RE-IMAGINING A LANDMARK. Laurent Le Bon is the recently appointed president of the Centre Pompidou, the very important Paris institution focused on modern and contemporary art. He was previously the president of Musée Picasso-Paris.
This interview is available to listen to as a podcast here.
Laurent Le Bon, many years ago you worked as a curator for the Centre Pompidou and now you have returned as its president. Please can you tell us about this new role?
I previously had two wonderful adventures, one with the Centre Pompidou in Metz, and one with the Musée Picasso in Paris. Both times we had to build from scratch. This new job at the Centre Pompidou in Paris is a mix of those two adventures, because here there is both a technical and a cultural project. Technically we have to renovate the fantastic building that Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers were chosen to build when they were aged around 30. It was their first big construction and they had a huge ground area on which to build this incredible dream. They decided only to build on half of the construction site, because Renzo Piano says that in Italy the piazza is as important as the building. There is this wonderful connection between the outside and the inside, and now, a little more than 40 years later, we are facing a huge challenge because the glass of the facade is not as good as it was in the 70s and there is asbestos inside the window frames. We will have to spend 200 million euros to fix things, and that will be a wonderful technical adventure.
Who is going to make these changes?
It’s not decided yet, we will have to prepare everything, and then close. We don’t yet know exactly when, but around November 2023, and then it will take three years to do the “new Pompidou”.
What will your job be while the museum is closed and what will the new Pompidou be?
I can’t completely answer your question because the new Pompidou is still a dream. As my predecessors Serge Lasvignes and Bernard Blistène told me, I am on an empty page and have to write a new cultural project. That’s the job for the next months. The DNA of the Pompidou of the 70s is still very powerful. Everyone likes the energy of multiple disciplines in the same building: library, museum, music, restaurant. We have to figure out how to keep that.
Do you have enough space at the Centre Pompidou for the museum’s modern and contemporary art collection?
When we opened in 1977 we had 10,000 works, and now we have 120,000 works. We are going to open a new Centre Pompidou “art factory” in Massy – south of Paris – for storage, so we will have new empty space in the original building whose use we can change for cultural purposes.
Do you need to make the exhibition spaces ten times bigger?
It’s more complicated than that because you get tired when you have too many things to see. People look for a storytelling experience when they go to a museum, they don’t want a huge amount of works to navigate. Of course though it is the national collection, and for the three years closure we will display it in France and all over the world, forging new and interesting partnerships. We want to be even more active then than when we are open.
“The DNA of the Pompidou of the 70s is still very powerful.”
View of the Centre Georges Pompidou from Rue Beaubourg
Centre Pompidou, architectes Renzo Piano et Richard Rogers. Photo: Francesca et Pier Lorenzo Avanzinell
Copyright © Centre Pompidou 2020
Laurent Le Bon, you have been head of Musée Picasso-Paris and have curated many big exhibitions there and elsewhere. Since your new job will be to place many different artworks in new places, and at the same time to oversee the building works, will you stop curating exhibitions?
It is a moment of change in my life. I was very happy to curate many shows during the last 20 years in my different job positions, but this is a once in your lifetime opportunity, to invent a new utopia in one of the most fantastic cultural institutions in Europe. To succeed, our team needs the same power of imagination that the original team had in the 70s, and that’s a big challenge because over the last 40 years the situation has changed completely. In Paris in the 70s there was almost no cultural institution dedicated to modern and contemporary art. Today we are a city which is alive with some of the most important offerings in the world. The Bourse de commerce Pinault collection, the Fondation Louis Vuitton, the Musée d’Art Moderne of Paris, among others, all are putting on contemporary art shows.
Creating this astronautical building in the middle of a very old neighbourhood of Paris was enormously adventurous. What can you possibly do that is equivalent?
The building is now completely integrated into the Paris cityscape, but at the beginning many people were against the Centre Pompidou. Everything has changed, but many people still don’t know that we have one of the two most important collections of modern art in the world. They need to know more about our content, about our programmes, about our collection. That will be the big challenge.
Do many people come to the Centre Pompidou, colloquially known as “the Beaubourg”, because it is so colorful?
At around 50 metres high, the building is now a monument in the heart of Paris. Its height was a presidential decision of Georges Pompidou, who died before seeing the opening but who allowed it to be higher than the normal rule. That was very important, and we have a fantastic view of Paris from the 6th floor.
Right from the start the curated exhibitions at the Centre Pompidou were mythical, but why do people not think about the permanent collection?
The Centre Pompidou was very avant garde from the beginning. It was said that the collection was always in movement, that it was not a permanent collection, and that the museum itself was in permanent revolution. We have to keep this spirit.
What are the icons?
The first icon is the building, because the Centre Pompidou was not created like the National Gallery in London by the British Parliament wanting to have a wonderful gathering of masterpieces. The story of the National Museum of Modern Art in the Centre Pompidou is the exact contrary, because the state never understood who the geniuses were. Braque, Picasso, Mondrian, Matisse; the state never bought these works. Our collection is from a different spirit, we have the wonderful studio of Brancusi, and the Kandinsky Library with all his things; that makes our collection very different and we have to put the emphasis on this part of the collection.
Nevertheless, do you have some very special works?
Yes, of course, for example from Miro Les Trois Bleus: Bleu1, Bleu2, Bleu 3. We spent ten years regathering the triptych, and it’s one of the masterpieces of the collection. I very much like the Dada movement, and Hausmann’s L’Esprit de notre temps is another. Part of our wonderful surrealist collection is the fantastic wall of André Breton, like a cabinet of curiosities.
What about Marcel Duchamp?
We have a very wonderful collection of Marcel Duchamp, who was never understood in our country. The first big show of Marcel Duchamp was at the opening of Centre Pompidou in 1977.
“Many, many people fell in love in this library.”
Laurent Le Bon, do you still buy new works?
We do but we don’t have a huge budget. Our main challenge today is to make people at home at the Centre Pompidou, to make them dream again. We need to recover that powerful spirit of freedom, which after forty years we lost a little bit.
Are you going to keep the piazza?
Of course, it’s in the DNA. We will try to keep it open during the works because when we are closed it will be important still to have a link with the city. It’s a place where you can programme many things, music, dance, and what is interesting are the things that you don’t provide and that you don’t know where they come from. People come to the piazza because they like the space. They do shows, make drawings and speak with other people. It’s a very important space that is dedicated to culture rather than political expression.
How many people come to visit?
Now we have the pandemic, but, including the library, usually every year we have between five and six million people, between ten and twenty thousand a day. The library was the dream of Georges Pompidou from the beginning, who said, “Of course, the museum is very important, but we will have at the same place the first public library in France where you can go whenever you want, even during the night.”
Is it open all night?
No, unfortunately not, but till 10 p.m. You can take books from the shelves directly, like in the USA, which was the model. In 1977 this was completely new for France.
Is it in competition with the Bibliothèque nationale de France?
No, it’s the exact contrary. We call it the Bibliothèque publique d’Information. It’s a library for everyone, not for specialists. You can learn a language. You can read the newspaper of the day. Many, many people fell in love in this library.
But it’s not a library of art history?
Our Kandinsky Library is dedicated to modern and contemporary art. It is the best library in this field in France.
In this time of the Internet and Google do many people still come?
3 or 4,000 people come every day at the minimum, because what is important for a library is the physical book and the spirit; the atmosphere to work, to meet people, to work together. When you take a book from the bookshelves, very often the book which is next to the book you are looking for is more important than the one you were looking for.
Is the Centre Pompidou more known for the art collection than for the library?
It’s a balance, and that makes the Centre Pompidou very unique. Now we have the pandemic and we are the only institution in France with two entrances, one from the piazza for the museum and exhibitions – where we have to check what we call in France the pass sanitaire – but because we also have a library inside we had to open a new entrance from rue Beaubourg whereby you can go freely to the library without any control. Of course, you have to wear a mask.
A mechanical staircase in the Centre Georges Pompidou
Centre Pompidou, architectes Renzo Piano et Richard Rogers. Photo: G. Meguerditchian
Copyright © Centre Pompidou 2020
Georgia O’Keeffe: Jimson Weed White Flower No. 1, 1932
© Centre Pompidou
Centre Pompidou Cinema 1
© Centre Pompidou
© Hervé Veronese Centre Pompidou
Open bookshelves in the library
© Centre Pompidou
Planetarium © Hervé Veronese Centre Pompidou
“Our main challenge is to convince the young generation – which is more linked with the virtual world – to come back to see the reality and the power of a work of art.”
Laurent Le Bon, has the pandemic been a big problem here?
When I was at the Musée Picasso-Paris it is not the same size but we had the same problem. All museums were facing how to change the programme, how to invite our guests, how to respect the social rules.
Did you work very much online and with social media?
Of course, but it is very interesting to see that when we re-opened people came back. For example, at Centre Pompidou we just opened the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition and four thousand people are coming every day.
Is it very different for you after having been the president of a smaller museum dedicated to a single artist?
It’s a fantastic change. In the Musée Picasso you are at home in an intimate moment in a wonderful building from the 17th century, completely devoted to only one artist. Of course Picasso is an artist like a continent, you can spend all your life dedicated to him, but what I like very much is that the Centre Pompidou is the opposite. You have to take care not to be superficial, but we have 400 events every year; every day we have one or two openings. It makes the feel completely different.
How long were you a specialist at the Musée Picasso?
For seven years, but nobody can become a Picasso specialist. With Picasso, you have many, many things to discover. He is still very mysterious. I have an idea for a book but I don’t have time for it at the moment.
Is France now doing well in the cultural field?
I don’t want to be a chauvinist, but if you see what happens in our city in the field of cultural events, it’s fantastic. It’s like a dream. When I speak with my colleagues in Spain and Italy, even in the USA or in Great Britain, I can’t feel the same atmosphere. We were very supported by the state, and now the pandemic is going down and we are ready to go on, with fingers crossed but we can have a wonderful period of energy.
What are you going to do in between now and when you close in two or three years?
My predecessor had already created a programme, but with the team we will see if we can add two or three things to it.
What are your dreams?
My dream is to open the new Centre Pompidou; and that people will come when we reopen; and be happy to be there.
Do you think that people like museums more and more?
No, I don’t think so. The museum is in a very challenging period, especially for the young generation. People who go to a museum are people like you and me, people who know about the cultural world, who are fond of curation. Our main challenge is to convince the young generation – which is more linked with the virtual world – to come back to see the reality and the power of a work of art.
There are many visitors here even now, but how many are French and how many foreigners?
We are completely different from Versailles and the Louvre, our public comes from the region, from Paris and around. That’s why we still have many visitors compared with my colleagues at the Louvre and Versailles, which are still in a difficult moment because people are not able to travel to our country from abroad.
The Pinault collection just opened at the Bourse de Commerce and there is a big exhibition of Russian collections at Fondation Louis Vuitton. Is there too much going on?
We are not in a war. Art is very good for harmony, and in our field the more we are, the better. People, especially those coming from abroad, prefer coming to Paris when they have different things to see.
Were you directly chosen for this job by the president?
Yes. You have to apply, and then committees decide who should be chosen to run national institutions.
Will you also have new directors?
Yes, we just chose the new director of the National Museum of Modern Art, Xavier Rey who is coming from Marseille.
Are you pleased with your new role?
I am more than pleased.
Congratulations and thank you. Much luck for your new adventure.
Portrait of Laurent Le Bon © Hervé Veronese Centre Pompidou