Olivier Gabet had a good job, for which he had fought hard, at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. But when seasoned museum professional Laurence des Cars called him to see if he would join her in helping to create a new museum in Abu Dhabi from scratch, the decision was easy.
“Overnight, I quit my great job,” he recalls. “I knew that with her it was going to be fascinating.”
This is a recurring theme in conversations about Des Cars, 54, who will take over the Louvre in Paris this fall. When she calls, it would be wise to pick up the phone.
Recognized expert in 19th century art and current president of the Musée d’Orsay and the Musée de l’Orangerie, Des Cars will be the first woman to lead the largest museum in the world. His appointment surprised many French media observers, who expected the museum’s current president, Jean-Luc Martinez, to win his candidacy for a third term.
The work would be intimidating under normal circumstances, but add to the damage caused by the pandemic, the still distant prospect of mass tourism (which constitutes the bulk of Louvre ticket sales), as well as the heated debates around the restitution of ‘art, “cancel culture,” and the role of encyclopedic museums, and you have a handful of historical proportions.
Lucky for the Louvre, Des Cars has a reputation for fearlessly plunging into dizzying challenges and, while at it, attracting a host of talented recruits who are ready to leave lucrative jobs around the world to work. by his side. We spoke to a number of former colleagues to get a feel for what lies ahead for one of the most watched Louvre climbs in memory.
A powerful leader
The child of a family of high society writers, Des Cars studied art history at the elite at the École du Louvre. She organized a number of important exhibitions on 19th century art, but gained worldwide notoriety as scientific director of the France-Muséums agency. It was in this role that in 2007, she was chosen to lead the development of Louvre Abu Dhabi, the more than $ 1 billion project that bears the Louvre’s name.
Olivier Gabet, now awfuldirector of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, collaborated with Des Cars on this highly publicized project. Prior to its opening, the museum was intensely criticized for apparently selling French culture to the UAE, but has since received warm reviews.
“It was a major project, loaded with political and diplomatic sense, and it was no small feat to create a museum like this from scratch,” Gabet said. He remembers how Des Cars reassured him by repeating: “You must not be afraid.
“When she tells you that, you don’t want to believe otherwise. She has that in her. There is never arrogance, but there is a lot of confidence, ”he said. “And she was right: there is really nothing to fear.”
Des Cars sent a similar message to women, urging those who “hesitate to apply for positions of responsibility” to “have confidence in themselves, without doubting their legitimacy,” she said. speak to the French Ministry of Culture in March.
Sylvie Patry, chief curator of the Musée d’Orsay, experienced the Des Cars approach. “We don’t feel limited as a woman, or we never say to ourselves:”Oh dear, that’s too important a position for me, ”said Patry. “She’s someone with a vision, who’s inspiring, and she never gives up…. It keeps you going. “
In a country still bristling with the idea of quotas, Des Cars supporters are also quick to point out that his own nomination was based on his unique qualifications rather than his identity. “There is catching up to do at the level of women [in leadership positions], but she was not chosen simply because she is a woman, ”said Sébastien Allard, director of paintings at the Louvre, who co-wrote a founding book with Des Cars around 19e-art of the century.
Nevertheless, recognizes Allard, “it is a strong and necessary symbol” to finally have a woman director at the Louvre, where half of the heads of department are women.
Stock market context
His colleagues say Des Cars is distinguished by his high-level academic good faith, strong work ethic, deep sense of responsibility and managerial panache, combined with a rare understanding of the people, the world around him, and a curiosity. passionate about the arts. It also doesn’t hurt that she has a good sense of humor and is known to brilliantly emulate French politicians and celebrities.
“We laugh a lot, and for me it’s really precious to share his great sense of humor, which also allows us to express ourselves,” said Patry.
As a manager, “she is able to understand everyone’s reasons”, specifies Donatien Grau, head of contemporary programs at Orsay. “That’s what makes her a remarkable person. Institutions are not just ideas. They are made of people…. She understands each person, as well as the idea.
Colleagues have noted that while Des Cars is a 19th-century expert, her broad interests, especially in pop culture and contemporary art, place her well to expand the audience of the Louvre.
Orsay’s flagship 2019 exhibition “Black Models: From Géricault to Matisse” is emblematic of its revolutionary approach, which some say has attracted a more diverse audience than any major Parisian exhibition in recent memory.
the show, an expanded version of an exhibition first shown at the Wallach Art Gallery in New York and co-curated by curator Denise Murrell, examined the role of black subjects and models in French art history, combining successful paintings with little-known works of art. His popularity “proves that you don’t have to be stupid to attract audiences,” Grau said. “It’s actually the opposite.”
This spring, the director also initiated the restitution of Gustav Klimt’s work. Roses under the trees to his Austrian Jewish heirs. It should continue to support research on restitution at the Louvre. “Laurence des Cars and I are from a generation which has always had the idea that it is necessary to return spoiled works,” said Allard. “Restitution is part of our DNA, and it is also [our] responsibility and personal conviction.
Observers describe the nearly four years of Des Cars at the Musée d’Orsay as an image of “openness” that has broadened what the museum could be, with the introduction of new media, an increased dialogue with contemporary art , innovative online programming and educational initiatives.
Her previous work at Louvre Abu Dhabi, where she dealt with everything from archeology to geopolitical relations, “dramatically broadened her perspective, and she injected it into the Orsay,” Gabet said. . “Thanks to its very solid intellectual and cultural foundations, it can afford to innovate with a lot of freedom and daring.
While some might argue that pursuing gradual change in an iconic museum like the Louvre is tantamount to rejecting its identity, Des Cars “has manifested a remarkable third way,” Grau said – one where history is studied, recognized and put into practice. the context of Today.
“The Louvre is not a fortress that only looks to the past,” said Allard. “It’s a museum in the heart of Paris, in the heart of today’s world. It requires a truly contemporary perspective, and she has it.
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