Tour de France

Maurice Davies, 25.09.2013
When oil money trumps public access
A great museum experiment comes to a sad end this week. The Centre Pompidou Mobile has been taking top-notch works of art to smaller towns round France using a clever set-up that’s a modern version of a circus big top. You can see a picture of it here.

Well-insulated, colourful tents house works by artists such as Kandinsky, Duchamp and Leger. For protection, paintings are displayed in a neatly designed, purpose-built showcase with large windows. Sculptures are free-standing.

But on Sunday, the Pompidou Centre’s nomadic museum reaches the end of its visit to Aubagne, a small town in the south of France, and all future stops on its Tour de France have been scrapped.

Instead of moving on to Nantes, as planned, a different version of the mobile museum will open in -wait for it - Saudi Arabia. And not anywhere in Saudi Arabia, but at the headquarters of oil giant Aramco in Dhahran – a place that I’m sure will be accessible to your average Saudi resident or guest worker.

The reason, as you might’ve guessed, is money. The Pompidou is getting less from the French state and the necessary additional sponsorship and local funding has got harder to find. But there may have been flaws in the original concept.

In true French (and national museum) style, the movable museum seems fantastically expensive. The French press cites a variety of figures, but to a naïve optimist it seems to have cost several million Euros more that it needed to.

The really sad thing about the end of the French leg of the Pompidou tour is not the declining economic power of Europe in favour of other parts of the world, which is probably an historic inevitability. Rather, it is that the mobile Pompidou gave a far better visitor experience than the Pompidou Centre itself.

The Paris Pompidou is a shadow of its former idealistic self. No longer free-form, comfortable and democratic, it now makes art seem worthy. Visiting is hard work and exhausting.

In sharp contrast, the mobile Pompidou strives to make art accessible. Every visitor is individually welcomed and offered a choice of interpretive aids such as a free audio guide or informative gallery leaflet.

The mobile display is themed, simply, on Circles and Squares. When I arrived there (while on my summer hols) I thought, "oh dear, that seems rather patronising", but in fact I got lots out of the display and the interpretation (and I’ve got a PhD in art history, so anyone who claims it is too basic must be a bit of a stuck-up show-off art know-all!)

The best legacy of the mobile Pompidou wouldn’t be its survival in oil-rich nations.

Instead, I hope the Pompidou Centre itself can learn from its fuss-free, unpretentious approach to interpretation.