Museums’ Use of Partnerships Stirs Controversy Across France

PARIS — The Louvre Museum is celebrated worldwide as a Paris landmark housing the world’s largest collection of fine art. So it came as a surprise to some locals when the staunchly traditional museum announced this April a competition to spend the night sleeping under its pyramid in a promotional partnership with Airbnb.

A series of intimate concerts and exclusive visits are also planned throughout the year to celebrate the pyramid’s 30th anniversary “to make the art accessible to all,” according to a news release.

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Then in May the Louvre announced another partnership, this time with Swatch, where visitors can create a personalized watch at a boutique located inside of the museum — another initiative touted to “democratize art so it’s more accessible for everyone.”

Both of those promotional moves came on the heels of Beyoncé releasing her “Apesh-it” music video that was filmed at the Louvre; it’s now the subject of a guided museum tour that helped bring in a record 10.2 million visitors in 2018 — the highest ever for a museum worldwide and a 25 percent increase from 2017. The record attendance led unionized museum workers to strike last month due to overcrowding issues.

“These partnerships are a first for the Louvre,” says Croisine Martin-Roland, a philanthropy adviser and former employee of the Louvre in France and Guggenheim museum in New York City.

The Louvre’s partnerships may be bringing in funds but they’re also stirring controversy. Some in the French art world have criticized the museum for selling its soul, and to turning itself into a zoo by partnering with Airbnb.

“A conservative, older generation finds it’s not very serious or doesn’t value culture and doesn’t fit with a place like the Louvre,” says Stéphane Laurent, professor of art history at the Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne University and author of the book, “Geste et la pensée” (Gesture and thought).

It doesn’t help that Airbnb has caused its own small scandal in France, Laurent says. The city of Paris brought a lawsuit against the popular short-term rental platform this February, later dismissed, for illegal rentals that the mayor said “spoil” some Parisian neighborhoods.

Partnerships can be a way to appeal to a younger, technologically-savvy public. And they may be a creative means to generate funding, Laurent says. Partnerships also show the challenging environment museums face today to raise funds and attract audiences, cultural experts say. In France, a socialist country with a big state budget for culture, even the world’s most-visited art institution has taken steps to adapt to the modern world.

Museums Find Creative Funding as State Budgets Shrink

Until a few decades ago, the French government paid for the vast majority of museums’ budgets. But sources of funding have been progressively changing since a 2003 law allowed a philanthropic tax break for individuals and corporations to directly reduce the amount of taxes they pay via donations. At the same time, the state significantly reduced its cultural budget.

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French museum officials were initially reluctant to embrace private or corporate sponsorships and branding opportunities, says Martin-Roland. Older generations are particularly hesitant about corporate involvement in the arts and feel that culture should be funded by the state.

“There was a fear that it could be intrusive to let patrons have a say in terms of programming,” Martin-Roland says. Still, museums require a big budget for security, expositions and publicity. “Fund-raising has become an absolutely necessary way for museums to maintain their budget,” adds Martin-Roland.

In 2009, the Louvre created the Louvre Endowment Fund, which it based on Anglo-Saxon models and geared toward younger patrons who want to be involved in their donations. “Donors in the 19th and early 20th centuries made a big check and left it up to the Louvre to manage the project,” says Philippe Gaboriau, head of the Louvre Endowment Fund. “Today, donors are philanthropist-entrepreneurs who want to live the project, which requires us to involve them more.”

Louvre Takes Steps to Safeguard Donations

The Louvre Endowment Fund offers donors several restoration projects to support each year; patrons and their families are kept abreast of the project’s implementation. The full donation is put in diverse investments, including the financial market and infrastructure projects, with the goal of earning at least 5% profit per year, says Gaboriau.

To ensure these funds come from reputable sources, the Endowment Fund has for years required donors to sign an ethical charter. Yet museums are never fully protected: Some U.S. museums have cut ties with one large donor, the Sackler family, due to the publicity and legal actions surrounding the family’s company, Purdue Pharma, the maker of the opioid medication OxyContin. The family also funded the Louvre’s Sackler Wing of Oriental Antiquities, but the family isn’t known in France and hasn’t stirred the controversy seen in the U.S., experts here say.

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“If a big donor does something bad and no one knows, including the government, there’s very little chance that the museum could know,” Gaboriau says. “But we try to minimize that risk. We haven’t at all felt distrustful of our donors.”

Today, 40% of the Louvre’s budget comes from public subsidies, 40% from ticket sales and 20% from its own resources, Gaboriau says. Those resources include profits from the Endowment Fund, rent paid by boutiques at the Louvre and rentals of the palace for private events.

Growing Use of Endowment Funds by French Museums

Gaboriau says that a number of French museums, including the Villa Medici and the National Library of France, have created endowment funds in the past five years, many with the help of the Louvre Endowment Fund. “There are many more that are in the process of being created today.”

Funds can be challenging to attain, even for the Louvre, not to mention small museums. The Museum of Decorative Arts, for example, constantly struggles to find funds despite being one of the largest museums of its kind worldwide, Laurent says. While museum patronage is prestigious, it can also appear elitist, Laurent says. Company officials may feel safer sponsoring, say, a sports team, than a museum of any size.

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French citizens also pay high rates of taxes, and the government still sponsors the arts. “French people sometimes say, ‘I’m already a philanthropist’ because of their taxes,” Martin-Roland says. Meanwhile, recent changes to the tax law for the wealthiest French likely precipitated a 4.2% percent drop in charitable donations from 2017 to 2018.

For the Louvre, a major source of income is the Louvre Abu Dhabi, a museum that opened in the Middle Eastern country in November 2017. In 2007 the French government and the emirate signed an agreement allowing Abu Dhabi to license the Louvre name for 30 years on its museum. Abu Dhabi paid $525 million for the 30-year deal, and another $750 million in exchange for art loans and consultation services. Today the Louvre is one of 13 French institutions that has loaned works to the Abu Dhabi museum, says Gaboriau.

The Louvre Endowment Fund’s annual report notes that in 2018, donors contributed more than 2.7 million euros (about $3 million), while the Louvre Abu Dhabi trademark license agreement brought in 50 million euros. Most of the endowment fund’s projected future revenue growth is from international expansions such as the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi “required a bit of explanation so that the international community got used to this type of partnership,” Gaboriau says. “But the fact that we’re licensing our brand isn’t at all problematic.”

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