The Louvre takes art out of Paris, but will the crowds follow?
John Lichfield assesses the chances of a new £200m gallery making Lens – a lowly coal-mining town an hour's drive from the Channel Tunnel – into an art destination
Until this week, the depressed former coal-mining town of Lens in Northern France had just two claims to fame: it has the tallest slag-heaps in Europe, and its football club, currently marooned in Ligue 2, has the most passionate fans in France.
However, from this month, Lens hopes to join the cultural first division. The world's biggest art museum, the Louvre, will open an outpost in this, the unlikeliest of locations, 60 miles from the Channel Tunnel, on the doorstep of Britain.
The "northern Louvre" will be much smaller than its sprawling parent on the banks of the Seine. A group of five, low, aluminium and glass pavilions on the site of a former coal-mine will display a rotating selection of masterpieces dating from 5,000 years ago to the early 19th century.
Sadly, the Mona Lisa, which is too fragile to move, will not be catching the TGV from the Gare du Nord. However, her bigger sister, Leonardo da Vinci's recently restored painting of the La Vierge à L'Enfant avec sainte Anne, will be part of the inaugural exhibition which opens to the public from 12 December.
The museum, to be opened officially by President François Hollande tomorrow, will also show works by Botticelli, Raphael, Rubens, Rembrandt and Poussin. Over 200 exhibits will be displayed in a dazzling time tunnel: a gently sloping gallery with a glass roof and white walls.
The "Galerie du temps", which is the length of a football pitch, narrates the history of art from 3,300 years BC to the early 1800's. One fifth of the exhibits will change each year.
It may seem odd that Lens – the French equivalent of Barnsley or Wigan – was chosen in a competition to decide the location for a regional branch of the Louvre.
Until now, the town's biggest draw had been its football stadium, the capacity of which is larger than the entire population of Lens.
But the small town, with its 35,000 residents, was selected partly for its faults – in an attempt to regenerate an area devastated by the collapse of heavy industries from the 1970s onwards.
Just south of Lille, it was also chosen because of its strategic location. The Channel Tunnel is only one hour way. Belgium is 30 minutes away; the Netherlands is less than two hours away. The surrounding area is the second most populous in France. Lens is also within the zone of weekend visits from the UK to Lille, to the French channel coast or the First World War battlefields.
The hope is that the Louvre can do for Lens what the Guggenheim museum has done for Bilbao in northern Spain, which was also stricken by the collapse of traditional, heavy industries. Over 500,000 visitors a year are predicted, but whether they show up is an entirely different matter.
However, the Louvre believes the "Galerie du temps" will prove to be a major attraction. The exhibition begins with a tablet of cuneiform writing – a 5,000-year-old "shopping list" of foodstuffs – taken from the temple of Eanna in Warka, Iraq. The work selected to "end" the story is one of the most iconic of French canvasses, Eugene Delacroix's painting of a bare-breasted woman leading a revolutionary charge (Liberty Guiding the People, 1830).
No Impressionists? No modern art? This is the weakness of the "history of art" theme chosen for the Louvre-Lens. The story ends abruptly almost 200 years ago. The daughter museum has to stick rigidly to the time-span allotted to the "big" Louvre in Paris. Works from later periods belong to the Musée d'Orsay and National Museum of Modern Art.
Other galleries on the Lens site will house temporary exhibitions, starting with the aforementioned La Vierge à L'Enfant avec sainte Anne, which is one of the largest surviving oil paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, who died in 1519.
Both the Bilbao Guggenheim and the Pompidou's regional branch are known for their adventurous architecture. However, the Louvre-Lens, which cost €200m, is, comparatively, understated. It was designed by the Japanese architectural agency Sanaa, which was also responsible for the summer pavilion at the Serpentine gallery in London's Hyde Park in 2009.
So far, first reactions in the French press have been mixed. Le Figaro called the museum "discreet". The Journal du Dimanche said that, without its contents, it would look like "two, immense, cold hangars".
The Louvre's director, Henri Loyrette, is confident the story-telling mission of the new museum will make it a success. "We are presenting our collections here horizontally, linking things which are separated in Paris into different times or schools or techniques," he said. "It should give people new keys to the understanding of the works."
Meanwhile, the Socialist mayor of Lens, Guy Delcourt, is hoping the museum will breathe new life into his community. "The biggest museum in the world is coming to one of the poorest towns in France," he said. "Lens was dying, now we can live again."
The renowned Pompidou modern arts centre in Paris opened a regional branch in Metz in eastern France two years ago. Its success has exceeded hopes. With around 600,000 visit a year, it was the most visited cultural venue outside of Paris last year according to the French Tourist board.
Like Lens, the port city of Bilbao in northern Spain was also stricken by the collapse of traditional, heavy industries. Since it opened in 1997, it has been credited with a huge jump in the city's tourism trade – in 2005, 25,000 people visited. In 2009, that figure was over 600,000.
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