A space for cultivating creativity, 13 years in the making

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A space for cultivating creativity, 13 years in the making
A view of Luma, a 27-acre arts complex in Arles, France, June 15, 2021. Luma opens this week in southern France, blending elements like exhibition spaces, a design laboratory and a Frank Gehry-designed building on a former rail yard. James Hill/The New York Times.

by Roslyn Sulcas

ARLES (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Workers in hard hats and masks pinned tape to the beige stone walls. Wires snaked underfoot. A carpeted room holding a shallow pond and complex speaker and projection systems awaited water, sound and film.

It was two weeks — and counting — before the opening Saturday of Luma, a 27-acre arts complex in this ancient city that’s famous for its Roman ruins and one Vincent van Gogh.

By the weekend, the wires will be tidied, the art installed, the huge doors of the complex’s Frank Gehry-designed central building thrown wide open. It will be a major milestone for a 13-year project that encompasses six buildings housing exhibition and installation spaces; an archive; a residence and rehearsal studio for artists and performers; a design and research laboratory; a restaurant, cafes and bars; a hotel; and a newly created park — all built on a former rail yard known as the Parc des Ateliers.

Luma was dreamed up and paid for by Swiss art patron and philanthropist Maja Hoffmann, an heir to the Hoffmann-La Roche pharmaceutical fortune, and the sprawling project reflects her long-standing passions: art, artists, ecology and conservation.

The center doesn’t fit neatly into given ideas about museums, art collections or cultural hubs. There is a senior curator (Vassilis Oikonomopoulos), and there will be exhibitions of work from Hoffmann’s own collection and from the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation (started by Hoffmann’s grandparents), as well as offerings from the likes of Philippe Parreno, Pierre Huyghe, Etel Adnan and John Akomfrah. But Luma doesn’t have a predictable program of exhibitions, artist residencies or performance pieces.

“From creation to collecting to production to politics, everything is in mutation, transformation at Luma,” Hoffmann said in an interview at her home in London a week before the opening. There will be another series of openings in September, she said, “because it was impossible to finish everything now.”

She didn’t seem unhappy about that. Hoffmann likes things to be a little unfinished, open to possibility and change.

Hans Ulrich Obrist, one of Luma’s artistic directors (along with Tom Eccles), described the complex as “an institution where the future is being produced.” Hoffmann wanted “to create an archipelago — these different places and buildings that could connect people, disciplines, projects, hospitality, residency on different scales,” Obrist said. “Because art doesn’t just happen in large gallery spaces.”

Most prominent on the site — the element most likely to draw crowds to Arles — is the Gehry building: a 10-story tower covered with 10,752 shimmering stainless steel panels, sloped, tilted and indented to capture and reflect the light from thousands of angles.

The round drum though which visitors enter at the tower’s base is a reference to Arles’ Roman amphitheater, Gehry said in a telephone interview from his studio in Los Angeles. The impression of the building, he added, changes throughout the day.

“You see those dark blue, pink colors that you find in van Gogh’s paintings, and so many more as the light and weather change,” Gehry said. “I have always thought that those Greek statues made of bronze are brilliant at evoking feelings through a material.

"To make beauty with toughness that still has humanity — that’s what I try to do.”

Despite its unconventional shape, the Gehry building is the most museumlike structure on the Luma campus, with huge white cube exhibition spaces, a library and an archive on its lower levels, as well as a cafe, offices, studios, seminar rooms and a viewing terrace. But even here, shimmering white walls of bricks made from compressed local salt on each floor, and panels created from sunflower pulp and concrete in the cafe, are testament to the broadness of Hoffmann’s vision.

One of the pillars of the Luma project is Atelier Luma, a design and research laboratory that takes local products like salt, sunflowers, rice, algae and grass species and transforms them into a variety of building materials and textiles, many of which are used across the site.

“The idea is that artists, scientists and researchers can work together and have unpredictable outcomes,” said Mustapha Bouhayati, Luma’s CEO. “Disciplines won’t be separate from one another. We’re going to try to bring in new thinking and practices.”

He added: “In France, we say, ‘That’s how it’s done.’ Maja says, ‘Maybe it could be different.’”

Hoffmann’s links to Arles and the surrounding Camargue region run deep. Her father, Luc Hoffmann, an ornithologist, moved the family there when he set up an observation station and conservation center, and her school years were spent in Arles. (He also helped to set up the Van Gogh Foundation in the city in 2010.)

She was about 12, she said, when the Rencontres d’Arles, a photography festival that now draws tens of thousands of visitors each summer, was established. Its ambition and international scope made a huge impression on her.

In 2007, the city of Arles opened the refurbished Grande Halle, one of the large industrial buildings on the now-derelict site of the rail yard, which closed in 1984. By then, Hoffman, who owned a home in Arles, had founded the Luma Foundation (named after her two children).

“The circumstances came together. It was just timing,” Hoffmann said of her decision to ask the city at that point whether she could put together a program for the Parc des Ateliers. “All the different inspirations and tasks I had undertaken, I wanted them to work out in one place,” she said, “a place where it is possible to produce art of all kinds, not just collect it.”

Hoffmann brought in Gehry and formed a “core group” of art-world advisers, including artists, curators and academics. She began extended conversations with the city, regional officials and the Rencontres festival, and in 2013 she bought the land.

It didn’t all go smoothly. The city asked for the location of the Gehry tower to change, and there were some hard feelings on the part of François Hebel, who was the festival’s director and felt that the site shouldn’t have been sold to Hoffmann.

“It was never a question of excluding them,” Hoffmann said, noting that the festival will have exhibition space for the next five years in the Méchanique, a large building formerly used for repairing engines.

The Méchanique, along with the other four existing buildings, was renovated by New York-based architect Annabelle Selldorf. Belgian landscape architect Bas Smets was hired to create a public park that would weave around and connect the buildings.

“The smallest poppy is as important as a big artwork,” Hoffmann said Friday at the opening’s news conference.

In a telephone interview, Smets said, “When I first walked down that concrete platform in the rail yard — in the heat, with all those abandoned buildings, no trees, nothing growing — I thought, ‘Wow.’” His solution was to create a computer simulation of “what would happen over the next 100, 200, 300 years” if nature were left to take its course.

“We imitated the logic of nature and accelerated that process,” Smets said, adding that he had used 140 plant species, all from the richly biodiverse region.

Hoffmann said it was difficult to predict the evolution of programming at Luma. It will be “an ecosystem,” she said, taking into account the input of the core group, and responsive to ideas and events. Exhibitions could run for a year, she said, or be relatively impermanent.

“Art, in whichever medium, is another language, and it is able to formulate things before they are articulated elsewhere,” Hoffmann said. “It can have some social impact, make a difference. It’s good to take action without succumbing to gloom. I think that’s what’s happening in Arles.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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