I took this picture of the Picasso Museum, one of the jewels of Paris's Marais, in March 2008. The Museum is in the Hôtel Salé, one of the private palaces built in the days when the Marais was the most fashionable part of the city, before the royal court moved to the Louvre and then on to Versailles. As you can see, there was already work going on to renovate it. The museum closed for "30 months" of renovation in August 2009, under the leadership of Picasso scholar and family friend Anne Baldassari, and with a budget of about €26 million. So we all looked forward to seeing the museum reopen, radiant, in 2011. It's actually a fantastic museum, showing off Picasso's amazing ability to create art out of anything, and is guaranteed to cure you of any lingering idea that Picasso "couldn't draw," as my father used to say. (Pablo was 14 when he painted this.)
In 2011, as it turned out, the work had not yet started. The director blamed health, safety, historical preservation and fire regulations. In May, 2011, the reopening was said to be for May 2012. In fact, the renovation did not even start until September 2011, but the museum was still supposed to reopen in 2012. In November, 2011, the director said the museum would reopen on May Day, 2013. That was the first time I noticed something wrong. Several curators had already quit unexpectedly. To understand the impact of this, you need to realize how hard it would be to get a coveted government job at such a place, and what it would take for them to want to leave.
The year 2012 went on without the Picasso museum. Meanwhile, the artworks were touring the world, visiting 13 countries for 20 special exhibitions; but Parisians didn't get to see them, as Baldassari turned down requests from the Pompidou Centre and the Musée d'Orsay. She was raising a lot of money with the traveling Picassos, and eventually the tours brought in €31 million to the museum's coffers. Which was a good thing, because the renovation was now seriously over budget and behind schedule. I noticed that the museum's chief executive under Baldassari had quit with five of his staff, all refusing to be interviewed.
2013 arrived, but the May Day reopening did not. In March, the museum delayed the reopening until "around the end of 2013." In May, when the museum had already been closed almost four years, the reopening was pushed back until "early 2014." In July, the new chief executive quit after less than a year. In October, the reopening was postponed again until June of 2014. In November 2013, the opening was said to be for sometime in 2014. In March 2014 the project had overrun by a spectacular three years, the budget had exploded by €22m, and the opening was planned for July 2014.
By now, the French government was starting to be embarrassed. How long could one of the nation's major museums stay closed with no apparent end date? Rumors of high-handedness and "chaos" were filtering out. In early 2014, the government commissioned a poll of the staff, which showed a "toxic" atmosphere. Workplace inspectors reported that workers were being put at risk.
When word of this inspection was published in the UK Guardian in May 2014, Picasso's son Claude rushed to the defense of Baldassari. He issued a statement saying only the President of France had the right to remove her. His spokesman added that one person "cannot solve the museum’s problems magically, like waving a wand."
This defense of Baldassari galvanized the museum's staff of 45. More than half of them immediately signed a statement accusing Baldassari of "a management style marked by favoritism, conflict, mercurial decision making and a lack of communication." The story was turning into what French daily newspaper Le Figaro called a "sinister sitcom."
On 13 May, to few people's surprise at this point, the French minister of culture fired Baldassari "as of autumn 2014." According to an official statement, the dismissal was for mismanagement and the "deep suffering" of her staff. "An internal affairs report described her as 'incapable of working with her staff', maintaining a permanent state of confusion and 'behaving as if the museum was her own thing'." The work environment was "gravely deteriorating." In just four years the museum has seen four administrators. The latest to resign, in January, were the public works director, the services director and the curator for paintings." Baldassari threatened legal proceedings and said she was the victim of a "witch hunt" and "sexism." An interim head was appointed and the museum was now set to be open in September 2014 after costing €52 million. On 3 June 2014 , the head of the very successful new Metz Pompidou Center, Laurent Le Bon, was named to replace Baldassari. The total budget for the renovation was now up to €70 million.
When Laurent Le Bon inspected the museum, he was startled by its condition. He immediately put a halt to the scheduled return of some paintings by late June. "Work was still going on in the whole museum—the office building did not even have a roof. 'The security system is not working yet. The air-conditioning will take months to stabilise, and there is not even a storage room ready where I could put the works,' Le Bon told The Art Newspaper. Nor is there a specific exhibition gallery planned in the new museum, which cost €52m—75% more than initially forecast. There is only one door for the public entrance and the cafeteria will probably not be able to take more than 20 customers. The museum is expecting one million visitors during the year after it reopens."
Currently, the museum is scheduled to open for limited viewing by the public during the Journées de Patrimoine, 21-22 September. From the looks of it at the moment, very few people will be allowed in at that time. The museum is now supposed to reopen by October 25, Picasso's birthday. Good luck with that, Monsieur Le Bon!
Update: The museum opened as scheduled. Impressive.