Centre Pompidou-Metz: Audiences first!


“All our efforts will be aimed at provoking surprise, amazement and pleasure, and at stimulating and constantly renewing the public’s interest for contemporary art.”
Laurent Le Bon, director, Centre Pompidou-Metz

The Centre National d’Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou, in Paris, also known as Beaubourg, is a multi-use cultural complex housing a public library, a music research centre (IRCAM) and the Musée National d’Art Moderne, the second largest world collection of modern and contemporary art after MOMA. Opened in 1977 and designed by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, it is also an architectural statement, exposing its inner workings in Technicolor. The Centre Pompidou is a national institution, but a modern one; and that’s maybe why it was the first in France to open a decentralised outpost in a regional city.

In 2002, the Centre Pompidou considered a number of cities to host this new sister-institution, including Caen, Montpellier, Lyon, Nancy, Lille – and Metz, a 120,000-resident city just south of the border with Luxembourg, birthplace of poet Paul Verlaine, with a history dating back to Roman times and a claim to be the cradle of Gregorian chant.

Vue sur la ville depuis le Centre Pompidou Metz

Vue sur la ville depuis le Centre Pompidou Metz (CC) Dalbera

Le centre Pompidou Metz

Le centre Pompidou Metz (CC) Dalbera

Amongst other factors that guided the choice of the hosting city, Metz could offer the access to a large new potential audience (northern France, Belgium, Luxembourg and western Germany), an ongoing revitalisation project via a new “cultural quarter”, part of a wider political strategy to invest in the creative economy and, pragmatically, “the necessary financial capacity to invest in such a project”.

Construction started in November 2006 and the new museum was inaugurated in May 2010. Conceived by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, known for his innovative work with paper and cardboard tubes, the 20,000m2 building is topped by a wood-and-teflon roof inspired by a Chinese hat. The surrounding landscaped gardens are designed on sustainable principles.

Roof detail - (CC) airdecker via Flickr

Roof detail – (CC) airdecker

Footbridge through the gardens - (CC) Dalbera via Flickr

Footbridge through the gardens – (CC) Dalbera

3 years after its official opening, the Centre Pompidou-Metz is the most visited temporary exhibitions space in France outside Paris, with a record number of visit of 600,000 in its first year of operation (May-December 2010) and around 500,000 annually.

The 5-to-6 annual exhibitions are unique to the museum and not simply scaled down from previous Parisian incarnations. The “essence” of the programming choices is aligned with the original Centre Pompidou’s mandate to be “a leading centre of information, exhibitions, research and initiatives in numerous fields of contemporary creation” and is complemented by multidisciplinary events and performances that can take place in all indoor and outdoor spaces. Young audiences and families are also catered for, with workshops, special events and dedicated guided tours.

Right now, visitors can enjoy an in-situ installation by French artist Daniel Buren; a selection of works from Sol LeWitt’s personal collection; an exhibition on the history of aerial photography;  an visual and acoustic immersive experience to dive into the Beat Generation; and a retrospective of Hans Richter’s work.

Sol LeWitt - "Wall Drawings" - (CC) Dalbera via Flickr

Sol LeWitt, “Wall Drawings” – (CC) Dalbera

Daniel Buren, Echos d'échos, 2013 -  (CC) Mark Feldmann via Flickr

Daniel Buren, Echos d’échos, 2013 – (CC) Mark Feldmann

The wide appeal of the artistic programming goes hand in hand with a progressive pricing policy, with a sliding scale admission fee, from €7 to €12, depending on the number of galleries open on the day of purchase, just like in the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. An annual membership pass granting unlimited admission costs €33 the first year, €27 afterwards, and admission is free for everyone under-26, but also for teachers, artists, journalists, seniors, Centre Pompidou employees, job seekers, disabled people and their assistant. Performances – dance, music, theatre… – are priced between €5 and €20. Artists’ talks are free, screenings and other educational opportunities cost €5. Guided visits are offered in French, English, German and French Sign Language.

Just as Louvre-Lens was opening its doors in December 2012, just 300 km north-west of Metz, L’Express was announcing that the tourism economic impact of Centre Pompidou-Metz was valued at €70 million for its first year only, a full return on investment on the building cost; however, as the total public infrastructure investment is estimated at €250 million, the municipal authorities remain cautious about drawing hasty conclusions on the net worth of the project. So does the French government, which is not planning to build any further physical buildings in the near future, preferring to let these two projects develop and mature to assess their impact.

A detailed activity report is available on Centre Pompidou-Metz’s website (in French), with varied insights on, amongst others, its communication strategy, audience development policy, and even its HR and financial management.

Niki de Saint Phalle, Dragon, 1998, Metz train station - (CC) Dalbera via Flickr

Niki de Saint Phalle, Dragon, 1998, Metz train station – (CC) Dalbera

Centre Pompidou-Metz, lobby at sunset - (CC) Dalbera via Flickr

Centre Pompidou-Metz, lobby at sunset – (CC) Dalbera

This post is part of a series about new museums, inspired by a recent visit to the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum.

All images are licensed under Creative Commons and linked to their original location on Flickr.

Festival City 3: Avignon


France, 1947. The sound of the cicadas in the sun. A poet, Jean Villar. A vision: democratic art. An explosion: le Festival d’Avignon.

Fast forward to 2013: you get the largest theatre festival in the French-speaking world, rich with ground-breaking premières, artistic innovation, policy discussions and an ever-growing Fringe. It bears quite a few common points with the other big French festival, Cannes: it’s been running for over 60 years; it brings thousands of people (and euros) to a small city far from Paris, year after year; and it has a long and complex history, mixed in with politics and social issues.

Here are a few fun facts and key points about this very French cultural institution.

Birth of a Festival

The Festival starts in 1947 as a “Theatre Week” in this quaint southeastern French town (also known as the “City of Popes” and famous for its bridge and its Demoiselles). Jean Vilar, poet, theatre director and firm believer in an “elitist theatre for all”, is invited by fellow poet René Char and art critic Christian Zervos to present his version of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral – and ends up instead proposing Shakespeare’s Richard II, then little-known in France, and plays by French playwrights Maurice Clavel and Paul Claudel. The first edition is a success and the festival is reconvened for several years, enjoying critical and audience success and allowing Jean Vilar to consolidate his group of prefered actors and his artistic vision.

In 1951, Jean Vilar also takes the lead of the Theâtre National Populaire, an artist-led, audience-focused theatre on the outskirts of Paris. The Festival d’Avignon takes its cue from this “popular” mandate and becomes a place to discuss the future of theatre and its audiences, political and social issues, cultural policy and new artistic directions. Young people are especially welcome to participate; as early as 1959, and still to this day, special accommodation arrangements are offered to encourage French and international youths aged from 14 to 27 to attend the festival at a lesser cost. Under-25 and unemployed people can get tickets for as little as €14 (and the highest ticket price is, anyway, only €40).

Le “In” et le “Off”

In the beginning, there was only one festival, actually first called “Theatre Week”. In 1966, one production was offered to the public independently from the official festival; this growing trend towards an alternative scene got recognised by the official Festival when in 1968, year of widespread social unrest in France, Maurice Béjart  invited the cast and crew of a censored play (La Paillasse aux seins nus) to join him on the stage of the Cour d’honneur, the most prestigious festival space. From 1982, the “Off” (a reference to “off Broadway”) became a professional structure, and both festivals now run in parallel every summer.

“Le In” got its name fairly mysteriously (it probably sounded better that “Le On” to French ears) but is in essence the official Festival, established as a non-profit and publicly funded, whereas “le Off” is in fact a coordination and promotion service offered to participating companies: “Off” organisers put together a brochure, establish rules about street-level advertising and manage a discount scheme for audiences, but they don’t have a say in the selection, which happens organically and is left to negotiations between theatre companies and venues. Originally conceived as an alternative to the establishment that the official festival was thought to represent, it has evolved towards a commercial fair model and often comes under criticism for the high-cost venue rental market that it has created (and the resulting low or nonexistent artistic fees).


The 67th Festival d’Avignon runs from 5th to 26th July 2013.

According to its “festival in figures” page, it usually programmes 35 to 40 productions, with a total number of around 300 shows presented  in about 20 different spaces, often open air and historical. It also offers artists’ talks, professional forums, art exhibitions or installations (Sophie Calle in back again this year), and dance, music, fireworks and screenings.

Its budget – 55% public funding, 45% sponsorship and sales – amounts to €12 million, and its economic impact (for the official festival only) was estimated at €23 million in 2001.

Ticket sales vary between 120,000 and 150,000 a year, and 20,000 to 40,000 audience members take part in the free events. About 35% visitors are locals, while 20% come from Paris region, 35% from other French regions and 10% from abroad. Since 2008, the festival is consistently above 93% of its capacity.


Le Festival OFF d’Avignon runs from 8th to 31 July 2013. In 2012, 104 venues and a total of 194 stages were used by 975 companies (including 143 coming from 27 different countries) performing 1161 shows.

Over 1,000 theatre companies and 1,300 shows and events are announced for this year.

For comparison, in 2012, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (arguably the largest arts festival in the world, also operating as an open-access theatre festival) counted 2695 different shows staging 42,096 performances in 279 venues by 22,457 performers.

“Le Off” is the wild and unpredictable side of Avignon, where self-funded productions compete on the street with their posters and flyers to grab the attention of the patrons and critics. The “employment” section of the Off website is actually full of job demands and offers for street promotion – but rather sadly, the only type of contract available seems to be unpaid internship. The Village is a gathering place to buy tickets and membership cards, listen to artists or critics,

As well as promoting the whole of the programme, the Off offers financial support to theatre companies who meet the required criteria, thanks to a €40,000 funding pot.

2003 Arts Workers strike

Another notable quirk of Le Festival d’Avignon is the memorable arts workers’ strike – and subsequent cancellation of the 2003 festival. In France, arts workers – artist, administrators and technicians – fall into a special employment category called “intermittents du spectacle”, because of the fluctuating nature of their work; instead of being freelance, as is more common in other countries, they tend to be contracted for a fixed length of time (“Contrat à Durée Déterminée”), and their status allows them to claim unemployment benefits if they have completed at least 507 hours over 10 months.

In 2003, following changes affecting the social protection of arts workers, negotiations between beneficiaries, unions and employers came to a headlock, and after 11 days and 11 nights of talks, the 57th Festival d’Avignon was cancelled for the very first time in its history. A few other festivals in France followed suit, including nearby Aix en Provence and the Francofolies de La Rochelle, but the Off went on with only 100 productions cancelled.

Here is an 8’ video about the strike created by Manu Larriaga for the SACD (Société d’Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques).

“An atmosphere of enormous goodwill”


I haven’t been writing about festivals for a little while, for the good reason that I was actually neck deep into one myself. I’m just emerging from a few intense weeks of planning that culminated in the 7th Luminato Festival, a multidisciplinary arts festival in Toronto for which I coordinated the volunteer programme.

While I will no doubt come back to volunteer management, a topic that I have addressed before, for now I want to get back into contemplative mode and to admire other festivals from a safe distance.

As I was busy training and scheduling 500 volunteers in Toronto, 200 horses and 3,000 sheep and goats were arriving in Marseille, this year’s European Capital of Culture. TransHumance, a flagship event of this year-long celebration of culture, was a huge participatory effort offering many ways to get engaged, from walking alongside the herds to contributing to the land art creations. The project still continues with some exhibitions and talks, and a book is due to be published, but right now the many photos and videos of the arrival into Marseille are beautiful to watch.

TransHumance, Marseille, 9th June 2013

The crowd assembling and waiting reminded me of another large-scale street spectacle I had seen during Liverpool Capital of Culture 2008, a giant spider called La Princesse created by French company La Machine.

La Princesse, Liverpool, 5th – 7th September 2008

To conclude, here is a quote by an audience member in Liverpool (found on Artichoke’s website, the creative company behind La Princesse and, perhaps more famously, The Sultan’s Elephant in London, in 2006).

I have never before witnessed an event on this scale which set out to, and manifestly achieved, the sole intent of making the world a slightly better place. No requirement to buy anything, no commitment to a cause, no politics, no promotion, no underlying propaganda. Just hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world gathered in Liverpool in an atmosphere of enormous goodwill.

Mike Kinley, audience member

Art and Animals 2: Hybrid Species


Toronto-based festival of art and science, Subtle Technologies, is on from 7 to 9th June for the 16th year running, on the theme of Immortality. As we’re waiting for the programme to be announced shortly, it gives me an excellent pretext to mention an artistic experiment that has haunted me since I read a review in We Make Money Not Art: Que le cheval vive en moi / May the Horse Live in Me by Art Orienté Objet.

In my first Art and Animals entry, I explored the collective and participatory dimension of TransHumance, flagship event of Marseille 2013 European Capital of Culture, which was developed with a myriad of embedded learning opportunities. Producing company Théâtre du Centaure define themselves as a heterotopia – the physical representation or approximation of a utopia, in Foucault’s language. It strives to create a new Actor, the Centaur – neither man nor horse.

French art collective Art Orienté Objet took the bioart route to explore the myth of the Centaur: performance artist Marion Laval-Jeantet injected her body with horse blood plasma over the course of several months, and took a carefully controlled higher dose on the day of the performance – at the Gallery Kapelica in Ljubljana, Slovenia, in February 2011.

Here’s how she describes this experiment in an interview for an exhibition at Rurart (a contemporary art centre in the French countryside, related to the Ministry of Agriculture) [translation from French via We Make Money Not Art]:

I had the feeling of being extra-human. I was not in my usual body. I was hyper-powerful, hyper-sensitive, hyper-nervous and very diffident. The emotionalism of an herbivore. I could not sleep. I probably felt a bit like a horse.

There is nothing participatory about May the Horse Live in Me: the performer is alone, in the risks she takes, in the feelings she experiences. She can also never repeat the experiment, as states this VIDA (International Art and Artificial Life Awards) awards entry: “As a general rule, a person can only undergo such a challenge to body boundaries once and survive.”

The life of the work continues in its mediated form, through videos, images and texts, some of which are accessible in the Rurart archive. In her essay “De l’incorporation du sens” / “On the incorporation of meaning” (in French only), Marion Laval-Jeantet explains her research topics and methods, and the long conceptual and scientific process that has led to May the Horse… since 2004.

Art Orienté Objet’s project won the 2011 Golden Nica in the Hybrid Art category at Ars Electronica, which befits particularly well Marion Laval-Jeantet, herself artist, clinical psychologist and anthropologist. At the heart of the collective she formed with her partner Benoît Mangin, there’s a refusal to settle for perfect balance or for conclusions, and a desire to fully engage with the dynamic relationships between seemingly opposite poles: research and art, thinking and doing, observing and experimenting, human and animal.

A comprehensive catalogue of their art practice of the past decade has just been published, and for more on their motivations and processes, head over to this interview in English with Régine Debatty from We Make Money Not Art.

Art and Animals 1: Collective Learning


“Perhaps art begins with the animal”, ask Deleuze and Guattari in What is Philosophy?

And perhaps recent examples of participatory experiences involving animals is a good starting point to explore new ways to engage and develop audiences.

As a first “Art and Animals” entry, I wanted to come back to TransHumance, a large-scale participatory experience hailed as the highlight of Marseille 2013 European Capital of Culture.

Transhumance – from the latin trans – across and humus – land: the seasonal movement of people with their livestock between fixed summer and winter pastures.

Transhumance is a century-old practice, developed on all inhabited continents. In Provence, it has shaped the landscape and created exchange and circulation, of people, animals, stories and seeds.

After a sharp decline in the 20th century, it is currently garnering a new surge of interest in France.  As herds of sheep, cows or goats are guided along well-defined routes – that need to be carefully negotiated with local authorities and landowners – villages along the way celebrate this seasonal event with festivities and educational opportunities about pastoralism.

Théâtre du Centaure, a Marseille-based company working exclusively with horses, have conceived TransHumance (note the emphasis on the Human) as a vast participatory experience for Marseille European Capital of Culture 2013. Starting on 17th May in Italy, Camargue and Provence, 3 groups will converge near Marseille, gather for a transcultural celebration, and walk through Marseille on 9th June.

TransHumance features horses and their riders, livestock, land art, animal choreography (for which the term animaglyphs was coined) and village fêtes.

Audience participation is encouraged before, during and after the experience, offering different ways of contributing to the work, but also of learning:

While these opportunities are open to everyone, TransHumance is also working closely with the Academie d’Aix Marseille (regional school board), which represents about 200,000 pupils, from elementary to secondary schools, to embed arts, sciences, philosophy and digital skills projects into their 2012-2013 curriculum. Suggested pedagogic projects are outlined here. TransHumance is also featured in the free collection of “dossiers pédagogiques” (learning files) called Pièce (dé)montée, offered to teachers to prepare their class for a touring play.

The TransHumance trail starts on 17th May – a free app is available to follow the live journey, and active phones on the sponsor network will be visible on an augmented-reality 3D map – but audience engagement starts much before: the calendar on this regional school board document states that the first call to schools was scheduled for January 2012.

One class has taken the project at heart: the “classe d’accueil” of the Vieux Port secondary school, in Marseille, open to children learning French as a second language, coming from Afghanistan, Algeria, Armenia, Bulgaria, Romania, Russia and many more countries. They are writing a year-round blog inspired by the project: poems about identity, visits to exhibitions, and other ways to help them discover their new city and culture, learn French and develop friendships and common points of interest.

Not all learning opportunities are aimed at schools: in conjunction with TransHumance, free workshops are offered in Marseille to train to be a dance “guide” for BalBêtes, the giant ball organised where the three trails meet, before the Great Crossing of Marseille. As several thousands of people are expected for this evening of traditional dances, each “guide” has to commit to train ten “mirror dancers”, who will in turn help participants to follow the steps and enjoy the choreographies.

And to finish, here’s the teaser video created by Théâtre du Centaure, marrying the strange and the mundane with its centaures visiting the busiest train station in Marseille.