Come One, Come All to the Pompidou's Traveling Art Circus

THE NEW YORK TIMES  2 DECEMBER 2011
 
 

PARIS — Half a century ago, fairground hucksters in Europe would whet the curiosity of provincial crowds with dead whales and giant squids, pickled in formaldehyde and carted from place to place aboard large trucks designed for the purpose. These days dead sea monsters are out. Art's sacred monsters are making the rounds instead.

Chaumont-sur-Marne, a small town in eastern France, population 30,000, is the first stop of the new Pompidou Mobile, a travelling gallery of modern and contemporary art conceived by Alain Seban, the current director of the Pompidou Center in Paris.

One in two people in France has never visited a museum, according to Mr. Seban. So in 2007, he said during a recent interview, he decided to take his museum to the French.

The director chose the iconclastic architect Patrick Bouchain, a specialist in nomadic constructions, to execute his project. The result is three tents, shaped like origami birds, covering a total area of 650 square meters, or 7,000 square feet, that can be fitted together in a variety of configurations to adapt to the available space. Two tents hold the exhibition spaces and another the reception area.

The total cost of designing and building the project was €2.5 million, or $3.3 million, financed by the Pompidou Center, the Ministry of Culture and a group of four private-sector sponsors (Galeries Lafayette, GDF SUEZ, La Parisienne Insurance and the Total Foundation).

The curator Emma Lavigne was chosen by Mr. Seban to put together "La Couleur," the Pompidou Mobile's first show, which opened in Chaumont in mid-October and runs until Jan. 15. Inside the tents are displayed 14 masterpieces from the Paris museum's permanent collection. The artists include modern masters — Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Léger, Alexander Calder and Niki de Saint Phalle — and a sprinkling of contemporary artists including Olafur Eliasson and Bruce Nauman.

Entrance to the museum is free — a rarity in France — and the €400,000 cost of each stage in the museum's journey is being split equally among the local council and the four private sector sponsors. "The aim is not to compete with existing museums but to go and put ourselves in front of people who never go to museums," Mr. Seban said. "We want to create a festive event, something popular and free, that everybody, I hope, will want to take part in."

The exhibition area inside the tents is a sequence of spare, white uncluttered spaces, each dominated by a large display caisson. The caisson, a sort of giant safe, showcases the paintings through non-reflective security-glass windows. Sculptures and mobiles are distributed around the perimeter of the spaces, placed to create a dialogue between the sculptural and pictorial displays.

An audio guide gives a concise, jargon-free explanation of each work in a choice of languages while local actors have been hired and trained by the Pompidou as tour guides for group visits, reciting a specially written story-line enhanced with sound effects.

Chaumont's actor-guides will in turn train a replacement team from Cambrai, where the museum will next set up camp on its tour of France, early next year. From Cambrai it heads to Boulogne-sur-Mer in May.

In sharp contrast to the minimalist interior, the outside is brightly colored in bold panes of red, orange and blue, reminiscent of a circus tent. Made in a tough double-ply canvas, with an insulating airspace between the two fabric layers, like double glazing, to ensure a controlled temperature inside the tents, it is designed to be put up using a system of masts, ropes and pulleys. Once erected, it is held up by counterweights formed of enormous water-filled balloons.

Putting more than a dozen major artworks, each worth in the millions of dollars, in a tent in the middle of nowhere might be thought to raise some security concerns. Still, Mr. Seban, while declining to go into details, said adequate precautions had been taken.

"The safety of the works has been very carefully studied and we have multiple security measures — physical, electronic and human — in place," he said. "Our insurer, a specialist in artworks, has signed off on the overall system."

Occupying the parade ground of an abandoned army barracks on the edge of town, the colorful tent brings a dash of energy to the drab surroundings of Chaumont, a post-industrial town once known for its glove-making industry.

"Fernand Léger wrote a very fine text on the function of painting and color in advertising, clothing and architecture," Mr. Bouchain, the architect, said, drawing a link between his design and the show. "He worked with Corbusier and taught him to use color in architecture. For my part I think it's good that 20th-century works are being shown in a way that renders homage, after a century, to the people who envisaged adding color to architecture."

The architects Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers drew inspiration from Le Corbusier's ideas in their groundbreaking 1972 design for the Pompidou Center, with its blue and green exposed ducts and red external stairway elements. The decision to endow the Pompidou Mobile with a bright fairground exterior was also a nod to its Paris parent and "a homage to Renzo Piano and Fernand Léger," Mr. Bouchain said.

In planning the museum's itinerary, the Pompidou invited mayors from all over France to put in bids. Chaumont was one of the first to respond, Mr. Seban said, and the fact that the nearest museum was 100 kilometers, or about 60 miles, away also played in its favor.

Still, the decision to start the ball rolling in Chaumont probably owed less to competitive tendering than to the fact that its mayor, Luc Chatel, is minister of education in the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy.

"We approached the minister of education to get him involved in the project," Mr. Bouchain said. "We wanted to get his approval to facilitate and give an impetus to the project's work with schools."

In Chaumont, the schools program has been fully booked for the museum's three-month stay. Total attendance, meanwhile, has surpassed expectations, at an average 700 visitors a day and 2,000 on weekends.

With the Pompidou mobile journey on its way, Mr. Bouchain is now working on something very different — the next Monumenta installation at the Grand Palais. It will be a minimalist production, he said, with the artist Daniel Buren.

 
— Claudia Barbieri, The New York Times