Laurence des Cars was a young curatorial recruit at the Musée d’Orsay in 1994 when she had a dream: pairing two great French painters, Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas, in a single exhibition. Their most important works were on different continents, and some were never on loan, so no museum had ever explored their rivalrous friendship.
Until now, that is. “Manet/Degas” opens at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Sept. 24 after a four-month run at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, where it drew 670,000 visitors. Making her maiden voyage to the United States is Manet’s famous “Olympia.”
The instigator of the exhibition is none other than des Cars, who rose from being an Orsay curator to leading the museum for four years before taking the helm at the Louvre in 2021. Des Cars started plotting “Manet/Degas” while still at Orsay. When Max Hollein became the Met’s director in 2018, she persuaded him to co-produce it with her, using works from both museums to do its subjects justice.
Des Cars now faces a challenge of a different order at the Louvre, the world’s biggest museum. The former palace — home to France’s kings until 1682 — exudes grandeur and majesty, and is a soft-power arm of the French state. Yet it is also a 21st-century museum with a duty to be relevant and inclusive, and to give its millions of visitors the widest possible access.
There’s also the perennial issue of the Mona Lisa. Since its theft in 1911, the Renaissance masterpiece has been swarmed by ever-swelling numbers of visitors, making crowd control the biggest conundrum for any Louvre boss.
“The Louvre is one of the rare French names to be recognized all over the world,” des Cars said in an interview at her office at the Louvre, which she has redecorated with contemporary furniture and photographs taken at the museum, including one of the Beatles posing beside a classical bust.
She felt “completely at ease” from the moment she arrived, she said, because running the Musée d’Orsay had “really prepared me technically for what it means to run a large museum.” She also felt equipped for “the diplomatic and almost geopolitical dimensions” of being president of the Louvre.
Visitors outside the I.M. Pei’s 1989 Pyramid entrance to the Louvre. It was designed to welcome 4 million visitors a year; in 2018, the museum welcomed over 10 million.Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times
Des Cars has pressing issues closer to home. She wants to carve out a second gateway to the museum in its easternmost facade, a 17th-century colonnade leading to the museum’s Renaissance wing. Her aim is to relieve congestion around the Louvre Pyramid, the glass-and-steel entrance designed by the architect I.M. Pei in the 1980s to welcome 4.5 million visitors a year, but which in 2018 ushered in a record 10.2 million. An estimated 80 percent of those visitors come just for the Mona Lisa, according to the Louvre; they wait in a holding pen for their turn to take a selfie.
The museum’s president wants to make the Louvre a more pleasant experience by allowing museumgoers — particularly French ones, who currently make up just 30 percent of the total — to avoid having to go through the thronged Pyramid every time. A second entry point, she hopes, will lure back those visitors, who will populate more areas of the museum than the galleries leading to La Gioconda.
She has also capped daily attendance at 30,000, down from prepandemic peaks of 45,000. “We must rebalance the Louvre,” she said.
The fate of France’s national museums is ultimately determined by the state — and in the case of the Louvre, by the president, who personally interviewed candidates for the job that went to des Cars, said Didier Selles, who was the Louvre’s general administrator from 2000 to 2009.
When Abu Dhabi asked to host the Louvre’s first international offshoot, “the matter was referred to the Elysée palace right away, and that’s where the decision was made,” said Selles, who negotiated the 2007 agreement that established the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
In recent years, the Louvre has gained autonomy from the state by committing to generate nearly half of its annual budget of about 270 million euros ($288 million). Yet des Cars’s master plan, which would involve a modern entrance, foyer and exhibition space, needs President Emmanuel Macron’s endorsement, and whether he delivers depends on his willingness — and ability — to make his mark on the Louvre the way President François Mitterrand did when he commissioned the Pyramid in the 1980s. It also depends on des Cars’s powers of persuasion.
The two presidents — of France, and of the Louvre — get along. Des Cars sometimes accompanies Macron on foreign trips, including a visit to the United States last November, and she regularly hosts official state dinners at the Louvre.
That ambassadorial role is one that she fulfills with ease. Born into an aristocratic family, she is the daughter of the historian Jean des Cars, a well-known media commentator in France, and the granddaughter of the best-selling novelist Guy des Cars.
At the same time, colleagues say, she’s neither stuffy, nor set in her ways.
“She’s imaginative, she’s inventive, she’s a risk taker — but she can also be quite direct,” said Hollein, the Met director, who added it was a refreshing trait that was rare in European cultural circles.
Des Cars fell in love with her art-historical specialty — the 19th century — on a childhood trip to the castles of King Ludwig II of Bavaria, in Germany. The Musée d’Orsay was a natural place for her. She helped curate many notable exhibitions, including a landmark Gustave Courbet show in 2007, and a bold tribute to the Marquis de Sade in 2014, the year she became director of Orsay’s sister institution, the Musée de l’Orangerie.
When she became the president of the Musée d’Orsay, in 2017, she set out to reposition the museum as a destination that would also appeal to younger and more diverse audiences from Paris and its suburbs.
Exhibitions of Degas and Picasso were coupled with performances by ballet dancers and acrobats. An ambitious contemporary art program saw the likes of Julian Schnabel and Tracey Emin put on special displays. (Orsay’s head of contemporary programs, Donatien Grau, is now at the Louvre, where he has invited the artists Kader Attia and Elizabeth Peyton for residencies, and commissioned the Belgian contemporary artist Luc Tuymans to produce a site-specific work for temporary display in the collections.)
What des Cars is remembered for most at Orsay is “Black Models: From Géricault to Matisse,” a major exhibition focusing on Black figures in French art from the late 18th century to the present day. It drew half a million visitors, including first-time museumgoers, and the accompanying programming included performances by the French rapper Abd al Malik, inspired by a painting from 1850 in the show: “Young Black Boy With a Sword” by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes.
The exhibition was the brainchild of Denise Murrell, a postdoctoral research scholar at Columbia University, who requested loans from the Orsay for a show at the school’s Wallach Art Gallery. When des Cars was applying for the top Orsay job, she met with Murrell and suggested that an extended version of the show be staged in Paris.
“She said that one of the things that she wanted to do at Orsay was to fling the doors open,” Murrell said, “to break down this idea of Impressionism as this fortress of white European culture, and show that there was an authentic and significant Black presence at the very heart of those artistic circles.”
Des Cars’s previous assignment was a departure from her 19th-century preoccupations: She was the scientific director of Agence France-Muséums, the consortium that laid the groundwork for the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Her role was to oversee the team that organized loans from 13 partner museums including the Louvre, acquired works for the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s own collection and prepared exhibitions.
That project was the fruit of a 30-year, €1 billion ($1.1 billion) agreement of which the Louvre is the principal beneficiary: Abu Dhabi pays 40 percent of that sum just to use the Louvre’s name and millions more for access to the Louvre’s collections and expertise. The 2007 agreement was initially denounced by many French museum professionals, who branded it a moneymaking venture that endangered France’s treasures. (International human rights groups have also repeatedly criticized Abu Dhabi for the mistreatment of migrant laborers on Saadiyat Island.)
Des Cars said that “creating a museum of this size from scratch doesn’t happen very often.” She acknowledged that she and her French colleagues “probably had too many certainties about what a museum was” going into the project, and had to cast those certainties aside.
“How do you explain an Italian Renaissance painting to a young Emirati visitor, or to a young Indian visitor” and create a dialogue with other cultures, she asked. “It was, frankly, a question that we in the world of French museums didn’t ask ourselves 15 years ago.”
She said the hardest part was reversing “the incomprehension and fear” of colleagues at the Louvre in Paris, who balked at lending works to Abu Dhabi.
Today, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, housed in a domed edifice designed by the architect Jean Nouvel, is one of the world’s great cultural destinations, viewed as a template for a more global and less Western-centric form of museum making. Part of that recognition has to be chalked up to des Cars.
The question now is whether she can add an overhaul of the Louvre itself to her scorecard. The determination seems there, but des Cars said that being the Louvre’s first female president created extra pressure. “You have to live up to expectations, of which there are many,” she said.
As she prepared to leave the Musée d’Orsay for the “giant ocean liner” that is the Louvre, she remembered thinking: “Is this going to work?”
Today, thanks to “the professional qualifications that I have accumulated in the last 30 years, and my passion for the Louvre,” she said, “I feel — as much as one ever can — in the right place.”