The facade is partially covered by the works. In the lobby, workers loudly move a set of paintings from one room to another. The museum is upside down, although that has been its natural state since it opened in 1977. The Pompidou Center in Paris he reinvents his model four decades after its creation. The slogan delivered by its president, Serge Lasvignes, consists in returning to the origin. In the direction of those times, already distant, in which it was erected in the most irreverent art center on the planet, characterized by concepts that were not yet in vogue in the museum world, such as flexibility or multidisciplinarity – he alternated, from its beginnings , the plastic arts with cinema, photography, theater, music, architecture and design—, inspired by the unrealized project of Fun palace cedric Price.
Over time, the Pompidou became a museum similar to others: forced to respect security rules in times of terrorism and forced to overcome certain numbers of visitors, an essential condition to survive in times of waning liquidity. When Lasvignes arrived in office in 2015, he decided to intervene the patient without delay. Input, expanding access and creating a unique entry. For two years there have been two different queues: one to access the museum, in the pedestrian square in front of the facade (where 3.2 million visitors entered in 2019), and another in the back, which allows entry in the library, the busiest in Paris, through which 1.4 million people pass each year. On weekends, the lines to enter touch the two hours. “There were two audiences who turned their backs. I found it urgent to reverse that situation, ”says Lasvignes, leading an institution created in the name of cultural democratization. “The two tails correspond to different sociologies. The favored categories come to the museum, while in the library half of the users live in the banlieue. It is precisely the public that escapes us, and we have it five meters away. The idea of not trying to get him into the rooms seemed unbearable. ”
The second open front is the restoration of its mechanical and tubular staircase that zigzags up the building of Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers to provide one of the best views of the roofs of Paris. The restoration of this almost 200-meter staircase, which has transported 250 million visitors since the center’s inauguration, will cost 19 million euros. “We are going to change it, but for an identical one,” says Lasvignes. “There are museums that have icons, such as Gioconda or Guernica. Our icon is this building and this staircase. ” A symbol of that iconoclasty that made, in its beginnings, the museum was compared to a factory, a refinery, a wrecked ship or a shopping center. “The Pompidou is to culture what a hypermarket is to merchandise,” said philosopher Jean Baudrillard. Those responsible for the museum dream of a place that resembles that of those beginnings, perhaps to protect themselves against the temptation of gentrification, a logical conclusion of the normalization of their model, imitated to satiety throughout the world. “At the Pompidou Center we are always wondering what the original project was and trying to rebuild it,” concludes Lasvignes.
Renzo Piano keeps having lunch in the museum restaurant once a month. The architect takes advantage of these visits to review the status of his masterpiece. “I am the Quasimodo del Pompidou,” jokes the Italian architect in his Parisian agency, located two blocks from the museum. “I’m glad you want to go back to those beginnings. I’ve been recommending it for years … ”, confesses Piano, whose studio is in charge of the works. At each visit, a question reappears in his head: “How is it possible that they let us do this? We were just two rude men rude… ” The museum was created in the wake of May 68, during the last months of the presidency of Georges Pompidou. After the cultural earthquake that led to that revolt, the French leader wanted to erect an emblem of modern architecture, which favored the capital of Paris in the conflict that faced it, from the earliest postwar period, to New York. The jury of an international competition, chaired by Jean Prouvé, examined 681 projects. He ended up choosing the most provocative: a colorist mastodon of 15 tons of metal, in the antipodes of what was supposed to be a center dedicated to the fine arts. “It was a gesture of great courage. I don’t know if the same thing would happen today… ”, Piano thinks.
Despite having a gigantic collection of 120,000 works, of which only 10% are exhibited in the rooms, the museum tries to solve a pressing problem: not having a work that the visitor identifies automatically and that works as a magnet for tourists, less present in this museum than in other Parisian art galleries. “The current proportion is 60% French and 40% foreigners,” says Director of Public Development, Catherine Guillou. In the case of the Louvre, for example, tourists account for almost 80%. “The Pompidou is usually reserved for the second visit to Paris. Many people come to see the building, but it does not enter. It is often said that we are the favorite museum of Parisians. It is very good to have that label, but we must also interest the foreign public. We try to balance this trend by promoting our masterpieces, because we have many, ”adds Guillou.
According to a recent Harris Institute survey, only four people out of a thousand respondents were able to cite an artist present in their collection, the second of modern art worldwide after MoMA. To alleviate this situation, the conservatives of the Pompidou have fixed a list of about twenty masterpieces. “They are unique works that allow visitors to understand the great diversity of challenges that constitute the history of modern and contemporary art. They offer a possible story and improve the intelligibility of the group, ”says the director of the National Museum of Modern Art, Bernard Blistène. The list includes works by Matisse, Chagall, Brancusi, Kandinsky, Duchamp, Miró, Yves Klein, Otto Dix and a contemporary name, the French sculptor Xavier Veilhan, author of the double portrait of Piano and Rogers, in two shades of green, located outside the museum.
In response to the new social climate and the debates opened by research on the history of art of the twentieth century, the Pompidou also tries to diversify its collections and open to underrepresented groups, such as women artists and non-Western traditions. “On some fronts we are not very advanced. There is a lot of work to do about non-European currencies, ”admits the young conservative Alicia Knock, specializing in the art of African territory and curator of the exhibition Chine / Afrique, which will explore the recent colonization of the Asian giant in some sub-Saharan countries.
“Public centers have a role of resistance and we must highlight the value of all those invisible in art history. In that sense, there is a whole history of art to rewrite. Only public institutions, which must maintain independence from the market and from a certain political consensus, have the possibility of writing that story, ”says Knock. Blistène agrees that you have to go into little and poorly explored territories. “We are not going to think about the museum in terms of fees or build our project artificially, but there are realities to take into account and we must keep a critical look: we have underestimated the art made by women and we have been negligent regarding minorities , like many other centers, ”says the museum director.
The strategy of the Pompidou Center also involves strengthening its international influence through different branches, like the one that opened in Malaga in 2015 Y the one that has just opened its doors in Shanghai. Will happen to you another antenna in Brussels in 2023 and, if the negotiations come to fruition, two other new international centers: one will be located somewhere in Asia and the other in Latin America. The project to implant in Colombia ended in failure due to the economic incapacity of its partner on the ground, according to the Parisian museum. The pools now point to Mexico as the next destination of the museum that changed contemporary art. The experience of Malaga was fundamental as a pilot test. “We turned a city that people used to skip when visiting Andalusia in an art capital. It was a chimeric bet that ended up working. But it doesn’t surprise me. After all, this museum is the result of an utopia,” Lasvignes ends.