Controversies France

Outrage at Sarkozy’s Versailles choice

President criticised for appointing a journalist as director

Catherine Pégard replaces Jean-Jacques Aillagon as director of the Palace of Versailles

paris. The appointment of a former journalist as the director of the Palace of Versailles outside Paris has provoked a wave of criticism with charges of cronyism levelled at the new chief of the 17th-century château. The French culture ministry announced in late August that Catherine Pégard, a former advisor to President Nicolas Sarkozy, will replace Jean-Jacques Aillagon this month after four years at the helm. Pégard, the former editor-in-chief of the current affairs magazine Le Point, has worked for the French government since 2007; her contract is for a five-year tenure.

“The fact that Sarkozy wants to reward his colleague is in the natural order of things, but not with Versailles,” Jean-Christophe Castelain, the editor of our sister paper Le Journal des Arts, says in an editorial. “Her appointment is a mistake; she is not the issue, but her CV is. Thirty years in political journalism and a stint in the presidential cabinet does not equip her to run a complex site which employs 1,000 staff, has visitor figures of 3.5 million and a budget of €80m.” The move has sparked a debate about the procedures adopted for hiring public body managers, he added.

Last year, however, contrary to French press reports that former minister Xavier Darcos was set to be appointed director of the Palace of Versailles when Aillagon’s contract was up, Aillagon was awarded a new three-year contract to remain in the post. The former culture minister reportedly “did himself justice” and “put up a good fight” in his interviews, said sources at the French culture ministry. But Aillagon has since fallen foul of government legislation which requires French civil servants to retire at the age of 65.

“The fact that Aillagon cannot extend his tenure beyond the age of 65, in spite of numerous exceptions to the rule, is one thing. But the appointment of Pégard is something altogether more outrageous,” says Didier Rykner, the editor of La Tribune de l’Art website, who questioned Pégard’s academic qualifications and work experience within the cultural sector. “This is a political appointment and a smack in the face by Sarkozy to museum curators and art historians in general.” Pégard could not be reached for comment.

French culture professionals are now turning to the question of Pégard’s plans for the sprawling site. Aillagon initiated a

high-profile contemporary art programme which launched in 2008 with a show by US artist Jeff Koons, followed by an exhibition devoted to the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami last year. These shows led to accusations of conflict of interest by sections of the French press (The Art Newspaper, April 2010, p65) as well as protests from traditionalist campaign groups.

When recently asked by the French newspaper Le Figaro if he had turned Versailles into Disneyland, Aillagon said: “Only those who are misinformed about Eurodisney and Versailles talk of ‘Disneylandisation’. It’s an insulting insinuation. Basically, it signals a complete hatred of contemporary art…art, be it contemporary, modern or ancient, is dependent on [the] market, that’s nothing new. Works by Murakami, Bernar Venet, even cabinets by Domenico Cucci belonging to Louis XIV, are not shown at Versailles with the aim of increasing their market value but because the public should be aware of such pieces.”

Aillagon has said that an exhibition of works by Maurizio Cattelan, initially pencilled into the schedule for 2012, would now depend on his successor. A spokeswoman for the palace declined to comment on Pégard’s strategy for the historic site, but the palace’s controversial contemporary art programme continues apace nonetheless with an exhibition of works by the Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos scheduled for spring 2012.

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