Out with the coffins, in with the art – Paris' Centquatre

View of Centquatre, Paris, France. (Photo: Edouard Caupeil)

Paris has turned a vast 19th century funeral parlor into a center for contemporary art. Artists from all over the world will be invited to work at Centquatre and live in the neighbourhood. In return, the 200 or so artists will present their work to the public.

The building – known only by its street number Centquatre – is an architectural masterpiece built in 1873. By converting it into a modern arts center, the city of Paris is seeking to revive the contemporary art scene in Paris.

The 39,000-square-metre space is "open to all forms of art" and artists and the public will meet there "head-on" say the two directors, Robert Cantarella and Frédéric Fisbach. It includes cutting-edge multimedia workshops, sound studios and film-sets.

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For almost a century, all of Paris' coffins were made at Centquatre and black horses were kept in stables beneath the building. It was established so that all Parisians – even divorced women and suicides – would have the right to a funeral. During its heyday, this "factory of mourning" employed 1,400 people.

Centquatre is located in one of Paris's poorest neighbourhoods with a cosmopolitan mix of people from more than 30 countries living in its high-rises. Robert Cantarella and Frédéric Fisbach hope the centre will attract 750,000 visiters in its first year. The new center will also house five start-up companies and an art school for children.

Frédéric Fisbach said that the neighbourhood, located in the 19th arrondissement, doesn't always feel "Parisian." In fact, he added, it reminds many foreign artists of home. "An artist coming from Lebanon said 'Oh, it looks like Beirut.' And people coming from Los Angeles said 'Oh, you have the same skies as in LA.' We feel that we are really in Paris and that we are not really in Paris. That's very interesting."

Nicolas Simarik is one of the first artists to take residence in Centquatre. He is creating a gigantic collective work using old keys donated by people who visit him in his studio. "Old keys have some stories and sometimes very exciting and beautiful stories," he said. "So I want to collect all of them and put all the keys in the same place and do a performance with them."

Centquatre is by far the most ambitious of the city's cultural projects under Mayor Bertrand Delanoë. The restoration cost over 100m euros ($125 million). Critics say the money could be better spent on existing cultural establishments. But Christophe Girard, the city's cultural attaché, defended Centquatre's unique mission. "It is a reconquest – social, cultural and economic, whose influence will be felt far beyond the city limits," he said.

At the opening, the mayor himself described Centquatre as "a dream come true."