Arles is no stranger to visual culture. The site of an emblematic Roman amphitheatre, the southern French city and its surroundings are equally famous as home to artists such as Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso. 

But in June 2021, LUMA Arles, an $175m arts space founded in 2013 and headed up by Swiss billionaire Maja Hoffmann, unveiled a new twisting glass tower that looms large over the city’s Provençal roof tiles, providing the cultural complex with a new centrepiece.

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A standalone spin-off of the LUMA Foundation — a non-profit arts organisation based in Zürich, Switzerland — LUMA Arles sits on a 27-acre defunct rail yard, Parc des Ateliers, and encompasses art, design, research, ecology and performance. 

Not a bubble

“The project has not [got] the vanity that can sometimes be found in similar gestures because it’s a completely open space, meant first for the Arlesiens, then for the global visitors interested in contemporary art,” Maja Hoffmann, founder and president of the Luma Foundation, tells fDi

As well as receiving considerable attention in the international and French press when it opened, the tower, designed by famed US architect Frank Gehry, has been criticised as an elitist landmark, spiralling upwards out of the city centre.

Ms Hoffmann — herself a recent recipient of the elite title of ‘Commandeur’ in the Ordre des Arts et Lettres from the French ministry of culture — is keen to insist that this is not an elitist bubble, but rather a project with the local residents front-of-mind. She stresses that while the spectacular tower is there to attract attention, its intention is not to show itself as “a bubble for contemporary art”, but rather as a place for everyone to explore.

The challenge, however, will be how the tower and arts complex are integrated into the city’s infrastructure. “We may need time to integrate the outskirts and the environment around the tower and thus integrate the tower into the town,” she says, adding that the foundation will “need to pay attention to traffic and to the ways people can go from the parking lot to the tower”.  

Long-term endeavour 

Historically, the city has been well known for its seasonal cultural scene through the Rencontres d’Arles, the annual summer photography festival. But now with the Fondation Vincent van Gogh Arles, founded in 2010, Ms Hoffmann's other project, L'Arlatan, a hotel and artist residency, and the forthcoming Lee Ufan Foundation, there is a concerted effort to help sustain arts activities off-season. 

Speaking about LUMA Arles, Ms Hoffmann remarks that this will become the arts complex’s advantage.  

“We are a long-term endeavour because we are interested in the thinking of the artists,” she says. “We are not augmenting the numbers in the town for a given time only. We are not a festival. We really are an institution open all year long with different activities. This will be an advantage for the Arles people and for the whole region.” 

More broadly, in a world of globalised art foundations and arts tourism, can we expect more long-term institutions that are there to serve local populations? 

“It’s possible,” Ms Hoffmann muses. “But what I’m more interested in is stressing the fact that displaying art is only one part of what artists do.”

The mix of local integration and illustrating the gamut of the artistic process is, therefore, the kindling for an even more vibrant cultural scene. 

“You can be locally implanted, work with the people from the region and invite people from outside — mostly young artists in our case — and host think tanks. This layering provides a rich environment where culture can thrive,” she says. 

This was originally recorded as Episode 2 of The Bilbao Effect, fDi’s new culture podcast. 

This article was first published in the December 2021/January 2022 edition of fDi Intelligence magazine. Read the online edition here.