“La Ville Bizarre.” That’s what local tourism promoters proudly call the port city of Nantes, on the river Loire, about 240 miles southwest of Paris. The bizarrerie comes courtesy of the public art that’s been installed in Nantes and its environs since 2007: a whole lot of challenging, generally uncompromising public work by major artists from Asia, Europe, and the Americas—work assembled thanks to one of the most wholehearted civic commitments to public art (15 to 20 percent of the municipal budget) anywhere in the world.

It’s been money well spent. Despite some of the usual initial public resistance, the decision by Socialist mayor (and later prime minister of France) Jean-Marc Ayrault to make Nantes and the Loire estuary an open-air museum of ambitious art has been wildly successful in giving a new profile to the once-fading industrial city, which had been crippled by the closure of its shipyards. In fact, the public art program has been the single most important factor in luring new businesses to Nantes and turning it into the second most sought-after place to live—after Paris—for young French professionals.

In the city center, for example, there’s a canal upon whose surface floats a green-hued projection of the face of Laetitia Casta, a supermodel who’s become a symbol of twenty-first-century French chic. There’s Villa Ocupada (Occupied Villa) on Rue Désiré-Colombe, a former insurance building now covered floor to ceiling with murals and graffiti art by some 20 artists from France, Spain, and Latin America. A gleaming silver Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery (Nantes got rich on slave shipping in the eighteenth century) was co-designed by Krzysztof Wodiczko.

On the Île de Nantes, an island in the center of the city that once housed the shipyard that built the Queen Mary 2, the art is particularly thick on the ground. Mètre à Ruban, a gigantic yellow replica of a tape measure by Lilian Bourgeat, rests in folds and twists behind the Palais de Justice. Daniel Buren and Patrick Bouchain’s Les Anneaux (The Rings) is a series of 18 huge colored circles at the edge of the water that light up at night. Le Corbusier associate Jean Prouvé’s 1960s-vintage Station Prouvé, a cylindrical gas station designed to be moved to different locations depending on traffic conditions, has found a permanent home in the island’s Parc des Chantiers.

And the art makes its way westward along the Loire estuary all the way to the Atlantic-coast city of Saint-Nazaire. One of the most iconic works on, or rather in, the river is La Maison dans le Loire (The House in the Loire) by artist and puppet-theater director Jean-Luc Courcoult—a full-size stone edifice half-submerged and tilting at a peculiarly expressive, magical-realist angle. Nearer Saint-Nazaire, at the point where the Loire meets the ocean, is Huang Yong Ping’s Serpent d’Océan (Ocean Serpent), a long, curving sea-monster skeleton that is mostly submerged but is totally revealed as the tide shifts.

All of this art-making got going in 1989 when the newly elected Ayrault forged a close working relationship with Jean Blaise, a producer-director of artistic and cultural events. The pair worked with Jean-Luc Courcoult, whose company Royal de Luxe created vibrant street theater with enormous puppets. Other performance events enlivened the city too, even as Blaise and company began to turn their attention toward public art.

In 2000, the Île de Nantes shipyards were retooled into art spaces, an urban renewal project that was unprecedented in France and garnered Europe-wide publicity. Blaise opened Le Lieu Unique, a contemporary art center and nightclub, on the island. In 2007 came the first of three public art festivals under the umbrella title Estuaire (Estuary) for which permanent pieces were commissioned and temporary ones sought too.

The same year saw the launching, on the island, of the city’s most popular (and populist) art project, Les Machines de l’Île (The Island Machines), created in the spirit of the visionary novelist Jules Verne, a native son of Nantes. Designers and street-theater producers François Delarozière and Pierre Orefice crafted a clutch of mechanical gizmos, including a carousel and a giant, steampunkish mechanical elephant that is hands down the most photographed of Nantes’s public artworks.

Two more Estuaire events followed, in 2009 and 2012, by which time Nantes’s permanent public art inventory had reached 30 pieces, with many more temporary ones cropping up from festival to festival—and the city had become famous. Financial support for these ventures came from a cluster of public and private entities, including the cities of Nantes and Saint-Nazaire and communities in between them, oil and gas giant Total, and the real estate developers Groupe Giboire.

Ayrault and Blaise decided to form Le Voyage à Nantes (The Voyage to Nantes), an organization within the municipal tourist authority, to highlight Nantes as a “destination art” city. Le Voyage’s summer promotion period (late June through August) has replaced the Estuaire festivals, and traditional local tourist stops, such as the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany, have been folded in to Le Voyage’s lists of attractions. “But,” says Le Voyage artistic director David Moinard, “the artistic element leads the touristic, not the other way around.”

To that end, Moinard keeps the art fresh. During the most recent Le Voyage season, for example, Japanese sound-and-light artist Ryoji Ikeda brought a new installation to Le Lieu Unique. Supersymmetry was an intricate vision of subatomic space, a response to Ikeda’s residency at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research.

Nantes’s success story with public art has real bottom-line appeal. “At the last Estuaire event,” says Moinard, “Ayrault revealed that for every euro spent on art and culture, the community gained between three and six euros in value. In Nantes, money for art is not money thrown out the window.” But success has not tempted him or his associates to lower their artistic standards. In fact, it’s an article of faith with him that the highest-quality art, however challenging, will be popular. “We want generous projects that will speak to everybody,” he says. “And we believe that the very best artists are the most generous.”

Jon Spayde is a frequent contributor to Public Art Review.

Featured in Public Art Review #51.