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“The Louvre-Lens annex reflects the continuing decentralization of French cultural institutions”, though the Louvre claims the Lens museum is not a subordinate of the palace in Paris.
Though the museum maintains close institutional links with The Louvre, it is primarily funded by the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region.
In 2003, based on the universality of Le Louvre and on the criticism that French art and culture is immoderately privileged to the Parisian community, the Ministry of Culture and the Louvre Directorate launched a call to the 22 Regions of France in effort to implant a Louvre satellite museum within their region. Only the Nord pas de Calais applied and proposed six cities: Lille, Lens, Valenciennes, Calais, Béthune and Boulogne-sur-Mer. In 2004, after much competition and deliberation, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, then French Prime Minister, officially announced Lens as the recipient city during a visit. It is the second experience of art decentralization in France after the contemporary arts Centre Pompidou-Metz museum in 2001. The project would be realized just over a kilometer away from the Stade Félix-Bollaert football stadium on the 9-9 bis trench, a setting previously accommodating a tandem of abandoned coal mines unproductive since the 1960s, inundated by nature.
The decision to locate the museum on a Lens’ mining wasteland demonstrates an undertaking to rehabilitate and reverse the fortune of the depressed mining community, which grieved through devastation from both World Wars, was subjected to Nazi occupation, and played victim to multiple mining catastrophes including the Courrières mine disaster, the worst such disaster in European history, and a 1974 tragedy killing 42 workers. In the inaugurating of the construction zone, Minister of Culture Frédéric Mitterrand asked the attendance to observe a moment of silence for the 42 miners who lost their life in the 1974 accident. Lens saw its last mine close in 1986, a process causing the industrial city an unemployment rate well above the French national average. “France abandoned us when the coal stopped, and we became a ghost town,” said Pas-de-Calais president Daniel Percheron.
Officials took inspirations from the transformation of Spanish industrial municipality Bilbao, which was contributed in part by the construction of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao satellite (dubbed the “Bilbao effect“ ); though some caution the comparison based on population disparities between the two cities, lack of a distinguished culture, and the absence of a port. Some Lens locals were critical, their feelings toward the museum were described as “patronizing”, other critics perceived the museum disconnected from the context of Lens’ turbulent history and acclimatized people.
After the city was appointed the Louvre subsidiary, the French government launched a worldwide design contest won in the end by Japanese architectural firm SANAA in 2005 in collaboration with New York architect Tim Culbert, French landscape architect Catherine Mosbach, and museographer Studio Adrien Gardère among others. Architects Zaha Hadid and Steven Holl also submitted designs, exemplifying SANAA + IMREY CULBERT’s difficult field of opponents. Architect Tim Culbert lead the design competition and final presentation to members of the French Senate, against Zaha Hadid in the final running, securing the commission in September 2005. The Eiffage firm was chosen to construct the Lens-based Louvre branch, ultimately costing 150 million Euro (£121.6 million). Tim Culbert and Celia Imrey are founders of IMREY CULBERT a firm based in New York. The Louvre-Lens Museum, SANAA + IMREY CULBERT’s first building in France was awarded the Silver T-Square Prize for Architecture (Prix d’architecture de l’Equerre d’Argent) for 2013, given annually by the Le Moniteur Group since 1986. The prize is divided equally between the architect and the building owner.