It takes 20 minutes on the metro to get from the heart of Paris to the southern suburb of Vitry-sur-Seine. Add ten minutes on a public bus and the trip to MAC/VAL (Contemporary Art Museum of Val-de-Marne) is the same length as many Parisians' daily commute. The speed at which one is transported from the Latin Quarter, home to the Sorbonne and the Pantheon's imposing facades, to a boxy cityscape of uniform business blocks and cement apartment towers can be jarring. I mentioned this startling transition to a French friend. 'Oh, yes,' she said. 'Somewhere between those last two metro stops you crossed the peripherique.' The peripherique, an eight-lane ring road surrounding the capital, is the physical marker of the divide between Paris and province--'the rest of France'. Deeply ingrained in the French national consciousness, this centre/periphery divide manifests itself in multiple spheres. But nowhere is the phenomenon of 'Paris and the rest' so tangible to the foreign visitor as in the rhetoric and practices of the country's art institutions.
According to the local administration, Paris plays host to an impressive number of over 130 museums. But it is not so much the quantity of institutions which divides Paris from province. It is more an issue of geographical distribution--of the country's high-profile art museums in particular. Cultural institutions increase exponentially in urban centres, and capital cities especially. Still, it is rare to be able to say, as we can of France, that all of a country's major art museums are concentrated in one place. Since the 70s a string of museums, anchored by the venerable Louvre, have been added to the relatively small geographic area which is central Paris. They include the Centre Pompidou, the Musee d'Orsay and the Palais de Tokyo, whose significant collections are matched by their architectural grandeur.
Within the past decade or so the government has begun to take serious action towards extending its high-profile collections outside the city limits. The Louvre Lens, located in Lens, in northern France, will show highlights from the Louvre's collection in facilities designed by SAANA, the same architectural team that engineered the recently opened New Museum in New York (see AM314). The Centre Pompidou Metz is scheduled to open in the eastern city of Metz in 2009, with a similar mission: to present to a wider audience works from the National Museum of Modern Art (MNAM, housed at the Centre Pompidou). Despite declarations that these future museums will be autonomous, region-specific entities, the structuring of the initiatives largely maintains the divide between Paris and 'the rest'.
Both projects are bolstered by a rhetoric which focuses on 'the decentralisation of Paris's great cultural establishments', terminology which harks back to legislation passed in 1982 under President Mitterrand. Referred to colloquially as simply la decentralisation, this increase in administrative independence for the regions of France, and the accompanying financial support, laid the foundations for potentially significant changes in the museum world at the national level. Notably, a loose network of contemporary art collections financed by individual regions, the Fonds regional d'art contemporain (FRAC), was established. The Val-de-Marne district (located in the Ile-de-France region surrounding Paris) was among the first to channel its new resources into an almost exclusively culture-oriented programme supporting contemporary theatre, dance, literary, cinematic and musical production. The Contemporary Art Museum of Val-de-Marne (MAC/VAL) is one of the results. Itself a child of the 80s, MAC/VAL finally opened in 2005 after 20 years of debate and preparation.
When I spoke recently with head curators Frank Lamy and Alexia Fabre, they referred to MAC/VAL as both 'close' to and 'far' from Paris. It took me a moment to understand what they meant. The museum may be physically close to central Paris, but in the minds of Parisians, it is in the 'distant' suburbs. …