The man who lives in the Louvre

Reviewed on 12/13/2010 | 1 Review

Portraits

Henri Loyrette is since 2001 the director of the world's biggest and most visited museum

Who’s the man behind the Louvre? Good question. Here he comes: His name is Henri Loyrette, he’s 58 years old, nearly two meters tall, six foot six, and he’s a true Parisian.

Photo: © Kai Jünemann

Since 2001 he’s been the director of the world’s biggest and most visited museum. To tell you the truth: I’m a bit jealous of him. Why? Well, Mr. Loyrette is very lucky. Not only does he reign over 400 000 art works (with 35 000 permanently on display), he has, believe it or not, a government flat at his work place: he is the guy who lives at the Louvre. If only he had the time to visit his home… Apparently, only on Sundays does Mr. Loyrette find the time to stroll around and have a look.

Henri Loyrette is a trained art historian, born in Paris, his father was a famous lawyer, his mother an Egyptologist, and they lived just on the other side of the Seine. You can imagine that the young boy discovered the treasures of the Louvre at an age when others are still in their Asterix comics.

A scholar who became a manager

Mr. Loyrette has never been a manager. He’s a true scholar. He has written and published about 18 books, most of them dealing with 18th century art, which is his field. But he has also written about Marcel Proust. Once, when I had the chance to interview him in his office at the Musée d’Orsay, where he was previously director, I wasn’t only shocked by his size, but amazed to see tons of books all over. Apparently, that hasn’t changed at all. When asked about it, Mr. Loyrette usually goes on the defensive and declares that there are a lot of gifts among these books and that he hasn’t read everything. Perhaps, but a lot, I guess.

Since Mr. Loyrette is at the head of Louvre visitor numbers are up 70%

Mr. Loyrette is a scholar, but one who turned into a manager. When he arrived at the Louvre after 18 years at the Musee d’Orsay, the museum had already been transformed into, what they call here in France, the Grand Louvre. Ieo Ming Pei had constructed the famous and then-controversial pyramid, but the time of scandal and polemics was over. Since his arrival the attendance at the museum is up about 70 percent. The other day, Loyrette was giving an interview to the Figaro talking about 8,6 million visitors a year. That makes 30 000 daily. Too many? Not for him.

Most of the peope only want to see the Mona Lisa

Smile! Louvre visitors in front of the Mona Lisa

The downside of the success is obvious: The entrance area wasn’t designed for that many visitors. And the vast majority of these millions of people come to see only one — or three — pieces of art:  “Everyone wants to see the same three things: the Mona Lisa; the Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory,” he once moaned at a journalist from the New York Times.

It’s actually even worse: 80 percent of the people only want to see the Mona Lisa. And nothing else. That’s why the painting has been displaced, giving now easy access without forcing visitors to have to walk a lot. (If you would like to see the entire Louvre, you need to walk through 14 kilometres of galleries, that makes eight miles.) But there is another number that Mr. Loyrette is really proud of: 40 percent of the visitors are under 26.

Mr. Loyrette, in a way, opened up and modernized the Louvre. He was the one who first invited contemporary artists. After Pierre Soulages, Joseph Kosuth it was German artist Anselm Kiefer who was asked to do a monumental decorative painting.

Opening and reviving tradition

Anselm Kiefer: Athanor, 2007, Louvre

He also invited guests from other fields: At the moment Mr. Loyrette has given carte blanche to Patrice Chéreau. With Les visages et les corps the writer, filmmaker and theatre director Chéreau is showing performances and an exhibition. But before him there was Tony Morrison, Umberto Eco and Pierre Boulez. “I’m really not doing something new,” Henri Loyrette said, “I’m trying to revive a tradition.”

Actually, in 1953 Georges Braque decorated the ceiling of a gallery that was one Henri II’s antechamber. Since then the Louvre has been primarily focused on polishing the reputation of dead artists, not promoting new ones, especially if they’re American. Only three paintings of American artists are part of Louvre treasure. “A scandal” for Mr. Loyrette.

Under Mr. Loyrette the Louvre changed direction. And it had to. Because the Louvre was no longer the national treasure entirely dependant on government funding. From 60 percent in 2001 when Loyrette arrived, the contribution from the French government decreased little by little to 47 percent, and next year, Mr. Loyrette again has to deal with 5 percent cuts. He started drumming up donations and trading on the Louvre’s brand and collection to raise cash. In 2007 he signed a deal worth over € 700 million with Abu Dhabi: In 2013 the Louvre Abu Dhabi will open on Saadiyat Island, wearing the Louvre brand and displaying works from the prestigious collections in Paris.

A new way of thinking

The Louvre, all of a sudden, had a new way of thinking, a plan for “profit maximization” as a colleague, Klaus-Dieter Lehman, President of Germany’s Foundation for Prussian Culture, put it. A while later the project of the Louvre-Lens followed, a satellite in the deserted region of the Nord-Pas de Calais.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Loyrette’s approach has not been popular with everyone. Most people believe that he is merely doing what any museum director has to do these days to make the institution a financially stable place. Anyhow, he hasn’t had a choice. After all he is a high-ranking official of the French state. The deal with Abhu Dhabi was negotiated by France’s minister of culture. € 400 million of the money will go into a fund and the Louvre can freely use the interest. With 10 million visitors expected for 2014, Mr. Loyrette will definitely find a way to spend the money intelligently.


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  1. Rodrigo Costa 12 November 2011 Reply

    Amazing article about Arts on the Louvre Museum, congratulations.

    R. Costa

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