The trip was set: Laurent Le Bon would be coming to the United States for a cultural exchange program in Atlanta.
But the director of the Centre Pompidou-Metz, a new museum in northeastern France, enjoys fresh discoveries. A colleague suggested a stop in a city with an institution in some ways similar to his own: Charlotte.
So today, Le Bon will be at the Knight Theatre, adjacent to uptown's Bechtler Museum of Modern Art for a 6:30 p.m. talk on his museum, the first of its kind in France, its innovative architecture and its major opening exhibit, "Masterpieces?" - a show filled with works by artists such as Matisse and Picasso that has drawn 500,000 visitors.
Anticipating the visit, the 41-year-old museum director, seen as a "young Turk" in France, said in a telephone interview, "It is a pleasure to discover your country." Likewise it should be pleasurable to learn about a museum whose history and mission parallels the Bechtler.
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Both opened this year, the Bechtler in January, the Centre-Pompidou in May. Both are in cities not considered art centers, although Metz, about 175 miles east of Paris with a population of about 125,000, is smaller than Charlotte.
And the two facilities, both built with government support, have a similar mission: to get art to the people, to show, as Le Bon said, "art belongs to everyone." This is particularly significant in France, where cultural institutions are concentrated in Paris.
The $91 million Metz building, praised for the daring swoop of its laminated wooden roof, has put the city on the map. "Now people know where Metz is," said Le Bon.
There are dissimilarities between the Bechtler and Metz, and they are vast. The Bechtler has 35,600 square feet of space total compared to Metz's 54,000 square feet for exhibitions alone. And the Bechtler has a 1,400-piece collection of modern art given by retired Charlotte businessman Andreas Bechtler. Metz can draw on its sister institution, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, which with about 58,000 works has the largest collection of 20th-century art in Europe.
The good stuff
Le Bon mined those resources for the "Masterpieces?" show he and his colleagues put together. It will be the focus of his illustrated talk. The idea arose when Le Bon heard people in Metz say they liked the building but they believed the masterpieces would probably stay in Paris.
"Hearing this 100 times, I thought, 'Why not look at that?'"
The show examines the masterpiece back to the Middle Ages and how 20th-century artists attacked the idea. With almost 800 works by 150 artists, it includes paintings and sculpture but also video and sound works.
The Metz museum's architecture also has attracted attention as has the terra cotta-skinned Bechtler, designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta. Le Bon will discuss the innovative building.
The Metz museum was designed by Shigeru Ban, a Japanese-born architect educated in the United States, working with French designer Jean de Gastines. Ban was inspired by a peaked Chinese bamboo that he found in Paris ( www.centrepompidou-metz.fr).
Its central spire rises 77 meters (about 252 feet), a nod to the famous Centre Pompidou in Paris, which opened in 1977.
Le Bon said Ban anchored the building in Metz by offering dramatic views of the city through large windows. The climax is a vista of the historic Saint Stephen cathedral.
A good building helps, but, Le Bon pointed out, what matters is what goes on inside.
Taking a chance
Much of that depends on him. A curator at the Centre Pompidou in Paris since 2000, he became known for being eclectic and daring. In a country where Paris is the cultural center, it took some courage to move to Metz.
Le Bon downplayed his decision, saying he was chosen "because I was the last one (left) in the classroom."
The son of a homemaker and a businessman who were not particularly interested in cultural matters, Le Bon discovered art at (appropriately enough) the Centre Pompidou in his hometown of Paris at age 15. What grabbed him was a show of the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky.
"Masterpieces?" has proved so popular it has been extended until January 2011. Le Bon has some ideas for what will come next: an exhibit on the labyrinth in art, another focused on the crucial year of 1917.
Le Bon said he took the job with this thought: "Perhaps I can do something good in Metz."
Seems he has already.