CNN  — 

France’s Centre Pompidou has marked its expansion into China by unveiling around 100 loaned artworks at a huge new waterfront museum in Shanghai.

The Paris institution’s ambitious long-term agreement with the West Bund Museum will see a series of exhibitions curated from its 120,000-strong art collection over the next five years. The move represents a significant step in the French museum’s attempts to court Chinese visitors – and in Shanghai’s efforts to establish itself as a global arts hub.

Dubbed the “Centre Pompidou x West Bund Museum Project,” the collaboration is described in a press release as the “largest ever cultural exchange and cooperation project” between France and China. It is set to open to the public Friday following President Emmanuel Macron’s attendance at Tuesday’s inauguration ceremony.

It is the first major venture outside Europe for the Centre Pompidou, which has become one of the world’s most important contemporary art institutions since opening in Paris in 1977. Recent years have seen the museum establish branches in the Spanish city of Malaga and Belgium’s capital, Brussels.

Pablo Picasso's "Le Guitariste," one of the first batch of artworks on loan from the Centre Pompidou's Paris home.

The museum has stopped short of launching a standalone outpost (or a branded venture akin to the Louvre Abu Dhabi) in Shanghai. But an extensive partnership with China’s West Bund Group – discussed since early 2016 and formalized last year – will see a newly-built 269,000-square-foot venue host three “semi-permanent” exhibitions, alongside two additional temporary exhibitions a year.

Among the opening shows is “The Shape of Time,” a sweeping survey of modern art featuring around 100 works from the Paris museum’s collection. The exhibition combines blockbuster names like Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondrian and Marcel Duchamp, alongside works by Chinese artists including Zhang Huan and Cai Guo-Qiang.

“If you look back at the history of the 20th century, and even before, there are so many strong links between China – or Shanghai – and France,” said the Centre Pompidou’s director Bernard Blistène, in a phone interview. “Of course, (this project) is connected with our collection but it’s also the construction of a dialogue.”

Zhang Huan's "Family Tree," for which the artist asked calligraphers to write on his face, is one of the Chinese artworks on display at the museum's first semi-permanent exhibition.

By way of return, Centre Pompidou intends to exhibit Chinese and French-Chinese artists in Paris in the coming years. The museum has already hosted art by prominent figures like Cao Fei and Huang Yong Ping in recent times, but Blistène expressed hope that younger artists will benefit from the arrangement.

“Now there’s another generation of artists with whom we would like to work,” he said. “So we will share exhibitions between Shanghai and Paris, and we will invite young artists to try and develop some platforms.”

Looking east

Friday’s opening marks a significant step in the Centre Pompidou’s efforts to expand its presence in China – and to court potential visitors to its iconic Paris home. Chinese visitors currently make up just 1% of the more than 3.5 million people who pass through its doors each year, the museum said.

The Centre Pompidou has recently opened online accounts on Chinese platforms Weibo and WeChat, in addition to what it describes as a “huge… viral campaign to attract tourists” from the country. In an official press release for this week’s opening, Centre Pompidou president Serges Lasvignes is quoted as saying that the move “will increase our notoriety and encourage more Chinese tourists to come and visit our Parisian address.”

The new museum is located in Shanghai's Xuhui district.

But Blistène dismissed suggestions that the expansion was an exercise in branding.

“I don’t like to talk about a ‘brand’ – it is definitely not a question of branding,” he said. “It’s much more the attempt to construct a relationship between different cultures to experiment (with) something that can help us to get more involved in a specific culture which, to be frank, we don’t know at all.”

According to Lasvignes, the Centre Pompidou’s Chinese partners will be “entirely in charge of the operation of the museum,” which is located in a sprawling new arts development in Shanghai’s Xuhui district. This may raise difficult questions about how the Paris museum will navigate the country’s strict censorship laws.

In a press statement, Lasvignes admitted that “in compliance with Chinese law, exhibition content is approved by the authority in charge of cultural affairs,” and that “Chinese rules are obviously different to those in Europe.”

Marcel Duchamp is among the best-known names at the project's opening exhibition.

Yet he also struck a positive tone, saying that the museum “enjoys freedom of expression and shall continue to do so,” adding that the Centre Pompidou is “determined to work together, finding common ground and coming to agreement on choices that make sense for both parties.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Blistène: “It’s much better to be here and to try and develop something, rather than to stand outside without any possibility to open – or re-open – a dialogue,” he said.

Burgeoning arts district

The deal represents a coup not only for the Centre Pompidou, but for Shanghai too. The Paris institution’s presence will offer both credibility and big-name exhibitions as the city tries to establish itself as a global arts destination.

Beijing has traditionally been viewed as China’s cultural hub. But a slew of new galleries and venues have opened in Shanghai in recent years. At the heart of this drive is the West Bund district, a new cultural development stretching more than five miles along the banks of the Huangpu River.

French President Emmanuel Macron attends the inauguration of the "Centre Pompidou x West Bund Museum Project" on Tuesday.

A number of high-profile galleries have already opened in the district, including Tank Shanghai, Long Museum and the Shanghai Center of Photography.