Museum struggles for more space
It is one of the greatest and most visited art museums in the world, and the only one in an old railway station.
Thirty years after the Musee d’Orsay opened its doors for the first time, it has become as much a Paris landmark as its big sister the Louvre just across the River Seine.
But the very success of the museum best known for its unrivalled collection of impressionist paintings is now causing it problems.
An average of 3.5 million visitors a year pour through its spectacular vaulted nave, making it the “densest museum in the world”, according to its director of collections, Xavier Rey.
There is simply not enough space, he says. Although the Musee d’Orsay is one of the top 10 most visited galleries in the world, it is several times smaller than its rivals.
“It will probably be difficult to welcome any more visitors,” says Guy Cogeval, who heads the museum and its smaller offshoot the Orangerie, which houses Claude Monet’s Water Lilies murals.
Cogeval, who is stepping down in March, says the “one of the greatest challenges my successor faces is how to deal with this”.
That lack of space was severely tested on the weekend when it opened its doors for free to celebrate its 30th birthday.
But the real problem isn’t so much the public as finding a place to show its staggering collection of late 19thcentury and early-20 th century masterpieces which runs from Courbet’s notorious The Origin of the World to Manet’s reclining nude Olympia and Van Gogh’s searing self-portraits.
While the museum is packed with some of Degas’, Cezanne’s, Gauguin’s and Toulouse-Lautrec’s best work, only around 4,400 pieces can be shown at any one time.
That leaves some 164,000
Guy Cogeval, head of Musee d’Orsay
paintings and sculptures in its stores, which is set to grow even further with the massive donation by a Texan couple of their 350 million euro ($372 million) art collection to the French capital.
Businessman Spencer Hays and his wife, Marlene, in November signed off on the first installment of 187 works for the Musee d’Orsay, including pieces by Degas and Modigliani worth around 173 million euros.
Their gift, the biggest from a foreign benefactor to France since World War II, also includes important work by Bonnard, Vuillard and Redon.
Faced with such pressure, the museum has bought a neighboring 18th-century mansion on the banks of the Seine to house its library and research center on the postimpressionists.
The idea of a fine art museum at a railway station was revolutionary when the museum opened in December 1986.
Built like the Eiffel Tower and the Grand Palais for the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1900, it had the same architectural exuberance.
Having survived demolition plans in the 1970s, it was converted into a museum for mostly French art dating from the revolutions of 1848 to the outbreak of World War I as one of the late French president Francois Mitterrand’s grand projects to renew the French capital.
A runaway success from the start, with its architectural elegance and head-turning collection equally praised, Rey says: “One can no longer imagine the museum anywhere but in this station.”