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New Museum In Paris Features Contemporary Black American Artists

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

France is coming out of lockdown, and gyms, movie theaters and museums are now welcoming the public. But in a city where classic European artists are often front and center, it is a new museum featuring contemporary African American artists that's all the rage. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley visited the provocative collection, which belongs to a French luxury goods magnate, and has this report.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Visiting the startling collection of French billionaire Francois Pinault in the center of Paris is like getting two museums for the price of one. First, there's the building - a grandiose, glass-domed, light-filled Renaissance structure. La Bourse du Commerce began as a palace for Catherine de' Medici before becoming a grain exchange in the 18th century. The 84-year-old Pinault, who owns brands like Gucci and Saint Laurent, spent around $200 million restoring the iconic edifice. Pinault told French radio what it was like to work with prize-winning Japanese architect Tadao Ando.

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FRANCOIS PINAULT: (Through interpreter) He was so moved the first time he saw the building. He had tears in his eyes. He wanted to respect the old architecture, but turn it toward the 21st century. He knew exactly what to do, and that's his brilliance.

BEARDSLEY: Ando installed a 100-foot-diameter concrete cylinder inside the central rotunda to create a core display area and keep the original building. Arriving under the illuminated glass cupola, the visitors first greeted by a statue that's anything but contemporary. The Abduction of the Sabines is a Florentine classic, but look closely, and you'll see tiny burning wicks sticking out of the writhing naked figures. This 30-foot-replica by Swiss artist Urs Fischer is made of wax, not marble. Francois Pinault.

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PINAULT: (Through interpreter) It's a giant candle that will disappear after a few months. It's an allegory of the impermanence of things, the passing of time, of vanity.

BEARDSLEY: The juxtaposition of the building and the works is powerful - a constant dialogue about past and present, about heritage and contemporary creation. Just below the domed ceiling's 19th-century frescoes glorifying Europe's colonialist past is African American artist David Hammons' installation "Minimum Security" inspired by America's death row. Jean-Jacques Aillagon, chief executive of the collection, says Peno wanted visitors to be hit in the gut.

JEAN-JACQUES AILLAGON: (Through interpreter) This exposition meets up perfectly with the debates taking place in society today - questions of equality, whatever your skin color, sexism and sexual orientation, individual rights within culture and civilization. Artists often deal with these issues well before society.

BEARDSLEY: Pinault began collecting contemporary art four decades ago. The upstart self-made billionaire has long cultivated young talent. Established artist Kerry James Marshall is another African American. on display. Twenty-six-year-old visitor Nicerine Harakat is unaware of Marshall's depictions of the pain of racism. She's struck by the vivid colors and daily scenes in his paintings.

NICERINE HARAKAT: Actually, I don't know this artist, but I had a huge crush for his work. I just like took a picture of his name. And I'm really excited to discover more about him.

BEARDSLEY: Lea Bailleux, a guide at the museum, says many people are surprised by the collection

LEA BAILLEUX: Because they knew the Pinault collection for minimalism art, for Jeff Koons. And here, Francois Pinault start to show us painting, figurative painting, young artists and artists who are talking of the big problematics of our times. So this is a very special opening, and we are trying to sensibilize visitors.

BEARDSLEY: She says not everyone gets it.

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BEARDSLEY: But Isabelle Cocatrix can't get enough. She asks Bailleux to explain the symbolism in one of Marshall's paintings.

ISABELLE COCATRIX: For me, it's a pleasure. It's a great discovery. And I'm very proud of this new cultural place in Paris.

BEARDSLEY: Cocatrix says if the museum had opened last spring, as planned, it would not have had the same impact.

COCATRIX: I think that he adopted his collection to the spirit of the moment after the lockdown, after these two years we have spent, you know, what we are looking for at the moment to understand better the relationships between people all over the world and the real needs of the people, which have changed these last two years.

BEARDSLEY: This week, along with museums, France opened its borders to other EU citizens and vaccinated Americans. But you better hurry because Urs Fisher's candle sculpture is melting fast. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.