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Louvre curators condemn “collections for rent” schemes ahead of plans to open a branch of the Paris museum in Abu Dhabi

Deal “is about petrodollars and military relations”, says senior member of museum staff

The campaign by French curators to block the Louvre’s plans to open a branch in Abu Dhabi (The Art Newspaper, September 2006) gained additional supporters last month; a senior member of staff at the museum has strongly criticised the plans.

Catherine Goguel, emeritus director of research in the Louvre’s prints and drawings department, told The Art Newspaper that she objects to the “mercenary nature” of the deal. “The project is not based on research or increasing understanding of the works,” she says, adding that the Louvre’s curatorial and conservation staff were not consulted about the implications of loaning works to Abu Dhabi.

Ms Goguel also believes that there are political forces at play. “It is obvious that [this deal] is about petrodollars and military relations. It came from the [French] finance and foreign affairs ministries and [Louvre director] Mr Loyrette, a man of culture, has had to support it even if he doesn’t believe in it,” she says. The United Arab Emirates has placed $10 billion of defence contracts with France in the past ten years. Both the finance and foreign affairs ministries declined to comment.

The terms of the deal between the government of Abu Dhabi and the Louvre are still being worked out. But according to Le Monde, the emirate aims to create a new museum by 2012. French museums including the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay and Quai Branly, will loan around 300 works to the new museum. The number of long-term loans from France will decrease over a period of ten years, by which time the Louvre outpost aims to have assembled its own collection. French museums will also loan works for four temporary exhibitions a year for ten years.

Using the Louvre name will cost Abu Dhabi between €200m ($260m) and €400m ($519m), according to Le Monde. The whole package including curatorial and technical expertise could run to €700m ($908m). Part of the fee may be used to set up a new national French conservation centre.

The proposed Louvre Abu Dhabi outpost is one of five museums planned by the United Arab Emirates for the $27 billion government-funded development of Saadiyat Island, 500 metres off the coast of Abu Dhabi.

The move follows the signing of a memorandum of understanding in July last year between the Abu Dhabi government and the New York-based Guggenheim Foundation which sets out the terms for the establishment of a Guggenheim branch in the emirate.

Opposition grows

The Louvre/Abu Dhabi project has provoked a furious response from art professionals in France and abroad. To date, more than 2,000 people have so far signed a petition on the French website www.latribunedelart.com.

Henri Zerner, an art history professor at Harvard University, told The Art Newspaper that questions have to be raised “about the safety of the work”. Sarah Walden, a London-based conservator who has restored major paintings at the Louvre, said: “This scheme is not good for the paintings. Travelling is always a hazard. The whole project is demeaning for France.”

Both Ms Walden and Dr Zerner have signed the website petition which endorses a recent piece written in Le Monde entitled “Museums are not for sale” by Françoise Cachin, honorary director of the French Museums Association, Jean Clair, former director of the Picasso museum, and art historian Roland Recht.

Their anger is also directed at the Louvre’s three-year collaboration with the High Museum in Atlanta, launched last October. The Louvre will loan over 180 works for nine exhibitions; the loans include Raphael’s portrait of Baldassari Castiglione. In exchange, the French museum will be paid $6.4m. It will use the money to restore its 18th-century furniture galleries.

Business development

Following the introduction of a law in 2003 which allowed heavily subsidised French museums to supplement their income with non-governmental funding, Mr Loyrette, who joined the museum in 2001, has made no secret of his enthusiasm for raising private funds for the Louvre. He has pushed for closer ties with US institutions and aimed to increase sponsorship revenue. The museum received 8.3m visitors last year.

Figures released last year show that the Louvre’s budget in 2005 was €156.3m. In the same year, the museum earned €68.4m or around 40% of its budget from sponsorship and ticket sales, among other operations. This represents an improvement on 2002 when the government subsidy stood at 70%. But the amount the Louvre earns is still well behind other European museums such as Tate which routinely earns over 50% of its budget.

In an email to The Art Newspaper, Mr Loyrette said: “The main question today for the Louvre is how it redefines its national and international policy...with Atlanta, we want to develop a new type of US partnership which is cultural, research-led and educational. It is a question of diversifying US collaborations which are currently concentrated around Washington, DC and Boston. Atlanta is a new, developing town where the minorities form the majority...[the novelist] Toni Morrison has emphasised that Atlanta was the ‘right choice’.”

On the Abu Dhabi project, he says: “In response to a request from the UAE, the Culture Ministry has agreed to create a national museum with the aid of the French Museums Association...the Louvre name, which symbolises the ‘universal museum’, would be given up once the Abu Dhabi national museum is able to assemble its own collections. We should be proud of this proposal which acknowledges the expertise of French museums.”

Mr Loyrette is, however, adamant that the Louvre is not cashing in: “I am surprised by the current debate which is based on confusion. Critics of our policy are deliberately muddling paid-for loan exhibitions with the hiring out of works. We never ‘rent out’ our works, even if the numerous loans we organise every year have conservation and administrative costs. We can ask for a fee in exchange for major exhibitions abroad drawn entirely from our collections [such as High Museum Atlanta]...this is how international museums operate, especially in the US and the UK. This is perfectly normal and allows us to fund research projects.”

Mark Jones, director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, supports the Louvre’s plans. He says: “The Guggenheim in Bilbao has shown that a transnational museum can be a success. The argument that travel is not good for objects is at best disingenuous, and at worst hypocritical: the number of loan exhibitions is increasing year on year and there is no ethical difference between lending for an exhibition and lending to a museum.”

“The Louvre is a strong brand and if it can use its name to further its work, such as using the Atlanta fee to refurbish its decorative arts galleries, is that such a bad thing?” asks Mr Jones.

o For commentary, see p30

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Louvre curators condemn “collections for rent” schemes'