Henri Loyrette has left the Louvre after his groundbreaking reign. He tells Lucinda Bredin about how to spread civilisation
Henri Loyrette and I were supposed to be meeting in Paris in July. But since he stepped down from the Louvre, where he was director for 13 years, he has had some time off – a holiday, French-style, until September. We finally reeled him in from a sailing trip off the coast of Marseilles – and even down the telephone, it's clear he knows how to steer a conversation. Most people talk in sentences, some in paragraphs. Loyrette talks in chapters.
Now there are a lot of questions one wants to ask Loyrette. He has, during the past decade, doubled visitor numbers to 10m – and half of those visitors are under 30. How did he do that? He has opened the Islamic wing to great acclaim in 2012. He has also overseen the unveiling of a mini-Louvre in Lens, a depressed coalmining town to the north of Paris. He describes the place as "really in the middle of nowhere. It was important to bring culture. Sixty per cent of the visitors have never been to a museum before." It's almost certainly an accurate description but it does confirm one's suspicions that Parisians – as Loyrette is – regard large swathes of the country as ripe targets for civilisation. But what we really want to ask about is the partnership that he was instrumental in setting up for the Louvre with Abu Dhabi. The Gulf State paid the Louvre at least €400m for culture-bringing services, and recently the press has been full of leaked letters spelling disquiet about arrangements... But today, Loyrette makes it clear this topic is not in the order of business. As he says, "Let's stick to contemporary art."
We are talking because Loyrette is one of the judges of the Le Meurice Art prize – the €20,000 prize money is split between an artist and their gallery to create a work. And although his special subject is "Degas in the 1890s", Loyrette has been rightly credited with drawing living artists into the Louvre – which as an institution has had a mixed history concerning contemporary art. (In 1947, Picasso was finally allowed to hang some paintings in the Louvre – but only when the museum was shut on a Tuesday and with the proviso they were gone from the walls by Wednesday.) But as Loyrette points out, it was studying 19th century art that made him realise how important the museum was for the artists of that time. "You have to remember that Degas and Manet spent all their time at the Louvre and they learnt from looking at the old masters". He also quotes Cézanne who famously said, "The Louvre is the great book from which we all learnt to read." Loyrette says his goal was to encourage contemporary artists to the museum to make something – rather than merely have an exhibition. He appointed a contemporary art curator, Marie-Laure Bernadac, and invited Anselm Kiefer (in 2007) and Cy Twombly (in 2011) to make an installation in the museum in the same way that artists once had when it was a royal palace. Kiefer was given a stairwell, Twombly a ceiling. It certainly sent a message to the younger generation that the Louvre was edging its way into the modern age.
But then if anyone knows the Louvre, it is Loyrette: he was brought up living in front of it. "I lived on the other bank of the Seine and from my window I saw it everyday. My mother worked in the museum – she was an Egyptologist – and often we were obliged by my mother to go see something in the Louvre before playing in the Tuileries." Loyrette followed the classic path of a French mandarin: attending one of the Grandes Ecoles and becoming a civil servant – "which is what you have to do if you want to become a national museum curator in France". In 1978, at the age of 22, he was a curator at the Musee d"Orsay, which has the finest collection of 19th century painting in France. It is telling that he speaks of it as "my real museum. I spent more than 23 years there as curator, chief curator and director, so even in the Louvre I was a bit far away from my collection."
Having been at the Louvre since 2001, Loyette has clearly embraced his retirement at the age of 60. "I wanted to have a different job. I wanted to be involved in culture, but not to deal with all these people." Running the Louvre, he says, was like running a small city – I would have thought rather more complicated. He is now resuming writing (a paper about Degas). And, rather glamorously, he has been made a councillor of state. In the ceremony, President François Hollande, the French Prime Minister, praised Loyrette for his l'énergie, l'enthousiasme et l'élégance", all presumably good qualifications for a role as a legal adviser to the French government. More significantly for the art world, from October he will take on the role of President of Admical, a non-profit organisation that represents corporate sponsors in France, which was a surprise, but much welcomed appointment, according to Le Monde.
It's very easy to say the Louvre and the French approach to funding the arts lagged behind that of the US and even the UK. But this is not entirely true: the French took a different path. Very simplistically put, the belief in France was that doing business with other governments was preferable to extracting sponsorship ('partnerships') from corporations. Did the French think that British museums were selling their soul? Loyrette happily confirms this was the case. "Yes!" But then it has to be said that the French also felt their own country was selling its soul – or certainly its art – when the Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres signed a contract with Sheikh Sultan bin Tannoun for Abu Dhabi to lease works from the Louvre and other French museums for periods of up to two years.
At the time, Loyrette defended the agreement, but was reported by the BBC as saying that he "understood the concerns". Now, with his new role as President of Admical, it seems that dealing with the capitalist world might be less complicated. Loyrette, dubbed France's new 'Patronage Czar' by The Art Newspaper, says, "In your country and the US it's an old tradition to work with the corporate world, but in France it's quite new and we have a lot to do in this field. And when the public money is lacking, which is everywhere in Europe right now, it's important to develop all the possibilities." He claims that the thinking in France about sponsorship has been shifting for some years. "It has had to. Speaking of the budget of the Louvre, when I arrived it was 75 per cent the state, 25 per cent sponsorship. When I left it was 47 per cent the state and 54 per cent private resources. Within 12 years it changed a lot." Why does he think this has happened? "People see that the state cannot do everything, that it cannot provide money for all these institutions and more and more they want to be involved in the cultural and artistic life of the country." But according to Loyrette, in an outbreak of French chauvinism that until now has been entirely absent, the rest of the world will soon be learning from France. "I would say, we now have the best rules for fiscal sponsorship... in the world."
Lucinda Bredin is Editor of Bonhams Magazine.