“The important thing is to understand that culture is fundamental for the life of a city. In fact, it cannot exist without it.” – Le Voyage à Nantes founder Jean Blaise
The Sunday Times’ description of Nantes as ‘the loopiest city in France’ belies a serious strategy: to reinvent a city through art and culture. In Nantes this has been a roaring success. From being laid low in the 1980s by the collapse of its ship-building and freight industries, it has emerged as a fun and creative city revitalised by cultural tourism.
The main figure driving this renaissance is the arts entrepreneur Jean Blaise, who was also behind La Nuit Blanche, the free all-night festival in Paris. His credo – to combine the city’s cultural and tourist attractions into a single brand identity – has seen visitor numbers increase by over 50 per cent in less than ten years. An initially sceptical business community, concerned by the investment of public funds in the arts, has been won over by the changing image of Nantes.
Blaise is the founder of Le Voyage à Nantes (until Aug 27), an annual, two-month long arts festival which transforms the city into a playful indoor and outdoor visual and performing arts venue. He says: “The idea of the festival is to colonise every part of town with artistic creation.” This year’s event coincided with the hotly anticipated reopening of the Musée d’Arts de Nantes after a six-year closure for a makeover and new extension.
Nantes is situated on the west coast of France between Brittany and the Loire Valley, 30 minutes inland from the Atlantic Ocean on the river estuary and two hours from Paris by high speed train. Much of the compact city centre has been pedestrianised, and where walkers and drivers meet, they seem to show a mutual courtesy which makes crossing a street hassle-free. The city centre is a pleasant mix of proud, 19th century architecture with a smattering of medieval timber-frame structures.
Every summer a city-wide art trail, marked by a green line painted along streets and alleys links nearly 40 public artworks, installations, urban furniture and some of the city’s finest architectural features. Some business owners, feeling left out, complained that the green line did not run past their premises. One disgruntled cafe owner found a solution by painting a green offshoot leading to his front door.
In the middle of the Loire river, the Ile de Nantes is the city’s Creation Quarter. Once the site of abandoned shipyards and run-down industrial buildings, it has seen architects vying to outdo each other with quirky refurbishments and new designs, from the severely slick black Palais de Justice to a building with haphazard aluminium strip cladding resembling a bird’s nest. It even emanates pre-recorded chirping sounds.
The Ile de Nantes is also where you will find Les Machines de l’Ile, a pleasure park where visitors gawp at giant, surreal, mechanical creatures, while a huge steel and wood elephant strolls around with visitors on its back.
ART MUSEUMS & GALLERIES
With only a modest independent gallery scene, Nantes has one dominant player. The Musée d’Arts de Nantes is the second biggest regional arts museum in France and the only one outside Paris with a collection spanning from the 13th to the 21st century, thus presenting an unbroken timeline of the history of art. The recent reopening attracted 16,000 visitors in the first weekend.
The beautiful refurbishment and extension project by the London architectural firm of Stanton Williams, whose other projects include the Royal Academy of Arts and Royal Opera House in London and the Stadtmuseum Berlin, has been shortlisted in this year’s World Architecture Festival Awards.
The main new feature is the blonde marble “Cube”, built to accommodate the contemporary art collection built up since the 1980s. (Twentieth and 21st century art makes up over half the museum’s collection.) The 2,000 additional square metres have increased the overall exhibition space by 30 per cent.
The museum is unique in combining different art periods in the same spaces, for example by hanging an Old Masters work in a contemporary room and vice versa. This creates a duality between old and new and departs from the post-WWII split, when new museums were created to specialise in modern and contemporary art.
The museum’s programme has three main phases: two exhibitions in spring and autumn and an installation in the patio during the summer. The overall collection includes works by some of the biggest names in art, from Ernst, de la Tour, Ingres, Chagall and Picasso to Léger, Kandinsky, Courbet, Dufy and Monet.
At the westernmost tip of the Ile de Nantes is the HAB Galerie, situated in the former Hangar à Bananes, a concrete-floored 1950s warehouse built to receive and store fresh produce from Africa. The 1,400 square metre space, entirely renovated in 2007, specialises in contemporary art.
Taking its name from the first initials of the founder of the former biscuit factory and his wife, LU, or the Lieu Unique (Unique Place) was transformed into a cultural centre in 2000. The tiled LU Tower is a beauty, featuring a sculpture of Pheme, the Greek goddess of fame, and signs of the Zodiac. (The biscuit factory itself has relocated and continues to make the Petit Beurre, or Little Butter, a kind of shortbread popular in France).
The last of the great Loire Valley castles before the Atlantic Ocean, the Chateau des Ducs de Bretagne hosts a changing exhibition programme. A recent show focussed on the origins of surrealism (in 1915, while stationed in Nantes, the movement’s founder André Breton met Jacques Vaché, whom Breton cited as a major influence), while the current exhibition, The Spirits, Gold and the Shaman (until Nov 12) comprises over 200 fabulous gold objects and other artefacts made by pre-Hispanic Colombian societies. Next up: Japanese engravings and Samurai objects.
ILE DES MACHINES
No visit to Nantes is complete without a visit to the Ile des Machines, a blend of Jules Vernes fantasy (the author of ‘20,000 Leagues Under The Sea’ and ‘Journey To The Centre Of The Earth’ was born in Nantes), Leonardo da Vinci mechanical universe and Victorian circus, all echoing the city’s industrial past.
Now in its tenth year, the former boiler-making factory is the workshop of a team of madcap engineers who have built a mechanical menagerie where once once were built ships. An eight-metre high heron flying passengers over the Galerie des Machines? Check. A giant ant scurrying across the floor controlled by four passengers? Check. A huge spider carrying visitors on its abdomen? Check. Add to this the eight-metre high Grand Éléphant and you’ll feel like an extra in the latest Disney caper. Other attractions include the Carousel des Mondes Marins (Carousel of Marine Worlds), a three-tier roundabout representing three levels of the sea, with passengers riding in or on different creatures inhabiting each level, and a walk along a branch of the prototype Arbres aux Hérons (Heron Tree), one of 22 when the massive tree is completed in 2021 with micro-landscapes in the forks of its branches. Skegness it’s not.
A two and a half hour cruise along the Loire river to the port of Saint-Nazaire takes in some of the installations created for the Estuaire binennial, an open air museum of some 30 installations connected to the river’s industrial and shipping heritage, from a villa perched 15 metres up on a chimney stack (Tatzu Nishi’s ‘Villa Cheminée’) or a soft-centred boat melting Dali-like over a quay (Erwin Wurm’s ‘Misconceivable’) to a house looking sinking into the water (Jean-Luc Courcoult’s ‘La maison dans la Loire’) and the skeleton of a 120-metre long sea snake (Huang Yong Ping’s ‘Serpent d’Océan’).