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‘An unparalleled talent’ – a tribute to Delphine Levy (1969–2020)

31 July 2020

Delphine Levy stood apart from those recurring debates over whether museum governance is primarily a scientific or administrative activity; in doing so, she carved out an exemplary role for herself as executive director of Paris Musées, the public body she created eight years ago to bring together management of the city of Paris’s 14 public museums. A graduate of the prestigious École nationale d’Administration (ENA), which has educated the majority of those who have run the French state for half a century, Delphine used her unparalleled political and organisational talent purely in the service of her ideal of culture. She did not allow personal ambition to lead her to seek the media spotlight to advance her own career, instead prioritising each museum’s individual identity and the programming autonomy of their directors (a group, it’s worth noting, in which women and men are equally represented).

Delphine Levy allowed the museums, including the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, the Musée Bourdelle and the Petit Palais, to undertake exhibition projects that departed from the well-trodden path – while she herself assumed the demanding task of winning over public funding bodies and politicians, who might easily have been concerned about such bold decisions. In return, all she asked was that the exhibitions be accessible to all, a pedagogical imperative that remained a constant for her. Her view of museums’ social role meant that she maintained free admission to Paris’s permanent collections despite dissenting voices, and, from 1 January this year, also enabled people to download any image from the city’s collections without charge or restrictions – a pioneering step towards Open Content, a movement which other French institutions have sadly resisted thus far.

Charming and energetic, Delphine also found a way to update most of the institutions she was responsible for, projects that included Hauteville House on Guernsey, Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac’s Paris residences, the Musée Cernuschi (the city’s museum of Asian art), the new entrance hall of the Musée d’Art Moderne and the transfer of the Musée de la Libération de Paris to one of the 18th-century pavilions designed by the architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux on Place Denfert-Rochereau. She was also responsible for the doubling of the floor space at the fashion museum at Palais Galliera, the reopening of which has been delayed by a few months because of the Covid-19 pandemic – as has that of Musée Carnavalet, dedicated to the history of Paris, the most significant of her projects and one that she sadly did not live to see unveiled to the public.

Delphine was an indefatigable worker, always approachable and always actively involved in negotiations with unions. Her sudden death at the age of 51 comes shortly after she successfully managed the post-Covid reopening of her museums and as she was preparing to present new projects with her usual conviction to the recently elected city council: the renovation of the three remaining museums that require updates (the final section of the Musée Bourdelle, the Musée Cognacq-Jay and the Museé de la Vie Romantique), as well as the construction of a huge shared storage facility. It is to be hoped that in the months ahead a successor with the rare qualities required to carry through her ambitious plan can be found.

We will miss Delphine’s warmth, but we have at least the consolation that a major Walter Sickert retrospective jointly organised by the Tate and the Petit Palais – her dearest wish as an art historian and as the author of the first work in French on the painter – will come to fruition in 2022 in tribute to her critical role at the head of Paris’s museums. Delphine, who divided her private life between Paris and London, would not have allowed Brexit to tarnish such a fine opportunity to unite the public of these two cities around such a distinctive artist.

Christophe Leribault is director of the Petit Palais – Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris

Translated from the French by George Miller