Louvre masterworks to light up ex-mining town

LENS, France: The Louvre will shine the light of high culture on a depressed former mining town this week, as the Paris museum opens a gleaming new satellite among the slag heaps of northern Lens.

President Francois Hollande will cut the ribbon Tuesday on the new Japanese-designed museum, set to host masterpieces by Delacroix and Raphael for its first year of existence.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s newly restored “The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne” will leave its Paris home for the first time in two centuries for a three-month vacation at the Lens site, which opens to the public Dec. 12.

Blighted by the closure of the region’s last mines 20 years ago, with unemployment at a stubbornly high 16 percent, Lens is hoping for a renaissance of its own from the glass and polished-aluminium structure.

Following in the footsteps of Paris’ Pompidou Center modern art museum, which opened a satellite in eastern Metz in 2010, the Louvre says its chief goal is to win over the local population.

“Two things would spell failure in my eyes,” said the Louvre’s director Henri Loyrette. “The first would be if the population doesn’t take ownership of the museum. The second would be if the Louvre’s existing visitors don’t go.”

Just one hour by train from Paris, the Louvre-Lens’ director Xavier Dectot hopes to attract 700,000 visitors for its first year, and half-a-million per year after that, compared to 9 million annual visitors for the Louvre itself.

“We are banking on a lot of visitors who have never set foot in a museum,” said Loyrette. “When we started with the project the words Louvre and Lens just didn’t fit together – a great Parisian institution and a town ravaged by war and industrial crisis.”

The Japanese agency Sanaa intended the museum’s five sober buildings to blend into the former industrial site, with the rail tracks that once linked up its pits turned into access roads.

From within its giant glass cube entrance hall, visitors can glimpse the giant slag heaps at Loos-en-Gohelle, the largest in Europe, and the Bollaert stadium, home to the local football team, Racing Club de Lens.

“We need so badly to lift our heads,” said regional president Daniel Percheron of the heavy investment, “to look at the horizon, to show our people the way forward.”

For its first five years, the museum’s 125-meter central gallery will showcase 200 works spanning from Antiquity to 1850 – offering a walk through the history of the Louvre.

The main gallery will be free to access for the first year, while a second space will host temporary paying exhibitions, the first of them focused on the Renaissance, from Italy to Flanders.

“It’s about giving people keys to understand,” explained Genevieve Bresc, the exhibit’s curator and head of the Louvre’s sculpture department.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 04, 2012, on page 16.




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