Public Art Rejuvenates a City

Less than 25 years ago, Nantes was an old port town languishing in the wake of failing industry. But thanks to a commitment to public art, it has since become a cultural mecca and thriving tourist destination, Frank Browning reports.
June 25, 2012, 10am PDT | Ryan Lue
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Located on the westernmost shore of the Loire River, Nantes holds an important place in French history, both politically and commercially. But by the end of the 1980s, the city was in bad shape as its massive shipyards and metal factories lay empty. It was in these bleak circumstances that then-Mayor Jean-Marc Ayrault began a campaign to invest in public art that would restore to the city its economic and cultural relevance.

"First came a summer of musical and theatrical performances from groups all over Europe, intended to break the air of sadness and defeat that came from the cities' industrial decline," writes Browning. "Next, as the town moved toward plastic arts, more and more outsiders came, further boosting local confidence, leading finally to still riskier bids financed jointly by public (local, regional, national) sponsorship and corporate collaborations."

Now, the city's outdoor spaces are riddled with enormous, startling installations of contemporary art, from houses half-submerged in the river to a four-story mechanical elephant. Drawing some 200,000 tourists each summer, Nantes quite rightfully bills itself as France's most "bizarre" city. For the past 23 years, artistic director Jean Blaise has been curating works by artists from across the globe, using the city as his gallery space.

"From the beginning France's conservative UMP party... was a consistent doubter that such public investment in 'culture' could generate any real returns. So far, however, the mixture of serious art created by world-class artists, many from China and Japan, seems to have been proved a solid formula for rebirth."

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Published on Thursday, June 21, 2012 in The Huffington Post
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