Photo of A beaux-arts former savings bank
The former Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank at 49 Chambers Street, now a condo tower (Courtesy Williams Group)

Culturespaces, operator of wildly popular digital art museums in France, is coming to New York

While up to thirteen percent of museums worldwide are expected to close permanently due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a digital art museum is opening in lower Manhattan.

Hall des Lumieres is an immersive exhibition space that is being planned for the first floor of the former Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank building, a 15-story tower at 49-51 Chambers Street that in more recent years, was converted into a condo building.

This digital art center will be the first American venture of Culturespaces, a French organization that specializes in the adaptive reuse of historic buildings as “video powered canvases.”

Its previous projects include Atelier Des Lumieres inside a former 19th-century foundry in Paris; Carrieres De Lumieres in a former stone quarry in Les Baux-de-Provence; and Bassins De Lumieres inside of a former World War II submarine base in Bordeaux. Its shows have been wildly popular; the Paris venue opened in 2018 and drew more than 1.2 million people to its first exhibition.

For the program’s American debut, Culturespaces’s exhibits arm, Culturespaces Digital, is working with IMG, a global sports, entertainment, and media company. It also worked with Barco, a Belgian company that provides the projectors for its digital art exhibitions. According to its website, Culturespaces has another project, Infinity des Lumieres, opening this year in Dubai.

Since it was founded in Paris in 1990, Culturespaces has grown to become the largest private manager of public art museums in France and a key figure on Europe’s culture landscape. According to president and CEO Bruno Monnier, its mission is “to make art more accessible to a wider and younger public” by creating immersive experiences that combine music, art and digital technology.

What distinguishes Culturespaces’s projects from most museum operators is that instead of displaying original works of art in static spaces, the group presents laser video projections of art as part of choreographed sound and light shows, using historic building interiors as the backdrop. Musical accompaniment have ranged from Beethoven, Wagner, and Chopin for a show on Gustav Klimt to Nina Simone and other contemporary artists for Vincent van Gogh.

Unlike recent virtual museum exhibitions that allow people to view fine art from home on a computer screen, Culturespaces’ exhibits are visual and musical extravaganzas meant to be experienced in person.

“It’s difficult not [to] be overawed by the scale and depth of this futuristic exhibition and the multi-sensory experience it provides,” The Guardian’s arts writer Brid Stenson wrote in 2018 about the show in Paris.

In New York’s case, the backdrop is a former banking hall on Chambers Street, the grandest space in a Beaux-Arts building designed by Raymond Almirall and constructed from 1909 to 1912, across from the Tweed Courthouse. The Chetrit Group purchased the building in 2013 and converted its upper floors to condominiums now selling for up to $7.7 million. The museum will lease space on the first level and one level below, allowing it to take advantage of the banking hall’s 40-foot-high ceiling and ornate detailing.

The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission voted 10 to 0 this month to approve the design for the digital art center, clearing the way for construction to begin. The commission has oversight because the building is a city landmark and the banking hall is listed separately as an interior landmark, which means the commission has to approve any changes proposed for either one before the city will issue a construction permit.

The unanimous vote a sign that the commissioners are comfortable that Culturespaces will respect the landmark as it transforms the banking hall to a new use.

“Everyone has expressed a lot of support for it,” said commission chair Sarah Carroll after an earlier presentation. “The idea of allowing the public back into this space to experience this designated interior is seen as positive adaptive reuse.”

Woods Bagot, the Australian firm that served as executive architect for the building’s conversion to residences, will oversee the banking hall conversion, with assistance from Higgins Quasebarth & Partners, a specialist in historic preservation.

The museum is modifying the interior by adding a ticketing area, restrooms, a coat room, and a gift shop, outside the designated landmark space. Designers say the audio-visual equipment is extensive but will be tucked out of sight as much as possible. Besides room for a blockbuster exhibit, the company’s other venues have had spaces that showcase emerging artists and other subjects.

To win approval, the design team had to address several issues raised by the preservation commissioners during a review in May. The panel members had asked the architects to limit the extent to which original artifacts and details, such as bank teller stations, would be removed to make way for museum spaces. They also encouraged the designers not to block out the large windows on the Chambers Street side of the building.

In response, the design team came up with a solution that enables the museum operators to darken the space for the light shows without blocking the front windows. The solution was to install a large curtain, as in a theater, that can be closed during the shows and then opened to reveal the grandeur of the preserved banking hall when the presentation is over. Renderings of the space underscore the similarities between the banking hall and a traditional theater with a proscenium arch stage.

The approved design uses the original bank entrance as the museum’s main entry point, rather than a side door that was proposed in the earlier presentation. The side door will now be used as the exit.

The panel also approved plans to two large banners to the front of the building and two smaller signs on either side of the main entrance. Some commissioners expressed concerns about the signs being too much for the building, but others said the approach is consistent with what other museums do and that Almirall’s architecture is powerful enough that it won’t be upstaged.

In their deliberations, the commissioners sought assurance that the operator has plans for reversing the changes it makes to the interior if and when it no longer occupies the space.

A big advantage of the curtain, said architect Ward Dennis of Higgins Quasebarth, is that its installation won’t require removing original details protected by the city’s landmark designation, but will do a good job of darkening the space.

Culturespaces has not announced a firm timetable for its New York opening, and its operation would be subject to any local crowd size restrictions put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the first shows there could be the Gustav Klimt exhibit that opened the Paris venue.

A recent survey by the American Alliance of Museums revealed that 33 percent of the museum directors it polled predict their institutions won’t last another 16 months unless they get funding assistance. Recent staff reductions at the National Building Museum in Washington and the Tenement Museum in New York indicate how harshly nonprofit museums have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Culturespaces has a different economic model in that it doesn’t own the works of art it displays, and its use of digital technology allows curators to change exhibits regularly, which leads to repeat visits.

Monnier, Culturespaces’ president, sees digital art centers as a way to energize the art world while bringing attention to historically-significant buildings.

“People do not learn about culture as they did in the past,” he told The Guardian. “The practices are evolving and cultural offering[s] must be in step with them. The marriage of art and digital technology is, in my opinion, the future of the dissemination of art among future generations.”

Top image: The former Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank at 49 Chambers Street, now a condo tower (Courtesy Williams Group)