OPENING UP THE LOUVRE. Donatien Grau is an editor, scholar and museum executive. He was head of contemporary programs at Musée d’Orsay, Paris, and recently moved to the Louvre, where his continuing mission is to oversee the implementation of contemporary projects that echo the museum’s collections. He was in the list of Apollo Magazine‘s “Forty under Forty” in 2014, and Donatien’s scholarly publications include taking a new look at Proust, deciphering the image of Nero, as well as his best-selling English translation Paul Gauguin: Ramblings of a Wannabe Painter.

This interview can be listened to as a podcast here.

Donatien Grau, who are you and what is your métier?

I am a philologist by training. Philology is the study of text across cultures and traditions. I have a PhD in classical philology, so I can read different situations. I work on Ancient Roman coins, which is a form of philology, and I just published a book on that. Reading requires a certain quantity of information that allows you to rebuild content and shape your practice. Philology is rooted in different traditions that are at the centre of the Western tradition. One is a relation to text, and I’ve written many texts on the act of reading and conversation as a form of reading, and that is very much what I do. I can read a body of ancient coins, I can read an institution, I’ve also been very fortunate to meet and be supported and embraced by incredible individuals, each of whom has shaped me. I have been very fortunate to meet many individuals who have pushed me in directions where, as a scholar of Ancient Roman numismatics, I was not necessarily designed to go.

Why did you recently move from the Musée d’Orsay to the Louvre?  

The answer consists of one name in three words – Laurence des Cars. I was very fortunate to meet her when I was very young and she was the Director of the Agence France-Muséum. Now the Director of the Louvre, she is incredible, very smart, extraordinarily personable; and she has a sense of public duty. I worked with her for four years when she was Director and CEO of Musées d’Orsay and de l’Orangerie. I was wondering whether I was going to carry on working in museums as I had this great passion to go back to academia. I just published a 400 page book on ancient Roman coins, which is a complete reading of how we interpret Roman Numismatics and therefore a new way of looking at Roman history. A number of my friends and colleagues, especially in the United States, said you should come and lecture in the spring of next year about that book, but then Laurence called me and said that she wanted me to go with her to the Louvre. It was clear I was going to say yes. Where else could you find yourself with 10,000 people at one moment who are coming from all over the world, with different origins and different social backgrounds, but all looking for a way of going beyond themselves, going to something they don’t know, don’t understand. Being lost, but also finding yourself while being lost. That is what the Louvre is.

“The Louvre is the Louvre, and that’s already an extraordinarily ample answer.”

Donatien Grau

Donatien Grau, the Louvre is one of the most famous museums in the world, if not the most famous, and has a long history. In what ways should museums change and develop to be relevant today?

The past of museums is an important thing to think about, because museums are structures of self-oblivion. They create a situation in which they forget about themselves. It is well known that Tom Krens, the legendary Director of the Guggenheim for twenty years, created the Bilbao project and then started conceiving Guggenheims all around the world. But very few people know – as I found out when doing the research for my book Living Museums – that this is rooted in what Alan Bowness, the Director of the Tate Gallery between 1980 and 1988, did in Liverpool. The very premise of Bilbao was invented by a British public servant in the 1980s.

What was this idea of Alan Bowness?  

To take an impoverished area – in the 80s Liverpool had financial and political troubles – and have the local institutions and organisations create a location that you will operate for the sake of public service. Liverpool created a building that would be programmed by the Tate, as a way to open up the neighbourhood culturally. To be grounded in history creates a context in which you can look into what the future means. For my book Under Discussion – The Encyclopedic Museum I did research on “encyclopedic museums” in order to understand what this very notion – that is used to qualify the Met, the British Museum, the Louvre, and others, to describe an all-encompassing museum – may mean. I found that the notion of an “encyclopedic museum” is an archetype and therefore did not necessarily relate to an institution as such. Each institution is itself and relates to its own model.

Is the Louvre a universal museum or an encyclopedic museum or a national museum?  

The Louvre is the Louvre, and that’s already an extraordinarily ample answer. The Louvre is a collection. The Louvre is a palace. The Louvre is a garden. It’s where the Comité de Salut Public (the Committee of Public Safety) gathered, which was run by Robespierre during the French Revolution in the building of the Louvre at the very same place where Kings ruled and so many things happened.

The Guggenheims were made as museums, but the Louvre and others such as Capodimonte in Naples were palaces transformed into museums?

Each institution has a specific history. You can look at the museum as a structure, as a sort of ideal form, as an architecture, and you can look at the identity of the institution and how it can be opened up to be relevant today. For example, in 2017 I was invited by Timothy Potts, the Director of the J Paul Getty Museum, to do the reopening exhibition of the Getty Villa in Malibu in 2018. Because the Getty Villa is a place in Malibu that celebrates the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, I had this vision to do an exhibition on Plato, a very important figure in contemporary art. A wide range of artists from different cultures and origins – such as Jeff Koons, Mike Kelley, Huang Yong Ping, Paul McCarthy, Raymond Pettibon, Adrian Piper and Rachel Harrison – confronted Plato. The very idea of that exhibition came from the place. Institutions have a history, and we have to open them up without losing the perspective that we’re working for the public with the highest ambition.

How did you open up the Musée d’Orsay under Laurence des Cars’ leadership?

Just to use one example: we did a whole programme on Instagram for the celebration of the 200th anniversary of Baudelaire‘s birth. We invited figures to read Baudelaire as part of our digital programmes, which nobody had done, and it went from four members of the Académie Française to Naomi Campbell, Carla Bruni, or Jeff Koons, and some of the leading voices across cultures. We were completely faithful to the mandate of the museum, which is devoted to the arts and culture of the 19th century, but we opened it up. Depending on what the institution is, you can open it up that way.

“It is about creating something that breathes through the museum.”

Donatien Grau, your new job title is Conseiller de la Présidence pour les programmes contemporains (Advisor to the Presidency for contemporary programmes). How is this job at the Louvre structured?

The Louvre has eight grands départements patrimoniaux, which means that they are museums in and of themselves – paintings; sculptures; arts of Islam; Near-Eastern Antiquities; Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities; drawings; decorative arts; Egyptian; and is creating a new one devoted to the arts of the Eastern Christians and of Byzantium. Each of them is their own entity. Then we have what we call direction transversale (transversal directorship), whose directors can be in charge of cultural programming, of external affairs, of the building and the gardens, and they are now in the process of being restructured. Everything, along with the Tuileries Garden and the Musée Delacroix, is under the authority of one Présidente-Directrice – and that’s Laurence des Cars. I report to her and only to her. My job is to be a sort of secretary, gathering all the different elements and preparing them for her to shape into a form of policy.

In what sense is the Louvre a contemporary museum? 

With a few exceptions, the Louvre doesn’t collect contemporary art, we stop in 1848, so contemporary at the Louvre has to be reflexive as to what the Louvre is. In the beautiful phrase of Cézanne, “Le Louvre est le grand livre dans lequel nous apprenons à lire.” (“The Louvre is the big book in which we learn how to read.”) The legibility of the Louvre – and indeed of any museum, but in this case the Louvre – is essential. For us contemporary is about setting a programme in which we shed new light onto those works, that building, those collections, that history, that today are drifting away. For example, when contemporary audiences see a Giotto that was taken from Assisi by Napoleon and then is here, they do not necessarily have the references to really understand what is going on.

Everyone wants to see the iconic Mona Lisa at the Louvre, but what else do people look at that you wouldn’t perhaps have expected?  

Audience members look at things you had no idea they would look at, say a sculpture by Giambologna or Leone Leoni. The fact that there is no necessary contextualisation doesn’t mean that there’s no interest, which means that the Louvre offers you two things, amongst many others. One is the possibility to get lost, which is so rare today and which is wonderful. Second it offers you an encounter with so many different forms of human creativity gathered under one roof, and that’s something you can’t have anywhere else. We have a duty to open up that way of being lost. That can be done through publications; presence in the rooms; digital, which is a huge thing for us if it’s used in a pedagogical way; and the auditorium. It is about creating something that breathes through the museum.

How many people visit the Louvre every year?  

In 2018 we reached the world record of any museum, which was 10.2 million. We went down since because of COVID, but we are going back up and Laurence des Cars has decided to limit attendance per day to 30,000 people. Before we had been going up to 43,000 a day.

How important are exhibitions to a museum like yours?  

The Louvre audience mostly comes for the permanent collection, but exhibitions are very important in terms of opening up the narrative, setting these different platforms that allow us to open up. Exhibitions are one of the devices you have to further scholarship and open a perspective. Right now we have an exhibition Pharaoh of the Two Lands: The African Story of the Kings of Napata who are a central part of today’s discussion on the African identity of pharaohs and therefore of Western culture.

Why do so many people go to museums nowadays?

Museums are the temples humankind has built to itself, so if we want to worship transcendence as humans, immanent transcendence, we go to museums. We go to participate in something that is much bigger than ourselves, chronologically, geographically, and that’s what they allow us. That’s why they are so central. Also, where do you go for continuous education after you leave university? Today people go to the Louvre, to the Musée d’Orsay, to the Pompidou, to learn, to discover, to find out something new, and with their phones they can look it up and find where the work is. So they are places for a form of self-worship and for learning.

“It’s so important to be in that safe space, where you can actually get lost and still be protected.”

Donatien Grau, Paris was always known for its many intellectuals and artists. What’s happening today?

Paris has always been a city for foreigners, for outsiders. Wherever you came from, you would be welcome here. That’s what Paris is, and in the art world specifically it means that today we have this openness in which we have these extraordinary audiences coming from everywhere. It’s true with artists, it’s true with galleries. The centre of Paris has now also opened up. Saint-Germain-des-Prés and so forth have become more important than ever. We now have really interesting arts initiatives in the outskirts of Paris, in the north of Paris, in what used to be excluded and set aside as the Banlieue. I was just in Romainville visiting a series of galleries and a Foundation who have settled there. This extraordinary energy is not one energy, but a multiplicity of energies.

There are many shows to visit. Is the competition between them very great?

I don’t think it’s a competition, it’s an ecosystem. Each institution produces projects and things that speak to itself. Each institution has a specific identity. There have been moments when certain institutions have taken other institutions’ projects, but most of the time, and especially now, the Louvre does what the Louvre does, d’Orsay does what d’Orsay does, so does the Pompidou, the Bourse de Commerce has its policy, as does Fondation Cartier, Lafayette Anticipations, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Musée d’Art Moderne, etc.  You have to know what you do and, in the case of the Louvre, our job is not to do contemporary art, not to pretend to compete with the contemporary art institutions around us, but to look at the collection today from a contemporary point of view.

Can museums help people flourish in this dangerous time of plague and war?

It makes our mission more important than ever. We are places that represent stability. We have to fulfil our duty, be as open as possible and as creative as possible in creating a place that is a safe space. When you go to the Louvre you can get lost, but you won’t get attacked. It’s so important to be in that safe space, where you can actually get lost and still be protected.

Is it also important that museums represent stability in this digital age?

It is a stability that can be opened up. Stability shouldn’t be a limitation, it should be a grounding. Today we have very few places or institutions that seem stable. So the fact that this would seem stable is very important, but that actually means that we have even more of a duty to open it up and create a form of movement while being an absolute monument. Our screens, our texts, they’re all libraries, but they’re not the contemplation of the work of art that is present. When museums reopened, people went back to museums because they had missed it, it was important for them. They knew that it was part of what made them human.

Your métier is to find the context in which apparently contradictory things live side by side?

It is something that is very central to today’s methodology. It is really Laurence des Cars’ vision for the museum. Context is very important, how a site like an archaeological site can be used to open up perspectives. When I publish an academic book on ancient Roman coins, I know that being published with Les Belles Lettres, the great classical publisher, is a fantastic thing. When I do other things that are more pop, it’s important that they are in a different context. When I do an issue of an Indie magazine on Punk Philology, it’s perfect that we do the launch at a nightclub. Using every situation to open up things really is the key.

Donatien, as you said at the beginning, you have opened up your own life both by studying and also by meeting incredible people? 

Yes. Through mutual friends, I met the couturier Azzedine Alaïa and I wrote and edited the book on time that he wanted to make happen. I just happened to encounter him and he taught me about life and he taught me about couture. When I’m confronted by somebody who knows so much more than I do, I know that I have to listen. As a scholar, when I teach I also want to listen. I hear people tell me things and I learn from them. Some of my friends say I can be quite self-assured and I always say it’s not me, it’s just that I have been exposed to these extraordinary individuals. When somebody shows you something you have no idea about, you are enlightened. I mentioned Azzedine, but there are so many others: Adonis, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Hélène Cixous, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Philippe de Montebello, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Paul McCarthy… The list goes on and on. I’ve always been obsessed with the notion of loyalty, so when somebody puts their faith in me I will stick to them.

Thank you very much for this conversation.

Portrait of Donatien Grau © Paolo Roversi