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Lending Museum Art for Money Arouses Gallic Ire

Should museums make money when they loan out their masterpieces? The topic recently has sparked heated debate among French cultural officials.

NEW YORK—Should museums make money when they loan out their masterpieces? The topic recently has sparked heated debate among French cultural officials.

In particular, several experts have taken issue with aspects of the Louvre’s plans for a satellite museum in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, as well as its collaboration with the High Museum of Art, Atlanta.

French government officials reportedly have been in talks with cultural officials from Abu Dhabi for over a year about the Louvre’s participation in a multibillion development project that seeks to transform the island of Saadiyat into a major tourist destination. (Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation director Thomas Krens agreed last fall to build the foundation’s largest museum yet, in Abu Dhabi, at a cost that could exceed $200 million; ANL, 5/9/06)

Louvre Atlanta is an ambitious, $18 million three-year partnership whereby the Louvre has already sent major works of art, including some by Raphael and Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, from Paris to Atlanta. The deal calls for a series of exhibitions involving scores of artworks to be loaned for exhibition at the High over a period of three years. The first in the series, “The Royal Collections,” opened last October and continues through September of this year. Meanwhile, the Louvre also is planning an annex, slated to open in 2009 in the northern city of Lens, near Lille and the Belgian border.

A Dec. 12 op-editorial in Le Monde—signed by Françoise Cachin, former director of French museums; Jean Clair, former director of the Picasso Museum, Paris; and art historian Roland Recht—sharply criticizes the deal.

In the piece, headlined “Museums Are Not for Sale,” the three state, “Some of the paintings recognized as the biggest masterpieces of the Louvre’s collection . . . have been dropped off in the affluent city of Coca-Cola. . . . In moral terms, one can only be shocked . . . by the commercial and media-related usage of masterpieces that are part of our national patrimony and foundations of the history of our culture.”

The budget for the $18 million project includes a payment from the High to the Louvre of $6.4 million, earmarked for restoration of the French museum’s 18th-century French decorative arts gallery. To date, through a fundraising effort, the High has raised $17 million of the overall goal.

Other funds in the budget are designated for costs associated with insurance, shipping, marketing, advertising and security, according to the High. Officials of the Atlanta museum point out that the money is coming from a special fundraising effort as well as numerous major corporate sponsors in Atlanta, rather than from the museum itself.

While the Le Monde op-editorial claims that the writers “do not look down upon either the money or the support of arts and culture, or America,” they still fret that the partnership could bring the art world “down a path of deviance that soon no one will be able to limit.” Also, they ask, why should the approximately 7 million people who visit the Louvre each year be “denied these worksfor so long?”

In a statement to ARTnewsletter, High Museum director Michael Shapiro said, “The inclusion of ‘Louvre Atlanta’ in the recent editorial in Le Monde was unfortunately inaccurate and misleading, as it focused on loan fees connected with the lending of individual works of art—not on the organization of exhibitions that comprise a project such as ‘Louvre Atlanta.’”

Shapiro says the partnership “advances both the High’s and the Louvre’s missions and museological development. In addition to the scholarship underlying the organization of nine exhibitions, there are publications, curatorial exchanges and educational programming. Furthermore . . . it will bring great works of art to the 68 million Americans that live in the Southeast.”

The Le Monde op-editorial contains strong language about the Louvre’s plans for a satellite museum in Abu Dhabi: “The worst is yet to come. The example of Abu Dhabi is alarming. This country of at most 700,000 inhabitants proposes to construct four museums on a seaside tourist site to increase its appeal. One of these will inevitably be a Guggenheim and one will be ‘French’ and wearing the stamp of ‘Louvre.’”

Museum heads will have no say over what and how long-term loans are granted, according to the Le Monde piece. Instead, decisions will be made by policymakers who want to offer loans as diplomatic gifts, the writers state, asking rhetorically, “Isn’t this ‘selling your soul’?”

Cachin, Clair and Recht opine that loans should be granted free of charge, when and if conditions permit and if the security of the works is guaranteed.

In a subsequent response to the article, which appeared in Le Monde on Dec. 21, current director of French museums Francine Mariani-Ducray counters that it is not a betrayal of French values to respond to a request for expertise and cultural collaboration. France’s cooperation, she says, “goes beyond a simple financial contribution in exchange for [a temporary loan]. To be solicited by a country with the ambition of creating a museum of international scope . . . is a chance that must be seized.”

As ARTnewsletter went to press, a spokesman for the French ministry of culture said the ministry is currently not communicating about the Abu Dhabi project.

Several museum officials point out that loan fees have been a natural part of such collaborations for some time now. James Demetrion, director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., from 1984-2001, says that with museums facing a tough financial environment, charging for art loans makes sense.

“There are more and more financial pressures on museums that are hurting our idealistic attitudes,” Demetrion explains. Payment for loans “is almost self-evident. As a lender, you’re helping yourself in terms of publicity and, in many cases, getting works out from storage. They’re not going to do anyone any good in storage.”

The Louvre Atlanta compact has received the nod of approval from other experts as well. Maxwell Anderson, director and CEO of the Indianapolis Museum of Art and former director of New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art from 1998-2003, told ARTnewsletter it “begins with a collaboration around staff exchanges and conservation of works for the loan. It’s a collegial partnership that is really different from what might be called a pure rental agreement.”

Shapiro further points out that “Abu Dhabi is not a relevant comparison to the ‘Louvre Atlanta’ partnership, because they are looking to establish a branch of the Louvre—something completely different from the jointly curated exhibitions program we are mounting.”
Ministry Seeks Stronger Contemporary Scene

Meanwhile, the French government has taken steps in recent months to invigorate the country’s contemporary art scene. Last fall the French ministry of culture unveiled plans to build a sprawling art laboratory on an island outside Paris, to be called the European Center for Contemporary Creation. It will replace a museum that luxury-goods magnate and Christie’s owner François Pinault had planned for the site on Île Seguin, located on the Seine.

Culture minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres said the x100 million ($130 million) project, which is in the early planning stages, will “support and stimulate artistic production.” The culture ministry is committed to funding half the cost.

Moreover, the government has approved new tax benefits to encourage young people to pursue careers in the arts and entice foreign artists to settle in France. One benefit amounts to a 50 percent tax reduction for the first five years of an artist’s working life.

Donnedieu de Vabres also announced that France would reinstate a policy whereby public building projects must use at least 1 percent of their budgets to purchase or commission artworks.

The efforts came in the wake of criticism in the French press that the country has allowed its contemporary art scene to languish. A report prepared by sociologist Alain Quemin for the government in 2001 stated that auction prices for works by living French artists were steadily falling behind those of artists from other countries, including the U.S. and Britain.

Viewed as a further embarrassment was Pinault’s decision to abandon his $195 million project. Blaming his withdrawal on repeated delays and what he perceived as the French government’s indifference to his project, he said he was “deeply disappointed” by the experience. Last year Pinault moved his 2,500-work collection to Venice’s 18th-century Palazzo Grassi (ANL, 5/24/05).

Comment Cachin, Clair and Recht in their Le Monde op-editorial: “One must salute the new law that proposes strong tax breaks for corporations and private individuals who donate either important artworks or the money with which to acquire them.”

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