At the Centre Pompidou in Paris on Thursday, striking museum workers, union members, employees from other French institutions gathered inside a theater at the museum.
“We better leave now if we’re going to catch the minister,” Vincent Krier, a member of the General Confederation of Labor (CGT), France’s second largest union, told the crowd of about150. The plan was to march to the offices of Rima Abdul Malak, the minister of culture, and pressure her “face to face” to meet their demands for job security amid plans that the center will close for renovations for five years, starting in 2025. It will begin progressively closing after the Summer Olympics in 2024.
Pompidou workers went on strike in mid-October over those concerns, the latest in a series of strikes since plans for the arts complex’s renovations were first announced. Last month, negotiations between France’s five major trade unions and the culture ministry over the strike stalled.
Despite the length of the strike, it has only caused the institution to close for eleven days total so far, thanks to alternating groups of workers opting to picket. When security personnel, for instance, go on strike, the museum is forced to close. On Thursday, however, only the Kandinsky Library was closed, having just joined the movement the day before. But, in yet another sign of the strike’s expansion, the unions announced on the same day they decided to extend the strike to January 15.
Once at the ministry’s offices, located a half mile away near the Louvre, the crowd packed into the lobby, chanting “Pompidou en colère!” [The Pompidou is angry], as whistles blew, people clapped, and some drummed on a reception desk. After some time, Nathalie Ramos, a representative of the CGT-Culture union, and a leading figure of the protest movement, which is arguably the largest since the museum’s opening in 1977, addressed the crowd.
“We’ve just given the minister an end-of year gift — the extension of the strike notice at the Pompidou!” she said.
No one seems to contest that the Pompidou’s modernist edifice, designed by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, is in a state of critical disrepair. The ministry of culture has promised to spend about $285 million on necessary renovations, including asbestos removal, fire safety measures, and improved access and energy efficiency. However, the long closure period, which many expect to last longer than the projected five years, came as a blow to workers who were initially told it would take only three. Plus, staff say they have been kept in the dark on what the project means for them.
“We don’t know why they can’t at least maintain part of the museum open – they have shown no proof justifying such a long closure,” Ramos told ARTnews. “The problem is there is a lot of opacity on how things are being done.”
In addition, workers have said they are increasingly upset about the center’s “cultural project,” or program for its re-opening, about which they also feel uninformed. That initiative involves a noted increase in loans from the museum’s collection to cultural sites around the globe, so as to help fund the approximately $200 million the program is expected to cost, in addition to the structural budget mentioned. While some of those lending contracts, recently brokered by Pompidou president Laurent Le Bon, promise over $30 million in income over the next seven years, according to Le Monde, workers say it’s not worth the damage it risks to a collection constantly on the move. Plus, they have expressed misgivings about the human rights record of places like Saudi Arabia and China, where the Pompidou just signed and renewed, respectively, contracts for future working relationships and lending.
“We know [Le Bon is signing these contracts] for the money, but it weighs on us. Right now, we get the sense we’re working for Saudi Arabia and China, and it’s a problem — an ethical problem,” Aurélie Gavelle, who is a conservationist at the Pompidou and a member of the UNSA union, told ARTnews. “No amount of money can justify it.”
In an email, a Pompidou representative said that the museum loans about 6,000 artworks annually. “We lend, and we benefit from loans — that is the life of museums and collections. Of course, this is all subject to very strict rules and protocols, which unfortunately don’t prevent a few accidents of various degrees, which remain limited,” they said.
Further, according to the museum, the number of striking employees has decreased from 200 at the start of the strike to figures varying between 46 and 8 employees in November.
However, new departments, such as the Bibliothèque Publique d’Information, a library inside the Pompidou, joined the strike last week, along with the Kandinsky Library. Additionally, it appears that the movement is spreading to other museums. Employees and skilled craftspeople from the Louvre and the national library, Bibliotheque nationale de France, and the National Ceramics Museum in Sèvres, among others, attended Thursday’s protest, sharing their concerns about declining numbers of jobs in areas such as renovation and skilled labor.
Gavelle, who spoke to ARTnews while walking towards the ministry of culture Thursday, noted all these concerns have amplified a general sense that staff “cannot work serenely and in good conditions.”
Pompidou staff have also objected to moving the collection twice in less than a year’s time, because a new storage facility to house them in the town of Massy, south of Paris, will not be ready until 2026. The dispersal of both their jobs and the collection, “will have a colossal impact on our working conditions,” said Gavelle, who wondered why renovations can’t wait until the new storage facility is ready.
In mid-November, Malak, the culture minister, attempted a response via open letter. She echoed the museum’s president, who also said they had tried, but were unable to find a single site for most of the the Pompidou’s activities and workers. The Grand Palais will host exhibitions and many of the 1,000 Pompidou employees, along with other museums in Paris, and the new site in Massy. Malak also ensured that no workers would be forced out of a job, and that they would be promised the same job or “an equivalent” one upon the museum’s reopening in 2030. She and the Pompidou would not, however, promise they would not resort to some subcontracted jobs, for employees in the private sector, once the museum opens – a major issue for workers, who want to keep the same number of public servant employees at the opening.
“It is too early to freeze the establishment’s organization structure, for what will be needed in 2030,” Malak wrote. “I’m aware of the long period of this closure, but it is necessary.” In the meantime, the center “will be more active than ever during these five years, with a rich program led by your president.”
On Thursday, Malak never did meet the protesters face-to-face, declining to come out and speak to the crowd. No doubt, however, she got the message.