In November, Emmanuel Macron, the French President, travelled to China to officially open the new Pompidou centre on the famous West Bund in Shanghai. The state-owned Pompidou Centre is one of Paris’ most famous museums and art collections, housing artworks from almost every big-name, western artist since the 1850s. As a result, visitors to the new Shanghai branch were able to enjoy works from the likes of Picasso, Duchamp and Cy Twombly, which had made their way to the banks of the Huangpu River.
A New Phenomenon?
The use of France’s cultural heritage, in building diplomatic relations, isn’t Macron’s brainchild per se. Plans for the Pompidou in Shanghai began over a decade ago, while the Pompidou opened a branch in Malaga a year prior to his election in 2016. While plans for the Louvre’s expansion to Abu Dhabi, which opened last year, go as far back as 2007.
It seems that Macron, in making personal visits to open the Louvre Abu Dhabi and now to the Pompidou Shanghai, is overtly using the franchising of his country’s art collections as an opportunity to curry favour with his counterparts in some of the world’s most powerful countries; and to present himself as a leader who can hold his own alongside the other ‘big boys’ of the political world.
The choice of Shanghai as the latest location for the expansion of the French state’s art collection is significant. It says a lot that while the city of Malaga pays the French government a million euros a year for the privilege of having the Pompidou brand located in their city, France will in fact pay the Chinese government almost double that in order to have the naming rights to the building in Shanghai. While they’ll no doubt make their money back on ticket sales and merchandise, there is definitely more at play and we are ultimately led to wonder what France’s long-game might be.
France has managed to secure the use of Chinese restoration workers in the rebuilding of Notre Dame cathedral following the horrific fire that occurred earlier this year. For France this gives them access to an incredibly skilled and knowledgeable pool of talent, with a proven history of restoring some of China’s historic, timber-framed sites. While for China it demonstrates their capabilities as a nation with engineering expertise, a skilled work-force and a cultural history to match anywhere else on the planet.
The decision to open the Pompidou Shanghai during the city’s art week is also important. The fair is increasingly becoming a place where collectors splash their cash – many artworks displayed sell for hundreds of thousands of pounds and frequently prices make it into the millions. So, by associating France and its state-collections with the Chinese art market, which is now second only in size to the American art market, the French government are advertising to the burgeoning number of Chinese art collectors, to say, ‘maybe consider the French art market as a place to invest your millions’.
Join us for Part Two as we explore the ‘Art of Diplomacy’ further.
By John Sewell