Museum of the Moment

  • © Sanaa/ Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa

Museum of the Moment

By Bree Sposato 

More than any other art institution in the world, the Louvre is a destination unto itself, ushering millions of travelers through its doors. This year, it makes history by opening its first and only satellite to-date, the Louvre-Lens, in northern France transforming an entire region and changing the conversation about its own collections in one bold stroke. 

One arm outstretched, and clutching the French flag, the bare-breasted young woman leads a throng of arms-wielding men over the bodies of the fallen, to a bloody revolutionary victory. This scene Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix is a familiar one, having graced the walls of the Louvre for decades. 

When the Louvre-Lens opens on December 4 in the city of Lens, just an hour and ten minutes north of Paris by high-speed train, this Romantic painting will have, for a period, both an entirely different context and audience. And it won’t be the only one. The groundbreaking satellite museum will house 300 such masterpieces, dating from the 4th millennium B.C. to 1850, all on loan from [the Louvre in] Paris. 

The $226 million branch certainly won’t be the first bastion of art outside of the capital national museums have been lending pieces and providing scientific assistance to regional ones for centuries. But its debut does represent a more systematic and accelerating effort to use art as a way of investing in the countryside, with the aim of transforming lower profile cities and regions into full-fledged, economically profitable destinations much like Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao did so dramatically for Spain’s industrial city, and the Pompidou Centre did for Metz, in the Lorraine. 

Choosing the Louvre’s second home was a labor of love. Lens stood out for three reasons: there is no other notable museum nearby; the coal-mining city, badly damaged by World War I, has suffered economically since the 1970s petroleum crisis; and the area was home to an abandoned 50-acre coal mining yard in need of repurposing.  

The Japanese architecture firm SANAA, which went on to win the industry’s most esteemed Pritzker Prize for its deceptive simplicity aesthetic (evident also in New York City’s New Museum and the Toledo Museum of Art), was tasked with envisioning the Louvre’s country counterpart.  The director of the Louvre-Lens, Xavier Dectot, knew it was a fit from the start: “SANNA proposed a museum, and one that reflected the surrounding low-slung mining architecture not a mere architectural playground.” Today, one main building, reminiscent of the Louvre with two outstretched wings, plus four rectangular buildings all five made of glass and aluminum sit on the beautifully gardened and forested grounds. The former mine shaft remains, in a nod to the city’s industrial past.

One element in particular suggests that the rift between the two complexes is not only physical, but also philosophical. “A museum is a living place,” muses Dectot, “and we want to show what’s backstage.” Groups of 17 visitors with pre-booked reservations will be ushered underground into the new museum’s restoration facilities, where they will tour storage areas and actually witness in the same room, not just peering through a window say, Greek sculpture being on-so-carefully restored to glory. 

And glorious is not too strong a word when it comes to the art program. Most museums are divided into chapters (Egyptian, Renaissance, and beyond), but the idea here is morenovel: There will not be a permanent collection. “We’re used to stability from fine arts museums,” says Dectot. “So it’s more interesting to change the conversation.” Instead, the museum will stage two cross-disciplinary exhibits each year (one in the summer, the other in the winter) that show pieces culled from the Louvre’s eight departments: Near Eastern Antiquities; Egyptian Antiques; Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities; Islamic Art; Decorative Arts; Prints and Drawings; Sculptures; and Paintings. The exhibits in the aptly named main Time Gallery will be overseen by Louvre curators and most often be organized chronologically, which means that works that would never appear side-by-side in Paris will do so here. This way, works of art from different civilizations can speak to one another, forming a kind of art history timeline. 

Changing the context of the art, changing the way people interact with the pieces, and changing the culture and perception of the province that’s what it’s all about.  “My hope is that the Louvre-Lens will spark the area’s transformation into a destination,” meditates Dectot, “and that the metamorphosis will, in five or 10 years, gain its own momentum.” Now that’s art in action.