Louvre Museum | Musee Du Louvre Paris

The national museum and art gallery of France

Louvre

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The Louvre museum in Paris, home of the most famous painting in the world, the Mona Lisa, is undergoing a transformation that is fundamentally changing the way it operates.

It has scored successes ranging from important acquisitions to the most spectacular rise in attendance anywhere in the world, to major archaeological discoveries.

In its various architectural incarnations, the Louvre has been a dominant part of Paris since the late 12th century. The museum’s Web site notes that “the dark fortress of the early days was transformed into the modernized dwelling of François I and, later, the sumptuous palace of the Sun King, Louis XIV.”

It has been home to the museum since 1793. The Louvre contains 35,000 works of art in eight departments; the permanent collections occupy more than 645,000 square feet of exhibition space.

In the first five months of 2009, 167 works of art valued at €38.6 million, or about $50.9 million, entered the museum. This was in part made possible by the soaring number of visitors, which jumped from 5.6 million in 2001 – the year the present director, Henri Loyrette, took over – to 8.5 million in 2008.

With 20 percent of the entrance fees collected by the museum going straight into an art acquisitions fund since the government agreed to Mr. Loyrette’s suggestion in 2003, this provided the institution with a €7.25 million nest egg in 2008. In 2009, the projected acquisitions budget stood at €7.5 million.

That kind of money may not go far when it comes to world-renowned Old Masters, but it is enough to secure rarities that do not enjoy that degree of high visibility. The supreme example in 2009 was a small Greek marble head of a young woman carved in Samos around 550-530 B.C. The smile with closed lips makes the tiny carving, 3 inches high, the Mona Lisa of Greek antiquities. The price paid to an art gallery, €290,000, may seem huge, but the head is the only one of its kind offered for sale within living memory.

In January and February 2009, museum attendance sagged by 11 percent. Later, the number of visitors rose by 1 percent in April, and by 2 percent in May over the corresponding months of 2008 – a record year.

A worrying uncertainty hangs over future donations and maecenas operations (art acquisitions made by corporations, which knock off 90 percent of the expenditure from their yearly taxation). Yet, even that is a comparatively small problem, for art acquisitions represent a mere fraction of the Louvre outlay.

Greater difficulties loom. Since 2001, the museum has achieved a measure of financial independence. In 2008, only 47 percent of its expenditure was covered by government grants. The balance came from the museum’s income generated by ticketing, partnerships with foreign museums, space rentals for corporate events, and other sources, all of which could be threatened by deteriorating economic conditions. And any decrease in the government grant would spell out big trouble.

Only government subsidies can cover the huge upkeep expenses. Unlike the majority of international museums, the Louvre is an ancient royal palace, arguably the most important in France. Parts of it go back to the 13th century. The larger sections date from the 16th and 17th centuries. A vital fire prevention system now being installed will cost €44 million. No maecenas would be willing to spend as much, with no visible evidence to show for it.

Refurbishment, too, is costly. True, the museum has been skillful in attracting donations for spectacular displays. The new 18th-century decorative art rooms scheduled to open in 2012 are entirely financed by maecenas contributions. Renovations of this type are central to the museum’s policy, which aims to keep most of the rooms permanently open.

More than 90 percent of the space is now accessible every day, against 74 percent in 2001. Additional staff had to be recruited, partly for this purpose and partly because the Tuileries gardens and the Musée Delacroix have come under Louvre management. From 1,753 employees in 2003, the personnel rose to 2,196 in 2008.

And then there is the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the 260,000-square-foot museum designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel and expected to open in the capital city of the United Arab Emirates by 2013. Abu Dhabi will pay France $555 million for the use of the Louvre’s name, as well as for art loans, special exhibitions and management advice.

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