Lens, Pas-de-Calais, France is the new destination for art and architecture fans. You might not have heard of the town because it is very small with a population of only 35,000 and the only attraction of the town thus far has been a football stadium that had a capacity more than the population. However, now this old mining town has become the grounds for Louvre-Lens which is a branch of the Paris Musée du Louvre.
Lens was chosen in 2004 by the French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin out of the other candidates for the project which included: Amiens, Arras, Boulogne-sur-Mer, Calais, and Valenciennes. Choosing Lens seems to be a tactical as well as practical move by the officials as the town boasts a 20 hectare site just an hour away from Paris, as well as being located on an important highway to Holland and Belgium. They have estimated around 500,000 visitors from all over Europe per year which the officials hope will revitalize the local economy.
Similar projects have been experimented with in the UK with opening of Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate and also other branches of Tate in Liverpool and St Ives. There are talks of international ventures like opening branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi, UAE. These projects have made many in the art world uneasy and skeptical as to their benefits overall.
The fact is that you are more likely to become a head of a museum or major gallery with a degree in economics or marketing than art history, and this is a reality many face after graduating. These establishments need to make money and with the growth of online resources and reproduction technologies, less people are inclined to visit Paris or London to see a major artwork. This has caused museums to increase lending, tours and opening of branches nationally as well as internationally.
Many have been vocal in their disdain for the branch openings, with critics like Harry Bellet from the Le Monde describing Louvre-Lens “like a bookshop where all the books are muddled up”, and the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones writing “British art museums must avoid the mistake the palatial Paris gallery is making in sending its treasures to the provinces”.
The Lens branch itself is very unassuming minimal structure designed by the Japanese architecture firm Sanaa, and the two people involved in designing Louvre-Lens Ryue Nishizawa and Kazuyo Sejima couldn’t be happier with the result. They set out to produce a space which would complement the outdoors and the natural setting of the grounds, as well as taking as much advantage of the natural light as possible.
The space looks and feels open with the walls resembling thin aluminum with plenty of windows and glass structures. It is a far cry from the 200 year old Louvre building in the heart of Paris, and in no way has that awe factor. Yet, it manages to draw people in and tweak their interest. The curator Adrien Gardère has produced an exhibition completely different to the Paris set up, where most of the artwork and artefacts are intermingling. The point seems to be to introduce pieces you might not have had the chance to see alongside one another, and this way it might produce inspiration for further exploration.
Granted the average visitor might be planning a trip to Lens just to see a few masterpieces like Liberty Leading the People and Leonardo’s The Virgin and Child with St. Anne, however they might have just set on a journey of discovery which might will them more interested in History of Art and a tad bit more enlightened.