Centre Pompidou: pipe dreams

 Paris  |  17 February 2017  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

Delivered by architects Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano in 1977, the Centre Pompidou recently celebrated its 40th birthday. We retrace this museum, social and monumental adventure. An account of the “Pompidou touch”, an example of interdisciplinarity and cultural renown.

The 40th birthday of the Centre National d’Art et de Culture Georges-Pompidou, in Paris, is a national event. The Centre Pompidou was quick to become a world icon, a symbol of France’s avant-garde spirit, supported by the French president Georges Pompidou, and known for its once contested architecture, designed by the Italian-British architectural duo, Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano. At the time, some compared the building to a supermarket… “All the better. People won’t be afraid of entering it,” Piano is said to have replied.

“Pompidou wanted to reconcile France with the culture of his time, noting that while our country, under the influence of André Malraux, had turned to the arts with conviction, it experienced certain difficulties in taking in more recent innovations from contemporary creation,” observed the museum’s president from 1996 to 2002, Jean-Jacques Aillagon, to Le Figaro. Planted in a once working-class district, coming up with the museum plan, then building it, were real gambles, pulling along with it a few modern and contemporary art galleries, such as the very first one to set up in the area, Daniel Templon, at 30 Rue Beaubourg, in 1972, opposite the gaping hole that awaited the museum at the time.

We should mention that on the international avant-garde scene – which was starting to globalise and meet strong competition –, Paris needed a museum to reshuffle the contemporary-art cards. Inaugurated in 1977 with an exhibition on Marcel Duchamp and curated by Jean Clair, the museum, directed by Pontus Hulten from Sweden at the time, put on one themed exhibition after another, namely the trilogy featuring “Paris/New York” in 1977, then “Paris/Berlin” in 1978 and “Paris/Moscou” in 1979, a series that would end with “Paris/Paris” in 1981, a part devoted to French art from 1937 to 1957. The shows presented artworks and design pieces, recreated cities, embraced lifestyles… And met with outright success.

Next, it was Dominique Bozo’s turn to head the museum. He invited a philosopher, Jean-François Lyotard, to design another themed exhibition, this time called “Les Immatériaux” (The Immaterial), organised around the era’s new technologies, in 1985. Several years later, the Centre Pompidou turned its attention to creation from the non-Western world: “Les Magiciens de la Terre” (The Magicians of the Earth), in 1989. One hundred and one artists showed their works at both the Centre Pompidou and the Grande Halle de la Villette. The exhibition was curated by Jean-Hubert Martin, the then director of the Centre Pompidou’s MNAM (Musée National d’Art Moderne or National Modern Art Museum).

A decade later, the museum director who took up the post in 2000, Alfred Pacquement, brought another new initiative: time to focus on women artists from the MNAM collection. It was to them that the museum devoted the exhibition “Elles” (feminine form of the pronoun “they”) in 2009, combining different generations.

The Centre Pompidou is also a succession of blockbuster exhibitions. To mention just a few: the “Dali” exhibition in 1979 drew 840,662 visitors. Similar success came around twenty years later: no less than 790,090 visitors in 2012 for the same artist. Meanwhile, the Koons exhibition in 2014 set a French record for visitor rates for a living artist – 650,000 visitors – followed by the exhibition from the past year, “Magritte, la trahison des images”, recording 600,000 visitors. Is there still any need to specify that the Centre Pompidou welcomes 3 million visitors every year (its library, the BPI, sees over one million through its doors every year), and despite the recent terrorist attacks, its public grew in 2016.

“Producing interdisciplinarity”

The very structure of the museum is indicative of its exemplary multifunctionality and interdisciplinarity right from the outset. As stated to Le Figaro by Christine Macel, a Centre Pompidou curator and chief curator of the upcoming Venice Biennale in spring: “The Centre Pompidou cannot be compared to any other place in that it consists of the most important national modern and contemporary art museum in Europe – let’s say the equivalent of the MoMA in the United States – as well as a public information library, the IRCAM, performance rooms, etc. So there’s no equivalent or copy for it to date, or else only partially.”

Serges Lasvignes, president of the Centre Pompidou since 2015, whose appointment caused some controversy as he was previously secretary general in the government over three presidential mandates, supports the museum’s original aim. Didn’t he declare on France Inter radio station that “producing interdisciplinarity is my intention and we are progressing in this direction”?

Along with the IRCAM, an institute for contemporary music and the Centre de Création Industrielle (Centre for Industrial Creation), the new event for this year opening on 15 March, “Mutations créations”, certainly seems to go in this direction. “Every year, we’ll be choosing a topic of common interest for artists, scientists, designers, technicians, and if applicable, companies,” Serges Lasvignes has announced. This year’s topic is the digital world. Finally, Paris will also have its own biennale, this autumn. Its name will be Cosmopolis, its focus, emerging scenes abroad, gathering artist’s collectives from Pakistan, Indonesia or Colombia. Also on the agenda for the next academic year, the opening of two schools: a vocational training centre turned towards contemporary art, and an online-course portal based on the MOOC model, as well an annex in the suburbs that will be opening up the museum’s reserves which are costly to maintain while remaining unexploited for now. Building works, including the renovation of the caterpillar-like escalators, for a total cost of over 100 million euros, are also scheduled for next year.

Everyone at the Bal Monochrome

For now, the museum’s 40th birthday festivities have just concluded, with a programme of live shows and performances occupying every space in the Centre, drawing throngs who took advantage of the waiving of admission fees for the occasion. In the space of two days, 87,000 persons took part in the events – another attendance-rate record for the museum. Welcomed to the sounds of the band The BrassTa by the French minister of culture Audrey Azoulay, on Saturday when the museum opened its doors, the first visitors were able to take advantage of guided tours of the MNAM, accompanied by speakers who took turns, for twelve hours non-stop, to present the collection. A ball – the Bal Monochrome – featured renowned DJs including Chloé, Prieur de la Marne, and Ariel Wizman, and continued until two in the morning. Bernard Blistène, the museum’s director, also delivered a talk on Saturday afternoon on the theme “Une histoire festive de l’art” (A festive history of art). This venue, built to draw together people, thus became fully reacquainted with the general public. “This relationship to the public, and to society in general, is the driving force behind the Centre Pompidou’s commitment and action,” states Serge Lasvignes.

But in reality, this commemoration started off in museums outside the French capital – museums with which the Centre Pompidou has set up partnerships for the storage of works, all over France. The first exhibition began last October at the Musée de Grenoble, with “Kandinsky, les années parisiennes” (Kandinsky, the Parisian Years). We might well suspect that the museum wishes to develop all over the national territory, in the same way that it has branched out with the Centre Pompidou in Metz. On this point, Serge Lasvignes makes a specification, revealed to the daily paper Ouest-France: “With more than 300,000 visits per year, Pompidou Metz works well, but more than anything, today I’d like to work in networks with the cultural players already existing on the territory. This is already translated, in our birthday events, by 75 projects carried out with them. In the long term, I’d like this to be translated by a new approach to our loan and storage policy. So as to develop a type of common strategy. So as to focus on this or that aspect of art in this or that region. Perhaps to construct temporary exhibitions that could circulate more easily.”

The “Pompidou touch”

Even if territorial development is one focus area, it is nonetheless not at the heart of the museum’s new priorities. Today, in the context of globalisation, the Centre Pompidou, standing tight within its walls, expresses a desire to open up to the world. It was first in Malaga, Spain, that the Centre settled temporarily in 2015 for a five-year period. In 2018, the institution will be opening a branch in Shanghai, in a former airport redesigned as a cultural-activity zone. A fruitful operation… “It’s necessary to build the Centre Pompidou’s renown on the Asian continent. And obviously, to earn a bit of money…,” confides Serge Lasvignes, who also envisages making acquisitions of works on the Chinese scene at lower costs – while they’re still “affordable” – and to set up an exhibition on this scene, in 2019. In the same year, the Centre Pompidou will be opening a new museum in Brussels, in a former Citroën garage dating from the 1950s, to “produce this big modern and contemporary art museum that Belgium still lacks,” further declares Serge Lasvignes, pointing out the value of the “Pompidou touch”.

The Centre’s 40th birthday is an opportunity to announce the museum’s projects. It is also a chance to remember, in festival mode, that the institution is aimed at the general public. Also to recall the diversity of its cultural offer, its policy of storage in the French regions, its collection holding 120,000 works – making the Centre Pompidou number two after the MoMA, and taking the pole position in Europe.

The Centre also stands out from other museums which have recently inaugurated monumental extensions, such as the Tate Modern in London. Serge Lasvignes thus stated to La Croix newspaper: “Given the current state of public financing, it’s not something that can be envisaged. And anyway, this race towards enlargement disturbs me. Why add galleries to galleries? I prefer having the Centre Pompidou stretching out further.” The ambition is clear: it consists in situating oneself on the international spectrum in a way that might be less spectacular than other museums, but more scientifically searching, exporting one’s knowhow throughout the world, like a genuine public, cultural and social multinational. And with a budget of 100 million euros, including 65 million from State grants, Serge Lasvignes sums it all: “One-third of our own resources come from sponsorship and from contracts using our brand.” Unstoppable…

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