Despite COVID-19, cultural life in Paris has never been richer, with a gleaming new contemporary arts center, a lavish restoration of an 18th-century gem, and a bunch of exciting reopenings.
A bright new star in Paris’s cultural horizon, the Bourse de Commerce Pinault Collection opened in May to complete a golden triangle between the Louvre and the Centre Pompidou, both within a 10-minute walk of their newest compatriot.
The contemporary arts museum, designed to house luxury goods magnate François Pinault’s extensive private collection, is the second billionaire’s dream come true in Paris in recent years, on the heels of Bernard Arnault’s Frank Gehry-designed Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Bois de Boulogne, opened in 2014. Bourse de Commerce marks the culmination of Pinault’s 20-year odyssey in search of a Paris home for his more than 10,000-work collection, after a false start on an island in the Seine and an 18-month opening delay due to Covid-19.
The collection preserves the name and the historic features of the landmarked 19th-century structure, built as Paris’s grain and commodities exchange. Pinault tapped Pritzker Prize-winning architect Tadao Ando (his third project with the billionaire) to repurpose the building’s unique circular design to achieve a striking synergy between historic and modern. Ando’s solution to the structure’s vast central rotunda was to insert a 108-foot-diameter cylinder in gleaming concrete surrounded by 360-degrees of galleries on four levels. The result is a soaring, light-filled space that draws the eye 115-feet skyward to the old bourse’s original frescoes, now restored to their original brilliance, and its lofty cast iron-and-glass dome. Interior volumes take visitors from the immense to the intimate in a flowing succession of modular spaces that can be reconfigured according to the artwork on display.
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Pinault, who considers himself a rebel when it comes to collecting, is committed to showing provocative artworks from a diverse group of artists who might otherwise have little or no representation in Paris. Instead of highlighting the collection’s pieces by the likes of Cy Twombly, Jeff Koons, and Damien Hirst, the inaugural show (in a direct slap-down of the frescoes’ glorification of France’s colonial past) features hugely influential stars who are less visible in France, including 25 sculptural installations by the eminent 78-year-old Black American artist David Hammons, a self-proclaimed art world outsider whom Pinault has collected for decades, and renowned Black American painter Kerry James Marshall. Other international artists in the show include Urs Fischer from Switzerland, the Chinese American painter Xinyi Cheng, and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, a British artist of Ghanaian descent.
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The Bourse also hosts a series of screenings, concerts, lectures, and conferences (see the website for its August-October events) in the basement level’s 288-seat state-of-the-art auditorium. In a nod to the building’s history, Halles aux Graines, a gastronomic bistro and bar helmed by the renowned Aveyron-based three-Michelin-star father-son duo, Michel and Sébastien Bras, serves up a grain-centric menu from noon to midnight. Though a splurge (fixed menus range from €54-€98; ice cream €17; cheese plate €16), it’s worth it for the light-bathed café’s panoramic views of the neighborhood, including Saint-Eustache church and the undulating Les Halles canopy, and is open from noon to 6:00 p.m. for lunch, a snack, or a glass of wine and from 7:30 p.m. to midnight for dinner (open to the general public without an admission ticket).
Don’t miss the museum’s mascot peeking from a wall just outside the bookstore (hint: look down).
But the Bourse isn’t the only new addition to Paris this year. There are six not-to-miss new or revamped cultural destinations.
One of Paris’s most beloved museums, the Musée Carnavalet (Museum of the City of Paris) reopened in May after a five-year, nearly €60-million top-to-toe renovation. Set in two adjacent mansions, the museum documents the city’s evolution through a wealth of models, artworks, period rooms, including Marcel Proust’s cork-lined bedroom and a Belle Époque jewelry shop. The museum’s update involved a chronological reordering of the collection, digital displays and high-tech features for kids, and vastly improved accessibility. The museum is free to the public.
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Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature
This gem of a museum reopened in June after a two-year renovation that added exhibition space and a new café. Housed in a splendid 17th-century mansion, the Musée de la Chasse cleverly mixes “art of the hunt”—landscapes, sculpture, weaponry, taxidermy, etc.—with contemporary artworks, installations, videos, and photography to create one of the city’s most eclectic and wonderful museums. The museum’s overarching agenda is to highlight nature, conservation, and sustainability.
Maison Victor Hugo
Set on the beautiful Place des Vosges (at number 6), in the Marais, the author’s Paris home was given a two-year spruce up, adding a café, a garden (once a noisy schoolyard), improved accessibility, and touch screens.
Maison de Serge Gainsbourg
Frequent visitors to Saint-Germain-des-Prés and lovers of French pop have already noticed the graffiti-strewn façade on a quiet elegant street (5 bis rue de Verneuil), the one-time home of pop legend Serge Gainsbourg. Now adoring fans no longer need content themselves with scrawling love letters on a wall, but can tour the playboy singer-songwriter’s memento-crammed space kept exactly as it was during the last years of his life.
Grand Palais Ephémère
Architect Jean-Michel Wilmott’s soaring 107,000 sq. ft temporary structure at the foot of the Champ de Mars, home of the Eiffel Tower, will house all the activities of Paris’s iconic Grand Palais during its closure for a four-year restoration to reopen in time for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games. The eco-responsible building, made of wood and transparent canvas, will house everything from art fairs and blockbuster exhibitions (Anselm Kiefer in December ’21), fashion shows, and events of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
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Hôtel de la Marine
It took more than 200 skilled artisans and nearly $160 million to achieve Paris’s most ravishing restoration to date. The much-anticipated opening of the sumptuously restored Hôtel de la Marine (not to be confused with the Musée National de la Marine, at the Palais de Chaillot, itself undergoing a monumental renovation) finally allows the public a glimpse behind the elegant facade of a masterpiece of French 18th-century interior design for the first time in 250 years.
The mansion is one of two twin structures built by architect Anges-Jacques Gabriel in 1758 at the behest of Louis XV to mark the northern end of a new square created in the king’s honor (now Place de la Concorde). Both buildings sat unused before the eastern facade—now the Hôtel de Crillon, one of Paris’s 13 palace hotels—was auctioned off to the Duc d’Aumont. The western edifice became the Garde-Meuble de la Couronne, the institution in charge of selecting, maintaining, and storing the king’s furniture, which in those days was rotated on a regular basis according to the season or the whim of the king or queen.
Not a detail was overlooked in the restoration. Wallpaper and curtains were painted or sewed by hand in the original 18th-century techniques, miles of woodwork was painstakingly stripped, restored—or recreated—and gilded by master craftspeople, and ornate decorative features were created in Paris’s most rarified workshops, some taking upward of 150 hours to make. The result is a pinnacle of opulence and an exemplar of French expertise.