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Geopolitics

Cultural Credit Crunch: Taming The Spiralling Cost Of French Museums

A recent report by France’s national audit office has concluded that the country's top art museums are costing too much, as others are busy trying to cut public spending.

Lining up at the Louvre (maveric2003)
Lining up at the Louvre (maveric2003)
Jean-Francis Pecresse

PARIS - France is home to some of the world's top museums but with a hefty price tag of some 530 million euros ($750 million) a year. Over the past decade, the budget allocated to the country's more than 40 state art galleries has swelled by 60 percent. As guardians of the national coffers, the national audit office is right to be worried about the skyrocketing cost of maintaining and showcasing our cultural treasures. But the findings of its recent report on the performance of our national museums over the last 10 years are contradictory. On the one hand, the report states that these institutions have not become financially autonomous enough. On the other, it criticizes initiatives that could help the museums increase their resources.

The 2002 law granting museums the freedom to manage their collections, finances and staff autonomously, was not of course accompanied by a decrease in public support, but rather an increase. Institutional disengagement was not followed by cultural disengagement. This was a bad thing, perhaps, when it led to the creation of new museums, such as the Quai Branly (a recently-opened museum devoted to indigenous art), which flew in the face of all financial reason. But it was also a good thing, without a doubt, when public funding helped museums to cope with the slowdown in private sponsorship over the past two years, brought on by the global financial crisis. The United States and the United Kingdom, where there are many private collections, took a harder hit.

But now, in light of the current state of our public finances, it is time to rein in the costs of France's passion for museums. If the nation is to maintain its mania for museums, which has its economic as well as cultural benefits, it will need to garner more private support for its state museums. Increases in productivity, as suggested by the national audit, are clearly necessary, but will not provide the funds needed to deal with the continuing explosion in attendance.

Instead, museums should be permitted to increase their admission fees, which remain among the lowest in Europe: it will not slow the ‘democratization of culture." The disappointing results of an initiative offering free entry to young people, introduced two years ago, proves that the key dissuader is not the ticket price.

Finally, the auditors' report suggests that sponsorship should be kept in check. But such funding sources allow the museums, in exchange for a few venial concessions, to restore France's heritage, make acquisitions, and, ultimately, serve the public interest. The state's vision for our museums is still far too conservative.

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photo - (maveric2003)

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