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Art in the province

May 13, 2010

Outspoken architecture and works by major artists often suffice to set a museum in good stead. But will that formula succeed in an eastern French town not known for art? The new Pompidou Center there is set to find out.

A view of the Pompidou center in Paris from outside, at the corner
The Pompidou Center in Paris celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2007Image: AP

Located squarely between Germany, Switzerland, Luxemburg and Belgium, France's Lorraine region has long been a region of cultural interface. Now the region hopes to expand its role as a center for culture with this week's opening of the Pompidou Center in its capital city, Metz.

The Pompidou-Metz is an offshoot of the Pompidou Center in Paris, which houses Europe's largest modern art collection. Some 700 of the Pompidou's 65,000 modern and contemporary pieces are on loan for the opening of the new location. Artists like Picasso, Matisse, Rodchenko and Miro will now be on display in this town of 120,000 inhabitants.

But dazzling tourists with big names is beside the point for the museum's opening exhibition, says Laurent Le Bon, director of the Pompidou-Metz.

"We talk about the democratization of culture in France, which is a simple idea but hard to implement," Le Bon told Deutsche Welle. "You can come see a real Picasso, a real Matisse, but we are also trying to interrogate the very idea of a 'masterpiece' with our first show."

A shot from ground level in front of the Pompidou-Metz showing its curvy roof
The Pompidou-Metz's design may rival some of its masterpieces for attentionImage: AP

One of a kind

One way in which the Metz's exhibition interrogates masterpieces and sets itself apart from the Pompidou-Paris is through its innovative juxtaposition of works. Visitors can see bits of film alongside a painting or view a modern sculpture paired with a fetish from the Congo.

The relationship between the two Pompidou institutions is unusual among art museums. Unlike the regional Tate museums, the Pompidou-Metz will not have its own permanent collection. But it's also more than just an annex taking on the unwanted surplus from its big brother in Paris, said Alain Sebon, President of the Pompidou-Paris.

"I believe the Pompidou-Metz is a premiere in a way. It's not a museum, since it lacks a permanent collection," Sebon said. "But at the same time, it is autonomous; it has its own goals and its own financing from the local authorities."

At least one of the Pompidou-Metz's goals is in line with a longstanding objective of the French government: expanding access to culture beyond Paris and across class lines.

Andre Malraux served as France's first minister of culture following World War II and helped articulate these aims. Subsequent governments have followed his lead, and recent initiatives in France include increasing contact between schools and art institutions, while expanding art and art history courses. Public funding for the arts is high in France and accounts for most of the Pompidou-Metz's budget.

A visitor gazes up at the wave-like structure of the Pompidou's roof
The roof of the Pompidou-Metz can also light up at night from outsideImage: AP

Inspired by a Chinese hut

Architecture that can delight and attract visitors is an important part of the museum's concept, according to Jean de Gastines, who helped design the structure. He compares the Pompidou-Metz to the branch of the Guggenheim opened in Bilbao, Spain - another small city that quickly became a major tourist attraction by virtue of its museum.

De Gastines was one of two principal architects on the project alongside Shigeru Ban of Japan. The futuristic design was inspired in part by the form of a Chinese hut that Shigeru Ban had seen. The museum occupies about 10,000 square meters (108,000 square feet) and cost around 70 million euros ($89 million).

Perhaps its most striking feature is a wavy roof that seems to float overhead. Light passes through the roof as well as through the enormous glass surfaces that make up the museum's core.

How much the museum's bold design and valuable works can bolster culture in the Lorraine region remains to be seen, but museum officials currently expect 200,000 to 300,000 annual visitors.

Author: John Laurenson (gsw)

Editor: Kate Bowen