Published on 22.11.08

Geneva’s Green magistrate, Patrice Mugny, talks to Swisster about mapping a different Geneva.

When a magistrate speaks with pride about making culture more accessible, our thoughts immediately drift to the price of a ticket for an exhibition or a concert. But when Patrice Mugny mentions accessibility, he’s not just talking about money. Mugny is an elected member of the five-person Executive Council of the City of Geneva and a representative of the Green party.

During his tenure as the Director of Culture, Mugny has initiated a major transformation of the cultural landscape. He has obtained from the City Parliament a unanimous approval for a credit line of CHF 3 million to adapt the 51 cultural buildings in Geneva to the needs of the physically challenged, still called the handicapped in this part of the world.

Taking into account those, amongst others, who have broken a limb, are hard of hearing or are confined to a wheel chair, that’s 10% of the population.

To illustrate the obstacles encountered by the physically impaired in their everyday life, Mugny commissioned a Catalan multimedia artist. Antoni Abad had created a similar project in Barcelona, as well as with various other populations in different cities. He provided participants with mobile telephones equipped with GPS. The mobility obstacles that they identified and photographed have been compiled on an interactive website and were the subject of an exhibition at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Geneva.

Patrice Mugny is jealously loyal to his city, despite being disillusioned about the role he can play. He speaks of a Geneva that is truly international, “one of the ten most famous cities in the world” and yet intensely local. A tradition of anarchy, the continued influence of the hard left and an unusual tolerance for squats make it a city of many paradoxes.

The funds allocated to culture are extremely generous and represent more than a fifth of the city’s budget. With CHF 220 million to spend every year, you’d think that Mugny would be free to make bold proposals. But his hands are tied. With a touch of cynicism, he says that subsidies are allocated essentially to “preserve social peace”, to perpetrate a cultural status quo, not to reward quality or new enterprises.

He speaks enviously of his counterparts in Barcelona or Lyons who have initiated and completed great cultural projects. In Switzerland, he muses, a politician has virtually no power at all.

In a compelling analysis on the role that the media are playing in Swiss democracy, Mugny recently wrote (Le Temps, La tyrannie de l’opinion et la faiblesse de l’information, 1.09.08) that the immediacy of information is influencing the outcome the way people vote. The sense of constant urgency, stoked by the web, means that there is no time to think issues through, let alone accompany complex political projects. Choices are often dictated by emotion.

Patrice Mugny is considered an outsider and it’s not difficult to see why. He does not pander to alliances, and is the first to decry the process of recourses that slows everything down, to the point of inertia. He acknowledges that his own Green party is notoriously obstructive, but slyly points out that it usually wins.

Because he has decided to leave office in two and a half years, at the end of his second term, Mugny will not have time to assist the completion of some of the projects he launched.

If the extension of the Ethnographic Museum in Geneva will at last see the light of day after so many years, it is only because, says the magistrate with resignation and irony, it will be almost entirely underground.

As for the extension of the Art and History Museum (see Swisster article), observers have been astonished that Mugny accepts the idea that it will be half financed by private funds. In Lausanne, the opponents to the construction of a new museum shrilly maintain that private funds mean selling your soul to the devil. “Genevans have a history of giving generously” say Mugny, “We’re not going to turn CHF 40 million away”.

To highlight yet another paradox, Patrice Mugny asks in how many cities in the world can you go to the opera for CHF 29, or for as little as CHF 9, if you qualify for the culture vouchers given to tax payers with low incomes by the State of Geneva?

Mugny has been a mason, a welder, a trade unionist, an actor, a musician, a journalist, before leading the Swiss Green party at national level and becoming a fulltime politician. It will be interesting to discover what he will become next.

The website of the Culture Department of the City of Geneva is partially in English.

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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