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For rent: Culture. Not cheap at all.

French museums' loans of prized possessions for hefty donations have caused alarm in the nation's art circles.

January 12, 2007|Angela Doland | Associated Press

PARIS — Is the Louvre wrong to lend out treasures to Atlanta or Abu Dhabi in exchange for funding? An argument is dividing France's art world, with protesters circulating an online petition that declares, "Museums are not for sale."

At issue is whether French museums, including the Louvre, are selling their souls by lending too many works to museums abroad and whether the government is turning France's rich artistic heritage into a commercial brand.

The Louvre has already begun lending pieces to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, part of an ambitious three-year plan. Talks are underway to build a mini-Louvre in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, and a branch of the Pompidou Center museum of contemporary art in Shanghai.

Such deep cooperation goes far beyond the typical museum loans for exhibits -- and the sheer number of operations in progress has some in the art world worried that France's museums will be put under strain.

Didier Rykner, who founded a website called "La Tribune de l'Art," has collected 1,400 signatures against the projects. He fears the government is hijacking art to promote France's trade and diplomatic interests.

"I'm not sure the role of French museums is to develop tourism in Abu Dhabi," he said by telephone.

Rykner says he supports museum exchanges and corporate sponsorship and that he has no fear of globalization. The issue, he says, is the scope of the new projects and the huge sums of money at stake.

The affair began last month, when three prominent art world figures wrote an open letter in Le Monde newspaper under the headline "Museums Are Not for Sale." The authors were Francoise Cachin, former director of France's museum system; Jean Clair, onetime director of the Picasso Museum; and Roland Recht, an art historian and critic. Their letter formed the basis for the petition on Rykner's site.

The authors took issue with the Atlanta exchange, complaining that treasures by Poussin and Raphael "were sent to the rich city of Coca-Cola, for one year or three months depending on the works" for $17 million. Atlanta is the headquarters of the Coca-Cola Co.

"The worst is yet to come," the authors wrote of the Abu Dhabi project, complaining of the government's "diplomatic gift" to the oil-rich United Arab Emirates.

"Isn't that 'selling your soul?' " they asked. Le Monde reported that France's museums were to gain about $653 million for their role in Abu Dhabi. That project, and the talks for the museum in China, are still largely under wraps.

The Abu Dhabi museum is expected to gather art from French museums beyond just the Louvre, but it would bear the venerable museum's name for a time, until it can build its own collection, said Henri Loyrette, the Louvre's director.

In an interview with Le Monde, Loyrette said he couldn't understand what the fuss was about, since both Cachin and Clair also raised money in their day by lending out major masterpieces.

As director of France's national museum network, for example, Cachin allowed Claude Monet's "Water Lilies," from the Orangerie Museum, to travel for more than three years to help pay for renovations to the building, Loyrette pointed out.

Beyond that, he said, the Louvre doesn't charge rent for loans, but it accepts contributions from the private donors who sponsor exhibits.

"It's obvious that there are economic stakes," Loyrette said. "Money brought in from this type of operation is important, we can't hide it.

"But we must recall that the Louvre was set up during the Revolution and the [Napoleonic] Empire as a universal museum. And all throughout its two-century history, it has always been attached to having partnerships abroad."

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