The Musée du Louvre-Lens, a ‘satellite’ of the Paris Louvre, was officially opened by French President Francois Hollande on 6th December. The project sums up some of the contradictions of French cultural policy: this looks like a move to the provinces, and a badly-needed attempt to regenerate the former mining town of Lens, in north-east France. The 150-million Euro project, begun in 2004, is being seen by some as a bid to move French art out of the capital, and therefore to widen access beyond the Parisian elite. At the same time, though, it smacks of the grands projets of the Mitterrand years – vast, overblown architectural projects like the Centre Pompidou (opened in 1977) and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (1996), often accused of prioritising cutting-edge architecture over practical considerations and imposing cultural policy by fiat.
In the UK there is no precisely equivalent tradition of the grands projets, in the sense of successive prime ministers leaving behind them a cultural centre associated with their name. Nevertheless, over the last quarter century a number of prestigious new galleries have come into existence here, among them Tate Liverpool (1988), Tate St Ives (1993), Manchester’s Imperial War Museum North (2002), the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead (2002) and Margate’s Turner Contemporary (2011).
In the 2012 Edinburgh International Festival the British Council hosted an international summit of cultural ministers: ‘The Power of Culture to Change Lives.’ Here it was widely agreed that cultural investment can kick-start economic recovery. In her conference speech, Fiona Hyslop MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs, asserted that ‘…the creative arts and industries are key to economic, and, indeed, social recovery, rather than a distraction from it.’ Many of the arguments used to justify the inauguration of new museums and galleries draw on this widespread assumption; the proliferation of cultural initiatives beyond the world’s capitals is founded on the belief that a centre of creativity can help regenerate a city. The ambition to bring about social improvements via cultural investment can lead to serious miscalculations, however, the most well-known in the UK being the National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield, which stayed open for barely a year (1999-2000).
Yet, even if each and every museum had been a triumphant success, in terms of visitor numbers and urban regeneration, major problems remain. First, conformity; for the imposition of ‘official’ culture on a community is not necessarily an unalloyed good, especially if its arrival replaces or suppresses existing creative activity that operates in ways that are distinctive from the officially sanctioned values of the nation’s arts organisations. Second, and closely related to this, homogenisation; the visitor to museums and galleries outside the capital city is increasingly being offered the same experience, although in smaller quantities. Third, identity; the more the arts are used instrumentally to achieve social goals, the more they run the risk of becoming an agent of government policy, a state of affairs which sits rather oddly with our belief in freedom of expression.