Culture Wars

January 9, 2007By Heidi EllisonArchive

Artistic Soul for Sale?

mona lisa
Some critics of the French government accuse it of wanting to sell off the country’s artistic heritage, even the “Mona Lisa,” shown here being put into place in the Salle de la Joconde in 2005. Photo: © Musée du Louvre/P.Ballif

The great artistic heritage debate rages on, and the picture is bien français, as many commentators have noted, and highlighted with impressionistic touches of nationalism and anti-Americanism.

The question: Should France allow the artworks belonging to its national museums to be rented out to museums in foreign counties? The issue arose following recent moves made by the Louvre and Centre Pompidou. The former has lent works for several exhibitions at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta in return for €4.9 million and is negotiating the opening of a satellite in Abu Dhabi, which should also prove to be lucrative. The latter hopes to open a branch in Shanghai.

The battle escalated with the circulation of a petition on the site of La Tribune d’Art, which as of January 10 had over 2,000 signatures, including numerous French museum curators (none of them current curators at the Louvre), art historians and archaeologists. The petition demands that the “integrity of the collections of French museums” be kept intact and accuses the country of selling its soul to Abu Dhabi and “the rich city of Coca-Cola” (hardly relevant to the debate).

When former Culture Minister Jack Lang spoke out in favor of the “relocation” of French art in an interview given to the newspaper Libération on January 6 (“Let’s not act like frightened virgins,” he said), the reaction was swift, with many suggesting that Lang and other politicians be relocated themselves.

The arguments go something like this:

Pro: French museums have far more works than they can ever show at any one time. The Louvre for example, owns 380,000 but can only show 35,000 at a time, so why not let works in storage be shown in other countries and, in the process, make a little money for the expensive-to operate, always-cash-starved museums at home?

Con: These artworks are the French national patrimony and should always be available to be seen by French visitors

Pro: That’s not possible because of the aforementioned lack of space.

Con: Artworks are not consumer goods and should not be rented out for filthy lucre. Works should be lent to other museums at no cost, as they always have been.

Pro: Art has always been bought and sold in the marketplace. And the high cost of maintaining and restoring France’s artistic wealth can no longer be fully financed by the state (the Louvre will used the funds raised from the Atlanta deal to renovate some of its galleries).

Con: France is selling its soul.

Pro: France is not selling artworks, but renting them. It is spreading its cultural expertise throughout the world. And besides, a majority of the artworks concerned are not even by French artists (even the “Mona Lisa,” which the government has been accused of wanting to sell). The Louvre’s director, Henri Loyrette, characterizes the museum as “universal,” rather than French.

Con: What about small museums or countries that can’t afford to pay for loaned artwork?

Pro: The Louvre will continue to lend out individual artworks for other museums’ shows, as it always has. The works that are “rented” for money are part of a package that includes entire exhibitions put together with the Louvre’s curatorial and scientific expertise.

Interestingly, two of the oft-cited originators of the petition are Françoise Cachin, former director of the Museums of France, and Jean Clair, former director of the Picasso Museum, “former” being the key word here. Their successors are not part of the movement. Is this a case of the old guard fighting tooth and nail to hold on to values that no longer have much meaning in today’s world? Ça, c’est bien français! And that’s why we love them.


Heidi Ellison

© 2007 Paris Update

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