The Pompidou Center Versus “La Culture des Riches”
In an unwelcome surprise for many holiday tourists, the Pompidou Center in Paris is in its third week of closure. The strike started on November 23, then metastasized to the Musée d’Orsay, the Louvre and the Château de Versailles, amongst others, on December 3. Most had reopened by December 6, but the Pompidou Center remains adamantly closed.
It’s tempting to give a Gallic shrug whenever one reads headlines about French fonctionnaires (civil servants) striking to protect their cushy jobs. What’s eating the Pompidou’s fonctionnaires is the museum’s plan to cut staff: for every two retiring workers, only one will be replaced. Since a large proportion of the Pompidou Center’s workforce is over 50, many having worked there since the Center opened in 1977, this will have a significant effect over the long run. Short term, however, the museum will effectively lose 26 staff next year and 23 in 2011, which only represents around 2.3% of its staff of 1100.
What’s more, most museum’s staff are actually vacataires—that is, younger employees on temporary and short term contracts, not to mention the hoards of unpaid interns—so a lot of personnel will be unaffected. And from personal experience, much of the actual work at the Pompidou is done by the younger generations. Arguably, if cuts are indeed necessary, the plan is a painless way to make them.
Yet in reality, what seems a small spat over staffing is only the most publicized and superficial aspect of the conflict; it masks a deep-seated malaise that afflicts the French cultural sector in general. For the Pompidou Center, more than just an example of France’s aging demographics, is also symbol of the hopes and dreams of the generation of ’68, a social utopia of culture for the people.
The founding principal of openness is expressed in the very architecture of the place. Renzo Piano’s and Richard Rogers’ controversial masterpiece is constructed inside out with all of its architectural functions on the exterior of the building, reflecting the conceptual ideal of total transparency. As the Pritzker jury said, when Rogers was awarded the prize in 2007, the Pompidou Center “revolutionized museums, transforming what had once been elite monuments into popular places of social and cultural exchange”. Unfortunately the center has been getting further and further from its original policy of easy access culture for all, as the provocative site Louvre Pour Tous argues.
Thus far, the standoff shows no sign of ending, with government and unions both digging in their heels. A plea by Eric Hervo, Pompidou employee and CGT union member, sums up the concerns of many. In a heartfelt video posted online, he bemoans that government cuts will make the cultural center a place where decisions are governed by wealthy individuals and media darlings, rather than representatives of the French people. “There will be no more creation at the Pompidou Center” he says, “no more contemporary dance troops”, only “showbiz”, “people” (a quaint French way of referring to celebrities) and the “culture des riches”.
It is perhaps overstating things to assert that the proposed changes will have such a sweeping effect. But recent events lend credence to Mr. Hervo’s view. The Chateau of Versailles, for example, has come under fire for the insiderish character of its contemporary art program. For its inaugural exhibit, the program director Jean-Jacques Aillagon chose a Jeff Koons retrospective. Koons features prominently in François Pinault’s collections, and Jean-Jacques Aillagon happens to be an ex-advisor and friend of Pinault.
It was enough to make some French indignant, but these incestuous dealings seem minor compared to the proposed exhibition of the private collection of Dakis Joannou at New York’s New Museum. Joannou is, it turns out, one of the museum’s trustees. Condemned as a “fluff show”, the exhibition is to be curated by none other than, guess who, Mr. Koons.
It’s trends like this that fuel the fears of the French strikers. For them, the struggle is about more than protecting their own interests: they are pushing back against the perceived homogenization of culture, and the ubiquitous international money machine of the art world, which runs against the Pompidou’s raison d’être.
This then is the good fight as fought by the striking museum staff, and one can’t help sympathizing with them, despite the inconvenience for tourists and exhibition-goers. But the strike may just be the last vestiges of the ’68 dream, fading in the glare of Pompidou’s €2.3 million budget deficit.
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