lush, green promenade. Their offices grant prize money awards and offer a large space for exhibitions. The Societe also promotes events and informational forums for art professional from around the world. Its library offers extensive archival and current information, including films (such as clips of Renoir painting), historical documents, and the names of at least 2500 art professionals, referenced and organized by region of the country, artistic specialty and materials of expertise. SEMA’s annual magazine, “Metiers d’Art,” publishes and highlights artists and artisans with their contact information, providing networking tools within—and beyond—the arts community.
Upon reflection, there is something more going on here than meets the eye; something the French know and do quite well—and that is the preservation of cultural patrimony and a segment of civilization for posterity. It seems the French truly understand that artistic mastery is a life-long endeavor, to be nourished and passed down from one generation to the next. Oh, and by the way, history has also shown that the French tradition of supporting and cultivating their own artistic heritage is, in the long run, actually quite profitable!
Crossing Avenue Daumesnil to embark on the next stop of my art travels, I cast one glance back at Le Viaduc des Art, knowing that someday I would return.
by Linda Y. Peng, Editor-at-Large
‘The Artful Traveler’
for ARTES Magazine
Le Viaduc des Arts, Avenue Daumesnil, 75012 Paris
La SEMA, 23 Avenue Daumesnil, 75012 Paris
To visit New York City’s very own ‘green’ version of a converted, elevated rail line, go to: