Can the Pompidou Center Revive a Fading French Town?

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Lionel Bonaventure / AFP / Getty Images

French President Nicolas Sarkozy views a painting at the new branch of Paris' Pompidou Center in Metz, eastern France, during its inauguration on May 11, 2010

The French, say historians, prefer revolutions to reform. And in the cloistered world of French art museums, a small revolution erupted last week when the prestigious Pompidou Center opened France's first offshoot museum on home soil, in the small industrial town of Metz. In a country where culture, wealth and power are overwhelmingly concentrated in the capital, officials are hailing the new museum as a break from the past — as much about politics as the paintings inside. Opening the building on May 12, President Nicolas Sarkozy called it part of a strategic policy of economic development, one that will lead to a Renaissance in this neglected part of the country.

With its ultramodern design, the museum is such a startling contrast to the old town that it gives the sense of being a cosmopolitan celebrity among provincial nobodies. Designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban and France's own Jean de Gastines, it has a tall central tower over which hangs a Teflon-coated undulating roof. Underneath is the building's most distinctive feature: a giant ceiling of bare wooden beams which crisscross in a basket weave and drop to form the museum's outer pillars, as if a straw sunhat were flopped over the building. The opening exhibition, entitled "Masterpieces," features 700 works borrowed from the Pompidou's collection, including some by Picasso, Matisse and Kandinsky.

But is eye-catching architecture and spectacular art enough to rejuvenate Metz? The capital of the Lorraine region, Metz sits near the German border — it's an 80-minute train ride from Paris — and is also close to Belgium and Luxembourg, putting it within easy reach of tourists who might not make it all the way to the big city. Until the Pompidou opened its offshoot, though, Metz had little for tourists to see, other than the town's Gothic cathedral with its stained-glass windows designed by Marc Chagall. Instead, the town of about 130,000 is better known as the site of a large military base.

Museum officials say it's exactly the lack of cultural venues that makes Metz an ideal site for the new Pompidou: the museum, which also contains a restaurant and a theater, was sure to make a big impact. Similarly, France's most prized museum, the Louvre, which already has a branch in Abu Dhabi, is set to open another in 2012 in Lens, a gritty industrial town about 128 miles north of Paris. "We're a tool of cultural democratization," says Pompidou-Metz director Lauren le Bon. "For people here to see a real Matisse or Picasso is like a dream."

But Metz residents have more quotidian dreams too. Over the past several decades, the town's coal mines, textile factories and steelworks have closed, with little to replace them. A few blocks from the Pompidou-Metz, there are doubts that the museum can kick-start the economy. "I'm very skeptical," says a 28-year-old doctoral student who didn't want his name used for fear of sounding churlish. "It's great that they're decentralizing culture. But people here need work," he says. "And I don't think the museum's going to hire [all of] them."

City officials, though, are confident their investment will pay off. Metz paid about $58 million of the museum's total cost of $91 million; the rest came from regional, national and E.U. funds. About 25,000 visitors went through the Metz's doors in its first three days, some from as far away as Australia (entry was free for opening week). "This is a dramatic change for us," says Jean-Luc Bohl, president of the Metz-Métropole local authority. "Suddenly there is some reason for hope here."

There's hope, too, in the examples set by some of Europe's other museum offshoots. In Spain, the Guggenheim Bilbao drastically changed its city's image when it opened in 1997. Frank Gehry's building, with its curved reflecting titanium walls, still makes Bilbao instantly recognizable, even to those who have never visited. Yet the city before the museum was a very different place. "There was nothing here but high unemployment, crime, pollution and a bad quality of life," says Beatriz Plaza, economics professor at Bilbao's University of the Basque Country. Plaza estimates that about 1,000 new local jobs — in everything from hospitality to engineering — are created in Bilbao each year as a result of the Guggenheim.

Pompidou-Metz director Le Bon notes it might be impossible to replicate that success in Metz. The museum's construction budget was half that of Bilbao's, and unlike the Spanish museum, Pompidou-Metz will only use one gallery at a time after the opening exhibition ends in August 2011. "Every time someone tries to copy Bilbao, they fail," says Le Bon. A closer model, he says, is Liverpool, England, which — like Metz and Bilbao — was a fading industrial city before the Tate Museum opened its outpost in a converted dockside warehouse in 1988.

The Tate Liverpool is now financially independent from its London parent, but still chooses its exhibits from the bigger museum's vast store of art. That's similar to the arrangement the Metz museum will have with the Pompidou in Paris, which will lend works from its collection of about 65,000 works. Metz will cover the yearly maintenance costs, estimated at about $1.26 million, which local officials hope will be covered by ticket sales. That arrangement, says Le Bon, will ensure the museum's longevity. "We'll be here in 10, 20 years time," he says. "Then you can judge our impact." Whether a revolution, a renaissance or a revival gone wrong.