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French National Museums Are Turning Into Businesses, Curators Complain

Translated Monday 1 August 2011, by Isabelle Métral and reviewed by Bill Scoble

Is it reasonable to think that museums can finance themselves, notably by staging “events”, by setting up major exhibitions that attract huge crowds? No, says the curators’ blueprint.

Notwithstanding public servants’ pledge of professional reserve, curators have for the first time decided to speak out: they have just published a blueprint in which they denounce the negative effects of having to sell products, as a result of cuts in public funding, and declare that they are “confronted with the same problems that plague hospitals and universities.” They insist it is unrealistic to think that museums can “finance themselves”. They confess to being "dismayed in the face of a policy that consists in staging ’events’ designed to make exhibitions profitable"– and express their deep concern as funds for the purchase of works of art are slashed, reserves imperiled — a concern that extends to the growing gap between the capital’s world-famous sites and provincial museums, with some of the latter being in danger of closing down.

They are afraid more and more museums will have to do without a curator, as a recent law allows. The Musée des arts premiers on Quai Branly in Paris (museum for native arts), a typical instance of the model currently promoted, was created by an art-dealer, then managed by an alumnus of the prestigious civil service institute (ENA) who picks exhibition commissioners among collectors and antiques dealers.

As for the Louvre itself, its exhibitions department is on the verge of implosion, having launched into a frantic race for the manic production of block-busters: works have narrowly escaped being damaged, absenteeism among the staff has never been so high, while they wonder about their mission… The media-resources department suffers from neglect. Only one person on the public-policy board is in charge of projects. For lack of sponsors, the prestigious establishment had to turn to 7,000 small donors in order to scrape up at the very last minute the amount needed for the purchase of Cranach the Elder’s Three Graces, an oil painting on wood dated 1531. The purchases budget was slashed by 46% in 2010. And even though the Apollo gallery narrowly escaped being renamed the Total gallery, and the Jocunda room the Nippon Television room, the funds that museums raise from sponsors, despite generous legal incitements, have been spiraling down. One line has been sky-rocketing, however: the renting out of spaces for private evening parties during which exhibits are perilously exposed to the ballet of delicacies and drinks as they are passed around.

At the Centre Pompidou, state funds have been cut by 5%. And despite the sale of three million tickets in 2010 and the dipping into the revolving funds for the last two years, the museum’s sails have had to be trimmed: the south gallery (devolved to creators) had to be shut down due to a shortage of resources; the middle-rank management is severely over-strained. How impoverished the museum is will be apparent in the fact that the 22.6 million dollars that a 1956 Andy Warhol self-portrait fetched in a Sotheby’s sale last May represents the total amount of the museum’s purchases budget over ten years! With prices sky-rocketing out of control it is nowadays impossible to make up for ten years of zero purchases….

So museums turn to foreign collectors who, desirous of promoting their culture, shape the contents of our public collections: Hicham Daoudi, for one, offers 150,000 dollars a year if the MNAM (National Museum of Modern Art) will buy works by artists from the Maghreb. And so it is with Gordon Schachat for South African artists; or e-Bay’s president for Iranian art in the Louvre.

And all the while, culture is becoming an instrument exposed to the vagaries of French foreign policy, as seen in the wrecking of the “Mexican year” [1]. What will become of the Franco-Syrian cultural cooperation accord which, among other things, provided for the renovation of Damas’ national museum is impossible to tell, given the current slaughtering of the Syrian people.

[1This fell a victim to a harsh prison sentence pronounced on a French woman who had married a Mexican drug bandit.

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