Finally, following in the Guggenheim’s footsteps, the first satellite Louvre has hit ground. But it has opened, not in Abu Dhabi, but in Lens, an ex-mining town in northeastern France, one of the country's poorest cities with an unemployment rate of 24 percent.
In a series of aluminium and glass boxes, designed by SANAA, and strung out across on an old coal field, two huge exhibition spaces show a selection of work from the vast Louvre Collections, providing “an overview of two thousand years of art” (up to the 19th century), including key works such as Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Virgin and Child With St. Anne or Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People.
Yet again there have been inevitable references to the so-called Bilbao Effect - what Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim museum supposedly did economically to revive that Basque town – with The Huffington Post quoting regional president Daniel Percheron as saying: “When the coal stopped, we became a ghost town. (Now) we are telling entrepreneurs and companies: come here.... there is a real future.” And for the Louvre it is part of a wider strategy to make its collection more accessible to people living outside Paris. As Henri Loyrette, the director of the Louvre, said in a speech quoted in The New York Times, Lens has “exactly the type of population we wanted to reach out to.”
But that population seemed rather less than impressed, patronised even, when The Huffington Post talked to some of them: “They said that Lens is now alive. Look around, it's dead, all dead,” opined café worker Veronique Roszak, 53 “Who'll come here? We weren't consulted on whether we wanted (a Louvre)… Young people here are looking for work.” And resident Amandine Grossemy, 26, said: “Why do we need a museum and culture here? We need money and jobs… Who's da Vinci, anyway?”
But architecturally, with SANAA it seems still able to do no wrong, the display of the works in the building, mounted clear of the structure, has been generally welcomed by cultural critics and mavens:
“The decision to have the pieces free-standing rather than hung allowed SANAA to take the radical step of lining the gallery in polished aluminum and slightly curving the walls (the floor is gently concave too). It is a subtly torqued thing of shimmering beauty which allows the collection to gleam ghostly in its walls, reflecting visitors back among the objects like creatures in a forest. It is an extraordinarily gentle coup de théatre.” gushed The Economist, whilst Rowan Moore in The Observer cooed: “ You are simultaneously taken into a metallic cloud, and returned to earth. The works are removed from the contexts in which you are used to seeing them – the spaces like palaces or temples of traditional museums – and put into a new context made of art and people playing off one another. The effect is to make each work more immediate, more violent, fragile, erotic, mysterious – whatever their artists intended – than it did before.”
But the overall strategy of having a regional Louvre, and the curatorial splitting of its collections, has divided critics, non where more so than in the pages of The Guardian. Whilst their architecture critic Oliver Wainwright commented: “As a means of breathing fresh life into the Louvre's collection, and providing an overview of the history of art to a wider public, it is hard to fault this project.” Jonathan Jones, their art critic, begged to disagree: “Big museums that are global destinations are not elitist. They are exciting, rich and truly educational. They have a glamour that stops them feeling like school, a scale that lifts the spirits. Diffusing this rare magic is illogical. The Louvre-Lens looks like a clumsy idea to me, a self-hating move by an institution that should be proud of its palatial magnificence. …the Louvre is taking a huge risk …It is breaking up a collection that is one of the wonders of the world.”