Paris : A Capital of the Arts Is Forced to Evolve


Even as the economy and his own fortunes sputter, President François Hollande has whirled through a flurry of recent museum openings and art events in Paris with the zeal of someone in the middle of a political campaign, reveling in the nation’s place as a capital of culture. On Saturday, note the International New York Times,  the state-run Picasso museum swung open the grand doors to its remodeled 17th-century Baroque mansion, overhauled at a cost of 50 million euros (about $63 million). On Monday, the Louis Vuitton Foundation formally opened to the public a $135 million museum of billowing glass sails and misted ponds to show off the private collection of the billionaire Bernard Arnault. Paris also hosted a sprawling contemporary art fair that drew galleries from around the world. “We cannot build anything based on nostalgia,” but instead “on emotion, hope and conquest,” Mr. Hollande said at the inauguration of the Musée Picasso, boasting that France was “culturally shining.”

The opening of two major museums within days underscored the place that France, and Paris in particular, holds as a beacon of art and culture. But even at Paris’s moment of celebration, France’s underlying political and economic troubles were a tear in an otherwise lovely canvas that was impossible to ignore.

France’s leadership is struggling to pay for the government it provides. While the capital remains a global magnet of culture, it increasingly risks becoming a playground for the world’s elite, detached from its midsize cities, villages and countryside, where rising hardships stoke resentments and widen the opening for far-right parties.

The tough economic climate is forcing France to revisit its vaunted model by which the state funds and manages the arts, and the juxtaposition of the two museums made clear the lurking shift being forced on France’s values, with all the attendant controversies.


The Louis Vuitton Foundation is just the latest example of how French cultural glory is being privatized. And the epic troubles of the Musée Picasso — closed five years amid cost overruns and a staff revolt — illustrate how even a state with a proud history of arts patronage retooled its approach in the face of an erosion of resources. “All the shine and gloss of this cultural moment hides the misery befalling our culture budgets, our decline in the global art market, our creaking state institutions, our falling behind the Chinese, the declining appetite of the French public for museums,” said Isabel Pasquier, a cultural journalist for France Inter radio. “Paris still has all of the glamour, but not the financial strength.”


Some view the shifting winds as a healthy sign. Frédéric Martel, a writer who hosts a radio show on the arts and wrote a book on the funding of culture in the United States, noted that the conventional view in some quarters used to be that culture financed and organized by the state was good and culture shaped by market forces, whether Hollywood or Disneyland, was bad. This prejudice is slowly dissipating, he said. Increasingly, France is importing the model of the nonprofit foundation bankrolled by a wealthy benefactor. Such patrons can also afford risk-taking star architects like Frank Gehry, who designed the Louis Vuitton Foundation, or Renzo Piano, who did the new quarters of the Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé Foundation, devoted to the history of cinema, which looks like a giant armadillo.

“There is a new way of thinking that having a billionaire create a nonprofit foundation for the arts is a very good thing and a public good,” Mr. Martel said. The notion that business can pollute the arts is changing, he added.


Reduced national spending over the past two years has forced major landmarks like the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay to turn to the public in search of crowdfunding to restore a precious Gustave Courbet painting or to acquire a historic jeweled table. The Musée Picasso itself financed much of its remodeling costs by renting precious works to foreign museums.

Because of necessity and budget cuts, institutions like the Palais de Tokyo are experimenting with renting out some of their space to luxury goods companies like Chanel, which created an exhibition about its classic perfume, Chanel No. 5, last year.

“The nation’s budget helps a lot of the arts, but the situation is very difficult,” said Jean de Loisy, president of the Palais de Tokyo, whose museum has been responsible for raising 50 percent of its budget in the past two years. “We are like museums in all the world everywhere, and we have to ask people and brands to participate and I think that’s very good.”

While the French capital’s museums are a huge international draw — more than 70 percent of the Louvre’s nine million visitors last year were foreign — the city’s place in the global art market is less secure.

France once dominated the art market, but it is now ranked fourth in the contemporary art market with €26 million in sales last year, or around $35 million, well behind China at the top, with around $800 million in sales, followed by the United States and Britain, according to Thierry Ehrmann, president of Artprice, a French database for art auctions and art prices.

Against that backdrop, the rise of audacious buildings funded by big business is becoming more attractive. Fleur Pellerin, the culture minister, said in an interview that France had a long tradition of private sector funding of the arts, and she stressed that state funding and private funding of culture were “complementary.”


In the case of the Louis Vuitton Foundation, the new building is funded by subsidiaries around the world of LVMH, the luxury goods conglomerate, according to Jean-Paul Claverie, an adviser on the project to Mr. Arnault, who said the foundation preferred not to discuss its financing. “In philanthropy, we never express figures because we want to let the dream and the emotion speak for itself,” Mr. Claverie said while sitting near the reflective pools of the new museum. “Bernard Arnault had in mind that the group has to contribute to the arts because the success of the group is based on its relationship with the artistic image of France.” But critics are already wary of the impact of a private museum with huge resources. At Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain, or FIAC, the contemporary arts fair in Paris that ended Sunday, the debate centered on issues such as whether a private museum was really more concerned with brand marketing.

“The capital of culture is only marketing for Louis Vuitton, and that’s where they are going,” said Fernando Morales-de la Cruz, creator of the Itinerant Museum of Art, who was roaming FIAC in search of funders for his decidedly different approach: painting the artworks of legendary artists on nude adults walking in public spaces.


“Why do you have to make these museums so amazing outside?” he added. “Because this is a marketing tool.”

In a sign of the tensions over the increasing privatization of the arts, the creation of the new Louis Vuitton building was pilloried by some critics as the glorified vanity project of a billionaire who had used his power and influence to build a pyramid and to silence dissent. The widespread publicity about the building “is emblematic of the corrupt relations between the media and LVMH,” fumed Mediapart, an influential online news website, under the headline, “The Courtesan’s Ball.” Nevertheless, others say hard economic times may have the paradoxical virtue of helping to spur creativity and to magnify the importance of culture.


Ms. Pasquier, the France Inter journalist, noted that the greatest artists throughout the centuries produced many of their masterpieces when, like France, they were living through difficult periods.

“An artist with no worries becomes spoiled and complacent,” she said, “and the same applies to a country.”

Publié par l'International New York Times By DAN BILEFSKY and DOREEN CARVAJAL OCT. 27, 2014 

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