Keeping Up With Tradition

Video art, dancers performing boxing moves around Greek statuary, and a fund-raising concert by Janet Jackson under the Pyramid: The 2011 agenda at the Musée du Louvre may not be what the public has come to expect from the historically conservative institution. But the storied museum, founded in 1793, is negotiating new realities while striving to maintain its identity as a product of the Enlightenment. Although its collection of art and objects from antiquity through 1848 is unparalleled, it is rivaled by the Musée d’Orsay in Impressionism, by the Musée Guimet in Asian art, and by the Musée du Quai Branly in Oceanic and African works. In a changing cultural landscape, the Louvre is exploring ways to fulfill its double calling as both a national and a universal museum. Leading the effort is Henri Loyrette. The 59-year-old director, now in his 10th year, oversaw the development of the institution’s first satellite branch, the SANAA-designed Louvre-Lens, set to open in Northern France next year, as well as the renovation of the Greek galleries and the expansion of the Islamic and Byzantine departments. His most significant project, though, is the Louvre Abu Dhabi, launching in 2013. The Jean Nouvel-designed museum, which cost the emirate $525 million just for the right to use the name Louvre, has drawn criticism, but Loyrette believes it to be essential to his institution’s future. He talked with Nicolai Hartvig about the Louvre’s identity and how it’s navigating globalization and contending with a shrinking budget.


Can you discuss the Louvre’s embrace of contemporary art, from the large ceiling paintings by Cy Twombly and Anselm Kiefer to the current show of Michal Rovner’s video projections?


It is my firm belief that a museum that does not further contemporary creation is a dying museum. One of the Louvre’s core vocations has always been to integrate modern works, even into the very architecture of the palais, which has long been a home for living artists. In the 18th century Hubert Robert had his studio here, and in the 19th century many artists — Delacroix, Degas, Manet, and Cézanne — lived with the Louvre and through the Louvre. That tradition was somewhat lost in the 20th century, when museums were neglected and many artists began to distance themselves. We are now reviving it with much success and much necessity.


What is the museum’s acquisitions strategy?

It’s a difficult question, because the Louvre has such a wide scope — our collections have their origin in the 16th century. We acquire for all departments, from the most ancient antiquities to 19th-century works, from the Americas to the frontiers of India and China. Still, we are filling some obvious voids and venturing into fields that haven’t been well considered by the main departments. We have gaps in modern British and American art. Until recently we had only three North American paintings, and we have just bought a large work by Benjamin West. There is also work to be done on the Slavic world and with Scandinavian art. We’re looking to highlight fields that haven’t been core strengths for the Louvre — for example, Russian art, of which we had a very important exhibition, "Sainte Russie," last year.

One of the most notable purchases of 2010 was Lucas Cranach’s "The Three Graces." You launched an unprecedented public appeal to raise the necessary funds.

It was our first large-scale public fund-raising operation, and we were really surprised by its success. We were short €1 million [$1.4 million], and I thought we might just scrape it together in the two and a half months we had to raise the money. We got it in less than a month, from 7,000 donors. It was very moving to see such massive support from people who are very loyal to the museum.

It was a novel tactic at a time when the French state is announcing new cuts to museum funding. Many institutions across Europe are feeling the pinch. How will this affect the Louvre?

The Louvre’s budget today is roughly 50 percent state funding and 50 percent its own resources and patronage. We have to credit the French state with giving its institutions the most advantageous fiscal-support system in the world. It allows us to very actively acquire works, notably those that are classified as national treasures. Still, we are hurting from the grant cuts: 5 percent less in 2009 and 5 percent again in 2011. We are also struggling with the fact that one out of two civil servants will not be replaced. These restrictions have been somewhat fast and brutal, but I remain optimistic. The Louvre has many assets, and there is no point in crying over the financial cuts. We must, with the French state, invent new ways of governance for the Louvre and other cultural institutions.

Will the museum have to look at a radical restructuring of its budget?

Yes, but 93 percent of the Louvre’s expenses cannot be reduced: the daily maintenance of a domain that stretches from Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois to the Place de la Concorde, an immense palace that must also be restored and constantly renovated, and the salaries for the Louvre’s employees. Our entire cultural program must be covered within the remaining 7 percent, and this meager slice ensures the Louvre’s visibility. Our concern is to not sacrifice the cultural program on the altar of maintaining this immense vessel.

Do you feel that the art market has put a crimp in museum acquisitions?

The market has always had its peaks and valleys. Even periods of stagnation can be difficult; it becomes harder to find works to acquire. It seems the market is full of disparities at the moment. Like other institutions and collectors, we have trouble keeping up with the madness of certain prices. On the other hand, we can find bargains in some fields. The prices paid for older paintings are modest when compared with the hysteria of the market for 20th-century and contemporary works.

Has the relationship between museums and the art market changed?

It’s more dynamic. In France there used to be great mistrust between museums and the market. Now there is much more confidence. I always say that a growing French market is something from which we will also benefit, so there’s a common concern about furthering it.

Can you talk about the partnership with the High Museum of Art, which brought treasures from the Louvre to Atlanta?

We did it for three years [2006-09], and it was extremely important to us. The U.S. is our main partner, and most of our exhibitions travel there. But through laziness or perhaps force of habit, we had always worked with the same institutions, mainly the large East Coast ones and occasionally Los Angeles and San Francisco. We hadn’t taken notice of the upheaval in the American landscape. Now if you go to Denver, Portland, or Miami, a great number of new museums are being built, some very recently, and are developing considerably. I think [the High partnership] became a key event in the history of intermuseum relations, because we didn’t open a branch but still launched a project that united our different teams. With the Louvre Abu Dhabi we are in the same frame, not creating a branch but embarking on a different adventure from any we have done so far.

The Abu Dhabi project was heavily criticized when it was first announced. A protest petition gathered 4,700 signatures — including those of many museum curators and other art professionals, who charged that the Louvre was now for sale.

The criticism began before the nature of the project was truly known. There’s something very French about judging before you know the issue. Now that there is more understanding and the [Abu Dhabi] museum is, in a sense, emerging from the ground, people realize the importance of this project, which is carefully calibrated and convincing. It is the creation of a new national museum for Abu Dhabi, with loans from many French institutions and led by the Agence France-Muséums.

Have you experienced any friction or culture clashes on the project so far?

Never in our talks with the authorities in Abu Dhabi. Many false prophets warned us when the project was announced that we would not be able to show figurative images and would have to restrict ourselves to showing only abstract works, that we wouldn’t be able to show religious images or nudes. So far we have seen no such constraints, and I think that it is a remarkable sign of openness for the country. What the Louvre Abu Dhabi brings — and this is why the Emiratis so wanted the Louvre name and the symbolism of a universal museum — is a comprehensive dialogue of cultures.

Do you think they could show such regionally provocative works without having the name of the Louvre as an umbrella? Does the name add an important cachet?

The Louvre’s name certainly affords them that, but it also allows universality. To my knowledge, there is no such museum in the region. You have an archeological museum in Bahrain and the magnificent museum of Islamic art in Doha, designed by I.M. Pei. You have new contemporary-art museums opening, but you have no museum like the one that will be built in Abu Dhabi bearing the Louvre’s name.

One omen of possible discord was the censoring of a newspaper advertisement featuring "The Three Graces," with the nudes covered by black bars.

That was only done through the zeal of a local official, which often happens in these countries. It even happened in London, where an advertisement for a Cranach exhibition [showing the painter’s nude "Venus"] was initially banned. You cannot interpret the ardor of one official as the policy of the state.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi will be built on Saadiyat Island, where there has been some controversy over alleged abuses of workers building the new Guggenheim and other museums. The Louvre is also mentioned in a report on the matter by Human Rights Watch.

It is a matter to which we pay close attention. There are several construction sites in Abu Dhabi that illustrate the will of the Emiratis — not only for museums but also, I would say, for human rights. The Louvre name carries a number of values, and this is an issue that we cannot neglect. This is also why we, in our partnership with the Emiratis, included a number of clauses requiring good conditions for the workers. It is extremely important to build the Louvre Abu Dhabi, as well as the other museums on Saadiyat Island, with these concerns in mind.

Are you confident that you can depend on these clauses?

We of course must verify that they are respected. Since we took the steps to have them introduced, we have been very attentive to this.

Abu Dhabi is key to the Louvre’s global outlook. Do you think it is essential for major museums nowadays to look beyond their national borders?

It depends on the museum, but for us it’s indispensable. This was never a museum of French culture or a memorial to French history but a universal museum. It addresses the world and receives contributions from all fields and civilizations. We must stay true to this tradition.

Have the nature, role, and duty of museums changed?

Yes. When I started in the museum world 35 years ago, we opened in the morning, closed at night, and in between we didn’t worry much about the actual visitors. Since then the museum has become an important institution, not only artistically but also in terms of education and its social role. All this is completely integrated into museum policy, whereas 35 years ago even simple concerns about mediating the collections were nonexistent. Museums today are much more open to the world, not only receiving visitors but also taking by the hand those for whom the museum is still distant. I think the calling of all museums has widened considerably.

"Keeping up With Tradition" originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of Art+Auction. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Art+Auction's June 2011 Table of Contents.