The Centre Pompidou may be undergoing its second shutdown following France’s second COVID-19 wave, but the Parisian modern and contemporary art museum is coming up with ever more innovative ways to face up to the challenges. We discuss with Serge Lasvignes, President of Centre Pompidou, about how the museum has been impacted and how it’s anticipating the future.
How has COVID-19 impacted your museum in terms of working from home, layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts?
The Centre Pompidou already implemented about a couples of years ago a home-working policy for volunteer employees. Before the first national shutdown, about 200 workers were then already fully equipped to work from home. The Centre Pompidou managed to equip hundreds of other employees within just a few days after the first lockdown, whereas others work with their own equipment but on a brand new online and cloud-based work environment, which we were lucky enough to have transitioned to just a few months before the crisis started. It thus has been pretty quick for a vast majority of employees to fully transition to working from home, developing videoconferencing as well as other new ways of working together despite being physically apart. Among its 1,000 officers, around 500, including museum security agents, can no longer carry out their activities and are placed on “special leave of absence”, the equivalent for public service of a paid unemployed person. The others ensure the smooth running of the institution, reduced to its essential missions: administration, conservation, communication and, of course, a strong reinforcement of the online offer.
How has the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns worldwide affected the way in which you support your artists and your visitors, instituting digital exhibitions, free online courses, web series for children, online artist interviews, podcasts, virtual cinema and a video game? Is it a time for dynamic change and radical thinking?
In just one week after the first lockdown, we managed to set up and promote a brand-new online platform highlighting on our website’s homepage a very diverse ensemble of digital offers – some existing and some brand new. This includes a YouTube playlist on our channel gathering many video tours from our recent temporary exhibitions, many exclusive podcasts and educational content for younger audiences with our already very successful “Mon Oeil” web series. Cinema is also well represented with a virtual viewing room offering a very selective program of art films, not to mention the MOOCs we launched a few years back that are gaining a whole lot of attention from people keen on learning the basis of modern and contemporary art history. Finally, we recently launched our first video game that invites gamers to immerse themselves within a digital environment that displays some key landmarks from our collections. This first-of-its-kind initiative has received great response from the public, and has a huge echo and impact internationally. We’re very proud and happy with the result!
Is it important to continue to engage collectors, the press and art lovers, to continue to be on the map and gain exposure at this time? By how much have your online audiences increased since the start of the lockdown?
Cultural practices are one of the essential tools to get through this crisis. They help support social isolation and they strengthen us morally. We can, in this context, discover new ways to meet art. There is no longer, of course, direct contact with the works (unless it is digital), but in return, browsing the Internet allows more wanderings leading to meetings, unexpected discoveries and new initiatives. The quarantine can after all lead to real artistic experiences. This is why our website has turned into a platform of digital content described above. It seemed essential and part of our mission as a national institution to make it accessible to all and totally free. The results are pretty impressive and tend to confirm the need the public had for such an alternative offer during quarantine. To only state a few figures, let’s start with YouTube: our channel has gained 445 % of views since the first lockdown, peaking sometimes at 10 times our normal increase rate. Facebook also gained significant growth. Podcasts also are a huge success with eight times more downloads and peaks at about 35,000 weekly listening. Even if we’re quite impressed and flattered by the success of our online offer, this will of course never replace the beauty and emotion that is encountering and physically engaging with an art piece of any form. This can only be temporary and then act as a complement beside exhibitions, shows and any events we’re used to programming in our spaces.
What’s your biggest worry professionally in the COVID-19 era?
Obviously it matters to me to know that every employee is feeling well and safe during these troubled times. I’ve had the occasion to address them a few times through videos on our online and shared work platform. I was concerned about maintaining a spirit of solidarity and optimism amidst the crisis, to strengthen the bonds that unite the members of our working community. Besides, I also have to make sure the building is maintained in the best way possible to ensure full security and the best conservation conditions for the artworks. Luckily this is not at all to worry about, but our art pieces have never felt so lonely in the museum!
What have been the good sides to this crisis?
Teams here at the Centre Pompidou have always been really enthusiastic and passionate, and it seems this crisis has only reinforced this feeling of unity. We all miss the building, the collections, the interactions with artists and the public. The working community gets along very well online and works hard on the reopening we all hope and wait for.
Do you think that how you work will be changed in the long term by the pandemic?
That is one of the toughest questions we have to deal with, as one of the main characteristics of this coronavirus crisis is its ability to create uncertainty for the future. Furthermore, the great international museums are now part of the global system the world has evolved into: mass tourism, a competitive art market, the artists themselves… Everything has taken on a global dimension. How we work in the future will then depend to a large extent on how the economy recovers or reinvents itself. With that said, changes were already underway at the Centre Pompidou, which the crisis will only accentuate and accelerate. We’re working on finding a new balance between reinventing the pleasure of the visit, the esthetic emotion and the quest for meaning. We will first review the visitor experience to make it rich and more immersive. The public must live it as a happy experience despite the health precautions. In addition, we will favor exhibitions that are meaningful, showing how artists take hold of major contemporary subjects, or shed new light on works that we think we know. And we will also strive to be more eco-responsible in our operations, for example in the transport conditions of works or the choice of scenography.