A West Coast Louvre? We’ll See

The Consulate General of France Visits Town and Talks Science, Art, and Politics

by Charles Donelan

PhotoPHL.jpgSitting in the terraced garden of Fred Sidon’s gracious Hope Ranch home, Philippe Larrieu looked and acted every inch the career French diplomat, from the correctness of his attire to the charm and intelligence of his conversation. He was in Santa Barbara to speak at the University Club and to visit with Sidon and the other members of the Reseau Français de Santa Barbara, or French Network. What can he say about the future of France’s relationship with the United States, and in particular, its impact on California? Quite a lot — and much of it new and interesting. Perhaps most intriguing was the hint that some activities in the near future could lead to a West Coast collaboration with the Louvre Museum, a Paris landmark and the world’s foremost collection of art.

Based in Los Angeles, but covering also Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico, the office of the Consulate General exists to promote the broadest possible range of interactions between people in France and America, and Larrieu takes great pleasure in describing mutual successes in technology and science. He told me that the new president of Caltech is French, and that there are approximately 70 French scientists now at Caltech, and 70 more at the Salk Institute in La Jolla. The way French scientists are trained has made them popular worldwide, according to Larrieu. He said of those working here in California, “We hope of course someday they will want to go back to work in France, but you know, JPL [the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena] is nice.”

But all this talk of science only sharpened my appetite for French culture and high art, and before I could quite help it, I asked the consul for something — something big. “Consul,” I said, “can we have a Louvre?” And, shockingly, he said, “Yes, you can have a Louvre.”

I had to ask, “Are you kidding?” before he told me, “We are now organizing an American Friends of the Louvre group for the West Coast. Next year in May, I will host the American Friends of the Louvre in my home in Los Angeles for a gala dinner, which will be our first meeting, and we expect the president of the Louvre, Henri Loyrette, to attend.”

Now we were talking. Ever since the announcement of a six-year collaboration between Atlanta’s High Museum of Art and the Louvre, curators and museum directors around the country have been buzzing. Where will they go next? The Denver Art Museum has signed on for an exhibit in 2007, but the big commitment in Atlanta — where a special new Renzo Piano-designed structure will be referred to as the Louvre Atlanta until 2009 — has been a smash hit, making the idea of a West Coast reprise a very hot topic in museum circles.

Ever the diplomat, Larrieu artfully changed the subject, telling me, “It’s a new approach. Our curators used to be very shy, and they didn’t want to open the doors even to the movies. Remember The Da Vinci Code? They were not sure it could really be made back when the Louvre was not available to them. But then this decision to open the museum came, and The Da Vinci Code was the first. They now plan to open the door to many more movies.” Hmmm. Had I just heard someone imply Hollywood?

I asked what the purpose of the gala in May will be, and Larrieu answered, “First, it is to raise funds. We will need money to promote this.” Our host, Fred Sidon, caught hints of our chat and asked directly, “Will this be with LACMA [Los Angeles County Museum of Art]?”

Larrieu again skated casually around the issue, saying, “Not necessarily LACMA, and the Louvre won’t be the first museum to do this here. We also have American friends of the Centre Pompidou, and in spring 2006, for three months 60 California painters were shown in Paris at the Centre Pompidou.”

By this point, he was really warmed to this new subject, and although it is clear that my request for a Louvre Santa Barbara has been duly registered, no commitments on location were made that day. Larrieu went on about the idea of bringing California art to France, saying, “We [France] must reciprocate, because every month there is a show of French art somewhere in the western U.S., and there should be an equal representation of American culture in France, and Californian culture. Not just the Beach Boys, but also the culture of the great Californian writers. People in France are passionate about these things.” So, there you have it. See you at the Louvre — in Paris if necessary, but perhaps somewhere much closer in the near future.

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