Pompidou Centre puts Metz on the map

The cultural grand tour of Europe will have another stopping off point from this week – Metz, the Bilbao of the North. President Nicolas Sarkozy will officially open a €86m (£74m) branch of the Pompidou Centre in Paris in a beautiful, but comparatively little visited, cathedral city 170 miles east of Paris.

Metz (population 280,000), a former garrison town in the heart of the Lorraine steel belt, hopes to recreate the success of the European branch of New York's Guggenheim museum, which has transformed the fortunes of Bilbao in northern Spain since 1997.

Like the Bilbao Guggenheim, the Centre Pompidou-Metz has been given a spectacular and unconventional building. It resembles a white Teletubby house; or a collapsed parasol; or a giant stingray.

But unlike its celebrated parent, the Pompidou Centre in Paris, built in 1977, the Metz Pompidou does not flaunt its innards to the world. The roof, a wooden frame covered with fibreglass and Teflon, is supported by pillars but does not connect with the building's main walls. Intensive tests were needed with models to prove that the design – by the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban and a French colleague Jean de Gastines – would repel the weather and art thieves.

The Metz Pompidou is the first stage in a drive to "decentralise" the French state's enormous art collection. A branch of the Louvre will follow in 2012 in Lens, a former coal town, only one hour from the Channel Tunnel.

Like its parent in Paris, the Metz Pompidou will be devoted to 20th and 21st-century art. Like its parent, it also contains spaces for other contemporary art forms, from the cinema to modern music and dance. The Metz Pompidou will have no permanent collection of its own but will show, in six-month or yearly rotations, parts of the vast collection of 65,000 contemporary works held by the Pompidou in Paris (most of which are never displayed).

The inaugural exhibition, starting this week, is called Masterpieces?

The question mark is intended to encourage visitors to make up their own minds whether the most admired artists of the 20th century deserve to be considered alongside the great masters of earlier centuries.

Almost 800 items will be displayed, including work by Matisse, Picasso, Kandinsky, Miro, Braque, Chagall, Léger, Brancusi, Pollock, Giacometti and Dubuffet. Almost all come from the Pompidou's own collection.

Alain Seban, Pompidou president, said he was determined the Metz museum would be more than just a "branch office". "The original idea was that we would be able to display a great deal more of our collection of modern and contemporary art, which is vast," he said. "But the project is now much more ambitious. Metz must become an institution which has its own identity and organises its own exhibitions."

Metz, although comparatively little visited by British tourists, is an elegant, cathedral city with many fine 18th and 19th-century buildings. With the proximity of Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and Switzerland, the city hopes the museum will attract an additional 400,000 visitors a year.

"The opening of the Metz Pompidou will transform the image of Metz, in France and across Europe," said former mayor, Jean-Marie Rausch, who fought off competition from other French cities to host the museum. "We will be able to shrug off our image as a garrison town and enter the magic circle of European cities of culture, just like Bilbao."

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