French museums beg to reopen as blockbusters go unseen

It was to be a highlight of the art calendar: 230 works by impressionist master Henri Matisse gathered at France's leading modern art museum to mark 150 years since his birth.

French museums beg to reopen as blockbusters go unseen
An employee walks at the Centre Georges Pompidou modern art museum, currently closed to the public. Photo: AFP

But thanks to the pandemic, the show at the Pompidou Centre in Paris stayed open for only 10 days after it began in October, and it looks highly unlikely to resume before the paintings are packed away again at the end of February.

Only 17,000 people secured a ticket in time — an abysmally low figure for a museum that attracts more than three million visitors each year in normal times.

“For an artist that was absolutely not melancholy, this is something very melancholy,” said Pompidou curator Aurelie Verdier.

This week, desperate museums demanded a chance to reopen — even if only partially — with two petitions to the government signed by hundreds within the industry and wider art community.

“For an hour, a day, a week or a month — let us reopen our doors, even if we have to shut them again in the case of another lockdown,” it says.

READ ALSO: Paris Pompidou Centre to close for four-year refit


The Louvre Museum in Paris remains closed. The rebellion of museums is growing against a closure they believe they do not deserve: petitions and proposals were sent to Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot's cabinet for a quick reopening. Photo: AFP

'It's a nightmare'

Museums had hoped to reopen in December when the last lockdown ended, but as with restaurants, theatres and cinemas, they have remained shut as infection rates remain stubbornly high.

Some exhibitions — such as a photo exhibition at the Grand Palais featuring Man Ray, Diane Arbus and Robert Frank — have been and gone without anyone getting to see them.

Many shows are unable to prolong or postpone their dates, because the paintings are booked in elsewhere around the world or must make room for the next exhibition — always planned years in advance.

“It's a nightmare. The dates (for opening and closing) change endlessly,” said Christophe Leribault of the Petit Palais, where an ambitious exhibition of Danish art was delayed and ultimately managed just four weeks of public viewings.

The empty entrance of the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. Photo: AFP

“I managed to negotiate some extensions. But after a year, we had to return the paintings to make room for the next show on the great Italian painter Giovanni Boldoni, while also having this concern that his works might get blocked in other exhibitions in Italy.”

The petitioners say they are ready to accept tougher health protocols and even more limited numbers than during the brief summer respite — following the example of other countries such as Italy which has partially reopened many cultural sites.

They say art is a powerful way of keeping up people's spirits, particularly the young who have been denied much of their social life for almost a year.

“Museums are without doubt the places where human interactions and the risk of contamination are the least proven,” said another petition published in Le Monde newspaper this week and signed by many public figures, including singer and former first lady Carla Bruni.

There is the added grievance that small, private galleries have been allowed to reopen, and are often packed with people in desperate search of diversion.

'Have courage'

Frederic Jousset, on the board of the Louvre and head of the ArtNova investment fund, said museums lacked the economic clout to pressure the government.

But he held out hope for “the hundreds of petitioners coming out of the woods to reveal the thoughts of the silent majority”.

“Museums are effectively open already: the heating is on, the lights are burning, the guards are there,” he told AFP.

Soldiers patrol the empty entrance hall of the Louvre Museum in Paris, as it remains closed due to the pandemic. The Louvre suffered a drop in attendance of 72% compared to 2019, and a loss of revenue of more than 90 million euros, the museum announced in January. Photo: AFP

READ ALSO: Paris' Louvre Museum sees 70 percent fall in visitors due to covid resitrictions

Unlike theatres, no dress rehearsals are needed, the petitioners add. They just need to call in a few furloughed staff and the doors could reopen tomorrow — perhaps only on certain days, in low-infection areas, or for certain groups such as pupils and students.

They accept that such a move risks inciting jealousy on the part of other shuttered sectors, such as cinemas and theatres.

But for the sake of the nation's mental and economic health, the government “must have the courage to make the choice — and quickly,” said Jousset.


Member comments

  1. I can see their point – museums are certainly way better setup for enforcing social distancing than cinemas or restaurants.

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French MP abandons bid to ban bullfighting

A bid to ban bullfighting in France has been abandoned, to the relief of lovers of the traditional blood sport and dismay for animal rights' activists.

French MP abandons bid to ban bullfighting

The 577-seat National Assembly had looked set to vote on draft legislation that would have made the practice illegal.

But the MP behind the bill withdrew it after lawmakers filed more than 500 amendments, many of them designed to take up parliamentary time and obstruct the vote.

“I’m so sorry,” Aymeric Caron, a La France insoumise (LFI) MP and animal rights’ campaigner, told the national assembly as he announced the decision in raucous and bad-tempered scenes.

Though public opinion is firmly in favour of outlawing the practice, the bill had already been expected to be rejected by a majority of lawmakers who
are wary about stirring up the bullfighting heartlands in the south of the country.

“We need to go towards a conciliation, an exchange,” President Emmanuel Macron said on Wednesday, adding that he did not expect the draft law to pass. “From where I am sitting, this is not a current priority.”

His government has urged members of the ruling centrist coalition not to support the text from the opposition LFI, even though many members are known to personally favour it.

During a first debate of the parliament’s law commission last week, a majority voted against the proposal by Caron, who denounced the “barbarism” of a tradition that was imported from Spain in the 1850s.

“Caron has antagonised people instead of trying to smooth it over,” a lawmaker from Macron’s party told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The bill proposed modifying an existing law penalising animal cruelty to remove exemptions for bullfights that can be shown to be “uninterrupted local

These are granted in towns such as Bayonne and Mont-de-Marsan in south west France and along the Mediterranean coast including Arles, Beziers and Nîmes.

Around 1,000 bulls are killed each year in France, according to the Observatoire National des Cultures Taurines.

READ ALSO EXPLAINED: Could bullfighting finally be banned in France?

Many so-called “bull towns” depend on the shows for tourism and see the culture of bull-breeding and the spectacle of the fight as part of their way of life – idolised by artists from Ernest Hemingway to Pablo Picasso.

They organised demonstrations last Saturday, while animal rights protesters gathered in Paris – highlighting the north-south and rural-versus-Paris divide at the heart of the debate.

“Caron, in a very moralising tone, wants to explain to us, from Paris, what is good or bad in the south,” the mayor of Mont-de-Marsan, Charles Dayot, told AFP recently.

Other defenders of “la Corrida” in France view the focus on the sport as hypocritical when factory farms and industrial slaughter houses are overlooked.

“These animals die too and we don’t talk enough about it,” said Dalia Navarro, who formed the pro-bullfighting group Les Andalouses in southern Arles.

Modern society “has more and more difficulty in accepting seeing death. But la Corrida tackles death, which is often a taboo subject,” she told AFP.

Previous judicial attempts to outlaw bullfighting have repeatedly failed, with courts routinely rejecting lawsuits lodged by animal rights activists, most recently in July 2021 in Nîmes.

The debate in France about the ethics of killing animals for entertainment is echoed in other countries with bullfighting histories, including Spain and Portugal as well as Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela.

In June, a judge in Mexico City ordered an indefinite suspension of bullfighting in the capital’s historic bullring, the largest in the world.

The first bullfight took place in France in 1853 in Bayonne to honour Eugenie de Montijo, the Spanish wife of Napoleon III.