PARIS - On a breezy June morning, several dozen people climb a narrow staircase to an ornate, high-ceilinged room in the Louvre Museum. Displayed on easels are 22 works by Leonardo da Vinci—a delicate pen-and-ink Madonna and child, detailed architectural sketches, subtly shaded tempera studies of draped fabric. These fragile 500-year-old drawings are rarely seen by anyone but scholars and museum curators.
Today, they've been removed from the vaults for a private showing to Friends of the Louvre, an elite group of $10,000-and-up donors. Later, the Friends will dine on veal and asparagus in truffle sauce amid Greek and Roman sculpture in the museum. Still later: a silent auction of luxury vacations and other indulgences and a concert by the '80s band Duran Duran. All told, the soiree will raise more than $2.7 million.
Welcome to the Louvre Inc. Under its ambitious director, Henri Loyrette, the world's most visited museum has overhauled its once-stodgy management. Loyrette has made the staff more efficient, coaxed donations from corporations, rented its sumptuous galleries as locations for the 2006 movie The Da Vinci Code (which has netted the Louvre some $2.5 million), and leveraged the museum's iconic name to reap big money from exhibitions in Seattle, Indianapolis, Atlanta, and elsewhere.
His biggest coup: A $1.5 billion deal to set up a "Louvre Abu Dhabi" in the United Arab Emirates that is to open in 2012. Abu Dhabi will pay $630 million just to use the Louvre's name, along with hundreds of millions more for loans of art. New York's Guggenheim, by contrast, got $20 million for its satellite in Bilbao, Spain.
The Abu Dhabi initiative has stirred an uproar in French art circles. "It's scandalous," says Didier Rykner, an art historian who has collected more than 5,000 signatures—including some former top Louvre curators—on a petition opposing the plan. Critics say such megadeals make it harder for less wealthy museums to obtain art on loan. Loyrette says the Louvre still lends individual works free of charge, but for exhibits drawn exclusively from its collection, "we ask for a fee, which is perfectly normal."
The Louvre can't afford to sit still, he says. The French government now covers only half of the museum's $350 million annual budget, down from more than 70% when Loyrette took over in 2001. "We are expected to find private funds for new initiatives," the lanky, 56-year-old art historian says in his office, where the antique furniture is piled high with art books and catalogs. He's doing just that. On July 17 the Louvre broke ground for a new Islamic-art wing that includes $54 million in financing from Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal and French companies.
Admirers say Loyrette's freewheeling intellect and personal charm make him an almost irresistible fund-raiser. Harry Fath, owner of a Cincinnati property-management company, met Loyrette at a reception and invited him to Cincinnati. Loyrette accepted and spent a weekend with Fath and his wife, chatting about opera, enthusing about the city's architecture, and giving a talk to the local art museum board. "By the end of the weekend, I gave him a check for $50,000," Fath says.
Loyrette's next goal: an endowment for the Louvre, emulating U.S. giants such as New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago. For now, he's not planning further overseas ventures on the scale of Abu Dhabi. "Our order book is full," Loyrette says. "Let's do well what we have under way."