Centre Pompidou continues trailblazing

When, a few years ago, the new Guggenheim branch opened in Bilbao, the talk was of Frank Gehry’s impressive building and the model of the «spectacular» museum it represented. A sight in itself, this was a museum of the type that aimed at attracting a large public and becoming a landmark of the city. London’s Tate offered a comparable example. This was a museum that, despite its financial problems the past few years, managed to bring a new dynamism to an entire segment of the city. Although relatively recent, none of these examples compare to the much older – almost by three decades – cultural experiment of the Centre Pompidou, a pioneering institution that transformed a downtrodden quarter of Paris into one of its most vibrant areas. Designed by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, the building’s innovative architecture and its exposed inner structure expressed an extroversion that was not limited to form but which covered content as well, capturing as it did the role and function of the museum. The vision of President George Pompidou, the historic Centre Pompidou, also known as Beaubourg, succeeded in what was a unique experiment for that time: It managed to create a center for culture and research with independent departments (the museum, the center for architecture and industrial design, and the library) in a cultural venue with an interdisciplinary vocation that fused different art forms together and attracted a broad public with different interests. A venue for exposure to but also production of art, a workshop, research center and exhibition space all in one, the Centre Pompidou seems entirely relevant to the spirit of contemporary culture. It is well-suited to a time when distinctions between the arts are fading and the public’s appetite for art is expanding as art itself is becoming more accessible and possibly more mass-oriented for that reason. Competition is also growing, especially as the art market expands, the prices for contemporary art escalate and cultural events of all kinds (biennales, festivals, art fairs) proliferate. In such a context, how does a museum single itself out and what kinds of practices allow it to maintain its eclectic reputation while also remaining attractive to the broad public and being profitable enough to meet its agenda? What kind of museum could be more pertinent to our times? Alfred Paquement, director of the Musee National d’Art Moderne – Centre de Creation Industrielle since 2000 and, before that, curator of the museum during the 1980s, spoke to Kathimerini English Edition during a recent visit to Athens, about the Centre Pompidou, particularly about the museum, its collections and policymaking. He described a museum that, although independent, cannot be seen outside the entirety that all the Centre Pompidou encompasses. One of the most established personalities in the field of the arts in France, Paquement has valuable and diversified experience in the field: He was a founding member of the Jeu de Paumme in 1991, director of the National School of Fine Arts in Paris and, at different periods in time, appointed the visual arts portfolio at the French Ministry of Culture. Author of various books and artists’ monographs (for example, that of Frank Stella) and curator of large exhibitions such as «L’Epoque, la Mode, la Morale, la Passion» held at the Pompidou in 1987, Paquement is also known for his open-minded approach to contemporary art. The conversation which was held at Athens’s Xippas Gallery touched on issues ranging from public and private museum funding, the exhibitions and their perspective, the opening of the Pompidou’s new branch in the city of Metz in northeastern France (the center’s first expansion project), as well as his own interest which is divided between promoting contemporary art while also taking advantage of the museum’s historic, permanent collection. «It is true that I have tried to have a policy of acquisition and presentation of the collection that allows for a larger gallery for contemporary art. Of course this is not new – the Centre Pompidou has always been about contemporary art as well as the historical collection. What is also true is that the museum is 27 years old, which means that one has to take into consideration all the art that has been produced since then, there is so much more to look at… I think that many contemporary artists have become little by little historical and their work has been taken in another way. Also the way that the public today considers contemporary art is quite different from the past – art has become a challenge shared by more people, while 25 years ago only by a small group of people took an interest. So one of my aims is to include the art of today a little bit more in the museum; it is also a very difficult task because of the limits of the space,» Paquement said. Despite the large renovation and expansion of the Pompidou that took place in the late 1990s (the museum reopened in 2000), limited space, ill-suited for large works of contemporary art, remains a problem. Alternating exhibitions that present different parts of the collection are only a partial solution to that problem; another is collaboration with other museums, mainly those on the periphery, as well as the forthcoming Centre Pompidou branch that is to open in Metz, a city on France’s borders with Luxembourg and Germany. «For quite a long time, we have had a policy of permanent loans to other museums in France. We also have an ‘outside walls’ policy of exhibitions that are held outside the museum, for example, the large Kupka exhibition that toured many museums. This is one way of expanding the space and responding to the problem in a museum where the collection grows quickly. The main crux of this policy is opening the new Centre Pompidou in Metz, which will be exclusively used to show rotating, temporary exhibitions,» Paquement said. Besides exhibiting the permanent collection, the director’s responsibility also involves enriching this collection. «It is hard to speak of one specific priority, as we are a cultural center that encompasses so many categories and disciplines. We try to represent each artist in the collection as best as possible and to do this step by step. A museum collection is not like a private collection; once you have a work you do not sell it. In general, the majority of acquisitions are concentrated toward those by living artists – not necessarily young artists but living artists – which is where you find works more easily. This is where, in most cases at least, it is still affordable, since the prices of art have really increased, and it is also where the collection has the greatest need. In a collection like ours, which is a 20th century collection and a national collection, which means that in our country, we are a leading team of museums and have to set an example, things become difficult when you have to face a very important decision. For example, what to do when a very important work comes up in the market. It often happens that everything has been carefully planned out on paper but then something happens to totally change everything. A work appears on the market and the collector won’t wait for the museum to reach its decision, as he can, for example, sell it to Christie’s in New York and make a larger profit. An example is when the Andre Breton collection went up for sale, a collection that was very important to the French.» One way that the Pompidou has faced the escalating prices of art has been to join forces with other museums in buying and co-owning certain works. This policy of co-ownership began in 2002 with the acquisition of Bill Viola’s huge video installation «Five Angels for the Millenium» bought by the Pompidou, Tate and the Whitney. «It is one way to respond to the craziness of the market,» Paquement said. Another challenge faced by contemporary museums such as the Pompidou is brought about by the expansion of works that use new media. «As technology is changing and is increasingly entering the realm of art, museums have to be very cautious with new media. For instance, all the video tapes will disappear, exactly as photocopies will, if we do not digitalize them. We started this collection of new media early; we have one of the biggest collection of video works, so it is something that we have learned to take into consideration, not only what to buy but also how to preserve it and also how to display it,» Paquement said. Besides operating as an exhibition space and a research center (the Pompidou’s publications are a result of this research), the Centre Pompidou’s National Museum of Modern Art also operates as a production center for contemporary art. «Traditionally, in the 1960s or 1970s, the cost for the production of a piece was not as costly as it is today. The media that many contemporary artists use today can be extremely costly and this is where a museum’s support can be vital. «In certain cases, it represents an opportunity for a museum to acquire a piece… Of course, in contemporary art the acquisition of a piece is only one issue. The cost of the installation and the cost of storage are also important,» Paquement said. Needless to say, a museum’s success also relies on the efficient management of its budget. In a field where competition is growing fierce, both with the emergence of new museums and private collections, funding becomes even more crucial. «The system in Europe and France is that public money funds the activities of the museum and private funding is not so important, which is a total reversal of the American system. Both systems have their defects and their advantages. I think that the advantage of public funding is that, in principle, you are not going through a horrible time when the economy is going through a recession, which is what happened in the States when the museums went through terrible times a few years ago, having to stop expansion or reduce staff. We are more protected, definitely, in the public system… In Europe, we also have this tradition of people supporting the museum through donations. Today this may be a little bit more difficult because modern art costs so much that an owner of a work, for example, will not easily decide to donate it to a museum and do so without any return,» Paquement said. «At the same time, we see some private companies and collectors entering the family of the museums. You have some private museums and collections, that of the Francois Pinot in Paris, and, for another example, the famous Maeght Foundation in Southern France. So this is an entirely different aspect.» In the midst of this situation where privatization enters the field of culture and new cultural institutions are emerging, what is the type of public museum that best responds to the present? The extroverted model of the Pompidou, with its various activities and integration in the city’s life as well as its rich collections and challenging exhibitions still seems to be on top. Which is proof of what a pioneering institution it was when it first opened in the late 1970s. «It is interesting how the ideas that the Centre Pompidou put forward back then, which at the time were a real statement, very original but perhaps a little bit forced, are now very pertinent. I think that much more now than 25 years ago, these different fields of culture – cinema, dance, architecture, design – speak to each other and there are many artists who would like to work in different fields. I think that if you establish a museum today, you are not obliged to give the same space for each of these categories, but I also think that you nowadays cannot imagine a museum that does not allow the opportunity to artists who are not painters or sculptors in the traditional sense to enter the museum.» In 1977, the Centre Pompidou took a pioneering step in the field of culture. Still true to its interdisciplinary vocation, it serves as a model for other museums. It also continues to be one of Paris’s landmarks, not just due to its past or its interesting architecture but also because of its contents, exhibitions and vibrant place in the life of the city. Multidisciplinary institution Mostly known to the public through its museum of modern art, the Centre Pompidou is something much broader and more vivid than a traditional museum. Attracting almost 26,000 visitors daily, it is one of the most successful and vibrant cultural institutions internationally. It houses the Musee National d’Art Moderne which in 1992 merged with the Centre de Creation Industrielle, thus opening up its collection to architecture and design, the huge Bibliotheque Publique d’Information, the Institut de Recherche et de Coordination Acoustique/Musique and a department that focuses on cinema and the performing arts.

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