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Louvre Gets Its First Woman President – Ever

The Louvre Museum, Paris. Image by Benh LIEU SONG via Flickr

To hear the phrase “the first woman to” do or become something is unfortunately quite common nowadays, and while the road to equality is still long, we salute those who help pave it.

We are also nevertheless very happy for Laurence des Cars, the first woman to lead The Louvre in Paris in its 228-year-long history. She was appointed on May 26, 2021 by the French President Emmanuel Macron, and will assume her position at the realm of world’s most visited museum on September 1.

While the name of Laurence des Cars only just became familiar to many, this experienced art historian has been around for a while. Born in 1966 to journalist and writer Jean des Cars, she studied art history at the Sorbonne and École du Louvre. Her first position as curator was at the Musée d’Orsay, of which she has also been President since 2014, along with the much smaller Musée de l’Orangerie since 2017. From 2007 to 2014, she was in charge of Agence France-Muséums, the French government body behind the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

Des Cars is a specialist in 19th- and early-20th-century painting. As a teacher at École du Louvre, she organized many exhibitions for various museums, including the traveling show on Edward Burne-Jones (1998-99), Gustave Courbet (2007-08), and Jean-Léon Gérôme (2010-11).

During her time as head of Musée d’Orsay, Laurence des Cars oversaw the acclaimed 2019 exhibition “Black models: from Géricault to Matisse,” which looked at the representation of Black figures in visual arts, from the abolition of slavery in France (1794) to the modern day. The museum is also the first French venue of its kind to voluntarily return a Nazi-looted painting to its rightful owners.

“My heart beat much faster,” des Cars said to France Inter, after learning about her new role from the culture minister, Roselyne Bachelot, on May 23. She will be replacing the museum’s leader of the past eight years, Jean-Luc Martinez, who will now serve as a special ambassador for international co-operation on cultural heritage. According to a statement from the French culture ministry, Des Cars pledged to extend The Louvre’s opening hours in order to attract younger visitors, and to foster “a dialogue between ancient art and the contemporary world,” which will be particularly interesting to see, given that The Louvre has been a “classical” art museum under Martinez’s leadership.

In an interview with The New York Times, des Cars expressed her excitement to be the first female president-director of The Louvre. “Things are really changing for women in the museum world. Of the 70 curators in the Louvre, more than half of them are women. More women are heading museums, especially in Europe. And younger women are much more confident these days,” she said.

Although he grew the museum’s attendance to over 10 million a year, the previous Director Jean-Luc Martinez was criticized for a few decisions, including the Louvre’s partnership with the Uniqlo brand for a merchandize line, or the one with Airbnb, which allowed a couple to spend a night in the museum.

The Louvre Museum is a state-owned venue with the annual budget of about $291 million and more than 2,000 employees. Despite the fact that the attendance plunged by 72 percent to 2.7 million in 2020 during the pandemic, it is still the most visited – and the largest – art museum in the world.

As reported by The Guardian and the French Culture Ministry, about 67 percent of the country’s national museums are headed by women. Laurence des Cars will be joining the company of Catherine Chevillot, Director of the Musée Rodin, Tatyana Franck at the Élysée museum, and Sophie Makariou, President of the Musée Guimet.

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