Sexism and censorship were just two of the hot topics on the table at a recent wide-ranging discussion held by Villa Albertine as part of a panel series that pairs women museum directors from America and France for in-depth conversation.
Laurence des Cars sees her appointment as the first female director of the Louvre in its more than 200-year history as a symbol. One that should be taken seriously by society, she told Observer, but not one that should define her career.
Previously the head of the Musee d’Orsay and Musee de L’Orangerie, she also oversaw the development of Louvre Abu Dhabi before taking on her new position in 2021. “Generally speaking, women tend to always self-question their legitimacy where men generally don’t,” she said. “You make the decision if you want to run for an important position. If you feel comfortable with it, do it.”
According to Katherine E. Fleming, who became the first-ever female CEO and president of the Getty Trust in 2022 after serving as New York University’s provost for six years, sexism remains prevalent as the most enduring bias. “The thing that is so powerful about it is that it’s completely inscribed in the way all of us, women too, think,” she told Observer.
That said, Fleming also noted that women are increasingly rising to top positions in museum and arts institutions.
“I would be spinning a tale if I told you it’s been a hard slog for me as a woman,” said Fleming at the event, adding that with the exception of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, women are largely running the art institutions in Los Angeles, where the Getty is based.
On freedom of expression in the museum world
Both Des Cars and Fleming, who run the most-visited and wealthiest art institutions in the world respectively, also see the erosion of free speech and freedom of expression as pressing issues in the museum world.
“They’re under attack,” said Fleming at the panel, stating that she’d love to work with directors like des Cars to “forcefully put forward a public statement” similar to that of the University of Chicago’s principles on free speech in academia.
“Places like the Getty and the Louvre are where you should be free to experience the diversity of artistic expression throughout time,” added des Cars. “You can love or hate a work of art, that’s okay.”
The current socio-cultural environment has led to a fear of offending people, Fleming later told Observer. “I’m not saying that we should gratuitously offend,” she said. “But when we do offend, I don’t think the answer is to stop what we’re doing.”
Giving visitors a voice is a top priority for both institutions.
“We need to understand in a much better way our public, to understand what they are expecting or not expecting from a museum,” des Cars told Observer, adding that listening to the public is one of the top priorities of the Louvre in the future.
Museums need to communicate why encountering works of art is still relevant, according to Fleming.”Conveying why it still matters in the midst of the shitshow of now, when we have a 15-second TikTok attention span, when the climate is going haywire all around us, when the wealth gap has never been greater,” she said. “That is vitally important, and museums can take it as a given.”
On the challenges of leading arts institutions
The two women additionally discussed the most daunting challenges of their tenures thus far, which include maintaining a focused identity while carving out a new path for their institutions.
The Louvre must avoid being trapped between two extremes, said des Cars during the panel. These two options are “becoming only a touristic attraction, which was a little bit the situation the last years, or become something for only educated people.”
The institution has also been affected by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as it cut ties with Russian colleagues on the directive of the French government. “It is a very painful cut because I belong to a generation of curators that have seen the opening of Russia and the possibility of working together, but this unfortunately is now behind us,” she said, adding that supporting Ukrainian colleagues is now the main priority.
Despite the amount of work involved in heading such a large institution, de Cars told Observer that her position has been filled with joy and satisfaction thus far. “Every day, I know how lucky I am to be in my position,” she said. “The challenge is not to lose the main goals, because this is a huge ship.”
For Fleming, the past year has involved challenges related to working with the vast numbers of people involved with the Getty, which has more than 1,400 employees at its Getty Museum, foundation and research and conservation institutes. “The biggest challenge is figuring out how, in a respectful way, to move the institution in new directions without losing people or making people feel that you don’t appreciate and understand everything that they’ve contributed to the organization,” she said.
On the plethora of new initiatives at both institutions
Some of these new directions include the Getty’s focus on Pacific Standard Time, an arts event including more than 50 institutions across Southern California. Earlier this month, the Getty announced $17 million in grants for participants in its 2024 edition, adding that the initiative will now take place regularly on a five-year cycle.
The institution also recently revealed plans to jointly purchase Joshua Reynold’s Portrait of Mai (Omai) for $62 million with London’s National Portrait Gallery, which had been attempting to raise money for the acquisition over the past year. “I’m really excited about the fact that we’re thinking about what it means to own something in a different and much more capacious way,” said Fleming.
Meanwhile, des Cars is creating a new department at the Louvre, one that is dedicated to art of Byzantium and Eastern Christianity. These works were previously “scattered among departments” and will now “reflect the reality of our collection which wasn’t visible,” she said at the panel.
The museum is also planning on partaking in celebrations for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, according to des Cars, in addition to showcasing an exhibition focused on the event’s history and hosting cultural programming and performing arts.