Henri Loyrette's office in the Louvre's Pavillon Mollien wing, furnished with antique desks and canvases hanging from the blue- and gold-gilded walls, epitomizes the splendor and tradition of France's cultural heritage. But modern, streamlined furniture may be better suited to Loyrette's style of management since he was appointed the museum's director in April, 2001. He's challenging the government's top-down control of the Louvre, winning the autonomy that he deems necessary to run a modern museum.
Loyrette, 50, knows it's not an easy task. The Grand Louvre project, launched in 1981 to expand the museum for the growing number of visitors, was the subject of many disputes between its management and the government. And even before the project has been completed, its flaws are already exposed. The controversial pyramid designed by architect I.M. Pei as the main entrance, for instance, is now too crowded to welcome the throngs of visitors.
The challenge is keeping up with the museum's changing needs. Attendance has doubled since the pyramid opened in 1988, and more than 65% of the visitors are foreigners. They're more likely to come to see the Mona Lisa than one of the temporary exhibitions, such as the recent "Pharaoh's Artists." So the Louvre has cut back on its temporary shows, which don't attract as much money. Loyrette must interpret the museum's mission: It's important to serve the widest public possible, but what about educating a small group about a lesser-known subject?
Lucky for Loyrette, the Louvre's new Web site (www.louvre.fr) meets both needs. It's an ambitious project, benefiting from a new push for corporate sponsorship, that will make the entire Louvre collection available online by 2005. Loyrette recently discussed with BusinessWeek's Christina White the ways that he's pushing a traditional institution forward. Following are edited excerpts of their conversation:
Q: What's your function as director of the Louvre?
A: The director must be a curator and, at the same time, show an administrative competence. He must manage both employees and artistic policies. I'm responsible for the Louvre's collection and emphasize that the Louvre is an enormous project of cultural service.
It's important not to separate the task of curating with the administrative management of the museum. I have an entire administration behind me -- the director must have an interest and knowledge of management. Sometimes, people say that administration is boring, but it's necessary. Museums, in particular, need more and more management.
Q: How has the museum evolved?
A: I remember when I was younger, the Louvre collection was open to the public, but there was no restaurant and no visitor center. Everything around the museum has developed in the last 25 years, as our idea of what a museum provides has changed. The profile of a director has changed as well because the idea of the museum changed.
Q: What steps does the Louvre need to take to become autonomous?
A: The museum has already gained some autonomy. It became a "Public Administration Establishment" in 1993. For us, autonomy means the administration can manage the organization, the employees, and scientific development. Reports have been written which bring up certain points. It's a nonpolitical discussion on structural questions, supported not just by the Louvre, but also by the National Assembly, the Cour des Comptes [the state auditing agency], all of which emphasized the importance of the Louvre's autonomy.
Until next year, we don't have direct control of employment and recruitment of about two-thirds of our staff. That's one of the reasons why 26% of our galleries are closed every day. As of Jan. 1, 2003, we will have direct control of some of the personnel, including the security staff. That will allow us to resolve some problems more quickly, like the closed galleries. It will reinforce the legitimacy of the museum's direction.
We're also working toward more financial autonomy. We send back 45% of our ticket sales to the National Museum Board, in charge of acquisitions, international exhibitions, and merchandising. But when the Louvre has difficulties with its budget, we think that's unacceptable. We need to achieve a fairer equilibrium to keep more of the ticket sales.
Q: French companies like Suez and Michelin have recently sponsored exhibitions at the Louvre. How much do you rely on corporate sponsorship?
A: The size of the Louvre's corporate sponsorship doesn't correspond to what we should have in place. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has 50 people working to bring in sponsors. We have five people devoted to it. We're planning to reinforce this staff.
It should be able to finance cultural projects and renovations -- we can't complete our scientific projects without patrons. We have also been present in Japan since mid-2001 and in the U.S. through a project of the Louvre Foundation [that's] scheduled to start in January, 2003.
Companies have a voluntary willingness to cooperate with the Louvre. For instance, the relationship with Credit Lyonnais, Accenture, and Blue Martini System for the Internet project has been exceptional. It brings us something, and it brings something to the world of the business.
Q: How are you developing the Louvre's Web site?
A: The Louvre's mission is to present our collection to the largest public possible and to educate. The Internet is the perfect vector. We're putting all 35,000 works in the permanent collection digitally online, as well as 130,000 drawings. We want to reach the largest public -- those far away, who come once in their life to the Louvre, and to the more loyal visitor. I use the Internet all the time, it's a fabulous resource.
Q: How are you preparing the Louvre for the future?
A: We still have to complete the Grand Louvre project. There are big spaces within the museum that have not yet been renovated. These are steps we have to complete in order to accommodate everyone in the museum. For instance, we have to make the pyramid hall better for everyone and reduce the long lines. Now it's too noisy and difficult for staff to work. The area will be used mainly as an entrance hall for information.
We have to ask ourselves: What will the Louvre be like in 2010 or 2020? What will visitors needs be? What direction should we follow? It's a question of organization, and we need to start having a long-term plan now. We're developing projects now that won't start before 2006. It's hard to synthesize the rhythms of different projects, but we must have a long-term view.