By J.S. MARCUS
In its heyday in the 19th and 20th centuries, the industrial town of Lens in northern France sent its wealth to Paris in the form of coal. Now, with Lens's mines gone and its economy in decline, Paris is returning the favor by sending Lens masterpieces from the Louvre—and with them, a large chunk of the museum's global brand.
On Tuesday, when French President François Hollande arrives to inaugurate the Louvre-Lens, the first satellite of the Paris original, he will find hundreds of the Louvre's most important works waiting for him. Among them: Leonardo da Vinci's "The Virgin and Child with St. Anne" (around 1508); Raphael's portrait of Baldassare Castiglione (1514-15); and Eugène Delacroix's "Liberty Leading the People" (1830), revered as a symbol of the French nation.
The $194 million project opens to the public Dec. 12.
When the Louvre decided to expand beyond Paris a decade ago, it looked to areas of France that needed a cultural infusion and an economic spark, explains Louvre-Lens director Xavier Dectot. Six northern cities competed for the privilege. "People in this corner of France don't go to museums, so we wanted to bring the museum to them," he says.
Lens, selected in 2004, offered a big benefit: a giant swath of available land on the site of a defunct coal mine. And its location along a key high-speed rail corridor makes it easily accessible for visitors from London, Brussels, Amsterdam and Cologne, Germany.
The Louvre is the world's busiest art museum, according to figures compiled by the Art Newspaper, and attracts nearly nine million visitors a year. Lens's ambitions are more modest. Mr. Dectot says the museum expects 700,000 visitors in the first year, and about 500,000 in later years, as the novelty wears off. He says he hopes that a third of the visitors will come from the local area, but that the one-hour train ride will tempt day-trippers from Paris as well.
The 50-acre museum site lies in the shadow of two large slag heaps, surreal monuments to Lens's heyday. Those mounds are part of a network of industrial sites in northern France that received Unesco World Heritage status earlier this year.
This only adds to the site's appeal, argues Henri Loyrette, the Louvre's Paris director, who was instrumental in picking Lens. "We are beginning to discover that this kind of industrial landscape is wonderful," he says.
The core of the museum spans five interconnected buildings, including an 18,300-square-foot gallery for temporary exhibitions and a 300-seat theater. The structures, made of glass, aluminum and concrete, were designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese firm Sanaa.
The centerpiece is an entrance hall comprising transparent enclosed spaces that register as tiny buildings within a building. The minimalist architecture and light-filled spaces offer the Louvre a chance to reinstall works that were difficult to showcase in Paris's cramped and often dark galleries, Mr. Loyrette says.
The first special exhibition, devoted to the Renaissance, features 250 works, including the Leonardo painting. But Lens's raison d'être emerges in the Gallery of Time, a semipermanent exhibition spread across 33,600 square feet that artfully arranges 206 works drawn from each of the Louvre's departments and collections, starting with an ancient cuneiform tablet and ending with the Delacroix.
The result, says exhibit designer Adrien Gardère, is a dense chronology of Mediterranean civilization through the mid-19th century.
And what determines whether a particular Rembrandt makes the cut?
"It was my choice," says Vincent Pomarède, head of the Louvre's paintings department, who worked with antiquities curator Jean-Luc Martinez to spotlight themes that connect different periods and genres, such as the history of writing and artistic representations of politics.
The Lens opening comes at a time of transition for the Louvre. On Sept. 22, it opened its Islamic art building, the most dramatic change to the Paris palace in a generation. That capped a decades-long project called the "Grand Louvre," aimed at consolidating separate museums housed in the Louvre complex into one museum with several departments.
If the Grand Louvre represented a step toward centralization, the
Louvre-Lens—along with another namesake institution in Abu Dhabi set to open in 2015—signals a step in the other direction, an attempt to broaden the brand beyond Paris.
That strategy echoes attempts by New York's Guggenheim and St. Petersburg's Hermitage Museum to become world-wide brands by lending their names to a diverse range of institutions, such as the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain, though some of these—like Las Vegas's Guggenheim Hermitage Museum and Berlin's Deutsche Guggenheim—have proven to be short-term experiments.
Mr. Loyrette sees no risks in the Lens project, which strikes him as less of a satellite than "a new wing" of the Paris museum. The Louvre-Lens, he says, "really is the Louvre."