In October, the High Museum of Atlanta, a relatively young and dynamic institution, and the Louvre, venerable at 215 years old, will launch a completely new and innovative collaborative venture. For Michael Shapiro, the High Museum’s director, and for me, this is an essential and exemplary association: and one, I believe, that other museums can learn from. So it is regrettable that some commentators, instead of looking at the project as a whole, have only focused, confusingly, on the financial element. This partnership is a global, scientific and cultural partnership, sharing the presentation of our collections, research and the spread of knowledge. It is, in fact, totally in line with the universal vocation that has been at the heart of the Louvre since its creation in 1793.
The two institutions have been working together on this project for three years, examining what makes a good museum and what its mission should be. How should its collections be presented, how should it function as a centre for research, and what is its social and educational role?
The Louvre has been looking at the way it will establish itself in Renzo Piano’s latest masterpiece, the Anne Cox Chambers Wing of the High Museum—small, at 700 square metres, but beautifully proportioned. We are also looking at the way we will establish ourselves on the US cultural scene. That is evolving rapidly, as is Atlanta, a city that is culturally ambitious, giving us a fascinating place to work in.
The programme will consist of nine temporary exhibitions, of different lengths (from three to 10 months) which tell the story of the Louvre. The story starts just before the French Revolution with the formation of the royal collections (two emblematic masterpieces from these collections, Raphael’s Baldassare Castiglione (right) and Poussin’s In arcadia ego will be lent, the Raphael for three months and the Poussin for seven months). It continues in the 19th century, with the formation of the major archaeological departments (the second year’s programme), and ends with the Louvre today and tomorrow, with reflections on the different ways collections can be displayed, the confrontation between historical and contemporary art, and the new emphasis placed on diverse specialities and civilisations such as Islamic art.
But producing these exhibitions, the most visible manifestation of the project, goes beyond the loaning of works of art, necessary as that is for a multi-dimensional partnership. For the past three years our teams have worked together fruitfully on the “Louvre Atlanta Project”. This involves curators—and for the first time curators from different departments have worked together on a joint project—as well as those responsible for visitors, for education, the lecture theatre, publications, sponsorship, museology and communications.
We are creating a programme of school exchanges and, last January, the first Atlanta schoolchildren came to the Louvre. In October their Parisian hosts will travel to Georgia: we are also creating a shared training programme for teachers. Together we are emphasising research, scientific publications, and giving our curators the chance to spend long periods in each other’s countries. Together, we are also allowing our staff to immerse themselves in different professional cultures, to reflect on our methods and procedures, and to re-examine the way we work.
The project will cost the High Museum about $14.5 million. The museum has already raised most of this sum thanks to the support of a few very active sponsors. In parallel, the American sponsors have generously contributed E5.3 million for the renovation of the Louvre’s 18th-century furniture galleries.
This sort of cooperation is not new nor should it be controversial. When I arrived at the Louvre in 2001, I wanted to make the institution more open internationally (it had often given the impression of being excessively reluctant to loan its works). I also wanted the museum’s departments to work more closely together, and I wanted it to have more contact with the contemporary world.
With its 7.5 million visitors a year (65% of them foreign) the Louvre has a responsibility to reach out, in diverse ways, towards others. For us, Atlanta is a new and promising world: we are advancing gently into unexplored territory. We are also getting to understand ourselves better. By doing that, we are forced to re-examine the way we see ourselves, the roles we should play and the choices we make. In brief, as we have done for the past 200 years, we are continuing to move forward.
The writer is director of the Louvre Museum in Paris