Louvre Museum by Benh LIEU SONG Via Flickr
The French museum’s first female president, Laurence des Cars, wants to remind people it offers much more than the Mona Lisa, writes Farah Nayeri.
Keen Art Historian With the Savoir-Faire of a Diplomat
Former colleagues and friends of Cars describe her as an academic with an open mind, a knack for people, and nerves of steel. A renowned expert in 19th-century art and the former president of the Musée d’Orsay and the Musée de l’Orangerie, Cars is the first woman to lead the world’s largest museum, the Louvre since 2021.
The daughter of a journalist and writer, and the granddaughter of Guy des Cars, the novelist, the new Louvre president is known for supporting the restitution of art looted by the Nazis during the second world war and encouraging exhibitions echoing contemporary themes, and creating programmes to attract more young people.
Jean des Cars – Salon du livre de Paris – 23 mars 2014
Cars now faces a challenge of a different order at the Louvre, the world’s biggest museum. The former palace – home to France’s kings until 1682 – exudes grandeur and majesty and is a soft-power arm of the French state. Yet it is also a 21st-century museum with a duty to be relevant and inclusive, and to give its millions of visitors the widest possible access.
“The Louvre can be fully contemporary, it can open up to the world of today while telling us about the past, giving relevance to the present through the brilliance of the past. I think the Louvre has a lot to say to young people, too, who will be at the centre of my concerns as president of the Louvre,” she said upon being appointed president.
She also said that she would be reviewing the Louvre’s opening hours to make it more accessible. “We have to be open a little later in the day if we want young working people to come,” she said.
Sylvie Patry, the Musée d’Orsay’s chief curator, has experienced Cars’s approach firsthand. As a manager, “she is able to understand everybody’s reasons,” said Donatien Grau, head of contemporary programs at the d’Orsay. “That’s what makes her a remarkable people-person. Institutions are not just ideas. They are made of people…. She understands every person, as well as understanding the idea,” in an article in ArtNet.
According to an article in The Guardian at the time of her appointment to the Louvre in 2021: ” Cars is the most significant female appointment to head a French museum. About 67% of the country’s national museums are headed by women, according to the culture ministry, a rise of 27% from 2019. In March, Catherine Chevillot, the director at the Rodin Museum in Paris, was named president of the Cité de l’architecture et du patrimoine, the biggest architectural museum in the world; Emma Lavigne is executive president of the Palais de Tokyo (centre for contemporary art); Sophie Makariou is president of the Musée Guimet, the national museum for Asian arts; and Chiara Parisi is director of the Centre Pompidou-Metz.”
Manet/Degas Exhibition at the Met
Manet Degas Exhibition Paris
Whilst at the Musée d’Orsay she had a dream of pairing two great French painters, Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas, in a single exhibition. Their most important works were not in France, and some had never been loaned, so no museum had ever explored the painters’ rivalrous friendship.
In September 2023, her dream came to fruition, and the Manet/Degas exhibition opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, after a run in Paris of four months at the Musee d’Orsay, where it drew 670,000 visitors.
And now… The Louvre
And now at the Louvre, she has real challenges, one being crowding. She wants to
- “relieve congestion around the Louvre Pyramid, the glass-and-steel entrance designed by architect I.M. Pei to welcome 4.5 million visitors a year, but which in 2018 ushered in a record 10.2 million. An estimated 80 per cent of those visitors come just for the Mona Lisa, according to the Louvre; they wait in a holding pen for their turn to take a selfie,” according to an article in the AFR.
- Cars wants to improve the Louvre visitors’ overall experience. She wants to lure back those locals who’ve been put off by the crowds. French visitors only represent 30% of all visitors.
- She wants to create a second gateway to the museum in its easternmost facade, a 17th-century colonnade leading to the museum’s Renaissance wing.
- She has also capped daily attendance at 30,000, down from pre-pandemic peaks of 45,000. ‘‘We must rebalance the Louvre,’’ she says.
- And also in that light, she hopes that new visitors, entering through the new eastern entrance will help populate more areas of the museum than the galleries leading to the Gioconda.
The fate of France’s national museums is ultimately determined by the state – and in the case of the Louvre, by the president, who personally interviewed candidates for the job that went to des Cars, says Didier Selles, who was the Louvre’s general administrator from 2000 to 2009.
Working with President Emmanuel Macron
Cars’ master plan needs President Emmanuel Macron’s endorsement, and whether he delivers depends on his willingness – and ability – to make his mark on the Louvre the way President François Mitterrand did when he commissioned the Pyramid in the 1980s.
President Macron and Cars work well together. Cars sometimes accompanies Macron on foreign trips, and she regularly hosts official state dinners at the Louvre. That ambassadorial role is one she fulfils with ease. She was born into an aristocratic family and is the daughter of historian Jean des Cars, a well-known media commentator in France, and the granddaughter of bestselling novelist Guy des Cars.
At the same time, colleagues say, she’s neither stuffy nor set in her ways. ‘‘She’s imaginative, she’s inventive, she’s a risk taker – but she can also be quite direct,’’ says Hollein, the Met director.
Louvre Abu Dhabi
Louvre Abu Dhabiís exterior © Louvre Abu Dhabi, Photography: Mohamed Somji
Her role in the consortium that laid the groundwork for the Louvre Abu Dhabi, was to oversee the team that organised loans from 13 partner museums including the Louvre, acquired works for the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s own collection and prepared exhibitions.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi project was the result of a 30-year, €1 billion agreement wherein the Louvre is the principal beneficiary: Abu Dhabi pays 40 per cent for the Louvre’s naming rights and millions more for access to its collections and expertise. It was a controversial project and many thought it to be solely a money-making venture. However, it has proven successful and the agreement has recently been extended a further 10 years.
Her Abu Dhabi years were ‘‘difficult,’’ according to a 2021 article in L’Obs, a French news magazine. Some believed her directness had ‘‘flustered the Emiratis’’, the article said, while others noted that a complicated project had finally been completed, and that ‘‘she had a lot to do with that’’.
And now… can she do it? We expect so.
Now, the question is whether she can add a substantial overhaul of the Louvre to her list of achievements. The determination seems there, but des Cars says that being the Louvre’s first female president created extra pressure. ‘‘You have to live up to expectations, of which there are many,’’ she says.
Cars now says that she believes she’s in the right place at the right time, at the helm of the ‘‘giant ocean liner’’ that is the Louvre. And we wish her well and look forward to hearing of her progress.