The fate of a new Fine Arts Museum by the lake in Lausanne will lie in the hands of the Vaud population. A referendum against the building designed for Bellerive has obtained 18’000 signatures, a third more than was necessary to succeed. The project planned on the present site of Orange Cinema has been put on hold, while the opposing committees gather their forces for a vote that will probably take place on 30th November 2008.

“This referendum has ironically provoked a strong favorable response to the project from the political parties, as well as the cultural and the business communities” reflects Anne-Catherine Lyon, the Vaud Minister of Culture, whose department is in charge of the plan. But because the debate between partisans and non-partisans is tense, the fact that the urns will finally decide is considered with relief by many. The Director of the museum, Bernard Fibicher, who was appointed a year ago, adds that “otherwise, the opponents will always interfere and continue to slow things down.”

The project has been dragging on for years. The plan to move the art collections out of the Palais de Rumine, deemed to be unsuitable for the fine arts almost as soon as it was built in 1905, was decided by the State Council in 1991 and approved by the State Parliament in 1994. It took another five years to identify 16 potential sites, with Bellerive finally considered to be the most promising one by the experts.

A question often asked in the present debate is where the opponents who want the museum to stay in the city were at the time of the initial planning, since most of the other sites considered were in the centre of Lausanne. Only when the Bellerive project was well advanced and several credits had been voted by Parliament, did a coalition of unlikely forces come together. In a surprising line-up for Switzerland, the referendum committee includes members from the entire political spectrum, save the centre-right Radical party, which is closer to the economic world and in favor of the new museum.

The fact that the opponents operate with different agendas is electrifying the debate. A sample of expressed concerns are, in no particular order, the need to rehabilitate the Riponne perimeter (Lausanne’s urban nightmare), the inviolability of the lakeside, the preservation of Luna Park, the dangers of private financing (half of the CHF 70 million budget is to be covered by philanthropic foundations and sponsoring), the lack of public transportation and, the most potent argument of all, the monolithic aspect of the chosen design.

When the design by the young Zurich-based architects, Berrel & Kräutler, was chosen out of the 249 entries from twelve different countries in 2005, the reactions were of puzzlement, but there was certainly no outcry. At that time, the canton had other economic priorities and did not step up the project again until 2007. As if to prove that poor PR is often the antechamber to Swiss referendums, the authorities did not communicate in a way to appease the predictable fears.

It will now be up to the pro-lobby to lead a counter attack. Generally more homogenous and convinced by the social and economic impact of cultural investments, they will need to demonstrate that museums do not always require celebrity architects, nor should they serve as urban alibis. They must also explain that the “Yin Yang” concept of the Bellerive design was chosen because it apparently offers an appealing dialogue between the rich painting heritage of the canton and the spaces dedicated to exhibitions by contemporary artists. As for the exterior of the building, it has been reworked by the artist, Carmen Perrin, in order to introduce a lightness absent from the campaign imagery. But the personalities, who defend the project, including prominent politicians, will also have to convince the voters that they need a new museum in the first place and that part of the funding will come from their own pockets. Fibicher, however, sees the vote as a wonderful opportunity for the Vaudois “to show how proud they are in their culture.” Referendums seem to be a good test for PR.


Musée des Beaux Arts

nMBA (nouveau Musée des Beaux Arts):

Visuals on You Tube (before reworking by Carmen Perrin)

Referendum committee against the Bellerive project

Committee in favor of the Bellerive project

Michèle Laird, née Haffner, was an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London, before moving to Switzerland and becoming an arts journalist.

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