Ancient and Modern Arles: Roman Amphitheater Backdropped by Frank Gehry Gleaming Tower. Photo: l’aimable autorisation de Franz Buhler (Suisse)

Update: On June 25, 2021, The New York Times published an article, “A Space for Cultivating Creativity, 13 Years in the Making” , by Roslyn Sulcas, an exemplary reportage that evokes the raison d’être of Luma Arles, unhindered by the errors in the 2018 article detailed below.

Editor’s Note

Opening on June 26, Luma Arles is a vast contemporary arts complex, which composes itself, in the poetic vision of Maja Hoffmann, as an archipelago of seven structures,  anchored by a gleaming 170-foot steel-plated tower designed by the architect Frank Gehry. Once an industrial wasteland of 24 acres, Luma Arles is funded by the Luma Foundation founded by Maja Hoffmann, a pharmaceutical heiress (Hoffmann-La Roche) and a forceful patron of the arts.

From July through September, Arles, the “Gallic Rome” nestled on the sultry Rhône, hosts the Rencontres d’Arles, a world-renowned photography festival.

On October 5, 2018, the New York Times published an article on Luma Arles: “Maja Hoffmann Fights to Build Her Cultural Capital in Arles, France,” written by Nina Siegal.

Revisiting the 2018 article, there are numerous baffling errors, and some painful misinterpretations that strike the eye, as noted forthwith:

The Times reported:  “If you’re not one of the 35,000 residents of Arles….”

False: City of Arles website reports a population of 53,629.

The Times Reported: “In a telephone interview, Mr. Gehry said that his idea for Luma was to try to build “a painterly building,” to refer to van Gogh’s “Starry Night” over the Rhone, painted in Arles in 1888.”

False: Vincent van Gogh painted Starry Night in 1889 during his stay at the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. There is no Rhone in the painting.

The Times reported: “Mayor Hervé Schiavetti of Arles, unlike his predecessor, is a fan (of Luma Arles).”

False. Any self-respecting editor should have flinched at the absence of the identity of the Mayor’s predecessor in the article. He is Paolo Toeschi. He left office in 2001, 3 years before the Luma Foundation was even founded, and seven years before the Fondation signed a protocol to develop the Parc des Ateliers. Mr. Toeschi, whose current employer is the French département of the Gard, had no chance to be, or not to be, a fan.

The Times reported: “…art complex built on a 15-acre plot of parched earth and defunct rail yard, known as the Parc des Ateliers.”

Incorrect: The industrial wasteland known as the Parc des Ateliers has a surface of 10 hectares, or 24.7 acres.  Source: Journal

The Times reported: “Ms. Hoffmann and Mr. Gehry had to revise the design for the tower to win the approval of the city.”

False: The National Commission of Historical Monuments, not the City of Arles, rejected the design in March, 2011. The Commission approved a new design presented in December, 2012.

The Times claimed: “Its former director, François Hebel (sic), objected to the local government’s willingness to give Ms. Hoffmann control over the Parc des Ateliers….”

False: Control over the Parc des Ateliers was not given to Ms. Hoffmann, but to the Luma Foundation on June 20, 2008 in an agreement that the Foundation signed with the City of Arles and AREA PACA.

In Nov., 2007, Hébel was part of a delegation headed by Maja Hoffmann that met with Frank Gehry in New York. In Arles, the Luma Foundation made a public announcement of its intentions for the Parc des Ateliers on Dec. 10, 2007.

Vanity Fair reported that Hébel “could not hide his joy” for the Luma Foundation taking control of the Parc des Ateliers. At the time, there were proposals from developers to construct a shopping center and apartments that would have left no space for the photography festival. Only Maja possessed the wealth to cut a deal.

In the first week of July, 2008, at a presentation of the model of the proposed site with Frank Gehry, Maja Hoffmann stated that the Rencontres d’Arles would have a “permanent space” in Les Forges, one of the buildings renovated by Selldorf Architects.

Maja appointed Hébel as an advisor to Luma Arles. In 2009, Hébel quit the position, the beginning of a long unraveling between Maja and Hébel, and a turbulent four years to his resignation.

The Times reported: “…he (François Hébel) resigned in protest in 2014.”

False: Mr. Hébel resigned on November 5, 2013, in an impassioned five-page letter to Jean-Noël Jeanneney, the President of the Board of Rencontres d’Arles. His “démission” received a tsunami of press coverage.

The Times reported: “After her father initiated plans to build the Fondation Vincent Van Gogh Arles, when he was in his 90s, she became an organizing force for the museum, which opened in 2013;

False: The Fondation was inaugurated on April 7, 2014, at which time it opened to the public with the exposition “Van Gogh Live!” This was the same weekend as a stone-laying ceremony at Luma Arles for the Frank Gehry-designed tower.

The Times reported: “the annual Rencontres d’Arles photography festival…..(with about 125,000 attendees this summer (2018)…”

False: The festival in 2018 had 140,000 attendees. The 125,000 figure is for 2017. 

Model of Luma Arles Anchored by A Twisting Tower Designed by Frank Gehry

The Times claimed: “…the annual Rencontres photography festival, which was, before Luma, the main cultural draw to Arles.”

Nonsensical: There is no evidence presented to validate this dumbfounding claim – made 32 months before Luma Arles opened on June 26, 2021 – that it was the main cultural draw, while closed!

The choice of the word “draw” denotes metrics, in contrast to what appears is the Times’ fealty to the magic of prestige, wealth and celebrity. 

Consider this: In 2019, Rencontres d’Arles announced a new record attendance of 145,000 visitors.  The reporter conducted no interviews with the staff of Rencontres d’Arles nor its representatives.

The Times claimed: “The last leg of this journey may prove to be the trickiest for Ms. Hoffmann…”

False: The “last leg” is described thusly: “Still to be built is a 10-acre public park…” Facts do not support this glib assumption (trickier).  

At first glance, one flinches at the suggestion that anything could be ‘trickier’ than the 5 years of existential angst endured by Maja Hoffmann (and Gehry Partners) during which the tower was redesigned twice, along with numerous proposals, before the issue of construction permits in July, 2013.

Furthermore, the Luma Foundation did not build the 10-acre public park. Government documents, which this writer obtained,  reveal that the construction of the public park was carried out by AREA PACA with a budget of 5.3 million euros. The Luma Foundation covered the services of the landscape architect Bas Smets in the form of a €600,000 fund, and split equally equipment costs (800,000 euros) with the City of Arles. 

The Times’ claim is frivolous.