"Paedophiles, unemployed and inbreds" - that was the summary of the population of the small French town of Lens, as offered by Parisian football fans in 2008. The banner bearing the message was later deemed so offensive it sparked a hate-speech libel case. Since then, the former coal mining town of Lens has avoided headlines. It remains known mostly for its atypically high unemployment rates and a physical landscape dominated by slag heaps and council estates.
Four years on, however, Lens – which has a population equal to Wilmslow – is the star of a glittering ribbon-cutting ceremony inaugurated by the French president himself, as a new branch of the Louvre museum was opened on Tuesday. That’s right. The most famous museum in the world has its first regional outpost, a 150 million euro project, in a town whose cultural credibility was, until this point, not deemed high enough to warrant its own cinema.
Is this the riskiest museum opening of all time? To put things into perspective, the Louvre currently has two new branches under construction. One is on the sandy shores of the oil-rich, super-luxe Saadiyat island in Abu Dhabi. The second is in a derelict, almost bankrupt post-industrial town in one of France's most under-visited regions.
They couldn’t be more different, but the principle is the same – an attempt to use culture to forge a new regional identity. For Abu Dhabi, this is a strategic harnessing of international cultural eminence to rebrand itself; for Lens, it is a badly needed attempt to boost a depressed economy.
The tourist-pulling potential of glossy new museums has long been harnessed as part of an urban regeneration strategy. Indeed, the Lens-Louvre website states that they are modelling the new Louvre on the success of Guggenheim Bilbao and Tate Liverpool – both examples of prestigious museum brands opening outposts in under-privileged areas and seeing a huge boom in culture, economics and tourism as a result. The roaring success of the Guggenheim Bilboa in particular, which saw a 55 per cent increase in travellers in the first three years of its opening has influenced many similar projects globally.
However, such museum-lead gentrification is not a one-size-fits-all model. The situation in Lens is entirely different from that in either Bilbao or Liverpool – the population of the former is over ten times that of Lens, and Liverpool is also considerably bigger. And visitor facilities in Lens currently amount to two hotels.
The Lens-Louvre project has been in the pipeline since 2003, when the town beat four other cities which had put forward proposals for a regional branch of the museum. Louvre President Henri Loyrette told Reuters that it was "time the internationally renowned museum emerged from its privileged cocoon in Paris and played its role as a truly national museum".
The principle of attempting to engage art with different demographics is laudable, of course. But is this realism or idealism?
"It was very important for the Louvre to be in a place where you didn't have any culture before," Loyrette continued. "Lens has been ravaged by all forms of crises, it's also exactly the type of population we wanted to reach." But the statistics of previous attempts by museums to diversify their visitor demographic makes for grim reading. A 2006 report by the Audience Knowledge Digest found that social class was the most significant factor defining museum visitors. In Britain, high social grades are estimated to make around two in five of all visits to museums and galleries despite accounting for only 24 per cent of the population. And the trends are getting worse: "Compared to 1999, it seems that museum and gallery visiting has become increasingly dominated by higher earners." Even promising ventures such as free entry have an almost negligible affect on allowing museums to reach out to broader demographics. "Despite free entry, there has been less than 1 per cent increase in proportion of visits made by working classes to museums since 1998."
The report concluldes that despite museum outreach incentives, "the higher an individual's social class, household income and education level, the more likely they are to visit museums, galleries and other cultural attractions". Is it possible that this former coal mining town will be an exception? Or will it amount to a very expensive mistake?