Monday, 7 January 2013

Liverpool-Lens-Metz-Foz Coa and back

Image taken from the Louvre-Lens Facebook page
When one thinks about the role of culture in urban regeneration the case of Liverpool comes immediately to mind, as well as the work of J. Pedro Lorente in analyzing this and other case studies of cities which attempted a revival, more or less successfully, through culture and the arts. In the introduction of the working paper The role of museums and the arts in the urban regeneration of Liverpool (1996), Lorente writes: “... any derelict area in the heart of a prosperous city is bound to be revitalized by urban developers anyway. However, the prospects of redevelopment are less likely when dereliction lays in the middle of a declining city facing economic recession, unemployment, depopulation, social/ethnic unrest and physical decay. (...) Liverpool is such a case: in the last decades, everything seems to have gone wrong there, except the arts (...)”.

In a way, Lens seems to be such a case too. It is a former mining town of 35.000 people in the north of France, proud of its football team and hit hardly by the crisis. Lens is also, since December 4, home to the new Louvre-Lens, presenting objects from the parisian museum´s collection, including highlights such as Delacroix´s Liberty leading the People. In his speech at the inauguration ceremony, French President François Hollande used words such as “regional development”, “cultural decentralization”, “cultural democracy” and seemed confident that visitors will be coming from the whole region, the whole of France, the whole of Europe and maybe the whole world (the annual target at this moment is 500.000 visitors; 100.000 visited the museum in less than three weeks after its opening). On the other hand, Louvre President Henri Loyrette explained in an interview for the newspaper El País: “[when deciding on the location] what interested me was that it could have a social character, not [to be] a city with culture. This is an industrial zone, very much affected by unemployment and which suffered in all wars. It is a kind of reparation.”

We are quite used to listening to politically correct statements, for which almost noone is ever held accountable for in the years that follow, but a museum that aims to compensate a region for its hardships is a new concept for me. I read numerous articles and reports regarding this new museum, some of which may be found at the end of this text, but I would like to highlight three of them, which, in my opinion, raised some important questions.

On the french blog Option Culture, Jean-Michel Tobelem analyses the three challenges the museum is asked to face – attendance, territorial impact and democratisation and argues: 1. although access is good and exhibitions are of high quality, the building will not be enough to attract the large number of visitors those wishing for a “Bilbao effect” are dreaming of; 2. even if visitors come in great numbers, he doubts there will be an opportunity for wealth creation if there is no infrastructure (hotels, restaurants, commerce, etc.) that would respond to those visitors´ needs and make them want to stay longer and spend more; 3. he also doubts that the chronological approach adopted in the Gallery of Time, the educational activities proposed and open storage would actually be able to attract what we generally call “new” visitors. Bernard Hasquenoph also criticised official references to cultural democracy and decentralisation by making a point in his article Louvre-Lens: la culture comme alibi that the region where Lens is situated could harldy be considered a “victim” in terms of cultural offer and quoted the Louvre´s President who actually said that Lens is a town in a “... region with a reputation for its exceptional cultural dynamism and the density of its museum network”. Finally, Jonathan Jones of The Guardian warns that The Louvre risks losing its magic with Lens move and calls the move “political correcteness gone mad”. He urges british museums not to make the same mistake and to continue forging links and promote loans between the capital and the regions.

These three texts resume my views on this subject. Lens is an hour away from Paris by train. Does it really make sense (in the name of “cultural decentralisation and democracy” or as a means of making amends...) to break up a world famous collection, visited by millions of people living in France and also coming from abroad, in order to take it closer to people that could easily have access to it? And if this is not the case for all (which probably isn´t), wouldn´t it make more sense to make transport to Paris more accessible to all those interested in visiting the museum? Furthermore, in a region that seems to have already got a rich cultural offer, wouldn´t it make more sense to support existing structures and their links to the capital? Or, if it was actually considered that it was the right time and place to create a new cultural venue, wouldn´t it be more appropriate, in competitive terms as well, to create something unique and distinctive of that region? Finally, if decisions were made in the name of regional development, is the museum expected to perform a miracle on its own, when basic, complementary infastructures are still not in place?

Image taken from the Pompidou-Metz  Facebook page.
The case of Pompidou-Metz, which opened in 2010 with quite similar objectives announced by the then French President Nicolas Sarkozy, also comes to mind: a town that didn´t form part of the usual touristic tracks, a bit more than an hour away from Paris by train; a town with a rich cultural offer; a museum that was set up in an area  previously given to industry, as part of a plan to boost tourism; a number of highways that opened in the meantime in order to facilitate access. Still, less than three years later, the museum failed to reach its objective of 600.000 visitors for 2012 (read here). Has something gone wrong? Is there an explanation for this? Is anyone evaluating this case at a time when a new museum opens apparently set to serve a similar vision?

And with all this, I feel compelled to ask: what about Foz Côa? This is one of my favourite places in Portugal. I visited the prehistoric engravings sites in 1999 and 2000. In 2011 I went back, this time to visit the museum too, which had opened the year before. Although the whole project was seen as a major factor in the region´s development (and it probably does attract more people to it), the truth is that the only novelty I encountered was the museum itself, where, on a Sunday afternoon of November, I was the only visitor. The museum café was closed and I had to go back to town and face the almost impossible task of finding something to eat at a place that looked deserted and which still hasn´t got e decent hotel (or restaurant, for that matter) that would make people consider spending the night there. Moreover, considering the touristic traffic in river Douro, the plans to create a connection to the boats have still not materialized, that is, there is still not a quay and a cable car that would allow those visitors to get to the museum and visit the prehistoric sites.

Photo: José Paulo Ruas (taken from the Museu do Côa Facebook page)
I am not an expert in urban regeneration, so I can only express an opinion based on some readings and on my experience as a visitor as well. And it seems to me that, just like a swallow does not make a spring, it takes more than a museum to guarantee the sustainable development of a town, a city, a region. There is a lot to learn from the cities that were able to manage this successfully. It took more than culture. And it took more than politically correct statements. There is a need, above all, for a strong political commitment and for the joining of public and private forces towards a clear common goal. Arts was not the only thing that didn´t go wrong in Liverpool...

More readings
Louvre-Lens: helping a mining town shed its image, by Oliver Wainwright (The Guardian, 5 December 2012)
The Louvre comes to town, by Edwin Heathcote (The Financial Times, 7 December 2012)
L´ouverture du Louvre-Lens, par Didier Rykner (La Tribune de l´Art, 4 Décembre 2012)
Louvre-Lens: lanaissance d´ un musée (Le Monde, 5 Décembre 2012)
Le Louvre-Lens ouvre ses portes au public (Le Figaro, 12 Décembre 2012)
Le Louve Lens, le succès en dépit des grincheux (Lunettes Rouges, 11 Janvier 2013) 
Les musées se remettent en scène, para Valérie Duponchelle (Le Figaro, 7 Décembre 2012)
What's the big idea behind the Pompidou-Metz?, Jonathan Glancey, (The Guardian, 6 April 2010)
Centre Pompidou: Metz gears up for its moment, Natasha Edwards (Telegraph, 8 May 2010)
Museu do Côa, por António Martinho Baptista (Informação ICOM.PT, Nº 16, Mar-Maio 2012)
Amigos do Parque e Museu do Côa, por José Manuel Costa Ribeiro (Côavisão – Cultura e Ciência, Nº 12, 2010)
We built way too many cultural institutions during the good years, by Emiy Badger (The Atlantic Cities, 5 July 2012)
Philharmonie de Paris: a grand design turned £300m 'bottomless pit', by Angelique Chrisafis (The Guardian, 30 December 2012)
Mais e novos museus, por Joana Sousa Monteiro (Mouseion, 7 Janeiro 2012)

Le Journal du Temps: Lens, le Havre et une seule cause (André Malraux inaugure le premier musée – Maison de la Culture en 1961)

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