Villa Arson, Nice, France

National School of Fine Arts at the Villa Arson,(École Nationale Supérieure d’Arts à la Villa Arson), is a French art museum, elite school and research institution for contemporary art, located in Nice, France. It is home to the National Centre for Contemporary Art created under a ministerial charter in 1972 by the Ministry of Culture.

Built on Saint-Barthélémy hill, the Villa Arson property extends over more than two hectares offering a magnificent view over the city of Nice and the Bay of Angels. A maze of intermingled concrete, stone and vegetation, with inner streets and patios, outdoor amphitheaters, suspended terraces and gardens, harmoniously connecting around the old mansion of the Arson family.

Designed in the 60s by architect Michel Marot, this singular architectural ensemble built in the middle of a Mediterranean garden should be discovered during a leisurely stroll. The low built architecture, which has no façade, extends over 17,000 square meters and follows the hill’s topography. Throughout the property one can encounter works created by contemporary artists in relation to the architecture and the gardens.

The Villa Arson is a unique national institution dedicated to contemporary art. It reunites in a single venue a school of art, an art center, an artists’ residence and a specialized library. The building has been listed Heritage of the 20th century.

The Villa Arson was designed from 1962 by Michel Marot, architect and erstwhile student of Walter Gropius. Opened in 1972, it is one of the flagships of the 1960s architecture, close to the Modernist & new Brustalisme style. Implanted on a hill behind the city of Nice, France, the Villa occupies a vast domain of more than 2 ha overlooking the Bay of Angels, part of the French Riviera. The building is a registered 20th century heritage site.

It is a one-of-a-kind national institution dedicated to the contemporary art in France which combines a National Contemporary Art Center, a National Art School, artists in residency programme and an art specialized library. The so-called Villa Arson “brutalist” architecture of the 1960’ss surrounds an 18th century Italian-style Villa in a little commonplace architectural ensemble: an interbreeding between the mineral and the vegetable, made of rough concrete walls partially covered with pebbles. This ambitious architectural project, which involves both labyrinth and fortress, is hallmarked by an austere grandeur.

A monumental hall leads into the main building and continues in a central “street”, punctuated with patios. This one connects the school of art, accommodated under steptype terraces, kinds of rooftop greenhouses, which protect the footprint and the remarkable trees admired by the first tourists. The Art Center and artists’ residence get organized around the former summer garden. The whole domain is interspersed with site-specific artworks.

In 1970 The Villa Arson was inaugurated, the former school of Decorative Arts of Nice (created in 1881 on Tonduti de l’Escarène street) moved in and the CARI (Centre artistique de rencontres internationales (Artistic center for international encounters)) was created with the mission of organizing thematic exhibitions and setting up an artists’ residence. The official inauguration was in 1972.

In the middle of the 1980s, With the Minister of Culture Jack Lang’s policy of support to the visual arts, the Villa Arson abandoned the teaching of the decorative arts and turned to teaching the most contemporary practices. The École pilote internationale d’art et de recherche (Experimental International School of Art and Research) (now the École nationale supérieure d’art, National Higher School of Art) was created, and the CARI was replaced by the Centre national d’art contemporain (National Center for Contemporary Art).

During the 2000s The Villa Arson was listed as “Heritage of the 20th century”, the studio for creation in the digital arts (now the “pôle numérique”) was opened, and the Educational department was created. Spaces were renovated, studios re-equipped, terraces upgraded and gardens reconfigured.

Michel Marot’s achievements are made up of several buildings that embed the old 18th century ocher villa (red color of Genoa) in the construction, and invest almost all of the land (17,000 m2 built on the 23,000 of the plot) . The implementation of the project, which consists of both the apparent labyrinth and the fortress, has mainly invested the southern part of the site in the form of an urban planning organized along the axis of a central street.

A large monumental hall allows access to the buildings, the old villa, the spaces of the art center (1,200 m2), the media library, etc. From there, a double central axis of circulation which, on the upper level, opens onto large terraced roofs arranged as walkways and hanging gardens pierced by patios from which emerge trees and, on the lower level, leads to the workshops of the school . These workshops, placed under a slab, benefit from appropriate natural lighting systems, combining zenithal lighting by pyramidions and lateral illumination by skylights.

Inside, the overall appearance gives the view an impression of sobriety with walls of concrete “crude deco” and natural lighting cleverly mastered.

On the outside, the walls of the walls with pebbles drawn from the bed of the Var refers not only to a regional context of vernacular architecture, but above all produce a pointillism effect which gives a very great unity to the buildings.

The ensemble has a singular modernist appearance and a Mediterranean character.

The main characteristic of the garden of the Villa Arson of yesteryear was its structuration in three terraces “to the Italian” successive in direction of the south. At the beginning of the twentieth century, part of the garden was dismantled by the installation of a hotel. From the period of the Arson family today mainly remain the imposing alignments of maritime pines and cypresses which justified the protection in 1943 of the villa as heritage6 and the remarkable sites of the city of Nice.

Since then, contemporary buildings have largely been placed on the garden of pleasure of yesteryear but nevertheless managed to keep the impression and the spirit of a garden. By leveling the main buildings on three levels on the south slope, the architect Michel Marot managed to respect the original topography of the site in three terraces. Open patios have preserved greenery and trees inside the building. The roof-terraces composed of planters and planted massifs make it possible to restore in a suspended way what architecture has taken in the garden of origin.

At the entrance to Villa Arson, a contemporary garden, Le Bosco, has been created and is characterized by tall circles on a large lawn with trees in different continents, with reference to the international vocation of the artistic establishment. Other plants chosen for their foliage offer a resonance with respect to the naked and raw materials of the buildings.

The walk in the site, proposed as a Mediterranean village with its vegetation, squares, public benches and alleys, places the place in its geographical space.

The NACC of Villa Arson belongs to a network of 57 art centers supported by the Ministry of Culture. The art centers were born of associative experiences in the 1970s, following the model of the German Kunsthallen. As a result of cultural decentralization in the 1980s, the State consolidated these experiences by providing them with regular support. The project of installing an art center at the Villa Arson is due to Henri Maccheroni, a Niçois artist, who deposited it in July 1982 at the Ministry of Culture. He is assured of the support of Michel Butor and that of Max Gallo.

The CNAC was created in 1984 and replaces the CARI (Center artistique de rencontres internationales) set up in the early 1970s at the opening of the institution. The direction of the art center is ensured for ten years by Christian Bernard and allows to register the villa Arson in the French and international artistic landscape. The center supports artists in their research, allows the realization of new projects and helps to make visible, document and disseminate their creations. Its main activity is the design and implementation of an exhibition program. These can be devoted to one or more artists, mostly at the beginning of their career or not very present on French territory. The diversity of the spaces, covering a total area of ​​1,200 m2, allows the organization of several simultaneous monographic exhibitions or important collective exhibitions.

Unlike a museum or a Regional Contemporary Art Fund (FRAC), an art center does not constitute a permanent collection. It acts more as a producer, providing technical and financial assistance. Regularly, the art center publishes catalogs10, thus contributing otherwise to the promotion of artists and to a memory of contemporary creation.

Formerly the National School of Decorative Arts, it was transformed in the mid-1980s into a school entirely devoted to contemporary art and its most experimental practices.

The ENSA of Villa Arson11 is one of the seven national schools located in the regions under the supervision of the Ministry of Culture. It welcomes around 200 students, in a single Art department, for a 5-year course. The pedagogical orientations, carried out by the teaching team, aim to propose a progressive course sanctioned by two State diplomas:

DNAP (National Diploma of Visual Arts) in the 3rd year;
a DNSEP (national higher diploma of plastic expression) in the 5th year, approved to the degree of master in 2012.

The main characteristic of ENSA is to offer students the possibility of continuing their studies in the immediate vicinity of the art center and benefit from the presence of artists hosted in residence or invited to exhibit. The courses and workshops are organized in five areas:

digital pole (sound studio, video, webauthoring, etc.)
publishing and photography pole (lithography, serigraphy, engraving, digital photo and silver)
pole volume (workshops metal, wood, cutting, ceramics)
pole painting drawing
pole of theoretical teachings (history of art, history of ideas, aesthetics, languages)
Students are recruited on an annual competition as well as by equivalents. A visit to the workshops is organized every year at the beginning of March in the form of an “open house” day.

The media library is the resource center of the entire Arson villa. Open to all, it hosts mainly researchers and art students. With a collection of about 35,000 references, it has a collection of heritage books (rare, precious books) dating from the nineteenth century, which corresponds to the collection of the old school of decorative arts. This collection includes many model repertoires used in architecture and decorative arts as well as works dealing with the history of art.

The bulk of the collections is the result of the desire for 30 years to create a center12 of specialized documentary resources on contemporary creation by conducting a policy of purchases and exchanges between institutions. Many artists invited or exhibited at the villa deposit works. The availability of 65 periodicals dealing with the main trends of research and current creations attests to this concern to follow the news of the world of the arts as closely as possible.

The artists’ residence allows to host each year six residents by invitation and / or project related to the artistic programming of Villa Arson. Each artist receives a grant, has accommodation on site, a workshop and access to all the workshops of the school.

In exchange, the resident undertakes to become actively involved in the life of the school, either by initiating a workshop with the students or by organizing meetings and conferences with students and the public. The duration of residences varies between 3 and 4 months at the most.