Cracking the Louvre’s code

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Special to The Times

THE director of the most famous museum in the world still hasn’t read the famous novel du jour.

Henri Loyrette has little interest in “The Da Vinci Code” even though some of the record 7.5 million visitors to the Louvre Museum last year came in no small part because of its role in the book. This week’s opening of the movie based on Dan Brown’s thriller should only increase the fervor to loiter in the Grand Gallery, where fictional curator Jacques Sauniere takes a bullet.

No matter, says real-life Director Loyrette, ever so charmingly: “I have more important things to read. I just don’t read books like that.”


Loyrette may turn up his nose at the current literary phenomenon, but in the five years since he became director, he has embraced a series of changes in an attempt to transform a grand but old-fashioned institution into an even grander one newly connected to the world beyond its magnificent collection.

At the February opening of the Ingres exhibition the tall, gangly Loyrette is one minute graciously greeting a Rothschild who has come to admire a great-grandmother painted by Ingres; the next Loyrette is laughing mischievously with an acquaintance, pulling her hair from behind each ear and trying to tie it in front of her face. If the curator in “The Da Vinci Code” is “an old man of 76 years,” the real director comports himself like the youthful and worldly man of 53 that he is.

During an interview in his office, the floor stacked with exhibition catalogs and books, Loyrette ponders how to make this tradition-bound institution relevant to the 21st century -- how to set priorities for a museum with a mission to be “universal” but also the essence of France when the country is going through its own identity crisis, with poor Muslim and African young people burning cars because they feel excluded and university students rioting against change.

Every answer involves three- and four-part qualifiers; Loyrette refers constantly to the Louvre’s mission as “complex” and “difficult.” Yet he is also direct about accomplishments, wryly observant of critics and unambiguous that the Louvre must engage in the issues that engage the nation.

“All my policy is not trying just to be something new or to change everything,” he says. “It’s really to reflect on what our mission is, and how do we fulfill it today and renew it today.”


Finding its place

THE Louvre is so immense -- both in literal space and in image -- that it can be hard to fathom that it has struggled to keep pace with the other great museums of the world -- and of Paris -- that have become hotspots for cultural tourism, bringing people back for more and different art experiences by repackaging and marketing their collections to make them more compelling.


Although by the end of the last century the Louvre had many of the de rigueur museum features, including its own shopping mall and website, it was seen as a charming but dusty and insular relic.

In five years, Loyrette says, he has sought to reinvent the Louvre’s image without losing track of its priorities. He has focused on loaning more works to museums around the world -- the Louvre now sends out about 1,300 a year. In turn, this has improved the Louvre’s ability to borrow, enabling it to double (to 16 in 2005) the number of special exhibitions since Loyrette took charge. He cites an invigorated loan policy for the success of two recent retrospectives -- Girodet, which closed in January, and Ingres, which closes tomorrow.

Starting in October, the Louvre also joins the lineup of art-rich institutions renting works to art-poor cousins. Over the next three years, the Louvre will send dozens of works across the Atlantic for nine temporary exhibitions at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. In return, American sponsors are paying the costs as well as an additional $6.9 million that the Louvre intends to use to refurbish its 18th century French furniture galleries.

But Loyrette insists that he had more than money on his mind when he forged the deal and other exchanges with the United States. “We have so much to learn from each other in research and education, and that can only make us a better place,” he says, noting also that the Atlanta project was the first in the more than 200-year history of the Louvre that saw all eight curatorial departments working together. Curators, once unaccustomed to working across department lines, now find such collaborations strongly encouraged by the director.

The Louvre has also announced it will open a branch outside Paris -- also a common strategy for big museums to expand their reach and find new revenue sources.

For the Louvre, Loyrette says, opening an outpost is not as much about money as it is about its “sacred part” as a national museum and a chance to rethink the collection in a contemporary space. In 2009, a new, 5,000-square-meter space in the northern French town of Lens will begin displaying art from the Louvre’s collection of hundreds of thousands of works.


And although the cutoff point for that collection is 1848, the Louvre is again extending a welcome to contemporary art and artists. Not since Georges Braque painted the ceiling of the Henri II gallery in 1953 have so many living artists rolled up their sleeves in the former palace or had their work displayed there.

As part of that elaborate initiative, the museum invited Los Angeles artist Mike Kelley to create a work for the Louvre in the Salle de la Maquette. Built around images of two celebrated paintings by American artists, Kelley used films, music and literary texts to conceive the installation, which runs June 14 through Sept. 18. Then in November, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison turns up in the auditorium, staging six programs, including a slam poetry session and her own lecture, “A Foreigner in His Home,” about a Gericault painting.

“The Louvre was always a place for contemporary artists, or as Cezanne said, ‘It’s the great book where we learn to read,’ ” Loyrette says. In its time, contemporary art has often been controversial in the Louvre, “but now it’s completely normal.”


Against the grain

BUT Loyrette too faces controversy. That the director dares to show new art aggressively and that he would do something as crass as earn cash by renting out the Louvre’s treasures has produced a ripple of criticism, mostly in the French press and on the Internet.

Artist and writer Didier Rykner got a lot of attention after he revealed on his Internet site in February -- just before it was officially released -- a list of the almost 150 works heading for Atlanta. Rykner has said he opposes the “renting out of paintings” and “modernization” of a museum focused on Western art from the Middle Ages to 1848; he further has professed that “80% of the art conservationists and historians” in Paris are in agreement.

Jean Habert, one of those conservationists, grumbled this winter in the weekly magazine Telerama about the degradation of the Louvre collection from unchecked crowds (“A work of art touched by 7 million fingers is destined to disappear!”). Habert also chided Loyrette for the Louvre’s energetic loan policy. “It is never reassuring,” he told Telerama, “to send a masterpiece traveling.”


Loyrette is dismissive of such concerns and doubts that they are held by very many. The Louvre is there foremost to cherish and preserve its collection for future generations, he states adamantly. “We do that very well.” If there are to be criticisms, he says, they should be focused on the vast holes in its collection.

He offers a list: The Louvre owns very little from Russia except a small group of icons and almost nothing from the Americas; there are whole centuries missing in its German and Scandinavian collections; the antiquities are mostly about the pharaohs and don’t take into account Sudan. And from the United States, he says, there are only three paintings.

He intends to compensate, through acquisitions and special shows. Loyrette has seen to it that even if there is a budget crunch in a given year, about 20% of admissions receipts will be taken annually for acquisitions; he has also made plans for a comprehensive show with Russian museums in 2010 and forged a new partnership for research in Sudan. Again, he cites the U.S. projects: Opening June 14 is “American Artists and the Louvre,” devoted to 30 paintings by Americans influenced by the museum, including Benjamin West, George Catlin, James McNeill Whistler, Thomas Eakins and Edward Hopper.

Equally important is the mission at home; he worries about French youth getting mired in the Louvre’s often scholarly exhibitions. “We have a very, very, difficult collection,” he says, unlike the Musee d’Orsay, where Loyrette previously was director and where “you can see a painting by Monet and enter easily into a landscape. You see a Poussin and it’s very different. You have to understand it, you have to read it, you have to learn about it.”

All of Loyrette’s innovations weren’t necessarily his ideas. He answers to two departments in the French Ministry of Culture and Communications. Even the president of the country gets involved. Three years ago, for example, President Jacques Chirac proposed the creation of a new Islamic art department at the Louvre to reinforce a growing belief, in the wake of 9/11, that a better appreciation of Islamic art could help ease tensions with the Muslim world.

Similarly, the new projects with the United States have diplomatic resonance, Loyrette says, although that was not their sole purpose. He saw to the establishment in 2003 of the nonprofit American Friends of the Louvre as part of a campaign to find new sources of revenue but also “to improve the museum experience for English-speaking visitors,” according to a press release.


This museum, beloved treasure chest of the French people, owned and operated by the government since 1793, is slowly weaning from the public coffers, mostly because culture is expensive and the French government can’t come up with funds the way it used to. Since 2003, the Louvre and other state museums have been required to raise money for renovations and other special projects. And during Loyrette’s tenure the Louvre budget, now 165 million euros ($209.9 million), went from being 75% supported by the French government to 62%; at the same time private donations tripled as Loyrette focused on new ways to raise cash.

In fact, his biggest challenges when he became director in April 2001 had more to do with management than art scholarship.


An outsider’s approach

THE son of a successful international lawyer, Loyrette grew up on Paris’ Left Bank, across the river from the Louvre. An expert on 19th century art who has written three books on Degas, he was a curator at the D’Orsay before becoming its director for seven years. In 1997 he became the youngest member of the prestigious Academie des Beaux-Arts. People who worked with him at the D’Orsay say he both encouraged serious work and did it himself.

But moving across the Seine to the Louvre was like going from a boutique he had helped open to the biggest department store in town. He was not immediately embraced. Unlike his predecessor, Pierre Rosenberg, known for his signature red scarf and scholarship during his 39-year career at the Louvre, Loyrette was not “of the Louvre.”

The museum had also just gone through years of change, including the addition of the enormous pyramid-shaped entrance by I.M. Pei, a new wing and galleries. Many craved calm, and Loyrette might have as easily lain low for a few years.

Instead, he talked publicly -- a very un-French thing to do -- about the need for improvements, more change. In turn, the then-culture minister, Catherine Tasca, whose title made her Loyrette’s boss, publicly rebuked him for showboating. He stood firm and focused full time on restructuring the museum’s budget and management.


“It was difficult to run this museum before,” Loyrette says. Under Rosenberg, budget constraints kept one-fourth or more of the galleries closed on any given day because there weren’t enough security guards. “There was no other solution when I began but to fight for autonomy,” Loyrette says. “I can say only that it’s better now.”

He has gained more autonomy, hired more guards and succeeded in having all 1,100 of them report directly to him, so that now 90% of the galleries are open daily. He has also encouraged curators to be more collaborative. “I didn’t see a single museum in front of me,” he says. “We had to face different museums, and they were not used to working together ... the curators were very anxious about it and the young curators -- they wanted change.”

He also brought in new blood, including the museum’s first non-French curator, Carel van Tuyll, who is Dutch and became senior curator of prints and drawings in 2005.

Olivier Meslay, a curator of English and Spanish art in the department of paintings, says Loyrette’s insistence on what the museum calls “lateral organization,” involving all departments, has revolutionized how the staff operates. “To be frank, when we all first got together [to discuss the Atlanta partnership], I didn’t know people,” Meslay says. “Faces from my own museum were unfamiliar. We are discovering each other through this project.”


International approach

IN fact, Loyrette’s style of management and openness has a global flavor, which to an American sensibility may not seem radical but to a French mind-set, which elevates guarding the cultural patrimony over efficiency, is quite alien.

Gary Tinterow, who oversees 19th century European paintings and the modern and contemporary collections at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, says he isn’t surprised that his friend, the 19th century art expert, has turned out to be a modernizer. “Henri is formed in France’s greatest curatorial traditions, but at the same time he is deeply practical,” says Tinterow, who collaborated with Loyrette when he was at D’Orsay on a Degas retrospective and on the “Origins of Impressionism” show in 1994. “Thus, he is in the perfect position to drag the Louvre into the modern museum environment.”


And “drag” is the right word, Tinterow insists: “Curators in European languages are called ‘conservateurs,’ and it’s no accident that they’re extremely loath to make change, and that is where Henri is well-situated to nudge the Louvre forward, but in a way that doesn’t break the culture.”

A typical nudge was making Friday nights (called “nocturnes”) free for people younger than 26. Now on Fridays the museum is open almost to 10 p.m. and is swarming, particularly with teenagers.

Loyrette burbles on about an event-filled Louvre calendar, for adolescents and particularly young adults the ages of his children who, growing up, would never accompany him on his regular weekend visits to the Louvre.

Yes, it’s a “difficult” collection.

“Free doesn’t mean everything,” he muses. “Aaah, but if we say it’s free and we do something special for you. That’s different. If we say it’s free and young people of your age will explain to you with the same words you use -- What is a work of art? What is the meaning of this sculpture? That is different.”

And what about associating with a banal bit of fiction? Is that different?

It turns out that Loyrette’s Louvre is not above sharing the commercial success of “The Da Vinci Code.” They allowed part of the movie to be filmed in the museum, and this week the museum is announcing that it is sponsoring a 15-minute “Da Vinci Code” tour, narrated by actor Jean Reno, who plays the inspector in the movie, that can be downloaded from iTunes. The tour will also be available for 10 euros on an audio guide in the museum.

Recently, Loyrette has been all over the French and international media, explaining why he’s not reading the book, taking reporters on nighttime visits of the galleries where the fictional characters conspire and, oh yes, lauding the wonderful new American programming at the museum. He seems coyly amused when he’s pressed about the book:


“I’m lazy in a way.... “ he laughs. “But I will see the movie,” he adds. “I guess.”