France's Pompidou Centre opens regional art hub

A sparkling new branch of one of the world's top modern art museums, Paris's Pompidou Centre, opens in northern France on Wednesday with hundreds of rarely seen treasures on its walls.

On a former waste land in Metz, the undulating white teflon roof houses space to free up some of the 65,000 works trapped in storage at the Paris museum - and to breath new life into a city seen as a forgotten gem.

Planting the huge new venue in Metz, a town of 130,000 people in what was once part of Germany, its creators aim to shift the gravity of France's national art collections, which critics say is narrowly centred on Paris.

"This is a great moment for culture in this country, because it is the first time a great cultural institution has decentralised," said Alain Seban, director of the Paris Pompidou Centre, in Metz on Monday.

The new museum's 5,000 square metres (107,000 square feet) of gallery space offer high ceilings to accommodate monumental works such as Sonia Delaunay's bright seven-foot canvas "Portugal".

It also aims to put the northeastern Lorraine region on the map by drawing in visitors from across the nearby borders of Germany and Belgium, and tourists from Paris, an 80-minute high-speed train ride away.

"We want to open it to the widest possible public, the European and international public," said Jean-Luc Bohl, president of the Metz area council, one of several bodies that funded the 72.5-million-euro (93 million dollar) project.

The museum is to be inaugurated on Tuesday by President Nicolas Sarkozy and opens to the public from Wednesday.

Its inaugural show: "Chefs-d'Oeuvre?", an exhausting array of 780 artworks that questions what constitutes a "masterpiece" while acquainting the viewer with monumental works by some of the giants of modern art.

The long galleries teem with numerous art forms: Henri Cartier-Bresson's photography, sculptures by Constantin Brancusi, paintings by Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, plus architectural plans, videos and even furniture.

"It introduces to the widest possible audience the most contemporary forms of art and creativity to make them think about ideas of taste and aesthetics," said Laurent Le Bon, director of the new museum.

Designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban and France's Jean de Gastines, the teflon-draped wooden roof sits above a ground floor facade of glass shutters that open in warm weather to draw in visitors.

In between lie three elevated oblong galleries, the window of the top one framing a view of Metz's cathedral.

"I wanted to find something contextual," Ban told AFP. "I wanted to connect the art museum to the city."

Elsewhere in northern France, the former mining town of Lens is preparing to receive its own outlet of world-class art when the Louvre - Paris's most visited museum - opens a sister branch there in 2012.

The so-called "antenna" museums aim to regenerate the surrounding regions as the Guggenheim did in Bilbao, an industrial city in northern Spain, which opened in 1997 with an avant-garde design by US-based architect Frank Gehry.

Similarly in Britain, London's Tate museum opened regional galleries in Liverpool in 1988 and Saint Ive's in 1993.

For some, the planting of offshoots in France's old industrial lands is a symptom of broader changes under way in the country's economy.

"Cultural programmes have become an indispensable factor in developing towns and regions," said Antoine Fonte, a Metz official in charge of arts projects.

"Lorraine is undergoing a full-on transformation and the Pompidou Centre Metz will strengthen the shift towards the tertiary and service industries."

"Sometimes people think Metz has lost its spirit," said Dominique Gros, the mayor of Metz, which was long a garrison town but has seen thousands of military jobs cut. "For us the Pompidou Centre is a fresh start."

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