Archive
Interview

When the Musée du Louvre moves into the Richelieu wing, for years occupied by the Ministry of France, it overtakes the Metropolitan in New York as the biggest museum in the world. We have interviewed its director Michel Laclotte, who has seen the project through to completion

The apotheosis of the Louvre

Paris

WHAT IS THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE INAUGURATION OF THE GRAND LOUVRE THIS MONTH AND THE MUSEUM'S BICENTENARY?

I would say that these are parallel events; the connection is largely symbolic. The inauguration of the Grand Louvre - which means a doubling of the museum's floor area - was planned for this year, to coincide with the Louvre's bicentenary. There are conferences and celebrations of various kinds scheduled but no special exhibitions celebrating the bicentenary. The anniversary is of mainly symbolic significance.

AND IT IS PROBABLY THE INAUGURATION THAT CARRIES THE STRONGER EMOTIONAL CHARGE. IT HAS TWO SEPARATE ASPECTS: ONE RELATING TO THE IDENTITY OF THE LOUVRE ITSELF; THE SECOND TO DO WITH THE IMPORTANCE OF THE GRAND LOUVRE PROJECT AS COMPARED WITH THE DEVELOPMENT OF OTHER GREAT WORLD MUSEUMS.

I will try to answer your questions one at a time. The museum's identity is partly a question of its architectural design and structure. In this respect, the Palais du Louvre is an examplar of different Schools and periods, from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century.

This great edifice was built over a time-span of six centuries, and the builders have always tried to maintain its overall coherence. Many of the architects who worked on it during the seventeenth century sought to harmonise their efforts with the existing styles. When it was expanded in the nineteenth century, contemporary building techniques were adopted, but those responsible always harked back to earlier styles of architecture. During this century, the same spirit has prevailed. In 1930, for instance, when the Victory of Samothrace staircase was altered, the rhythms and forms chosen were perfectly in harmony with the building as a whole.

We have sought to respect this coherence; in 1950, the Salle des Etats was demolished. This was a mistake, which fortunately has not been repeated. Nowadays there is a great deal more respect for the history of the building and for the museum, and we are more cautious. I am not talking about respect for the history of the kings of France; the Louvre does not have to be regarded as a royal palace.

WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY RESPECT FOR THE MUSEUM?

In the nineteenth century, the Louvre as a museum influenced the sensibility of a very wide range of people, and not just artists. There are parts of the museum that must be preserved intact: for instance, the Salon Carré must remain a state room. It can, of course, be "clothed" with different furnishings, but it remains a perfect expression of its own period. This, to my mind, is one of the museum's most important functions: preserving the historic moment. As far as the new exhibition areas are concerned, there was no original decor left, except in two or three places. The architects have managed to express themselves in a modern idiom, albeit akin to that of the nineteenth century.

WHAT IS NEW IN THE REINSTALLATION OF THE COLLECTIONS?

The planning required close consultation between architects and curators. We had an immense building at our disposal; theoretically, we could have done anything we wanted. In practice, our choices were determined by a few simple constraints. At the time, I was in charge of painting. Since good lighting is essential in exhibiting pictures, I asked for the top floor, and my request was granted. For sculpture, the ground floor was the obvious choice, if only because many of the works are very heavy. For the decorative arts, we preferred the first floor; the exhibits fitted well in the spaces between the windows. We also felt it was very important to maintain the Louvre's traditional system of departments.

WERE YOU NOT TEMPTED TO MIX, SAY, PAINTINGS AND DECORATIVE ARTS?

First, there are historical consequences to be borne in mind. The departments were created in the nineteenth century. At first, there was just painting and sculpture; then, following Champollion's discoveries, the Departments of Egyptian and Middle-Eastern art were instituted on the first floor. Gradually, seven departments came into being, each with its own tradition and head. It is a fact that very few art historians specialise in more than one discipline. Exceptionally, John Pope-Hennessy is a scholar in both painting and sculpture, but he was never officially engaged for both by museums, which always made separate appointments in each area. Training and inclination demand that a curator specialise in a particular field.

The second reason for retaining the departmental system is a matter of logistics. As I have already said, not all works of art are exhibited in the same way: for example, paintings, sculptures and decorative arts require quite different lighting conditions. The third, and more fundamental, reason is that the relationship between the different arts and creative techniques of a given period does not always work satisfactorily. It is fine so long as the art of a period is essentially decorative, for instance in the case of Art Nouveau. But the same method would not work for the seventeenth century, because it would tend to exclude the greatest artists: how, for instance, would Poussin fit in? Besides, the Louvre does not have complete collections for every period; we have Flemish paintings, but no Flemish furniture. Is it not the case that the major museums - London or Berlin, for instance - do in fact arrange their works in distinct categories?

WHY DOES THE LOUVRE REJECT AN ARRANGEMENT WHICH WOULD MAKE IT POSSIBLE TO COMPARE SCHOOLS OF PAINTING AND SCULPTURE OF THE SAME HISTORICAL PERIOD?

The answer is that the bulk of our paintings and sculptures are of French origin, so an arrangement of the kind you have in mind would be unbalanced. Where French and international Mannerism are concerned, we do possess works illustrating key developments, and it might be interesting to hang, say, Parmigianino alongside Nicola dell'Abate. But, coming to the seventeenth century, I do not think I could establish links between, say, Rembrandt and Poussin, except for the fact that they are contemporaries, and that neither of the two paints like Velazquez!

THE LOUVRE IS ONE OF THE MOST VISITED MUSEUMS IN THE WORLD, AND PARTICULARLY POPULAR WITH FOREIGNERS. DO YOU NOT THINK THAT AN INTERDISCIPLINARY ARRANGEMENT, WITH ROOMS DEVOTED TO SPECIFIC PERIODS, WOULD HAVE PROVIDED A GOOD EDUCATIONAL FRAMEWORK, FOR, SAY, JAPANESE VISITORS TO WHOM WESTERN ART AND CULTURE IS ALIEN?

The Louvre exists to express the vision of artists. What counts is style, artistic creation, not the iconographic image, nor the fact that a work of art fits into a given social or cultural context. Let us take Italian art as an example. We possess works ranging from Cimabue to Tiepolo and Guardi, so we can almost illustrate fully the development of painting in that country up to the eighteenth century: through the characters and style of its artists, not by exhibiting an object or a fireplace! That is the role of the decorative arts. That, too, is part of the Louvre's tradition, since the museum owns some exceptional French furniture, tapestry and bronzes - treasures which enable us to illustrate not the development of interior decoration but the history of artistic forms and techniques, precious examples of artistic creativity, albeit on a small scale, that may rank in importance with a Michelangelo.

Illustrating techniques, reconstructing interiors, and so on, is in any case part of the task of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. There is a tendency to consider everything as equally worthy of attention. I had personal experience of this way of thinking at an earlier stage in my career: at the time when Marxist and sociological interpretations, in conjunction with the advocates of semiological analysts (of pure iconography, in other words) were having us believe that everything was equally deserving of interest.

But this is a lie. Caravaggio is better than a minor artist who may indeed have chosen interesting subject matter but who is not a great painter. The Louvre must guard against this way of thinking, and the fatal temptation to bring everything down to this interpretive lowest common denominator.

WHAT THEN ARE THE ADVANTAGES OF ARRANGING WORKS ACCORDING TO THE TRADITIONAL CATEGORIES?

First of all, I am convinced that ours is not a reactionary attitude but a necessary acknowledgement of tradition. Over the last 200 years, the Louvre has captured the attention of art historians of different disciplines, due largely to the way its collections are arranged. Perhaps I should add that the separate collections are bridged by publications, films and temporary exhibitions.

The advantage of our categorisation lies in the more logical circuit for visitors. This is clear in the case of French art: paintings and sculpture may be housed in separate departments, but they are on display in the same building. And the same is true of Italian art: you can go straight from Michelangelo to Raphael just by going up a floor. It is quite possible to make connections. Take another example: Islam, which at one time was not represented at all, is now featured alongside the Middle Eastern art of classical times: the same geographical area; a different period in history.

DOES THE ENLARGEMENT OF THE BUILDING ALSO ENTAIL A STRENGTHENING OF YOUR ADMINISTRATIVE STRUCTURE?

It involves a whole series of subtle changes, which, though not obvious to an outsider, will have important consequences in the way the museum is run. The Louvre is at last an independent body. The Direction des Musées de France was housed in the Palais du Louvre since the time of Napoleon III. The Ministry of Culture and the Direction des Musées have now agreed to grant us full autonomy as regards our internal affairs, and the Direction des Musées' offices have been moved to the Pyramid. But this is only one aspect of the changes, and the least important. What matters to us is the administrative aspect: at last we have our own management structure, with the appropriate resources. We have now created proper communications, cultural and technical services. The extension work was also an opportunity to set up an independent team of architects and engineers. The Louvre nevertheless remains part of the great family of Musées Nationaux, and depends directly on the Ministry of Culture.

AND WHAT ABOUT ACQUISITIONS: WILL THE FUNDS COME FROM THE DIRECTION DES MUS¿(#¿ES NATIONAUX?

Part of our funding will come from the Réunion des Musées Nationaux, the body which redistributes the income received from museums all over France through admission charges, and the remainder from the Ministry of Culture. According to the new regulations, the Louvre has to pay over 45% of the monies it receives in admission fees.

WHAT PROPORTION OF FUNDING COMES FROM THE STATE?

We receive help from the State, but this has unfortunately been reduced. Even donations made to us in return for tax exemptions have to be approved by the Ministry of Finance. Only the Centre Pompidou is not included in the system of financing agreed between the State and the Réunion des Musées Nationaux.

HOW DO YOU ACCOUNT FOR THIS EXCEPTION?

The acquisitions criteria for a museum of contemporary art are very different from our own. I therefore consider the distinction to be legitimate. As regards the actual running of the museum, the funds come from the State and, to a lesser extent, from our own internal resources and from private contributions. Self-generated revenue covers 10% of management costs, and a similar percentage is derived from private sources.

THEREFORE STATE AID IS ESSENTIAL?

Yes, but at the same time the State does not see the Louvre as a productive enterprise. Otherwise, we would be forced to agree to unacceptable compromises. The French government has understood the need to come up with large sums for the Louvre. I know this is possible only because the French system allows it, giving the President sufficient powers and leisure to create such institutions as the Centre Pompidou, the Musée d'Orsay or the Villette. And, of course, there has to be continuity, despite changes at the top. The Beaubourg project was begun under Pompidou, and finished during the presidency of Giscard d'Estaing. It reflects a belief in culture - the sense that, in serving the people, a museum has a social and political function. This way of viewing things has also had positive repercussions in the provinces, in Lyons and Lille for instance. It is a throwback to that social conscience which, in the nineteenth century, led to the building of major museums in some of the provincial towns. And initiatives of this kind have often been inspired and supported by Ministers of Culture from André Malraux onwards, such as Jack Lang or his successor, Jacques Toubon: men who have understood the importance of culture, and also its weight as a factor in politics. I have the happy impression that we may be witnessing an irreversible process, as if politicians had become aware that promoting culture is part of their duty as citizens. I naturally hope that this impression of mine will be confirmed by future events.

HOW ARE DECISIONS ON ACQUISITIONS TAKEN AT THE LOUVRE?

Every proposal is put to a secret ballot. This system can of course lead to difficulties, since there is a single sum of money to be shared among the various departments and all the Musées Nationaux. But it also engenders a sense of responsibility, especially in difficult times like these. Obviously, each department puts forward its own proposals, and often the proposed purchase is very expensive. It therefore has to be supported and defended.

DOES THIS NOT LEAD TO A SORT OF ELECTION CAMPAIGN?

To some extent, yes. But the system we have adopted (at present a proposal is accepted if it wins two-thirds of the votes) is very balanced, particularly, as I said, in times of hardship and sacrifice. In times of plenty, proposals are passed on a simple majority vote. Once agreement has been reached, the result of the vote is submitted to the Conseil des Musées Nationaux. We think it very important to remain within this system. One particularly positive aspect is the way the Réunion des Musées Nationaux assists in the organisation of international exhibitions.

For instance, if I asked to borrow a Titian from a museum in Budapest, I could be sure of obtaining the picture on loan, since the lending museum could in turn present a request for a work to any museum belonging to the Réunion. Requests and offers are being made all the time. In my view, this exchange network and the solidarity between museums it implies is one of the most successful achievements of cultural policy in the last thirty years.

AS WELL AS CURATORS AND TECHNICIANS, THE WORK FORCE INCLUDES WORKERS AND ATTENDANTS. HOW HAVE THEIR ROLES DEVELOPED?

As in the past, the Louvre continues to employ its own craftsmen, decorators, cabinet-makers and upholsterers, and contributes to their training. A role which has changed enormously is that of warder. There is a world of difference between the old-style warders and those of today. They, too, now undergo a period of training. This may not be very apparent to an outsider, but personnel work is an important aspect of the life of the museum. To give you a concrete example, in 1989, we were given some highly sophisticated security equipment to install in the Pyramid areas - some rather complicated computer systems. Received wisdom was that they would have to be run by engineers from outside. We, however, made a great effort to ensure that the new tasks could be carried out by members of our own staff. We selected a number of wardens and gave them training in information technology, obtaining excellent results. We saw it as a challenge; demonstrating that ultra-modern equipment can be taken on board by the old-fashioned organisation of a traditional

museum.

I IMAGINE THAT YOU NEED TO HAVE EXCELLENT RELATIONS WITH THE TRADE UNIONS IF YOU ARE GOING TO IMPLEMENT PROGRAMMES OF THIS KIND.

Definitely, but there are many trade unions and they are often very pugnacious. For instance, when we wanted to change our opening hours at the beginning of 1989, it took months of negotiation, and a number of strikes, before an agreement was reached.

In the beginning, these things caused me a great deal of worry. I had no experience of labour relations, but decided I would make a success of it. I hope I am not being patronising if I say that an organisation like the Louvre cannot work without a real sense that we are one body.

Although we generally get on well, we still have the occasional sharp tussle with the unions. Forty or so furious workmen will descend on my office. But as we know, the unions tend to play a very formal role: the clash between boss and workers is a kind of ritual. We eventually reach agreement by compromise, while maintaining a generally positive spirit.

AND HAS THE ROLE OF THE DIRECTOR CHANGED TOO?

I am officially the chairman of the Louvre, if you consider my administrative function, but basically I am the director of the museum. Among other things, my job is to ensure that all this new technology and methodology is compatible with the museum's tradition and image and with the role of the curator. It is a fact that many museum directors are tempted to entrust outside experts with tasks that should be undertaken by their curators.

My work, then - and I think I am good at it - is to co-ordinate the work of the curators and make sure they are coping with the new technology and programmes. It is vital that this role be accepted. It means additional work and involves scientific research, but it is essential. The curators must continue to be responsible for the museum, while the director - or chairman - must think like a curator.

IT MUST BE SAID THAT YOU HAVE REALLY INSISTED ON THIS POINT.

It was a "sine qua non" of my taking on the job. If we had not obtained officially recognised powers, I would never have accepted the appointment. In my opinion, a museum needs to have one head, supported by a strong administrative structure, not by a sort of alter ego with administrative functions and equal powers.

In any case, a museum director, whatever you call him, must have the training and spirit of a curator: basically he holds a moral responsibility vis-a-vis the public and the works in his charge. He must however be supported by a strong administration with well-defined management roles, as is now the case at the Louvre.

A MODEL STRUCTURE THAT YOU YOURSELF HAVE INSTITUTED?

Our initial idea was to establish a body for weighing particularly important decisions. The College of Curators now fulfils this role. Every Thursday morning, without fail, I meet with the seven departmental heads and together we discuss the underlying problem: support from a certain type of patron, the exhibition programme, and so on. There are no holds barred, and this is enormously important. Sometimes the College of Curators expresses doubts over my proposals, and I listen to them. I try to convince them, but by degrees, attempting to be the least authoritarian possible - though I must admit I am not particularly successful at that! Let us say that we always reach agreement in the end. In any case, I would not have accepted the post if all seven curators had not assured me that they were perfectly aware of the need for a director and agreed to my assuming that role.

HOW ARE YOUR RELATIONS WITH OTHER FRENCH MUSEUMS?

Coordinating our work is another of the tasks undertaken by the Direction des Musées de France. There is nevertheless a monthly meeting of the College of Curators. Of course, as the Louvre is a public institution and our curators are therefore members of the Direction des Musées Nationaux, they have free access to any of the museums belonging to this body.

HAS THERE BEEN ANY POLITICAL INTERFERENCE IN THE GRAND LOUVRE PROJECT?

At no time has anything been imposed on us. Mitterrand himself chose I.M. Pei. No competition was held to find an architect, partly because Pei would not have agreed to that kind of selection procedure; he was chosen for the Louvre on an ad hoc basis. I had been on a world tour visiting all the new museums and at the time I was working at the Musée d'Orsay. So I was well acquainted with Pei's work.

WHAT IS THE LOUVRE'S RELATIONSHIP WITH THE CITY OF PARIS?

People say that the Louvre is not much visited by French people and certainly not by Parisians. I have not seen the French statistics, but I do have recent information for British museums to hand. In the case of the British Museum itself, it would seem that 61% of admissions are people visiting the museum for the first time, and that 33% of all visitors are British. At the National Gallery, the percentage of local visitors is even lower (The Art Newspaper, No. 31, October 1993, p.10). But there are other things we could say about the relationship between the Louvre and the city of Paris. First, the way the new project integrates perfectly with the existing city layout. You can enter the museum from various directions, from the passage Richelieu or from the Cour Carrée. And from the new buildings there will be views over much of the city, and a magnificent vista up the rue de Rivoli. In other words, we have sought to create an open museum, in contrast with most European institutions of its kind. The British Museum, for instance, is a kind of metropolitan strong box.

AND WHAT ABOUT RELATIONS WITH THE PUBLIC?

Again, I have no statistics to hand, and in any case I do not like figures, especially when they are not absolutely reliable. I would say that those who come to us are very different from those visiting British institutions. Whereas Britain relies heavily on Canadian and American tourists, our visitors come from all parts of the world, and foreigners account for the majority of our admissions. To attract Parisians and people from the wider local area to the Louvre, some time ago we inaugurated a programme of "symposia", meetings and other initiatives. This is still insufficient, and we shall have to make further efforts to become attractive to people who cannot visit the museum during the day because of their work. Whereas tourists tend to arrive mid-morning, Parisians are not in evidence until after four in the afternoon. We are already open two evenings a week: the whole museum on Wednesday, and, from 22 November, the Richelieu wing on Mondays.

ARE YOU REALLY SATISFIED WITH THE RICHELIEU WING?

Yes. You must appreciate that, at the Louvre, we have seven vigorous Departments headed by experienced curators with strong personalities, and rightly so. As director, my role is a delicate one. I remember clearly my time as curator of the Department of Painting and I know how difficult it would have been for me to put up with interference from a director. I have to make sure that my role as general co-ordinator is accepted by all. But when it comes down to details - the colour of the galleries, the shape of the display cases - there are limits to what I can impose. And I am convinced that, if the museum is to work well, the curators must be free to express themselves as they see fit. It is a very delicate situation.

AND WHAT ABOUT THE ARCHITECTURAL CHOICES?

Architectural decisions depend on objective criteria, from the dimensions of the area involved to the choice of materials. The same cannot be said of colour schemes, which tend to be influenced by fashion. Thirty years ago, the colours I preferred in a museum were grey, various shades of brown and beige - a range that I still use for my own working areas. Nowadays, young people prefer stronger colours. I cannot judge whether this is right or wrong. There is no absolute truth in such matters.

SO YOU WERE HAPPY WITH PIERRE ROSENBERG'S CHOICE OF COLOURS FOR THE EIGHTEENTH- AND NINETEENTH-CENTURY GALLERY?

Yes. There are some aspects I positively warm to and virtually nothing I really detest: we discussed the two or three points I was not satisfied with and made some slight changes. But to answer your question, yes, on the whole I am quite happy, in the sense that the end result corresponds to what we set out to achieve. Pei has done a really good job. Pierre Rosenberg and I insisted on the need for natural lighting, and Pei more than fulfilled our expectations. His solution is brilliant.

TO WHAT EXTENT CAN THE LOUVRE BE TAKEN AS A MODEL FOR OTHER MAJOR MUSEUMS?

There are several points I might make. My analysis begins with our experience as a museum: an institution as extensive as the Louvre needs a certain unity, but at the same time it is essential that there be some differentiation. In our case, the differences are between one department and another, but they function as parts of a single entity. In the same way, I would say that the Louvre should not necessarily set itself up as an example for other museums. We need diversity; uniformity is dangerous.

YOU HAVE ANNOUNCED YOUR INTENTION TO RETIRE IN A YEAR'S TIME. WHAT DO YOU FEEL YOU WILL HAVE ACHIEVED?

I have always been drawn to museums for two reasons. First, research: my personal love of painting includes the need to seek out undiscovered works; this aspect has always attracted me. When I came to the Department of Painting at the Louvre, I had already gained experience at the museums of Aix-en-Provence. I had a certain overall knowledge of painting, and at the Louvre we had to take an interest in wider, less specialised fields, though I had previously concentrated on Sienese painting. As well as this passion for painting, which I hope to cultivate in the future, since my student days I have always been interested in the relationship between "content" and "container", and the best way to present works of art to the public. The curator is a kind of intermediary; he is certainly not the repository of all truth - he can make mistakes - but his task is to display a work in the best possible way, so that it can be studied, appreciated and loved. It was partly on account of this interest of mine that the Musée d'Orsay asked me to devise a plan of how the works might be viewed and on relations with the architects.

In the future, I believe that these two driving forces in my life will be reflected in the work of two distinct types of curator: on the one hand, the curator who is particularly taken up with problems of management and the organisation of cultural services; on the other, the man who devotes himself to pure research. Both types are necessary.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The apotheosis of the Louvre'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 32 November 1993