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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How Paris cinemas are surviving

Spinning once again, the sign above France's biggest cinema, the Grand Rex, is testament to how well Paris venues have weathered the twin threats of streaming and the pandemic.

How Paris cinemas are surviving

The 2,700-seat Art Deco venue reopened last week after a major facelift to mark its 90th birthday.

It has reason to be hopeful: ticket sales in France are down just 10 percent on pre-Covid levels, compared to almost a third in the United States.

That is partly due to the country’s long-standing love affair with its cinemas, immortalised in 1960s New Wave classic “Breathless”, in which Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg duck in and out of theatres along the Champs Elysees.

Paris is thought to have the highest density of screens in the world, and the atmosphere has influenced generations of filmmakers. 

READ MORE: The English-subtitled French film screenings for December you don’t want to miss

“I went to old cinemas in the Latin Quarter to watch retrospectives, screenings of old films from Hollywood, France or Japan,” director Damien Chazelle (“La La Land”) told AFP recently.

“The first time I saw ‘Metropolis’ by Fritz Lang was here. I’ll never forget it!”


Paris authorities say there are 398 screens across 75 venues — up eight percent on 2000 — and down just slightly from 411 in 2019.

Survival requires some creativity.

To coax viewers off their sofas, the Grand Rex has been offering “event” screenings such as manga previews and film marathons that cater to the biggest fans.

Its history has made it a popular choice for premieres, with Steven Spielberg next on the agenda for the launch of “The Fabelmans”.

It also requires diversification. The Rex moonlights as a nightclub, escape game venue — and most importantly as a concert hall, featuring everyone from Madonna to Bob Dylan.

“If we had to survive on the cinema alone, we would have closed the doors long ago,” said manager Alexandre Hellmann. He added that that 71 bigger halls have opened during the Rex’s lifetime but none have lasted.


While the overall picture is positive, the map of Paris cinemas is evolving.

Next year will see the reopening of the Japanese-style La Pagode, another mythic venue.

And in 2024, the Pathe Palace, billed as the most beautiful cinema in the world, will open next to the Paris Opera.

But this shift is coming at the expense of other historic areas.

Rising rents are threatening many cinemas, particularly on the Champs Elysees, where the renowned Marignan will soon shut for good.

“It was THE cinema district in Paris but it is disappearing, due particularly to the exorbitant rents,” said Michel Gomez, who leads the city’s “Mission Cinema” to support the industry.

“It’s hard to see cinemas close but cinema in Paris is a living fabric. It follows the sociological and geographical evolution of the city,” he said.