Senior arts appointments nothing short of a French farce

A row over the appointment of a new head for the Ecole des Beaux-Arts is just the latest in a string of scandals over plum arts jobs

The French government is caught in a bitter row over the leadership of the country’s most prestigious cultural institutions. The dispute highlights the woeful politicisation of museums, theatres, operas, orchestras and ballet companies in the country. The minister of culture selects the heads of more than 100 cultural institutions in a process that lacks transparency and is regularly used to appoint friends of politicians to top cultural posts. An overhaul of the system is urgently needed.

The latest scandal was triggered by changes at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts (ENSBA), one of the country’s top art schools. In July, one year after having been almost fired for mismanagement, Nicolas Bourriaud, the director of ENSBA, was dismissed by the minister of culture and communication, Fleur Pellerin. He immediately mobilised his extensive network of contacts to drum up support. Bourriaud claimed he was ejected to make way for Éric de Chassey, the director of the Villa Médicis, the French Academy in Rome, who is a friend of Julie Gayet, President Hollande’s girlfriend. The media pounced, denouncing the situation as a “blatant case of nepotism”. No one listened when Gayet told Le Monde she was tired of denying “false rumours”.

The actual truth is no less disgraceful for the socialist government. The main goal was not to free up ENSBA, but rather to vacate the top post at the Villa Medici, and Julie Gayet did indeed have nothing to do with it. Prime Minister Manuel Valls wanted the directorship of the Villa for the wife of Gerard Holtz, a sports journalist who is a close personal friend. The woman in question, Muriel Mayette, was forced to quit her job as the head of the Comédie-Française last year in the face of a widespread revolt from the company that was founded by Molière.

Holtz denies having asked any favours of the prime minister—but the prime minister did intervene in a move that has been widely denounced. “Muriel Mayette has no competence at all for the post,” wrote the conservative newspaper Le Figaro, while Le Monde said that “everyone” finds such a nomination “despicable”. Mayette declined to comment.

The outcry was such that appointing De Chassey to the Paris school would have been extremely difficult. Backed into a corner, Pellerin promised a transparent recruitment process for the art school, stating: “De Chassey shall not go the to ENSBA”. But shortly after this announcement Valls waded into the debate, publicly promising an “important post” to his friend Muriel Mayette and attacking journalists as “wicked people”. De Chassey then intervened himself and announced that he was in fact ready to take up the directorship of ENSBA. Clearly, Pellerin had lost control of the situation.

The confusion and intrigue highlight how top posts in the cultural sector are being shamelessly reserved for the favourites of those in power. Last March the appointment of a previously unknown senior civil servant, Serge Lasvignes, to the post of president of the Centre Pompidou took everyone by surprise. Such arrangements appear all the more shocking when they favour someone who appears to have botched their previous job, as is the case with Mayette.

Laurence des Cars, the aristocratic curator who failed to fulfill her task of launching the Louvre Abu Dhabi for six years, now holds a top job at the Musée D’Orsay. Earlier this year Agnes Saal, the head of the National Audiovisual Institute had to resign when it was revealed that she had notched up €40,000 of taxi bills over ten months (of which € 6,700 was spent by her son)—even though her job came with a car and a driver. In her previous post at the Pompidou, her taxi expenses may have reached nearly the same sum. Although subjected to a criminal investigation, she was immediately appointed to another ghost job at the ministry, created specifically for her. Plus ça change.