The French first lady visits her countryman, a Brooklyn gallerist, but he’s more impressed with the neighbors

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French First Lady Valerie Trierweiler with Lucien Zayan. ()
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Jed Lipinski

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On Tuesday, Madame Valerie Trierweiler made her first trip to New York City as the first lady of France. But while her companion François Hollande spent the day at the 67th United Nations General Assembly, Trierweiler dropped by a multipurpose art space in Boerum Hill called The Invisible Dog Art Center.

“I received a phone call from the president's chief of staff saying she was in town, and would like to come,” said Lucien Zayan, the space’s 46-year-old director, who is from Paris and speaks with an endearing French accent. “I do not know why she did this. I don’t know her. She is not a friend.”

Nevertheless, Zayan provided the First Lady with a two-hour tour of the space's artist studios, black box theater and spacious first floor gallery. He speculated that, like her companion, Trierweiler is attempting to repair cultural relations between France and America, specifically Paris and New York City, which Zayan says have become strained in recent years.

“Sarkozy was several times in New York, but he never showed up at one artistic or cultural space, as far as I know,” he said. “Not even a Broadway show!”

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He added: “Of course, he never came here.”

The Invisible Dog Gallery, located at 51 Bergen Street, was founded in September of 2009. For decades, the 300,000-square-foot building housed a factory that produced invisible dog leashes (“2,500 a day,” Zayan says) and other knick-knacks, until Disney's theme parks canceled their contract and the business folded. Zayan, for years a theater and opera producer in Paris, fell in love with the space during a short visit to New York in 2008. When he returned later that year, at the height of the financial crisis, he struck a deal with the Frank DeFalco, one of the owners, despite having “only $200 in my pocket,” Zayan said.

That Zayan pulled it off is a testament to his perseverance, charm and entrepreneurial savvy. After receiving $300,000 in investments from DeFalco and his partners, Zayan threw together a giant flea market with belt buckles, dog collars, invisible leashes, and other stuff stowed away in the factory basement—eventually earning enough to officially open the space.

Today, 35 artists lease the second floor studios, and community groups pay to use the top floor's event space. In this way he’s able to make the $25,000 rent, and to put on well-attended exhibitions on the ground floor, like Shaboygen, a show by Brooklyn-based brothers Steven and William Ladd that kicked off the Fall season on September 15.

In the interest of raising more money to pay the artists he shows, Zayan launched the gallery’s first Kickstarter campaign on Sept. 18. He is looking to raise $25,000, which he says will go toward seven exhibitions, 10 performances, and three artists' residencies. Two of his current artists-in-residence, Prune Nourry and Oliver Jeffers, were recently nominated among the top 10 finalists from the GO! Brooklyn open studios project, putting them in the running for a group exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in December. 

“We just hit the 50 percent mark today,” Zayan said. “If we can make $30,000 I’d like to do an educational program. If more than that, I will commission artists to go to school and work with kids."

Zayan—who was born to Egyptian parents but grew up in Marseilles before moving to Paris to study—brings a unique perspective to role of Brooklyn art-space proprietor. For one, though he hired his first part-time employees this year (an associate and deputy director), he does not use interns.

“In France, you must pay the intern,” he said. “More than that, you must spend time with them, developing projects, teaching them. And I don’t have the time for this. Lots of young people ask me for internships. And I have to tell them: No.”

Another issue he’s encountered has to do with names, the remembering of which is a crucial part of being an arts director.

“All the different names in America: there is really a huge variety!” he said. “In France, if you have 10 friends, there will be three Michels, four Antoines, and probably two Luciens, so it’s easy to remember. But here, my God. All the names are different. Except Jennifer. I have met a lot of them.”

Though he has achieved it to some extent, Zayan admitted he was unfamiliar with the concept of the American Dream when he first arrived in New York.

“No one told me what is the American Dream,” he said, laughing. “American books, movies, music—these rang a bell. But the Dream? I was not aware about that.”

And though he never envisioned himself living in New York City, he has embraced the culture of Brooklyn, particularly Bergen Street, to an almost fanatical degree. (Much like other Parisians, who in addition to calling things “trés Brooklyn” have taken to screen-printing T-shirts with the expression “Je parle Brooklyn,” or "I speak Brooklyn," Zayan claimed, though Google shows no evidence of this.) Indeed, the design blog Swiss Miss recently dubbed Zayan “The King of Bergen Street” for his near constant presence there.

“I really never leave the block,” he confessed. “When people see me on Atlantic Avenue, a few streets away, they call out: “Lucien! What are you doing so far from home?”

Interestingly, Boerum Hill reminds him less of the Left Bank than of Cairo or Alexandria.

“In Paris, everything is clean, flat, like a museum,” he said. “In Brooklyn there is chaos everywhere. There is garbage outside in the street, for instance, that smells when it’s hot at night. In Cairo you have that same smell."

Zayan said he finds life in Brooklyn generally easier than life in Paris.

“It’s easy to learn English here, because everyone has broken English, so they give you a break,” he said. Plus, “people are just really nice. The way they say hello, how are you? My success with the Invisible Dog is not because the First Lady came to aid me. It started with my neighbors, who came by when it opened the first day and said: ‘Good luck!’”