High art hitherto confined to the gilded galleries of Paris will attempt to revive a local economy blighted by industrial decline when an extension of the Louvre museum opens next week in Lens, a small mining town in northern France.
In the shadow of Europe’s tallest slag heaps – a legacy of Lens’s long-vanished coal industry – the sprawling new museum will display some of the finest treasures from the Louvre’s legendary home in Paris.
Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” is not moving to the town, but dozens of priceless pieces of antiquity and works by painters such as Botticelli, Raphaël, Rubens and Goya have been shipped north to fill the Louvre-Lens’s 7,000 square metres of gallery space.
The €150m project, paid for by regional and local authorities, to bring these works to a backwater best known for its football team has raised concerns about the creation of a white elephant among the piles of colliery waste. But Xavier Dectot, the director of Louvre-Lens, is unrepentant.
“The idea was to address a new public – a public that didn’t have access to us geographically, but also historically, culturally or socially,” he said. “For that, Lens is the place to be.”
The museum, says the mayor Guy Delcourt, offers a lifeline to a town of just 36,000 that was in “mortal” decline.
“We have absolutely no hang-ups when people say the museum is out of proportion for such a small town,” said Mr Delcourt. “You just had to be here last Tuesday night when 5,000 local people waited in the wind and the rain for two hours to get into the museum [for a special viewing].”
Louvre-Lens is following the example of other museums in establishing satellites elsewhere. It echoes the Pompidou Centre’s offshoot in the northeastern city of Metz, which opened in 2010.
But the Louvre has, arguably, taken the concept to the extreme, choosing a much more obscure location with almost no other tourist or cultural attraction, barring its first world war cemeteries. The idea is to help regenerate the local economy, where unemployment runs at 16 per cent of the workforce. The museum is predicting 700,000 visitors in its first year, with two-thirds coming from Paris, Belgium, Britain and beyond.
“Today, people laugh: they say it’s completely mad to put the museum in Lens,” said Marlène Virey from the town’s tourist office. “But with the Louvre, we can turn a page and write a new chapter in our history.”
Recession-hit local businesses have been reluctant to invest, however. The town has only three small hotels, with new ones not due to open for another year.
“Everybody has it bad at the moment,” said Hervé Hellin, who runs a town-centre café. He voices a concern that visitors to the Louvre will not linger in the town.
“During the rugby world cup, when there was a game here, we were worked off our feet on the night of the match, but the next day there was nobody left,” he said. “They all stayed elsewhere.”
One man who has invested is Bruno Rosik, a local restaurant owner who has put €2m into building a new small-events venue aimed at attracting corporate and other group visitors to the Louvre.
“I am the first and the only investor,” he said. “We’ve got to succeed in getting the visitors to the museum to come into the town centre.”
Based on the experience of Metz, Edouard Magnaval, head of the local chamber of commerce, says the Louvre should generate €50m a year in new trade for the town. “The population is a bit doubtful. They’ve got to realise that this can be something big – and can change the image of Lens.”
In the meantime, Mr Dectot, the gallery director, has to fend off critics who object to revered works such as Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People” being removed from Paris. The painting is the crowning exhibit in the Louvre-Lens’ permanent display – a chronology of art running from 3000BC to the 19th century.
“[The criticism] has come mostly from people in Paris,” said Mr Dectot. “It’s a very Parisian attitude. But I think we are really shining a light on the Louvre collection in a way that you can’t really do in the main museum. And, after all, people can easily come here from Paris.”