French plan to lure more French visitors to museums raising hackles

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With the Louvre receiving more than eight million visitors last year and other French art collections drawing millions more, further incentives would hardly appear necessary to attract people to the country’s museums.

On weekends and during summer vacations the Louvre, for one, often resembles a crowded railroad station, with the Mona Lisa predictably a top destination.

Yet for the French government, there is a bit of a problem: At the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay and other national museums, where admission costs anywhere from $9 to $12, some two-thirds of all visitors are foreign tourists, as are three-quarters of visitors between the ages of 18 and 25.

The new government of President Nicolas Sarkozy wants to alter this profile. With a view to persuading more French people to enjoy art, it is pondering whether to follow the British and Danish examples of allowing free access to the permanent collections of major museums.

During the recent election campaign Mr. Sarkozy’s right-of-center party, the Union for a Popular Movement, endorsed the idea, estimating that it would cost the government $205 million to $274 million a year in additional subsidies to the museum network. This month Mr. Sarkozy’s prime minister, François Fillon, took the first step toward dismantling the current admissions system, in place since 1922, by announcing plans to offer free access to a small number of national and provincial museums “in order to measure the consequences.”

Yet what might at first seem like a simple way of wooing more of the French into museums is already raising hackles in some museum circles. ...

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