Marseille Lays a Big Egg in Its Debut as "European Capital of Culture"

Marseille Lays a Big Egg in Its Debut as "European Capital of Culture"
Les Mireille singing in front of the Theatre du Gymnase as part of the opening festivities marking Marseille as the 2013 European Capital of Culture.
(Boris Horvat/AFP/Getty Images)

MARSEILLE, France — This year, the European Union has designated this port city as its capital of culture, kicking off the so-called Marseille-Provence 2013 initiative in mid January with a series of events and celebrations. Unfortunately, the opening ceremonies brought to mind those old automobiles that start off sputtering and need a hand crank to get the motor going. For, despite the enthusiasm of the locals — 400,000 people went down to the Old Port on Saturday night for festivities dubbed the “Great Clamor” — and the massive media presence, the opening ceremonies could not cover up the numerous delays and defects affecting the city’s cultural projects. Speaking in the unfinished Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée (MUCEM)president of Marseille-Provence 2013 Jacques Pfister declared that “the boat has arrived safely in the harbor right on time.” Not exactly.

A “Capital of Culture” Still Under Construction

On the list of opening weekend locations, some sites were painfully absent. The new FRAC (the regional contemporary art collection) by architect Kengo Kuma in the heart of Marseille remains unfinished. The MUCEM, designed by Rudy Ricciotti, reveals only its concrete exterior — the first exhibition won’t open until June. Work has also not been completed on the futuristic Villa Méditerranée (a cultural center for the Mediterranean region) or the Regards de Provence museum (which will be devoted to art of the Mediterranean, from the 18th century to the present), while the Palais Longchamp, the site of the Musée des Beaux-Arts, is still being renovated.

At the same time, some of the city’s already-existing arts institutions didn't play much of a role. Some galleries near the old port stayed open late, but they weren’t involved in the festivities, and the Musée d’Art Contemporain was glaringly absent. Luckily, the cultural center La Friche La Belle de Mai, which was renovated and given a new tower by ARM Architecture, and J1, the new exhibition space located in a former hangar at the port, were ready on time. And the neighboring city of Aix-en-Provence was right on time in its celebrations, with “Exquisite Cadavers,” an exhibition at the Musée Granet, opening over the debut weekend, and ingenious contemporary art installations popping up around the city, including trees that have broken out into white polka-dots on a red background, thanks to Yayoi Kusama.

So-So Festivities

With the atmosphere a bit dampened by the absence of French president François Hollande (who was detained in Paris due to the situation in Mali), the politicians and journalists who gathered in the big empty room of MUCEM displayed only measured enthusiasm. Speeches by Marseille mayor Jean-Claude Gaudin, prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, culture minister Aurélie Filippetti, and European commission president José Manuel Barroso generated little excitement. Many attendees preferred to hang out in front of the museum and take in its unmatched views of the sea, the cathedral, and the Saint-Jean fort.

A rather gloomy opening ceremony (with weather to match) was followed by an evening of weak artistic offerings. Fireworks, some mediocre street performers (such as the town hall criers), feathers that were shot into the air like snow… fortunately the evening was redeemed by the festive presence of the people of Marseille, who filled the streets around the Old Port from 7 p.m. on.

Polishing Marseille’s Image

“Marseille, Mr. Prime Minister, is a city that has been put through an arbitrary trial by the media,” mayor Gaudin thundered in his opening remarks. “Its makeup is not limited to criminals.” As usual, the mayor did not mince words. The attack on journalists was a direct one, because the regional and national media were all assembled in the room. The notion that Marseille has been unfairly branded as corrupt and mafia-infested has provoked its leaders polish it to the point of covering up any trace of cracks or flaws — as if recent scandals involving organized crime and police corruption hadn’t ever existed.

This urge to whitewash everything is carries over to the city’s art exhibitions. In the “Ici/Ailleurs” (“Here/Elsewhere”) show at La Friche La Belle de Mai, which includes young French artists of North African origin, references to Le Corbusier and his Cité Radieuse (a Modernist apartment building in Marseille) overshadow any considerations of the city’s political, social, or economic realities. It’s also surprising that the “Méditerranées” exhibition at J1 seems to reconstruct a feeling of belonging to some nebulous Mediterranean civilization instead of examining the tensions that have beset this notion at various periods. Only Marseille 2013 OFF, an artists’ organization sponsoring unofficial side events, has looked at the city’s image with a healthy dose of self-criticism and self-mockery, writing that Marseille is “a port city turned inward…a city that is racist but supportive, a city that is repulsive but charming…”

When all is said and done, the vision behind Marseille-Provence 2013 can still only be viewed from afar, like a boat that is seen approaching the harbor, but not there yet. The city is still in the process of becoming a “capital of culture,” and the initiative's main success so far is to have won the support of its residents. “People in Marseille are finally going out,” a young woman told us with a smile during Saturday’s “Great Clamor.” After all, the dark glass box of MUCEM, which creates a wonderful contrast with the white stone of the Saint-Jean fort, and its concrete walkways linking the Panier district to the old jetty, aren’t enough to make Marseille a cultural capital. Everybody has to want it to happen. And in that respect, at least, the city’s off to a good start.