The first thing we saw when we arrived in Lens, France were two huge mountains that look like pyramids with grass growing on them. They were coal heaps, giant piles of tailings left over from some of the many coal mines in this part of northern France that all closed up in the late ’80s. We drove up a hill to view one of them up close, along with a series of former mine buildings that now house a theater and other arts-related endeavors.
In the town of Lens, there are rows of streets with identical buildings that used to house miners. Today these are subsidized housing for low income families. In December 2012 a tremendous thing happened here. A new Louvre opened on the abandoned site of one of these coal mines. It’s the Louvre Lens and it’s a 500,000 square feet magnet for art lovers from all over Europe. So far 500,000 people have visited, and the expectation for one year was pegged at only 700,000.
In the courtyard outside of the squat glass and steel building, we met with Bruno Cappelle, who handles media relations for the museum, and he told us that 60% of the visitors to the Louvre Lens (LL) were locals. This is exciting and a great development, but did not come about without a lot of advance work. Cappelle said that a team of six was deployed to visit all of their neighbors, knock on their doors, and tell them about the new museum, and ask for their opinions.
Cappelle said that some of the locals asked why they weren’t building a $150 million car factory, or some other large employer. But even though there are only about 100 or so jobs at this sprawling temple of ancient and classical art, there are reverberations that will echo throughout this region far longer than any car factory could. And since it’s a state-0wned operation, it will never close up and move to China
The LL is located about a twenty minute walk from the TGV high speed train station and there is a well made walking path and free shuttles if you don’t want to walk. It offers free admission for the first year. There is a Gallery of Time that shows the progress of art from the earliest days of civilization until the 1840s. Cappelle explained to us that the Louvre Paris has 36,000 works on display, but the LL has only 205 works in its Gallery of Civilization time line room. “That way, you get a balance between the famous and the forgotten. and you’re not overwhelmed with trying to see too much”
Famous works include Lady Liberty, by Delacroix, and some of the lesser known works from Egyptian tombs are striking and well explained using the devices they hand out to listen to while you view the art. The diversity of the people who have come to the LL, so many locals, has inspired Cappelle. That and the fact that in this town of 36,000, more than 10,000 membership cards have been sold, bringing people back again and again.
But the LL isn’t just about art, it’s about improving and bringing a spotlight to a very poor and depressed part of France.
“Changing the image of this area, so it’s not just about football and unemployment, that’s a big part of what this museum is all about,” Cappelle said.