Source: The New York Times (www.nytimes.com), by ALAN RIDING
PARIS — With the Louvre receiving more than eight million visitors last year and other French art collections drawing millions more, further incentives would hardly appear necessary to attract people to the country’s museums.
On weekends and during summer vacations the Louvre, for one, often resembles a crowded railroad station, with the Mona Lisa predictably a top destination.
Yet for the French government, there is a bit of a problem: At the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay and other national museums, where admission costs anywhere from $9 to $12, some two-thirds of all visitors are foreign tourists, as are three-quarters of visitors between the ages of 18 and 25.
The new government of President Nicolas Sarkozy wants to alter this profile. With a view to persuading more French people to enjoy art, it is pondering whether to follow the British and Danish examples of allowing free access to the permanent collections of major museums.
During the recent election campaign Mr. Sarkozy’s right-of-center party, the Union for a Popular Movement, endorsed the idea, estimating that it would cost the government $205 million to $274 million a year in additional subsidies to the museum network. This month Mr. Sarkozy’s prime minister, François Fillon, took the first step toward dismantling the current admissions system, in place since 1922, by announcing plans to offer free access to a small number of national and provincial museums “in order to measure the consequences.”
Yet what might at first seem like a simple way of wooing more of the French into museums is already raising hackles in some museum circles. Even Mr. Fillon noted that the issue is stirring “intense debate in the world of culture.”
In other words, not everyone thinks such cultural populism is a good idea.
France’s new culture minister, Christine Albanel, has responded with noticeable caution, saying the initial experiment will be carefully studied.
“The aim is clear: how to attract people who never set foot in museums?” she said in an interview with Le Monde. “The question has been asked repeatedly for 30 years. Is free access the best solution? Or is it to have more free visiting hours or more attractive prices for different age groups? All this will be examined.”
By all accounts French supporters of free admissions have been impressed by a 50 percent rise in museum attendance in Britain since the measure was introduced there in 2001. And while access is free only to permanent collections, the surge of visitors has also benefited temporary shows, for which ticket prices can exceed $20.
British officials have further cited an increase in the number of young people and people of ethnic minorities visiting Britain’s museums since the entrance fee was eliminated. But other studies suggest that much of the increase resulted from repeat visits by traditional art lovers from the educated middle classes.
Many French museum experts remain skeptical that free entry will significantly change the visitor profile. Figures show that 70 percent of French visitors to the Louvre — some 1.9 million people — already enjoy the free access or cut-rate tickets available to those under 18, families, the unemployed, the disabled, the elderly and other categories.
Critics of the proposal also argue that the main beneficiaries of free admission will be foreign tourists, and that the change will in effect represent a subsidy to foreigners financed by French taxpayers. For just the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, the Château de Versailles, the Georges Pompidou Center and Musée du Quai Branly, they argue, it will also mean a loss of some $140 million per year in ticket sales.
As it happens, an experiment of sorts already exists in Paris, where in 2001 the city government introduced free access to the permanent collections of its 14 museums, among them the Musée Carnavalet, the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and the Petit Palais. Attendance rose to 760,000 in 2005 from 530,000 in 2001.
Christophe Girard, the city’s deputy mayor for culture, said he did not favor free access to temporary shows. “But I’d support it for children and adolescents in order to help drag them away from their television and computer screens,” he told Agence-France Presse. “But they must be accompanied.”
The numbers drawn to the city museums are dwarfed by those of visitors to the most popular national museums. And destinations like the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay are already overwhelmed by crowds. On the first Sunday of every month, when the Louvre offers free entry, visitors can top 50,000.
Still, while resistance by several leading museums may in the end torpedo the government’s experiment, the debate has at least served to highlight what many cultural experts consider a more fundamental problem: the poor quality of artistic education in French public schools.
“One learns to read at school, one doesn’t learn to see,” Pierre Rosenberg, the former president-director of the Louvre, wrote recently in the Paris daily Libération. “For decades art historians have been united in demanding that the history of art be required teaching in high schools.”
Yet, puzzlingly for a country with France’s record of great artists, French teenagers are encouraged to create art but not to study it. The shortage of art education for youngsters may in turn help explain the morose state of many French art colleges.
The alarming implication might be that many French people are put off not by the museum ticket price but by the art. And for Mr. Rosenberg, the only answer to this — the only way of truly “democratizing culture,” as he put it — is to teach art history in schools.
Once people are taught to appreciate beauty, the price of a ticket may no longer stand between them and a visit to a museum. On the other hand, the cost of reforming artistic education would be far greater than simply throwing open the doors to the country’s art collections.