December 2013 ~ Paris & Marseille Visit

Posted by Kate Borders

We are often encouraged to take a step back and get a balcony level view of our work rather than an on the ground perspective.  Although we all know that this is a healthy process to regularly pursue, we often get buried with tasks, agendas, meetings, projects, follow ups and the like.  When I was invited to participate in a study tour in Paris and Marseille in December of this year, the traveler in me was thrilled and the ground level manager in me was weary of the time away.  However it was clear that the benefits would outweigh the backlog of emails.  So on Saturday, December 7th, I boarded a flight to Paris and arrived Sunday morning around 10am.

Let me back up and explain the purpose of the trip and the program that we embarked upon.  The French-American Foundation (based in NY) funded three years of an exchange program called Sustainable Cities in which a French delegation toured the US and vice versa each year.  In 2013 the French delegation spent a week in Seattle in November and the US delegation (my group) spent a week divided between Paris and Marseille from December 9 through December 13.  This was the last of the three years and our team was the last of the delegations chosen.  Joining me were five impressive individuals: Ariella Cohen (Editor for the online publication dedicated to urban renewal called Next City), Toni Griffin (founder of the Bond Center on Design at the City College of New York), Rip Rapson (CEO of the Detroit based Kresge Foundation), Chris Rogers (Developer located in Seattle, WA), and Beth Takekawa (Executive Director of the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle, WA).

Marseille was chosen for our study because it is the 2013 recipient of the European Capital of Culture designation.  This designation is bestowed among two European cities annually and the cities are chosen for their ability to execute an exceptional year-long program that produces urban renewal, highlights the richness of their citizens and attracts visitors, among other criteria.  Marseille was an excellent choice for our study and comparable in many ways to Fresno.  With wide spread poverty, many different cultures represented, and a desire to revitalize the city center, it was a fascinating experience.


I arrived in Paris on Sunday morning December 8th and had the afternoon to explore prior to starting the tour on Monday morning.  I spent the day walking the city streets and absorbing French culture.  I stumbled upon the Eiffel Tower and did my own internal critical analysis of management of the space.  It  seems as if one of the most visited monuments in the world could find a way to get their “bone yard” out of the public view, but surprisingly the chain-link fenced area with construction materials didn’t  seem to be regarded by any other guests.  I also found a market street for lunch and thoroughly enjoyed the curves and the architecture of Paris.

Monday December 9th we began with a tour of the Cinema Etoile Lilas and were greeted by a representative of the French Ministry of Culture.  Cinema is regarded as a cultural activity (rather than simply entertainment) and the production of film is very valued in Paris.  Every community has it’s own movie house with most of them having only 2 screens.  Cinema Etoile Lilas is a private development project that opened on a site that is built above the recently covered ring road that wraps around Paris.  The mixed-use project incorporated a restaurant and other retail spaces into the base of the buildings and all opened less than a year ago.  The project connected a neighborhood to the center of Paris where there had only been a freeway previously serving as a divider.  It was interesting to understand the value of film to Paris and to know that film is subsidized by the government just as other more traditional cultural activities.  The Cinema is actively engaging all the neighborhood schools, offering a reduced rate to neighborhood attendees, offering up the venue for local corporations for conference space, and offering the venue for private events and larger gatherings.


From the Cinema Etoile Lilas we headed over to the construction site of the new Philharmonie which is scheduled to open in 2015.  We were given the royal tour complete with hard hats, construction boots and orange vests.  The Philharmonie has been designed by the Parisian firm, Ateliers Jean Nouvel.  It will be a state of the art building with one grand hall that seats 2400 people, multiple rehearsal halls, practice rooms, and a roof that everyone can enjoy.  Great attention has been spent on the acoustics by designing scale models and testing the sound as it would be enjoyed in each seat.  The development site is literally at what used to be a city wall, the farthest you can get to the edge of Paris.  Again the goal is to incorporate the neighborhoods and bring venues to areas that previously haven’t been served.

That evening we took a high speed train to Marseille and the next morning started early in this new city.  Marseille suffers from perception problems and is depicted as a dangerous, drug-ridden city.  As a port city, there is a steady stream of immigrants and 1/3 of the population is Italian.  There are also large immigrant populations from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, & Armenia.  The French government is deliberately directing funding to this port city and results were clearly visible.  At first glance the cruise ships are docked regularly bringing over 1 million visitors annually.


First we met in Marseille City Hall with the Deputy Mayor and the Director of Cultural Affairs and had a lengthy Q&A session regarding the process for designation as the Capital of Culture.   France has an impressive federal funding stream for cultural initiatives, and there is regional funding as well as local funding.  What is greatly lacking in France, in general, are the private sector donations.  The Deputy Mayor explained that they applied for the Capital of Culture back in 2004 and were designated in 2008.  The City invested 660 million euros in the programming and initiatives that took place during the year.  The designation sped up many projects that were in the works and many new programs were designed.  Multiple festivals were produced that drew hundreds of thousands of attendees.  Entire museums were designed, funded, built and opened during 2013.


From there we went to tour La Friche Belle de Mai, which was an old tobacco factory that has been turned into a community venue.  We began with a working lunch on the premise and were joined by Marielle Riche, the Dean of the Marseille School of Architecture.  We were often given these opportunities to dine with individuals that represented venues we weren’t able to physically visit.  Then we toured the facility.  The location is in a low income community near the edge of the city (also a theme) and the project re-instated life into an old factory that was an eyesore and a barrier between the neighborhoods and the city.  Today it houses a myriad of ways for the community to participate.  From a skate park to a community garden to a kindergarten on one end of the spectrum to performance venues and exhibit halls on the opposite end, the 11 acre venue invites everyone.


Next we toured the Conservation and Resource Center that is a partner facility to the MuCEM (which we visited the next day).  The MuCEM is the only national museum outside of Paris and it focuses on Mediterranean exhibits.  The Conservation and Resource Center, which we affectionately called the Storage Place, houses over 250,000 objects that are part of the MuCEM’s permanent collection.  The building have a variety of different temperature controlled spaces and art is housed based on its material.  The building was designed by Corinne Vezzoni who gave us the tour.


After this we went to the offices of the Euroméditerranée Project.  This project was launched in 2005, is funded locally and nationally, incorporates government and local organizations, and aims to make Marseille more attractive and influential.  The project got a great deal of power by the Cultural Capital designation and many projects were fast tracked.  The project strategically looks at all the neighborhoods, addresses everything from housing to hotels, and has redesigned the port and the freeway systems that come into Marseille.  The large scale model helped us to understand Marseille from a different perspective.

From there we attended the closing reception for the Capital of Culture, sponsored by their largest private funder, the Société Marseillaise de Crédit.  The reception was located in one of the venues that was created for the year, which was previous a cruise ship hangar where passengers would unload.   The simply raw space was transformed into a gallery for the year and the exhibition currently there is of the works of architect/painter Le Corbusier, which we were able to enjoy.


Wednesday morning we toured the MuCEM with their International Relations staff member.  The museum only opened 6 months ago and has already had 500,000 visitors.  The goal of the museum is to present subjects from multiple perspectives.  For example if they depict a war, they will show works of art and include stories from both sides of the situation, to gain understanding of other cultures.  The museum is in a newly constructed building that is adjoined to the oldest fort that still remains in Marseille.  The building connects the city to the water and the grounds are always free to explore.  The venue is also outside what was once the city wall and in recent years was the seediest part of Marseille.

We returned to the Hangar that we visited the previous evening to have more time with the exhibit and to have lunch with the Executive Director of the Capital of Culture initiative.  For years leading up to this designation, the organization existed to prepare and had a minimum of 30 staff members.  At the peak there were over 300 staff members.  Currently they have four months to complete reporting and cease operations.


We spent that afternoon in the northern neighborhoods of Marseille.  We began with the Cité des Arts de la Rue, which is an entire venue dedicated to street arts, or buskers as we might call them.  Various organizations pay rent to the venue and are housed here collectively.  There are entire rooms designed for aerial work, spaces that might appear to be junk yards but are actually collections of large scale props.   Street arts are highly valued in French culture and are funded by the government.  These artists take traditional performances and bend them to use public space and incorporate the citizens.  Royal du Luxe, a group that creates large scale performance installations and is commissioned world-wide for grand performances, is one of the organizations located here.   We left there and went to La Gare Franche, a creation space with many artist in residence programs that is located in the midst of multiple housing projects and invites the community to visit the beautiful grounds regularly.

We closed the day with a reception hosted by Société Marseillaise de Crédit, the largest sponsor of the initiative.  This bank had contributed 2.5 million euros to the initiative.  This opportunity to talk with a private funder about the value of investing in culture gave us yet another perspective into the French way of thinking.  Our host, Francis Papazian, was also one of the French delegates who had toured Seattle a few weeks prior.  Prior to this sponsorship, the largest gift the bank had given was 100,000 euros.  The bank’s visibility had increased substantially in the course of the year.  But according to Francis, their main goal in participating, was to ensure the success of the venture for their customers – the restaurateurs and shop owners who would see a massive influx in customers during the course of the year.


Thursday morning we took the train back to Paris and then spent the afternoon at CentQuatre.  This facility is located in the 19th district of Paris where gangs, drugs and low income housing are the norm.  The 420,000 square foot facility was once the location where all low income Parisian deceased individuals were delivered for government provided funeral arrangements.  Today it is an international highly competitive artist in residence program with performance spaces, exhibit spaces, and open spaces for the community to congregate.  For some reason, they have successfully integrated the youth – who have an unspoken agreement that this is neutral territory – and they spend hours here.  While we were there, one group was perfecting their street dancing while another group was working on juggling and contortion.  In addition, there is a Maison des Petits, literally a play area for local families to bring their children 5 and under and have a safe indoor space.  We stayed and toured the current exhibit, “Trouble Makers Sensation vs. Digital” and then the performance that evening, Via Sophiatown, a new creation that is going on tour by a South African dance troupe.

Friday we closed with a tour of the Cite de l’Architecture and a panel discussion with the entire delegation of French participants that went to Seattle.  Also joining us for the discussion were many representatives of the French Ministry of Culture and even a cultural representative from the UN.  The discussion was purposeful and lengthy as we delved into our observations of each other’s cities/countries and how culture is valued, funded, presented, and integrated into the communities.


Saturday was my chance to be a tourist in France and buy a few goodies for my daughters, who always expect treats from a parental trip.  I had planned to conquer multiple museums and see various sights, but time was a bit more restricting.  I arrived at the Musee d’Orsay when it opened and spent two hours there.  It is a magnificent building and the current exhibit, Masculine (focused on the importance of the male figure through the history of art) was incredible.  I walked over to Notre Dame and then took the Metro to the Montmartre neighborhood to see the Sacre Couer and have a late lunch.  After a little shopping, I walked back to my hotel and then met some of my US team for dinner.  After dinner, I wanted to see the Arc de Triomphe before heading back to the states Sunday morning and so I made the walk down the Champs Elysées at 11pm.  I was amazed to see the hundreds of Christmas booths set up along the strip and the many festive additions, including an ice rink.  It was a two hour walk to the Arc de Triomphe and back and as I returned to my hotel after 1am, the Christmas market was just closing and the streets were still packed.  Exhausted, I headed to the airport only 4 hours later.


For me the greatest lessons were around the value of culture.  France believes in the value of culture as an inherently basic need, not to be considered a commodity but a right of all citizens.  The inclusion of art begins with birth and continues at every age.  Every venue that we visited had a dedicated experience for children that incorporated the art form of the venue.  There were children present in every location, building, drawing, playing, experiencing culture.   The government funding is an indication that culture is highly important to the people as a whole.  We often asked if these projects were controversial and if the funding was protested but the answer was always “no.”  Culture breaks down isolations.  They believe that funding these initiatives in low income neighborhoods acts as a bridge connecting people, regardless of their income level or heritage.  Finally, they were very clear that they do not – and they would not – consider tracking other derivative data points to justify the cultural assets.  For example, there is no desire to demonstrate that an artistic activity leads to other improvements.  They don’t need to find out of less students are dropping out of high school now that CentQuatre is providing them a space.  They don’t want to know if students’ math scores are improving after participating in a musical project.  They believe in culture for culture’s sake.  This idea of tracking data was completely foreign to them.  However, in Marseille they are well aware of the need to improve the city for the sake of additional tourism and increased residential activity.   They believe that the year of the Cultural Capital designation generated a 6 to 1 return on investment (recall 660 million euros spent).  And they clearly believe that the infusing of cultural institutions, museums, programs, and heritage festivals will be the driver to turning around their city.   Now the question is how to apply these lessons here in Fresno and in the US, for that matter.  We have our work cut out for us!


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