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Mixing art and commerce

Traditionalists scoff at Paris' new private museum, which is charging a hefty fee to view works from the collection of Picasso's widow.

March 21, 2004|Kristin Hohenadel | Special to The Times

Marc Restellini wants his fellow Parisians to understand there's no such thing as a free art show. It costs a lot of money to put on an exhibition, says the founder of the Pinacotheque de Paris, a new private museum in the former Baccarat crystal museum and boutique on the rue de Paradis near the Gare de l'Est.

To help defray those costs, the art historian-turned-entrepreneur is charging a 12-euro (about $15) entry fee -- roughly twice the price of admission to the state-subsidized Louvre.

"When we spend 12 euros at McDonald's, we don't say, 'It's so expensive,' " Restellini said recently in his small office at the museum. "When we go see 'Terminator,' nobody says it's expensive. But in France, people are accustomed to having culture for free. And somehow that devalues it."

Unlike in the United States, most of France's museums are state-owned and operated and Restellini believes that the French, spoiled by an embarrassment of state-subsidized cultural riches, have learned to take art for granted.

"We don't make the effort to discover," he says. "But from the moment we pay for something, we pay more attention -- we feel we must take advantage of it fully because we've paid money for it. An exhibition is nothing but a show -- and I think somehow that it's important for people to participate in this show."

Restellini has shown his flair for drawing audiences and pleasing crowds with big, popular, money-making shows such as the wildly successful Modigliani exhibition he presented at the Musee du Luxembourg in 2002.

Through advertisements in movie theaters, on the backs of buses and plastered over 250 Smart cars, the Pinacotheque has attracted about 1,500 people a day since it opened in November with a kickoff exhibition, "Intimate Picasso: The Collection of Jacqueline," which includes nearly 100 works from the private collection of the late Jacqueline Roque, Picasso's second and last wife. It includes drawings, paintings, sculptures and collages -- most of which have never been exhibited in France -- as well as 160 family photos taken by Roque.

The show runs until March 28. The Pinacotheque will then close for remodeling and open in the fall with a permanent collection and temporary exhibits.

Although people are coming, some traditionalists have blanched at the mixture of art and commerce. Liberation called Restellini's ad campaign "vulgar." And he said he has butted heads with journalists from such publications as the art establishment Beaux Arts Magazine, which asked why France needs a private museum when it has the Musee d'Orsay and the Louvre. He stops to Google himself to point out one of his Web critics, who calls him unprintable names, mocks his business plan as "an approach of pure poetry" and then grills him for referring to the paintings in the exhibition as "my paintings." Even the show's design is mocked: "The exhibition space is presented like a mausoleum to Jacqueline," his anonymous critic says. "That poor Jacqueline ought to return to her tomb."

"There is a bit of a resistance," Restellini says. "There are people who insult me -- it's virulent sometimes. It's difficult to change people's habits. Very difficult. It's not easy to do things in France. It's funny to see how people behave. It's jealousy. In the U.S. people say 'Wow, great.... ' In France, it's 'Ahh....' " he trails off, letting a disproving expiration of breath make his point.

Private collections

Restellini says those who believe in the sanctity of state-funded art should note that state museums make up a minority of the world's art institutions.

"The problem is that we've arrived at a stage now where the state has no more money," he says, "and culture is the first thing to be diminished. So you have to find a solution. If not, what will culture be in 10 or 20 years?" Restellini says he is disturbed by the lack of art history taught in French schools, so he invites groups of schoolchildren to visit the museum at no charge for an hour before opening.

Eventually, he would like to set up an international network of affiliated museums that would stretch from Paris to London to Tokyo to Berlin -- allowing him to conceive, organize and circulate large shows destined for a large public at a reduced cost. The model is Thomas Krens' developing international chain of Guggenheim museums, without the nonprofit status.

He persuaded Roque's only daughter and heir, Catherine, to let him display the private collection of works that Picasso left to his widow, who killed herself 13 years after the artist's death.

"You would never have an exhibition like this in a national museum in France because it's a private collection," he says, "and state museums have a role to show off the patrimony of the state, not private collections. That's why private collections never get exposed in France."

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