French Connections

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I made it over to a press luncheon yesterday for Henri Loyrette, the director of the Louvre, who was in New York to talk about his museum’s expansion projects in France and the U.S. (Abu Dhabi he wasn’t talking about much.) Those projects include the ongoing arrangement with the Atlanta High Museum. What the High is getting principally is a series of loan shows from Paris that will extend into 2009. For the first of them last fall the centerpieces were two landmarks of Western painting, Raphael’s Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione and Poussin’s Et in Arcadia Ego. The next one, which opens October 16, is built around Egyptian, Greek and Roman objects including a first century Roman marble, The Tiber, a ten-foot long representation of a river god.

What the Louvre got in return from the High was a fee of 5.5 million euros for the restoration of its 18th century French decorative arts galleries. (Hope the High paid it all before this happened.) The Louvre, which was once almost entirely state supported, now raises about 40% of its revenue from private sources, including ticket revenues and sponsorships.

This kind of loan-for-fee exhibition arrangement is fine to the extent that it brings important works to museums with shallow holdings in antiquities or the Old Masters. But as they become more common they open the way to a world in which museums routinely treat their collections as revenue opportunities, to be shuttled around even more furiously than they already are. The path to hell is paved with Guggenheim outposts and Boston MFA deals with Vegas casino galleries.

So what the Louvre also got from the High deal was a first taste of the controversy that has accompanied its arrangement this year to help create the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the Jean Nouvel-designed museum in the Gulf emirate, scheduled to open in 2013, that will use the Louvre’s name and its collecting expertise for ten years. During that time the Louvre and a consortium of other French museums will lend works to the Abu Dhabi museum while it builds its own “universal collection”. (Which, if it tries to do that by way of purchase, is going to keep the auction houses happy for a long time.) In exchange the emirate is paying about one billion euros to the French museums, of which the Louvre collects 400 million. It also collects the grief that comes from being the lead institution in a deal that has many French museum professionals and art world figures furious about selling the store and madly — if vainly — petitioning against it.

When I chatted with Loyrette for a while during lunch I asked him about a point raised recently by Jerry Saltz, the art critic of New York magazine, in a fire breathing takedown of the Guggenheim’s plans for its own outpost in Abu Dhabi — namely, that Abu Dhabi does not admit anyone holding an Israeli passport or even non-Israeli travellers who have an Israeli stamp in their passport.

To put it mildly, these press luncheons are not exactly free wheeling question and answer sessions. Power point presentations would be more like it. But Loyrette answered the question fully enough to say that he was aware of the problem, and that the ban on travellers who have been to Israel is a practice true of many other nations in the Middle East that the Louvre has cooperative relations with, including Syria and Iran. (Though not relations of the kind or on the scale of the project it’s embarked upon with Abu Dhabi.)

Meanwhile, as lunch went on I found myself wondering just what would be the quality of the art that the emirate would be getting for its billions. I’m not shedding any tears for the emirs, but I recalled that the Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto, has a revenue sharing deal of its own with the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. The Hermitage sends art. Toronto sends money. I saw three of the loan shows produced under that arrangement. One was unforgettable — a selection drawn from the great early 20th century collections of Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov, the Russian merchants who bought and commissioned scores of important Cezannes, Gauguins, Picassos and Matisses before their homes and property were seized by the Bolsheviks. But the other two shows? One was “Rubens and His Age”, with a lot more “Age of” than “Rubens”. The third was mostly about Catherine the Great. Not what she collected — now that would be a show —  but how she used art, much of it distinctly second tier, to broadcast the majesty of her throne and herself.

Not exactly blockbuster material. But maybe the revenue stream to the Hermitage wasn’t big enough.