Musee de Montmartre’s Future Up in the Air

Nearly a century after Montmartre served as a haven for outcasts such as artist Toulouse-Lautrec, who immortalized the can-can dancers of the Moulin Rouge; and eccentric composer Erik Satie, scratching out a living as a piano man at the Chat Noir cabaret; this hilltop district in the city’s northern edge continues to live in the public’s imagination.

Director Baz Luhrmann’s musical fantasy, “Moulin Rouge,” made $175 million at the box office, and stores all over the world sell images of Montmartre’s Bohemian characters and venues – from Chat Noir posters to portraits of nightclub impresario Aristide Bruant, with his trademark black hat and red scarf.

Alas, the once-vibrant Bohemian ambiance of Montmartre has little connection
with the Montmartre of today. Tourists have replaced the edgy artists and intellectuals that once crowded its cabarets. Some artwork still is for sale at the outdoor Place du Tertre but most art galleries hawk cheap knockoffs of classic paintings, mass-produced in China by those who likely never set foot in the picturesque quartier, with its winding, cobblestone streets and narrow storefronts.

Only one place breathes the atmosphere – inside and out — that made this district famous the world over and that is the Musée de Montmartre, which tells the story of its years from the mid-1800s to World War I, with original posters, paintings, photos and other artifacts — the legacy of its famous denizens. Although an estimated 10 million tourists annually visit the nearby white-domed Sacré Coeur basilica – hundreds of them lounge daily on its steps — the Museum attracts only about 50,000 visitors each year.


Musee de Montmartre, 12, rue Cortot
Musee de Montmartre, 12, rue Cortot

And now the small Musée, sheltered on a 17th century property where Auguste Renoir once rented a studio, is in danger of going the way of his, “Bal du Moulin de la Galette” — the sun-dappled dance space he immortalized in the eponymous painting — which is now a private property. The 50-year-old Museum has been running a deficit for at least two decades and the City of Paris, which rents the premises to the Societé Historique et Archéologique du Vieux Montmartre, a private association, has grown weary of its perceived financial missteps, and informed the Museum board in late October there would be no more subsidies.

The City of Paris announced its intention to sell the Museum property, on which two buildings sit, and proposed the collection move to the city-owned Carnavalet Musée, dedicated to the history of the entire municipality, located in the Marais district in central Paris. The venue’s impending closure sparked a petition drive, and more than 8,000 people added their names, to preserve the Museum and the jobs of its five employees.


Director Luhrmann and his creative team “virtually lived” at the Musée de Montmartre during pre-production for “Moulin Rouge,” and it became a touchstone for his 2001 Academy Award-winning film, he recalled.

“How disappointing to hear that in Paris — the city of lights — a place where people from all over the world go to see preserved in every variety of museum, culture of all kinds, that the MontmartreMuseum is fighting for survival,” Luhrmann wrote, in an email.

Luhrmann – currently in New York — compared the lower South Bronx –birthplace of modern hip-hop — to Montmartre, “where the entire 20th Century’s popular culture was born and unleashed upon a new and exciting world.”

“That New York is putting efforts into recording, preserving, and supporting the history of the hip hop movement, at the same time at which the Museum that houses the very roots of a place where the popular culture of the 20th century was birthed is teetering on the edge, seems to me a sad and inconceivable irony,” Luhrmann lamented.


The Museum house sits nestled in this garden
The Museum house sits nestled in this garden

Nevertheless, the Museum’s finances remain shaky. Ticket sales make up about one-third of its annual budget of 700,000 euros, about $1.1 million. From the yearly subsidy of 124,000 euros it receives from Paris, it pays back 88,000 euros in rent. In recent years, the Musée has been running an annual 150,000 euro deficit, according to Museum and city officials.

Daniel Rolland, the Museum’s new administrator, explained the venue has survived by digging into a 2.3 million euro legacy from the sale of a building it inherited. Its coffers currently hold less than one-third of that, about 700,000 euros. “We don’t want to spend that,” said Rolland, a scholarly-looking man who sports square wire-rimmed glasses. “We need it as a rainy day fund and to invest in new works if they come on the market.”

Pierre Eric Spitz, director of legal affairs for Paris, asserted that fund was expressly designated to purchase paintings and other archival materials. “They aren’t using it for the legacy’s purpose,” said Spitz.

The Musée did, however, in 2008 use that fund to purchase “Place Pigalle,” for 123,000 euros. The 1910 painting by Maurice Utrillo is the single most valuable piece in the Museum collection, which is insured for 1.2 million euros. Its cityscape depicts the famous square’s fountain, and was painted during the white period of the artist, who rented a studio with his mother — model-turned-painter Suzanne Valadon — on the future Museum’s grounds, above the bookstore.


Rolland also pointed out that this Utrillo painting, plus other works from the Museum’s collections have been lent out to the Pinacothèque de Paris, Musée D’Orsay, and Musée du Petit Palais. The Musée de Montmartre’s holdings also include thousands of pieces of art, including several hundred period posters. And its archives teem with letters, photos and other ephemera that serve as a treasure trove for researchers who come from around the world to study Montmartre, Rolland said.


Museum Administrator Daniel Rolland
Museum Administrator Daniel Rolland

In 2006, in the midst of fiscal chaos, the Musée de Montmartre’s curator resigned and the board cut the Museum’s staff, also reducing the venue’s hours. A joint state-city audit the following year revealed that while management had been improved, the Museum was still bleeding red ink.

Fed up with the Museum’s former president subsequently staging an expensive traveling exhibit that increased the 2008 deficit by 60 percent, in late October 2009 the City of Paris cancelled last year’s subsidy and decided to sell the property. “We had to do something,” said Spitz, an intense man, with blue eyes. “We had asked them to find a remedy. This can’t last – we can’t keep giving them grants.”

Museum officials were incensed. “At the Carnavalet, it will certainly get a lot less space,” said Rolland. “At best there would be one room dedicated to Montmartre, with a tiny portion of the collection.” And, Rolland added, “We will have lost the context of Montmartre.


Following the October 2009 announcement, Museum officials launched a petition drive, both through visitors and an Internet site, here , to build public pressure against the venue’s closure. The enthusiastic response, “illustrates the interest in Montmartre and of its Museum,” Rolland noted

“We would have preferred they use their energy to elaborate a recovery plan, rather than getting signatures,” Spitz said. “Show me the money — not the petitions.” Countered the Museum’s Secretary General, Isabelle Ducatez: “We’ve been talking about this forever. We can’t reduce our costs. The maximum’s been done.”


To its defenders, the Museum’s closing is nothing short of a crime of the heart. “It’s the memory of Montmartre, it’s authentic,” said Yannick Morineau, a television archivist who was gazing at photos of La Goulue, the stage name of famed Moulin Rouge dancer, Louise Weber, whom Toulouse-Lautrec captured in her red polkadot blouse in his 1891 poster hanging nearby, “Bal du Moulin Rouge. “It’s l’âme de Montmartre,” the soul of Montmartre,” said the wiry Morineau. “All these singers and painters are important to the history of the quartier. It’s a place chargé d’histoire,” infused with history.

Catherine Allion was penning her plea in the guest register, located in the room where Utrillo’s favorite watering hole, Café de l’Abreuvoir, was recreated, complete with a piano and ornate pewter-topped bar. “L’histoire de Montmartre doit reste ici,” the history of Montmartre must stay here,” she wrote.

“I love this place, I come here for every exhibition,” said Allion, a quartier resident, bundled in a warm jacket. “This is where artists lived. It’s not just a museum, it’s something else. The Carnavalet is a beautiful museum for all of Paris but Montmartre’s history is here.”

Another visitor wrote this in the register: “J’espére de tout mon coeur qu’on sauvera ce musée,” I hope with all my heart they will save this museum.


Nestled in a garden, the Museum house once was owned by a member of playwright Moliere’s troupe. Inside, one learns that Montmartre, mountain of the martyr in French, was so-named for St. Denis, the Bishop of Paris who was decapitated here around 250 A.D. Dozens of windmills — or moulins à vent — used for grinding wheat into flour, once dotted the landscape.

Located outside city gates, where liquor and food were tax-free, Montmartre became a place where one lived cheaply and enjoyed sensual pleasures, away from the eyes of proper Parisians. Thus it attracted penniless artists, writers and bordellos, as well as those who reveled in their presence.

Renoir rented a studio and stable space on the Museum property, while painting his 1876 masterpiece, “Bal du Moulin de la Galette.” Renoir would lug his large canvas to the outdoor ballroom where working class folk would dance, drink and eat little pieces of rye bread or crepes, called galettes, on Sunday afternoons. His famous work now hangs in the Musée D’Orsay.

The Musée de Montmartre displays the original, Au Lapin Agile sign, which depicts a rabbit leaping out of a pot while balancing a bottle of wine he can quaff, rather than be simmered in. It was painted by humorist Andre Gill. His Lapin à Gill became known as the nimble rabbit, or Lapin Agile cabaret.

Toulouse-Lautrec’s poster, “ Le Divan Japonais.” depicts chanteuse Yvette Guilbert.. Although her head is not visible, the singer’s distinctive black gloves she wore — instead of the de rigueur white – to reduce laundry bills, reveal her identity.

Advertisements for the Chat Noir nightclub also hang at the Museum. In between performances of shadow theater accompanied by piano; obscure poets, musicians and journalists gathered to talk at this cabaret.


Museum Administrator Daniel Rolland
Museum Administrator Daniel Rolland

Two of Montmartre’s most notorious denizens were artist Valadon and her son Utrillo, who rented a studio here. Valadon, a former acrobat, began painting and encouraged her troubled son, who fought alcoholism, to join in. Their loud arguments resounded throughout their atelier and frightened the neighbors.

Utrillo mixed sand and plaster into his paint and became a master of the urban landscape, creating some of the most enduring images of the neighborhood. Meanwhile, Utrillo’s friend, André Utter, moved in and became his mother’s lover. Eventually Valadon married the much-younger Utter, and in 1914 he posed for a trio of nudes in her “La Lancement de Filet,” the casting of the net, on view at the Museum. The following year, Valadon posed for a similar painting by Utter, which hangs nearby.


In the late 19th Century, property speculators preyed on Old Montmartre and some historic buildings were demolished. Finally, in 1949, the neighborhood was designated as a historic district, to protect its architectural integrity. However, the Museé de Montmartre property is not eligible for individual historic designation, because of changes made to it over the years. That’s an advantage, because it wouldn’t need special approval for renovations Museum officials believe are necessary to generate income to eventually make it self-sustaining — such as the addition of a restaurant.


While the Museum lovingly recreates Montmartre’s Bohemian days, it’s quirky. One must step carefully up a steep winding staircase to its rooms, and not all the printed wall descriptions are translated into English. And some that are, remain charmingly bad. For example, describing the debauchery of those visiting its watering holes, one exhibit card reads, “The crowd heads up every night and gets messy, due to the overload of alcohol.”

Also, although the audioguides have an English version, the red hand-held devices are cranky and sometimes difficult to rewind.


But none of this matters to those who love the museum. And it seems this outpouring of support has persuaded the City of Paris to reverse its position. In mid-December its staff recommended granting the 2009 subsidy, with the requirement that Museum officials submit the long-delayed recovery plan. The staff proposal subsequently was approved by the Paris City Council. Explained Spitz, “We’re concerned about the Museum employees and the social problems they will have if it closes.”

But, Spitz added, “They need to find new partners and sponsors to prove they can be credible.”

The Museum subsequently presented to the City a potential corporate sponsor, which may cover part of its deficit, according to Cecile Becker, a spokeswoman for Paris’ Department of Cultural Affairs. Also, Musée officials agreed to turn over its operations to a management company, she said. That potential corporate sponsor was rumored to be Danone, a worldwide producer of dairy products, known in the U.S. as Dannon. However, a Danone spokeswoman, Christine Gas, said “as far as we’re concerned, we have no sponsorship.”

Rolland declined to name the potential sponsor or management company, but said he met in January with both and they are tasked with making the Museum profitable through increased ticket sales, and building repairs to generate rentals. Ducatez said she is talking to tourist boards in the United States and Canada, to initiate day-long group visits to Montmartre. Because the Sacré -Coeur annually hosts millions of visitors, Rolland believes the Museum has the potential to attract many more sightseers.

Secondly, the Museum, and its benefactor plan to promote the 100,000 items in its archives by publishing them in books, producing temporary exhibits and organizing conferences. It also hopes to find additional sponsors in the coming months.

So, while the Musée de Montmartre’s future looked as cloudy as the sky in one of Utrillo’s white-tinged cityscapes, a patch of blue has broken through. The Musée, said Spitz, must raise its international profile with an improved website to draw the crowds it deserves. “Why don’t they exploit it? They could be more active, sell (more) postcards and t-shirts. They’re missing energy and ideas,” Spitz said.

“They have to make it live,” concluded Spitz. “The Museum is like a sleeping beauty, La Belle Endormie. It should awaken a bit to modernity.”

photos provided by Laura Kaufman

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