The Louvre is bringing its Old Masters to a depressed coal-mining town in the north of France, with the opening next week of a regional outpost dubbed Louvre-Lens.
The goal for the glistening new museum, to share works with the original location in Paris, will help boost the economy of the economically depressed town of Lens.
However, the contrast between the $194-million museum — a sleek glass and aluminum structure accompanied by beautiful landscaping — and the boarded-up shops, down-market restaurants and services that surround the venue has many local residents scratching their heads.
'France abandoned us when the coal stopped and we became a ghost town' — Daniel Percheron, regional president
"We weren't consulted on whether we wanted one," café worker Veronique Roszak, 53, said of the museum. "Young people here are looking for work."
Another resident, 26-year-old Mounira Hadhek, added: "Whoever it helps, it won't be us...They've made us pay for parking now in the city center. I've got €80 ($105 Cdn) fines already. We can't afford this, all we can afford is one euro on coffee."
The hope is that Louvre-Lens will transform the economy of the town in the same way the Guggenheim outpost in Bilbao boosted that Spanish industrial city. Officials are forecasting that the new French museum will attract 700,000 visitors in its first year and increase the city's output by 10 per cent in 10 years.
However, local officials have pointed out Lens has only two local hotels, no cinema and that the town lacks some of the amenities — such as nearby beaches and fine food — that made Bilbao a tourist destination. In France, the region is the butt of cruel jokes.
Built on site of former mine
"France abandoned us when the coal stopped, and we became a ghost town," said Daniel Percheron, regional president for the Nord-Pas de Calais area.
The city of Lens, located close to Belgium and Germany, was reduced to rubble in the First World War. It was occupied by the Nazis and battered by Allied bombings in the Second World War. The former economic mainstay was its coal mines, but 42 miners died in one mining tragedy in 1974 and the last mine closed in 1986. Unemployment is now 24 per cent, well above the national average of nine per cent.
Designed by a Japanese firm, the museum has transformed the site of a former coal mine and is surrounded by green space filled with 6,600 trees and 26,000 shrubs. Inside the building are two sprawling exhibition spaces showcasing highlights from the Louvre's collection, including ancient Cycladic sculptures, Egyptian diorite statues, 11th century Italian church mosaics and Leonardo da Vinci's restored masterpiece The Virgin and Saint Anne.
French President François Hollande visited the museum on Tuesday, but didn't tour the city — sparking accusations of elitism from local officials.
Louvre-Lens, officially to open Dec. 12, will be the first satellite of the Paris museum. Another is set for Abu Dhabi, possibly to open its doors in 2014.