Nice and Matisse: Lessons from a City-Wide Project

Last week I used my 10 euro week-long pass to visit the museums involved in the city of Nice’s celebration of the artist Henri Matisse. “Nice 2013: A Summer for Matisse” features eight exhibitions in as many museums, each focusing on some aspect of the painter’s enormous oeuvre.  My husband and I  made it to five–after all there are a few other things to do on vacation–and each revealed some aspect of the artist’s vision and talents.   Though born in the north, Matisse spent much of his life in Nice and nearby villages, and his paintings and paper cut-outs of windows on the sea, waves, palm trees, and bathers vividly portray life on the Cote d’Azure. Matisse and Nice have a long-standing and special relationship. The program has a website in French, English, and Italian versions.

The website will give you a good overview of the different museums and their exhibitions.  I’d like to reflect a bit on the collaborative effort that was everywhere evident in this project.  It seems like an approach that other cities could emulate in honoring a favorite son or daughter who had a broad and deep cultural or historical impact.  Ben Franklin in Philadelphia? Hildegarde von  Bingen in Munich?

These are some of the elements that I observed while participating as a tourist and visitor:

Funding:  The project appeared to be well funded.  A number of foundations, companies and media outlets were sponsors.  There was also the 10 euro pass that allowed entrance to all the museums, most of which are usually free.

Incentive:  The pass, good for one week and purchased at the first museum visited, was a huge motivator for attendance.  I would bet that most, like me, did not make it to all eight shows, and I felt a bit pressured – not a feeling you want on vacation.  But the thought of that 10 euros got me moving within a week to museums I might otherwise have visited over the course of our three weeks here. From the viewpoint of the organizers this 10 euro/one week combination was a stroke of genius because the fee is probably not prohibitive for most tourists, and it was collected whether visitors used the pass one or eight times.

Tourist, not local focus:  This is something a city should think about carefully.  A friend who lives near Nice and who is an art historian and teacher has had to buy the 10 euro pass repeatedly in order to see all the shows because she could not devote a week just to museum going.  Since tourism is pretty much THE industry of Nice, the organizers decided to favor this audience.  But other cities might want to think of a way to give the locals a break.

Unified look and message:  The graphic on the brochure pictured above was everywhere – on huge banners hung at each museum, in posters around the city, and on all the paper materials – passes, brochures, etc.  You couldn’t miss the project, and you could tell immediately that it was about Matisse at eight museums.

Inventive, individualized exhibits:  Jean-Jacques Aillagon, General  Curator of the exhibition, states in the program overview that the aim of the project was “to involve the greatest number of the town’s museums.”  And to “create a ‘constructive dialogue’ in order to enable all those involved to design and organize the exhibition that seemed the most suitable and appropriate to the identity of their establishment.“ This latter goal in particular seems to have been realized in full.  For example: 

  • The Musée Masséna, housed in a 19th century mansion decorated with stylized palm images called palmettes, has focused its exhibition on the image of the palm frond, the palm tree, and the palmette in the history of art as well as in Matisse’s work. 
  • The Palais Lascaris, a museum of ancient musical instruments, created an exhibition on Matisse’s series of paper cut-outs called Jazz.  In addition to the display of the cut-outs, the exhibition features photographs and other graphic art all centered on the craze for jazz in France.  An installation of surround-sound and slides from Jazz in a small blue-lit room kept me, as well as my grandchildren aged  5 and 12, transfixed for about 30 minutes. (The 12 year old even stopped looking at her Ipad!

Small exhibitions, layers of understanding: Four of the five exhibitions I visited were relatively small – each could be visited in depth in about an hour.  In manageable bits, each provided another layer of understanding of this artist’s many-faceted creativity.  The exhibition at MAMAC ( Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain), displayed in several large galleries, was the most extensive of the shows we saw. Using many of the themes of Matisse’s work – the studio, the sea, the still life, the nude—the exhibition highlights Matisse’s impact on modern art.  Works by Larry Rivers, Andy Warhol, Alain Jacquet,  Jean-Michel Basquiat and others were displayed near videos of the Matisse works that inspired them.  We visited this show last, and it served as a kind of summation and enrichment of all we’d seen before.

A firm hand on the tiller:  Someone, probably M. Aillagon, must have coordinated all of this disparate activity in order to make the whole thing come together and function so smoothly (at least from the outside).  Organizing eight institutions of any kind, let alone museums, with their own institutional cultures and priorities, is a daunting task, but someone had to do it.

As difficult as it must have been to carry this enormous project off, I would say it’s a real win for the city of Nice, and a model that other municipalities might want to try.
Some critiques as a visitor and a museum professional

I have a few exhibition display observations that I just can’t let go by. 
  •          At the Théâtre de la Photographie et de l’Image, the stunning photographs of  woman as muse”  were beautifully displayed at eye level.  However, their labels were grouped together at about 2-3 feet from the floor.  I was just about to photograph a visitor bent double reading the labels as he then craned his neck to look up to match the label with the image when a guard pointed out that I was standing in front of a “No Photography” sign, so no picture.  But I’m sure you get the idea.
  •          At MAMAC the same approach of grouping all labels together (at least they were at eye level) at one end of a display of paintings meant that the visitor had to 1)read all the labels at once and try to keep them all straight before moving along the wall to see the works influenced by a certain Matisse work or theme;  or 2) read a label, move to the work, go back to another label, then back to the next work.  Neither approach is very satisfying. 

I have seen successful displays of labels apart from their objects, when the placement of label and object is carefully coordinated, but It’s very difficult to do, and in the main I think it distracts the visitor and detracts from engagement with the work. 

Despite these exhibition design problems, the entire project is worth seeing in person or on the website.  The city-wide program ends on September 23, 2013, but the exhibition at MAMAC continues into November.

 Any thoughts about city-wide projects that you’ve experienced or would like to undertake?
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