Given that it is Bastille Day, and I have long ago said all that needs to be said about this most dreadful of un-holydays, the reader may be interested in reading about a less bloody battle going on in France at the moment. The Louvre announced this week that it will be moving a quarter of a million of its works currently held in storage in Paris, out to a former mining town in the north of France. The building of a new storage facility and the subsequent move will take place despite significant domestic and international criticism of the project. While it is easy to look at this plan and detect a strong whiff of that most pungent of odors, politics, the venture does give us the chance to consider what role politics can play for good in the art world.
It may surprise you to learn that the collections of many museums, but particularly ones of significant scope such as The Louvre, are never fully on display to the public. When you go to The National Gallery here in Washington for example, you are seeing only a small percentage of the thousands and thousands of pieces a major museum possesses. Because it would be impossible to display all of its holdings, the National Gallery has both an art storage facility and a separate warehouse where these works are housed in suburban Maryland, about ten miles from downtown Washington.
By comparison the former mining town of Liévin, where The Louvre will begin storing its art, is located 125 miles from central Paris. According to The Art Newspaper, Louvre President Jean-Luc Martinez has admitted that he will have to come up with ways not only to shuttle Louvre employees to and from the facility, but to actually house them there, since the town is located a 4-5 hour train ride away from Paris. Understandably, 42 of the 45 curators of The Louvre have signed a protest letter against going ahead with this move.
Timing is also of the essence for M. Martinez since French Senator Daniel Percheron, who has been a driving force behind this project, is leaving office next year. Senator Percheron is both a leading member of France’s ruling socialist party, and – quelle surprise – the representative of the region where the Louvre store will be constructed. No doubt the effort to establish his political legacy played a significant part in pulling off this coup for his constituents. For of course not only will several years’ worth of construction jobs result from this project but, once established, the huge facility will need guards, cleaners, administrative staff, etc., while those who go to work and study there will need nearby hotels, restaurants, dry cleaners, and so on.
Moreover the location for this storage site, strange as it may seem to send these works of art so far away from home, is no accident. The Louvre store will be a few miles from the “mini Louvre” in the nearby town of Lens, a museum which you may never have heard of. It was built in 2012 to display works from the overstuffed Parisian vaults of The Louvre, in part to try to draw tourism to this rusty, depressed part of France. If you are looking for Delacroix’s iconic “Liberty Leading the People”, or Raphael’s magnificent portrait of Castiglione – which in fact serves as the thematic inspiration for this blog – they are no longer in Paris, but rather in the Louvre-Lens. Sadly, this ensures that I will probably never get to see the portrait in person, but be that as it may.
The question to be asked however, is not whether it is wrong to send all of this art out of Paris. The real question is whether there was a workable alternative that could have been accomplished politically. Certainly, there are legitimate concerns to be raised regarding the safety and conservation of so many works of art traveling from one place to another, given the inherent fragility of many of the works moving north. Those concerns need to be addressed thoroughly, and one would expect that The Louvre will bear them in mind.
However, if no location within Paris or its environs was able to mount the funding, logistics, and yes, political will necessary to bring about the creation of this project, what, then, would be the acceptable alternative? Allow these works of art to sit below flood stage in the basements of the Louvre, awaiting the next inundation of the Seine? Appropriate or build a massive facility in or near the capital, where the associated costs for such a project would be astronomically higher, for a country still reeling from economic downturn?
Doing nothing and risking the destruction of the art at issue would seem a pyrrhic victory, at best, and gross negligence, at worst, both for the artistic and historical patrimony of France and indeed of all mankind. Much as one finds the end result somewhat distasteful, one must also be honest in acknowledging that the politics at play here will lead, if not to the best result, at least to a solution with positive externalities. The art will be preserved, a poor area of France will benefit, and perhaps works which have never been thoroughly studied or understood for centuries, may finally see the light of day, as they emerge from the cellars in which they presently reside. Politics may not always provide the answer to all our problems, but without its influence, efforts to preserve artistic collections of major significance such as this one, would almost certainly fall entirely by the wayside.