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VITRY SUR-SEINE, France — As she poses for her photo shoot, a mischievous smile lights up the face of Alexia Fabre, the dynamic 38-year-old curator of MAC/VAL, a new contemporary art museum in the suburbs here. And why not? After all, she is standing for a photo in front of a massive installation flashing some salty French expletives.

“The politicians are always uncomfortable when I do this,” she relates.

In the spirit of New York’s PS1, the MAC/VAL aims to be accessible — the antithesis of its highfalutin brethren. “I didn’t want this museum to be too conceptual,” Fabre explains. “We wanted to bring modern art to the people.”

A concrete 140,000-square-foot structure with a sprawling vestibule, the museum, which opened in November, is likely to attract seasoned culture vultures and curious locals. Sitting low on the horizon, it boasts an indoor cinema, restaurants and conference centers.

“We wanted a cheerful and candid ambience, even if there are some very difficult pieces that treat very serious issues,” explains Fabre.

During a tour through the colossal corridors, she greets by first name all of the 65 employees she recruited from local neighborhoods.

“It’s very important to get the community involved, it’s a breath of fresh air to work like this,” says Fabre. Indeed, she created a slogan for the museum, “Venez prendre l’art,” or “Take in some art,” a play on the expression “Take in some air.”

The permanent collection counts more than 1,000 pieces by artists, both French-born and those who have made France their home, from the Fifties through the present day. Works by César and Jean Dubuffet are displayed alongside contemporary pieces by Raymond Haines, Jacques de La Villeglé, Peter Stämpfli or Bernard Rancillac, to name a few.

There’s an additional 18,000 square feet of temporary exhibition space set aside for artists to use as they wish.

“We’ve been criticized by some for not assuming a more present role as curators,” says Fabre. “But we want artists to control their projects.”

For its inaugural solo show, MAC/VAL picked a 71-year-old Paris-born painter, Jacques Monory, who designed a spiraling hallway to show his midnight blue paintings, which become progressively whiter as the visitor reaches the center of the exhibit.

This story first appeared in the December 27, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“When art is too conceptual, we spend years trying to figure out what it all means,” says Monory, who applauds the museum’s grassroots approach. “And when we finally do understand, we realize it doesn’t mean anything at all.”

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