Maisons de la Culture, “virtuous” motors for the implementation of cultural democratization

by Sandrine Dubouilh, Certified Architect and Lecturer at Université Michel de Montaigne Bordeaux 3

Sandrine Dubouilh, architect and professor at Université Michel de Montaigne Bordeaux 3, studies the concrete achievements of cultural democratization. She associates the physical representations of this movement with the “cultural infrastructure” used to carry out the Ministry of Culture’s agenda. Dubouilh focalizes her study on these cultural spaces that house performance art, namely theater. The integration of these spaces in decentralized French regions allows for more general access to the arts, in line with the mission of cultural democratization.

The establishment of these cultural spaces with a civic and social mission cannot be accomplished without the support of the French State. Indeed, as theater for the masses developed in the 1860s, it became clear that public funding would be essential to the perpetuation of this dramatic genre. To fulfill this mission successfully is to enhance the image of the French nation, a culturally cohesive entity, despite regional particularities. Thus, this cultural infrastructure adopts the values put forth by the Ministry’s cultural democratization endeavors.

Their physical appearance is a reflection of their importance in public environments. This becomes particularly evident in the 20th century, when these spaces serve as the face of cultural democratization. As such, cultural spaces influence urban policy, for they contribute to the gentrification of struggling neighborhoods. The appearance of cultural spaces fulfilling this interdisciplinary mission also speaks to the varying level of commitment to the original spaces dedicated to such initiatives, called the maisons de la culture (MDC).

The first MDC were built under the aegis of the Ministry of cultural affairs headed by André Malraux as of 1959. These artistic spaces were meant to accommodate local cultural practices and artistic creation. They were also designed to house artists in residence from the nation’s capital, so as to allow for the diffusion of high culture extra muros. The MDC were partially funded by the Ministry, while regional authorities were also encouraged to contribute to these spaces’ financial and cultural agendas. During the first years of the establishment MDC, the construction of all other performance spaces was put on hiatus. 1961 marked the year of the inauguration of the first MDC in Le Havre, Normandy; the MDC in Bourges, Centre, was erected in 1963, as was the one in Caen, Normandy.

Certain local theaters, under the impetus of regional authorities, re-articulated their functions so as to become recognized as official MDC. MDC became the epitome of social performance spaces, encompassing a larger sociocultural mission. However, a fine line appears between this wide-ranging initiative to transform MDC into “cultural multiplex”, and a commercial conception of an artistic space. Indeed, to commercialize the MDC would be to deviate from their original purpose, namely to serve as a space for citizens’ cultural edification, as expressed by Jeanne Laurent, the instigator of theatrical decentralization: “When theaters surrounded by concert halls, libraries, and museums are constructed in the heart of cities or of new neighborhoods in our ancient cities, we will finally present ourselves as a civilization founded on spiritual values”.

This civilizing mission draws its inspiration from similar democratic endeavors in Ancient Greece. Indeed, Ancient Greek theater often serves as the model for cultural democratization through theater for the masses. This model promotes a simpler context for performances, with the notion that aesthetically neutral spaces would not intimidate lower socio-economic audiences, contrary to more grandiose cultural monuments. However, as MDC were erected in the 1960s, the model in favor of simplicity was bypassed by the current emphatic size and style. The MDC, understood as a reflection of civilization, must hence exhibit this symbolism in its architecture. The MDC were perceived as “virtuous machines”: doing good while looking spectacular.

Nevertheless, with time, municipal interest in the MDC waned and equal funding between local authorities and the Ministry came to a halt. In the 1980s and 1990s, construction of individual, specialized performance spaces reemerged. Dubouilh contends that the MDC did not fully respond to French artists’ need for change in cultural management; however, the return to more specialized endeavors did not prove any more fruitful. Today, creative space remains scarce due to more restricted public funding. In addition, some cultural infrastructure is used to accommodate a wider range of artistic genres. These different endeavors presented in contemporary cultural spaces make it difficult to measure the actual impact of the MDC on artistic production and cultural democratization: do current initiatives reclaim their legacy to the MDC or reject the latters’ efforts? Though it is certain the MDC offered much needed space for artists to create, their longstanding repercussions on France’s cultural policy remains contested.

[Read the full paper in french]


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