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Cracking the Louvre's code

`Da Vinci' puts a focus on the museum at a time when it's reaching for fresh relevance on the world stage -- perhaps at a cost.

May 14, 2006|Geraldine Baum | Special to The Times

Paris — THE director of the most famous museum in the world still hasn't read the famous novel du jour.

Henri Loyrette has little interest in "The Da Vinci Code" even though some of the record 7.5 million visitors to the Louvre Museum last year came in no small part because of its role in the book. This week's opening of the movie based on Dan Brown's thriller should only increase the fervor to loiter in the Grand Gallery, where fictional curator Jacques Sauniere takes a bullet.

No matter, says real-life Director Loyrette, ever so charmingly: "I have more important things to read. I just don't read books like that."

Loyrette may turn up his nose at the current literary phenomenon, but in the five years since he became director, he has embraced a series of changes in an attempt to transform a grand but old-fashioned institution into an even grander one newly connected to the world beyond its magnificent collection.

At the February opening of the Ingres exhibition the tall, gangly Loyrette is one minute graciously greeting a Rothschild who has come to admire a great-grandmother painted by Ingres; the next Loyrette is laughing mischievously with an acquaintance, pulling her hair from behind each ear and trying to tie it in front of her face. If the curator in "The Da Vinci Code" is "an old man of 76 years," the real director comports himself like the youthful and worldly man of 53 that he is.

During an interview in his office, the floor stacked with exhibition catalogs and books, Loyrette ponders how to make this tradition-bound institution relevant to the 21st century -- how to set priorities for a museum with a mission to be "universal" but also the essence of France when the country is going through its own identity crisis, with poor Muslim and African young people burning cars because they feel excluded and university students rioting against change.

Every answer involves three- and four-part qualifiers; Loyrette refers constantly to the Louvre's mission as "complex" and "difficult." Yet he is also direct about accomplishments, wryly observant of critics and unambiguous that the Louvre must engage in the issues that engage the nation.

"All my policy is not trying just to be something new or to change everything," he says. "It's really to reflect on what our mission is, and how do we fulfill it today and renew it today."

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Finding its place

THE Louvre is so immense -- both in literal space and in image -- that it can be hard to fathom that it has struggled to keep pace with the other great museums of the world -- and of Paris -- that have become hotspots for cultural tourism, bringing people back for more and different art experiences by repackaging and marketing their collections to make them more compelling.

Although by the end of the last century the Louvre had many of the de rigueur museum features, including its own shopping mall and website, it was seen as a charming but dusty and insular relic.

In five years, Loyrette says, he has sought to reinvent the Louvre's image without losing track of its priorities. He has focused on loaning more works to museums around the world -- the Louvre now sends out about 1,300 a year. In turn, this has improved the Louvre's ability to borrow, enabling it to double (to 16 in 2005) the number of special exhibitions since Loyrette took charge. He cites an invigorated loan policy for the success of two recent retrospectives -- Girodet, which closed in January, and Ingres, which closes tomorrow.

Starting in October, the Louvre also joins the lineup of art-rich institutions renting works to art-poor cousins. Over the next three years, the Louvre will send dozens of works across the Atlantic for nine temporary exhibitions at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. In return, American sponsors are paying the costs as well as an additional $6.9 million that the Louvre intends to use to refurbish its 18th century French furniture galleries.

But Loyrette insists that he had more than money on his mind when he forged the deal and other exchanges with the United States. "We have so much to learn from each other in research and education, and that can only make us a better place," he says, noting also that the Atlanta project was the first in the more than 200-year history of the Louvre that saw all eight curatorial departments working together. Curators, once unaccustomed to working across department lines, now find such collaborations strongly encouraged by the director.

The Louvre has also announced it will open a branch outside Paris -- also a common strategy for big museums to expand their reach and find new revenue sources.

For the Louvre, Loyrette says, opening an outpost is not as much about money as it is about its "sacred part" as a national museum and a chance to rethink the collection in a contemporary space. In 2009, a new, 5,000-square-meter space in the northern French town of Lens will begin displaying art from the Louvre's collection of hundreds of thousands of works.

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