How arts turbo-charged a city

Nantes cultural dynamo shows North West how it's done

Written by  The Confidentials | Follow @ | Monday, 8 April 2013 13:02

FROM his house on the hill, Jules Verne used to look down over the thriving, bustling port city of Nantes, 65km inland along the Loire.

His legendary sense of adventure - and, most importantly, of what could be - has since woven itself into the city's DNA and turned an ailing Atlantic port built on the slave trade (sound familiar?) into a cultural powerhouse.

For me, cultural action is politics. Not
politics which serves people or a party,
but that which serves a city' - Jean Blaise

And the man who is largely responsible for blowing new life into Nantes, under the recent 23 year Mayoral term of Jean-Marc Ayrault is coming to the North West this week.

Jean BlaiseJean Blaise

Jean Blaise, urban innovator and now director of Le Voyage à Nantes, will be speaking at events in Salford and London to share the story of Nantes’ cultural renaissance with UK designers and arts leaders and members of the public who want to know more about this hidden gem of a city.

European Green Capital in 2013, Nantes is one of the most exciting cities in France and continues to attract creative try. Together with cutting edge research centres, Nantes has been rated in recent polls as the city with the both highest quality of life and the highest level of employment in France.

Sea Giants LiverpoolRoyal de LuxeJean Blaise is regarded by many of the symbol and mastermind behind how culture has driven this positive re-emergence of Nantes onto the world arts and economic stage. After programming a number of festivals outside Nantes, including bringing the young, anarchic Royal de Luxe to St Herblain, Jean Blaise moved back to Nantes in 1989, the year when the last of the shipyards in Nantes closed.

He recalls: When Jean-Marc came to power the city had lost its identity. We had to react quickly. To choose an event with an international flavour.”

So ‘Les Allumés’ was born, the fore-runner to the now international Light Night, but with bells and whistles on. 



Jean invited artists from Barcelona, St Petersburg, Buenos Aires, Cairo, Naples and Havana in successive years to “invade” the city streets at night for a whole week. Artists and citizens alike glow when they tell of the feeling these events conjured; the mayor was able to travel the world and the city woke up.

Lieu UniqueLieu Unique

Jean’s next project was to entirely re-construct the well-loved Petit LU Biscuit factory close to the station. The building, now a thriving arts centre, is known as the Lieu Unique with its art deco tower and Turkish hammam in the basement.

In an interview in 2003, Jean Blaise said “For me, cultural action is politics. Not politics which serves people or a party, but that which serves a city.” Jean’s passion for architecture and changing the landscape was then to extend beyond the City boundaries to the surrounding boroughs of Nantes Métropole along the Loire Estuary. By this stage Jean-Marc Ayrault had become Chair of Nantes Métropole, and the new challenge he set Jean was to re-define the identity of the wider city/region.

Jean created another six-year biennial festival with ‘Estuaire’, commissioning worldclass artists to create permanent installations along the Loire estuary from Nantes to St Nazaire. Residents can now access parts of the riverside which were previously cut off.

Spider LiverpoolLa Princesse in LiverpoolFrom culture to tourism and this river cruise now forms part of ‘Le Voyage à Nantes’ which is both the cultural tourism agency and a summer art trail. Jean’s focus has turned towards Europe and the wider world to raise awareness of the uniqueness his city playground with visitors old and new,

“That's how the idea of a 10km route symbolized by a pink line painted along the pavements with 40 stops came up: through the historical heart of city, as well as the industrial 19th century Nantes and the contemporary Nantes. At each stop you have a small or a large exhibition. Something that makes you think.”

The summer the line will be longer and green and visitors with a level of French are also invited to participate in a 10-day language-learning course with a cultural twist between 15-26 July.

The Event ‘Art & The City’ is free and open to public though registration is necessary as places are limited. Starting at 8.30am, Wednesday 10th April @ The Lowry, Salford Quays, it's chaired by Liverpool Confidential's editor, Angie Sammons, and supported by Alliance Française Manchester. To register, email here 

Further reading on the art of the possible here