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Interview with Germain Viatte: “We have come a long way”

The new Director of France’s National Museum of Modern Art gives his first interview

With Dominique Bozo in overall charge of the Centre Pompidou and Germain Viatte now heading the Musée National d’Art Moderne (MNAM) and the Centre de Création Industrielle (CCI), expressions of concern at the lack of space have given way to wide-ranging debate on the future role of the entire Beaubourg cultural complex. Methodological rigour is making a comeback, together with an all-embracing vision of art and culture, evident in the reunification of research and administrative facilities within the MNAM and the CCI, and closer collaboration with the other departments of the Pompidou Centre: the public library and the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM). For the first time in the history of the Beaubourg, the presidency has gone to a representative of the museum world, rather than to a high-ranking official from the Ministry of Culture.

Although Bozo’s appointment is being presented as a natural consequence of the desire to reunite the Centre’s four sections, it is clear that his presidency will give the museum a bigger say than in the past and ensure that, where funding is concerned, it is no longer the poor relation of the IRCAM.

To mark the new trend five floors of the Centre are being given over to a series of exhibitions, films, digital images, sound recordings, debates and theatrical events, tracing the history of artistic creativity over the last thirty years.

The CCI’s recently constituted collection of industrial design will also be on show for the first time. A new collection devoted to architecture features twelve contemporary giants: Rossi, Gehry, Portzamparc, Siza, Shinohara, Arcigram, Foster, Ito, Nouvel, Piano, Prouvé and Koolhaas. Meanwhile, on the fourth floor, in addition to the newly re-arranged historical collection, works recently donated to the museum by Pierre Matisse will be on show.

The new director of the MNAM and CCI, Germain Viatte, is no stranger to the complex machinations of the Pompidou Centre. He was a co-founder of the CNAC, involved in programming the Centre’s activities and looking after its collections from the early days. He subsequently became director of the Marseilles museums and head of the Inspection Générale des Musées de Province (provincial museums inspectorate). We asked him to explain the significance of “Manifeste”.

Germain Viatte: This is an opportunity to stand back and take stock. Until now, the museum has exhibited only 900 of the 32,000 works it actually owns, though 17,000 of these are drawings, videos and photographs which do not really qualify for permanent showing. We felt we should make these resources better known and reinforce the contemporary vocation of the Pompidou Centre. Visitors will be able to operate a network of interactive VDUs to obtain information on almost all the works we possess and their history—as if they were taking a peep into the vaults. I do not think a museum should continue to grow ad infinitum; on the other hand, I believe we should put on periodic exhibitions as a way of gradually familiarising the public with the full range of our artistic riches. “Manifeste” concentrates on the art of the last thirty years, thereby overcoming a chronological and methodological rift, which results from the way the works are currently arranged. The main trends in art in recent decades are already clear, and the works in our collections enable us to underline the key developments and inter-connections.

The Art Newspaper: How would you describe the new industrial design and architecture collections?

GV: Right from the beginning, the CCI has sought to trace the development of form in the work of designers, not forgetting the role played by a number of major manufacturers. We have featured furniture because it is a barometer of changing tastes and ideals of beauty. For instance, the magnificent suite by Eileen Gray has obvious affinities with constructivism. Although we intend to integrate some architectural drawings and items of furniture with the historical art collections, architecture and industrial design will, nevertheless, have separate exhibition areas of their own.

TAN: What will distinguish the MNAM from the Musée d’Art Moderne (Paris’s rival museum funded by the city), and, more generally, from the many French modern and contemporary art museums?

GV: When the Beaubourg was set up, the only French institutions seriously exhibiting and purchasing contemporary art were at Saint-Etienne, Grenoble and Marseilles. Since then, due to the stimulus and support given by the Centre to twentieth-century art, the setting up of regional funds for acquiring contemporary art, and the emergence of a new generation of museum curators, the landscape has completely changed. This has led us to adopt a policy of collaborating with younger museums, letting them have works on temporary loan according to their strengths and weaknesses. In Paris itself, the brilliant management of the city’s Musée d’Art Moderne and the inauguration of the Jeu de Paume has brought about a profound change. Here, too, though we are not looking to carve up the territory between us—a degree of competition never does any harm—we should at least be getting together to think out how best to collaborate in the future.

TAN: Getting back to the Pompidou Centre, what changes will visitors see in the building itself?

GV: One purpose of the summer exhibition is to give Renzo Piano and his team scope to experiment with a number of changes, which might eventually become permanent. Piano is planning to transform the surroundings of the Centre, and to improve the Forum area by getting rid of the grid-pattern ceiling and other obstacles which block out the light. The central area, currently down in the basement, is to be raised to ground-floor level and will accommodate the new CCI collections. The whole building will undergo a thorough restoration and refit. “Manifeste” will show just what the Centre is capable of when it returns wholeheartedly to its original identity as a contemporary art centre—starting from the entrance hall, which at present is too large and unstructured.

TAN: And how do you see the task of the director of the new MNAM-CCI?

GV: To re-establish a sense of team-work, which has been lost recently, and to see the collections increase and grow. Although in 1977 we were not entirely destitute, having received a major donation, we were able to open the Centre only thanks to loans from the Guggenheim and the MOMA in New York and the Ludwig Forum in Aachen. We were something of a phantom museum. Since then, we have acquired more than 14,000 works, 10,000 of them dated 1960 or later. There are still many gaps, but we have come a long way.