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In Need, French Museums Turn to Masses, Chapeaux in Hand

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By Published: December 23, 2012

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PARIS — The crass term for it is begging, but the French prefer a loftier description: “participatory financing.”

For as little as a single euro even the most ordinary art connoisseur can join the fund-raising fraternité that is working to restore the dome of the Panthéon here. Contribute a few hundred more and you get an invitation from the Center for National Monuments, the French landmarks agency, to a party there, at the emblematic temple of the republic.

Maybe you’d like to help the Louvre buy a pair of 13th-century ivory statuettes, or the Museum of Fine Arts in Lyon get the Ingres oil it so very much desires? Please?

The austerity measures that have hurt the arts across the Continent have been particularly unsettling in France, where cultural spending is so sacrosanct that it has long been one investment on which governments both left and right could agree. But now the directors of grand cultural institutions here are resorting to public appeals just to pay for the things they want, cobbling together the money not by courting millionaires but just the average Jules.

Contributors, alas, do not score the French equivalent of a PBS tote bag. But a whole range of other enticements, from free tickets to party invitations, have been trotted out. Donate to the Panthéon cause, for example, and your picture will be posted on a temporary kiosk outside.

So far the appeals are working.

With the help of 2,500 contributors, the Louvre has raised $654,000 toward acquiring the statuettes, priced at $3.4 million.

The Lyon museum has collected $91,000 toward that painting by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, which depicts the Renaissance writer Pietro Aretino receiving an envoy of Charles V and is valued at close to $1 million.

During the first campaign for the Panthéon, where the remains of towering French figures like Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas are interred in the Latin Quarter, officials deliberately set a modest initial fund-raising goal of $6,500 to avoid intimidating donors. It was quickly surpassed and, in four weeks, the campaign has reaped almost $34,000. More than 450 contributors were lured, in part by appeals to national solidarity.

“My passion is history and so I gave 300 euros,” Cyril Guerineau, 36, a police officer from outside of Paris, said of his donation of about $395. “It’s a monument that is the most prominent symbol in our nation with a lot of luminaries buried there who represent the history of France.” He added that he was also interested in the party invitation.

Even today the French government spends more than twice as much on culture as Germany, a larger and more prosperous neighbor. But a cut to the culture budget of more than 4 percent, to $3.1 billion, is the first in more than 30 years. Money for new art acquisitions has shrunk to $11.1 million, from $26 million in 2009.

The cuts have set off a scramble among institutions for additional revenues. One result is that medieval nudes, landmarks and a blindfolded ivory statuette of the allegorical figure “La Synagogue” are transforming into muses of charity, exhorting, “Become a patron in two clicks!” on Web sites.

“We’re all confronted with the same reality and exploring the same track,” said Philippe Bélaval, president of the landmarks agency, which is working with a crowdfunding French start-up, My Major Company, in a pilot project to raise money for four state landmarks, including restoration projects at the Panthéon and Mont St.-Michel.

“With crowdfunding,” he said, “we have an advantage in the competition. Our monuments are deeply part of our country and the collective conscious of people.”

The landmark agency is so pleased with the initial results, Mr. Bélaval said, that it is pondering an expansion into Japan, whose tourists make up 30 percent of the visitors to Mont St.-Michel. And this month My Major Company sent letters to more than 300 French mayors, promoting online fund-raising for local civic projects.

The company, founded in 2007 in France to finance musical projects, started backing cultural landmarks after approaching the culture ministry with the idea. French authorities were intrigued, though concerned about perceptions in a country where tax dollars historically play a larger role in arts financing than they do in, say, the United States, said Michael Goldman, 33, a founder of My Major Company. “It’s a real solution for a lot of areas in crisis,” he said.

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