Pearls grow imperceptibly inside oysters. It’s only when you prise open the shell that this miracle of nature is revealed. Much the same could be said of the Art Centre in Lens run by the Pierre Arnaud Foundation. From the winding road that leads from Sion to Crans-Montana, only the gently sloping roof garden which covers this remarkable building can be seen. Besides, who would ever expect to find an internationally renowned art museum here, in the little village of Lens? The community numbering 4,000 inhabitants has Frenchman Pierre Arnaud (1922-1996) to thank. Born in the south of France, he fought in the Resistance during the Second World War before spending a large part of his life in Morocco, where he made his fortune in the boat trade. Also a keen mountaineer, he discovered Valais and fell in love with the region. He first bought a small chalet in Crans-Montana, then acquired further plots of land on which he built a home for his family to live in.
In 2007, his daughter Sylvie and her husband Daniel Salzmann set up a foundation in his honour, which ultimately established the Art Centre in Lens. “My father-in-law was a man of great simplicity – a very modest man who worked hard all his life. He loved classical music and painting: the works of art he collected were of sentimental value to him. He loved them and never thought about the price.” Sylvie and Daniel Salzmann continued adding to the collection, which mainly consists of paintings depicting Valais and Switzerland, the landscapes and inhabitants, in a sometimes idealised beauty. Names such as Cuno Amiet and Félix Vallotton can be found alongside lesser-known painters. The couple pursue a specific goal through the Pierre Arnaud Foundation and Art Centre: “We want to use art to promote the dialogue between cultures,” says Daniel Salzmann. “This dialogue should encourage reflection. It should integrate both local and regional aspects within the universal dimension of humanity.” Originally a doctor before turning to business and investments, for Salzmann Valais is the ideal place for a symbiosis of this kind: “Valais is deeply rooted in its traditions, yet, at the same time, visitors from all over the world have been coming here since the start of the 20th century and have helped make the canton what it is today.”
The two-level building covers 1,000 square metres and stages several exhibitions each year. Daniel Salzmann is convinced that “Nowadays, merely providing a traditional tourism offering isn’t enough.” You need to deliver added value. An art centre is ideal in this respect, because "when you’re on holiday, you have the time to take an interest in culture." The Centre is visited by international tourists as well as people from the region and art lovers who come especially to see a certain exhibition. The Foundation also provides cultural mediation for children and adults, and, in addition to guided tours, organises debates and conferences and hosts music and dance events. “We consider it our role to transmit culture – to make it contagious.” Culture should inspire us to think and, if possible, to become better people,” reiterates Foundation Chairman Salzmann.
But the Pierre Arnaud Foundation also constitutes a work of architecture. The building was constructed from concrete, glass and wood by local architect Jean-Pierre Emery. In the words of Daniel Salzmann: “It makes a bold statement, yet remains discreet.” Although the building is barely visible from the back, the southern façade is all the more impressive. The 250m2 glass frontage reflects the waters of Lake Louché and the majestic panorama of the surrounding mountains in all weathers. What looks like ordinary glass is, in reality, an alignment of solar panels which transform light into energy and produce 15,000 kWh of electricity a year. The facade also provides thermal insulation and filters the light to protect the works on display. At night, it is possible to create a play of light. L’Indigo, the museum’s restaurant, has built up a reputation in its own right. With an exceptional view out over the lake and the mountains, it serves snacks, set meals and, in the evening, a sublime choice of exclusively Valaisan dishes and wines.
The glass facade, in which the landscape is reflected like a painting, would surely have delighted Pierre Arnaud: it shows “his” Valais, the area he liked to explore on his long hikes. But he was not seduced by the scenery alone. “He liked the straightforward, direct manner of the local people.”