PARIS (Reuters) - Artists at one of the most-visited hubs of contemporary art in Paris are in a battle with city hall to preserve the status quo at their "aftersquat", where visitors can freely view 30 painters and sculptors in the throes of the creative process.
The artists, who have traveled from as far away as Japan and the United States to set up in the former illegal squat, say a plan to reduce the number of permanent workshops in order to have more artists move through will kill the family spirit of the site, now leased and legal for several years.
After a damning audit of the premises last year, city officials want to cut the number of permanent artists at 59 rue de Rivoli, a busy central shopping street, to 15 from the 20 who are based there today along with 10 visiting creatives.
A failure to reach an agreement on terms of the lease renewal by the end of May could leave the artists occupying the building without legal claim or authority -- meaning the 'aftersquat" would be a squat once more.
"It's a numbers game -- they want to say more artists come here but artists are capable of better things when they have investment in a place," said Gaspard Delanoe, co-founder of the original squat and now president of the 59 Rivoli Association.
City officials, whose audit slammed the 'aftersquat' for lacking transparency in distributing work spaces and other issues that ran against the terms of the lease, say they are "disappointed and shocked" at the rejection of their proposal.
They say nobody would be forced to leave, but that five permanent artists would be gradually replaced with temporary creatives on a one-year basis as they left of their own accord.
"There are other artists who could manage a place like that with more transparency," said a representative of the city, declining to be quoted by name.
Originally a vast branch of the now defunct Credit Lyonnais bank, the building at No. 59 lay empty for 15 years until a band of wandering artists broke in through a first-floor window in late 1999 and squatted in the premises.
After a long legal squabble, during which time the artists become a curiosity for passers-by and tourists, a deal with Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe saw the building bought by the city a decade ago and rented back to the artists.
Six floors of rooms showcasing the eclectic creators and their work are accessible from a spiral central staircase, spattered with paint in psychedelic colors that stands out from the building's nondescript Haussmanian exterior.
Despite the enthusiastic creativity that draws tens of thousands of visitors a year, whose donations fund utility bills and upkeep, resentment towards City Hall bubbles beneath the surface.
Eve Tesorio, one of the temporary artists at the site, left aside her work for a few hours to painstakingly attach hundreds of paper-stuffed gloves to lengthy wires that form a display for the front facade of the building. Its slogan reads: 'Together, without being perfect, only ourselves'.
The artists, who are not allowed to live in the building yet thrive in their close-knit community, say they are confident city officials will come round to their way of thinking.
"When you think of Paris you think of a cultural city," said Tesorio. "It's that which shouldn't just be a facade."
Additional reporting by Jacky Naegelen; Editing by Catherine Bremer and Paul Casciato