Louvre brings culture to impoverished French city
France's President Francois Hollande walks with a former miner Lucien Laurent, right, in front of " La Liberte Guidant le Peuple," a painting by Eugene Delacroix, during the inauguration of the Louvre Museum in Lens, France on Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler, Pool)
The Associated Press
Published Tuesday, December 4, 2012 8:10AM EST
Last Updated Tuesday, December 4, 2012 3:48PM EST
LENS, France -- The Louvre has embarked on an ambitious quest -- opening a C150 million ($196 million) extension in an abandoned coal mining town in northern France that has an unemployment rate nearly three times the national average.
The "Louvre-Lens" project -- housed in a futuristic glass and aluminum complex -- opens this week in an attempt to silence critics who say French art is limited to the country's Parisian elite.
Proponents say the complex will offer culture to the less cultivated provinces and give residents a unique opportunity to see high-end art.
But for all its trumpeting of uniting everyone through art, the slick museum building instead highlights the contrasts with Lens' depressed city centre, which is riddled with closed shops, abandoned houses, angry residents and a boarded-up cinema.
French President Francois Hollande, who visited the museum on Tuesday, didn't even bother to stop off in the city, let alone meet any residents.
To locals, the Louvre's gesture to bring culture to their forgotten city was a bit patronizing.
"Why do we need a museum and culture here? We need money and jobs," said resident Amandine Grossemy, 26. "Who's da Vinci, anyway?"
"We weren't consulted on whether we wanted one," cafe worker Veronique Roszak, 53, said of the museum. "Young people here are looking for work."
"Whoever it helps, it won't be us," said Mounira Hadhek, 26. "They've made us pay for parking now in the city centre, I've got C80 ($105) fines already. We can't afford this, all we can afford is one euro on coffee."
"They said that Lens is now alive. Look around, it's dead, all dead," added Roszak, standing next to the closed Apollo theatre. "Who'll come here?"
Officials hope Louvre-Lens can help transform the city the way the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, turned a struggling industrial area into a hot travel destination. Lens was picked precisely because it was in such need of a reversal of fortune.
"It's important, as Lens is a territory that has suffered from every crisis, from every war," said Louvre director Henri Loyrette.
The city was reduced to rubble in World War I and occupied by the Nazis and battered by Allied bombings in World War II. Then workers risked their lives daily in the city's coal mines for decades -- including enduring a 1974 tragedy in which 42 miners died. When the mines closed -- the last one in 1986 -- the area was plunged into poverty.
"France abandoned us when the coal stopped, and we became a ghost town," said regional president Daniel Percheron.
The statistics agree: Lens, one of the country's poorest cities, has an unemployment rate of 24 per cent, well above the national average of 9 per cent.
The museum, designed by a Japanese firm, transformed a former coal mine into a grand, verdant space that boasts 6,600 trees, 26,000 shrubs and a glistening infrastructure of sleek anodized aluminum. The inside is equally impressive, with two sprawling exhibition spaces teaming with works as diverse as ancient Cycladic sculptures, Egyptian diorite statues, 11th century Italian church mosaics and Leonardo da Vinci's restored masterpiece, "The Virgin and Saint Anne."
The permanent open-plan exhibition space offers an encyclopedic overview of two millennia of art along with an avant-garde system of presentation. No work is hung from the aluminum walls, which serve as a mirror for the art.
But it's not clear this will be enough to attract 700,000 visitors in the first year and increase the city's economic output by 10 per cent in 10 years, as officials hope. The area does not have Bilbao's beaches or its noted Basque cuisine.
"It's close to Belgium, southern England and close to Germany," noted Loyrette.
Officials say the museum, eight years in the making, is just the first step in the city's rehabilitation.
"We are telling entrepreneurs and companies: Come here.... Here there is a real future," said Percheron.