Offshoring strategies: what’s on with cultural institutions?

Photo François Chaubet & Laurent Martin / Professors of Contemporary History, University Paris 10 Nanterre & University Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris 3 / May 30th, 2014

Following suit to the Guggenheim Museum, a number of Western cultural institutions have launched a series of spectacular offshoring operations, exporting their trademarks and their specific know-how. Playing somewhere between influence diplomacy and cultural marketing, museums and universities in the Western world are trying their luck in the new Paradises of the Middle East or Asia. What are the expected benefits and what are their strategies?

ParisTech Review – In a context of growing globalization, cultural affairs play their role, representing a strong symbolic leverage when we refer to institutions as famous as the Guggenheim, a pioneer in the field, or the Louvre in Paris. How did the movement start? And what are the ‘rules of the game’ if any?

Laurent Martin – The first projects go back to the 1970s but the initial impulse was given by Thomas Krens when he accepted the directorship of the Guggenheim Foundation in 1988, when he was confronted with a an debt-ridden institution due to caretaker and maintenance costs for the building in Manhattan, New York. Over his next 20 years as the head of the Guggenheim, Thomas Krens launched a policy of buying works and organizing exhibitions for the purpose of bolstering and consolidating the financial situation of his institution. In this framework, he developed a franchising system leading to the inauguration in 1997 of the Guggenheim Bilbao. The operation franchised the name Guggenheim, used its expertise and its collections while the business partner (the Basque Province, Spain) provided the staff, the hanging of the works (general collection or in special exhibition) and the building caretaking and maintenance costs.


This model served to inspire the Hermitage Museum in Las Vegas (closed since) and the Louvre at Abu Dhabi. Paris’ famous museum, the Louvre, sold its trade-name for 30 years for an average 400 Million euros. The contract provides for works on loan for 10 year periods, with a continuously decreasing loaned stock, to be gradually replaced by acquisitions by the Abu Dhabi authorities, with assistance and expertise by the Louvre specialists.

François Chaubet – Let’s distinguish the two significantly different models, on one hand, the Guggenheim, as a private institution and on the other, the Louvre, which is a public museum or, to be more precise a national museum. Their objectives and context also differ. In the latter case, “offshoring” is not just the search for a new public, or a new market, but also a venture to promote cultural values internationally.

There is a long history behind the trend, which we can also observe in the network of Alliances françaises and the French Lycées abroad. The projects assure dissemination of knowledge and know-how, and to gain better notoriety of our expertise. It is not just by chance that the Louvre privileges and promotes – even more so than the Guggenheim – the expertise of its curators in its overseas plans. As globalization gains, the old world powers still have a scientific primacy this being one of the concepts at stake in the colonial eras. The Louvre scheme also would like to be seen as intellectually more ambitious that the Guggenheim scheme. It is a long-term project that a priori should lead to financial balance in the partnership. The core question is therefore not just a franchising act, but to create a new institution and not a clone of the Louvre in Paris.

The moves above must be replaced in a wider evolutionary trend where we have witnessed an acceleration in the past three decades of the international circulation of art works: many more biennials and artistic fairs, exhibitions that circulate from country to country, with curators coming in most cases from the emergent countries with non Western exhibits: a significant event that set this latest trend in motion was the major exhibition “Earth’s Magicians” (1989), at the Centre Pompidou, Paris.

The offshoring moves mentioned above are part of a sort of Brownian movement of art and artists increasingly associating Western cultures ad countries with emerging countries even if the modern art market is still dominated by Western standards. In such a context the major Western museums are now understandably tempted by the prospects of becoming “global lending libraries,” to quote the Director of the British Museum. This approach exemplifies a post-colonial history of a Western ‘universal’ museum.

If we analyse further the comparison of two models you mentioned, can we deduce that the institutions are defending their own causes or do you feel they are instruments of a wider political scheme?

François Chaubet – Both dimensions co-exist and are not mutually exclusives. For example, the Abu Dhabi Louvre project corresponds to an in-house institutional development plan, and it must notably seek new sources of income and resources. It is also a god-send for the French Republic. Geographically speaking, the Emirates are at a key crossroads that gives France the opportunity to manifest its influence and prestige in this Region, a crossroads where the new elite of the world meet, a place where the new upper middle classes of the emerging countries like to be and stay. What is at stake is soft power to cite a famous quote by Joseph Nye.

For the Guggenheim Foundation, the effects of implementing soft power would probably be applauded by the White House, but it is an initiative that seems more clearly to me to be in Guggenheim’s responsibility as a private institution, with obvious business profit motivations – or to be more precise here, management of its financial interests. There is a comparable strategy at work when the Metropolitan Opera House, New York disseminates its operas live in cinemas round the world. The objective for the ‘Met’ is to take a firm foothold in the global music marketplace and to actively seek new publics – new clients – outside Manhattan.

The truth here is that States are not indifferent to strategies that serve their interests. Culture-intensive diplomacy, for some 15 years now, has strongly privileged prestigious, high visibility, museum co-operation plans, as President Vladimir Poutine did recently with the President of the Italian Council Romano Prodi, co-signing in March 2007 an agreement between the Italian city of Ferrare and the State Hermitage Museum, Saint-Petersburg, Russia. A negative example is the refusal by the City of Taichung, Taiwan to see a Guggenheim subsidiary set up in 2003, on the grounds that it would imply accepting American hegemony in art! Amusing though this may appear, we should also recall what happened at Bilbao at the inauguration of the local Guggenheim, viz. a charge that Guggenheim was telling the history of America to European visitors, this amounting to a biased reappraisal of the history of modern art.

Laurent Martin – In the course of the Louvre, we should not forget that co-operation programmes are signed in a framework of bilateral exchanges that appertain mainly to goods. France for example sells weapons and weapons accessories to Abu Dhabi. There is therefore a degree of mutual interests in which the State authorities on both sides – who sign these agreements – are in a win-win situation. This not only applies to the relationship between one State and the foreign partner: the State (France in this case) exerts a pressure on the operator (the Louvre) encouraging the museum to increase its level of self-financing, encouraging such initiatives that help reduce the annual budgetary subsidies the State would normally make available to help balance the museum’s finances. The difference would come through the foreign financing. This is what is known as large-scale sponsorship. A recent example is the generous Abu Dhabi sponsor who financially supported the restoration of the Fontainebleau castle.

François Chaubet – Setting up a project like the Louvre-Abu Dhabi is emblematic. Influence diplomacy, the corner stone of French Foreign Affairs (better known as le quai d’Orsay) is based on technical expertise and we can witness this in hospitals created in India by France and in the French culture-intensive networks abroad, which play a significant role in sustainable location and co-operation with local partners.


In parallel, a project like this also demonstrates that certain Arabic Emirates are looking ahead to an after-oil world: by acquiring a prestigious trademark such as the Louvre they are laying the foundations for long-term tourist industries: the main shopping malls share the same vision as the major museums. The idea is to draw the attention and trade of internationally recognized trademarks, to the annual 80 Million Chinese travellers today and tomorrow the Indians, who will follow suit… But the relationship must be balanced and we have the example of the Centre Pompidou project in China that misfired, the Chinese wanting a business approach whereas the French were defending a scientific attachment – the agreement fell through and came to a halt.

The offshoring projects sometimes lead to controversies in the originating countries – and we can recall those that occurred in France in regard to the Louvre Abu Dhabi project or the diplomatic loan of the Eugène Delecroix painting La Liberté guidant le peuple to China for year 2014. How do you read the reactions, in the press or other media?

Laurent Martin – Well, I think we can summary the controversial attitudes by looking at various parameters: ideological, legal, museum and political. On the ideological level, those that opposed the project emphasized the ‘mercantile’ approach whereby the Louvre was seen to be selling its trademark: making such an eminent cultural treasure a merchandize was seen as a sign of the times, universal public goods becoming simple products to which the market-place assigns a price value. The consequence here was a toughening of the legal stance underscoring the inalienable status of art collections in French law; even though there was no question of selling the Louvre works to Abu Dhabi, the contract nature of long-term loans could be seen as a first step to trade in which art works and collections would be included. This fear was shared by the curators who were concerned by the list of works that the Louvre was to lend (the question of the nus, the origins of the artists…) and in regard to the conditions of conservation of the works in a new setting. Last point here, the fact that he works would no longer be visible in the Louvre for a long time raised the question of cultural democracy, as judged by the phrasing of the Government decree July 24, 1959, signed by then Minister of Culture, André Malraux which founded the ministry itself, specifying its mission as “making available Humanity’s major artworks, first and foremost those from France, to the largest numbers of French citizens.” Were we about to deprive the French from viewing these works via a contract with Abu Dhabi? The tension raised in the debate was rife. It was almost ineffectual to stress, as the Chairman of the Louvre at that time, Henri Loyrette did, that the loans were fully under control and that moving art pieces is something that had already existed for decades. Indeed the flow rate is accelerating, with the now commonly accepted fact of seeing large exhibitions organized, or again that the Louvre needed to be involved in more and more projects like this, given the global competitive art scene and the rarefaction of public funding; we can nonetheless note that the Guggenheim model does raise questions, crystallizing in essence the tensions of these new practices and issues.

François Chaubet – The debate about the Louvre at Abu Dhabi is symptomatic of what we now call global marketing, which has moved into the culture-intensive sectors, encouraging the construction of theme parks and organization of large festivals. We have now entered what sociologist Mac Cannell called the era of ‘post-modern tourism’ back in 1976 which focuses on consumption (the Dubai Mall with its 65 M visitors/year) and notably consumption of cultural events and products, including the building itself: the first example here was the Guggenheim Museum in New York, opened to the public in 1959, the second example is the Sidney Opera House which also became a consumable architectural icon in the early 1970s, followed by the Centre Pompidou in Paris, etc.

The Guggenheim was the first to catch on to the trend, implementing a trademark policy to be disseminated through the Bilbao venture. The line of exhibitions the Guggenheim now promotes (The Art of the Motorcycle in Las Vegas, Armani in Bilbao, Norman Rockwell in New York) are part of the cultural consumer movement that the detractors charge as being typical of ‘macdonaldisation’ or industrialized museums (according to Rosalind Kraus). It remain true, however, that those cities who aspire to an international status, notably in terms of tourism expectations, now all want their iconic buildings and large-scale cultural institutions.

Such new trends and practice are becoming visible in the major university leagues, engaged as they are in a pitched battle to attract the very best students to their establishments. They are not just falling in line with brain-drain trends – witness the two thirds of all PhD students in certain scientific departments at Harvard are non-American citizens; they are not only setting up Internet access to their courses (MOOCs…); they have, in certain cases, set up subsidiaries or branches elsewhere round the world. Of course, the US Universities are players here, pioneers on the European scene and now in Asia; but INSEAD is setting up shop in Singapore, as is ParisTech in Shanghai, and even the Sorbonne… in Abu Dhabi: can we compare these higher education ventures which what you were describing in terms of culture?

François Chaubet – The difference probably lies in a stronger publicity effect for the HE scene, which is more competitive when it comes to attracting students. Nevertheless, the concept of soft power operates in both cases: as and when an institution is exported, or projected abroad, the national origins also stand to gain: it is every bit as advantageous for France to see the Louvre exporting viz., representing French culture abroad, as it is for INSEAD or ParisTech to train tomorrow’s elite in their foreign branch units. One only needs to observe the recent development of Confucius Institutes, to form an opinion as to why and how a major country such as China – which up to now did not possess such ‘tools’ – has caught on to the potential strategic interests of investing in soft power (in which all networks (museums, universities, cultural institutions) participate closely.

Laurent Martin – The proximity in our analysis of museums/universities can also be seen elsewhere, viz., in an analogue structuring that we often hear nowadays about offshoring French universities, notably in reference to the language question. Some are afraid of the prospect of having courses given in English, with the justification given that it is done to be able to compete with the Anglo-Saxon universities, or a loss of influence in defence of the French language, or bending over to comply with global standards developed by the French government to teach French overseas. Arguments like these are coming to the fore, just as we had observed similar contestations arising through the Louvre Abu Dhabi project.

To round up our talk, can we look at the prospects of offshoring culture? Is it here to last? Can we ask if it can be developed further or have we, in your view, reached a threshold already?

Laurent Martin – It is difficult to predict what may happen in coming years, but as I see it, if such offshoring movement were to be pursued, it could only occur to a modest extent. Firstly, the siting of a major museum (and, to a lesser degree, a main university) would lead to a sensitive level of local competition. For example, could we imagine the British Museum setting up a branch museum in Abu Dhabi? Secondly, the number of countries and institutions that can be involved in such projects are few and far between: you need truly international recognition and repute – and we have witnessed certain establishments shy away from this idea. Third and last point here: the financial outlay for the host authorities has to be very high, and this alone sets a financial limit to the players/hosts…

François Chaubet – These reasons my colleague has just given are valid, beyond any doubt. But I personally feel that the trend still has room to expand and enjoy further successful ventures. What we see is a form of cultural dilution that goes hand in hand with expanding international tourism. The latter will necessarily continue to grow – and the statistics and forecast are there to support this – mainly through a growing Chinese middle class and their attraction to leisure activities and through the emergence of similar Indian patterns tomorrow. Cultural consumption will also go hand in hand with this, since it is an integral part of the developments forecast. Maybe, in this light, we could surmise that the move to decentralize major institutions may not take the form of franchises, but remain as agreements to co-operate, or other ‘conventions’ that we have not as yet invented. But the trend I think will continue to expand for a few decades yet, with a corollary: will there be room in the agreements to ensure the partner’s autonomy? As we now stand, at the crossroads of various economic and political challenges, we also perceive better this paramount question, framed as it is in terms of a balance of influence among civilizations…

More on paristech review

By the author

  • Offshoring strategies: what’s on with cultural institutions?on May 30th, 2014

This content is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License
You are free to share, copy, distribute and transmit this content

Logo creative commons

5 quai Voltaire 75007 Paris, France - Email : [email protected] / Landline : +33 1 44 50 32 89