Chirac Speaks out for 'First Arts' Controversy Swirls amid the French President's Plan to Open a Major Museum for Primitive Art in Paris

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Call the Museum of African and Oceanic Art in eastern Paris, and you'll find a scratchy recording with a distant-sounding voice at the other end of the line - a fair representation of the neglect this museum suffers from.

Dusty galleries and out-of-date displays have been tolerated there for years. But if a plan President Jacques Chirac announced earlier this month comes to fruition, African, Oceanic, Amerindian, and Arctic art (dubbed "First Arts") will at last have a major, state-of-the-art museum in Paris.

"Every French president has to have his great cultural undertaking," says world-renowned African art collector Henri Goldet. "And this is Chirac's." Museum directors, who sometimes have had to act under direct orders from the president, agree that culture, like foreign policy, is the personal appanage of the chief of state. "It's a bit like the ancien regime," says one, "but it's one way of getting things done." Under Mr. Chirac's plan, the current Musee de l'Homme, located on a breathtaking site opposite the Eiffel Tower, will be expanded to almost double its size, at the expense of the current Navy museum. The new "Museum of Civilizations and First Arts" will house some pieces from the Musee de l'Homme, the African and Oceanic Art Museum's collections, plus $20 million worth of new acquisitions. A selection of the finest objects will be placed in the Louvre to serve as cultural ambassadors. But the project, which emerged after a heated debate in back halls of the Paris art world, has left many disputes smoldering. No room at the Louvre The Louvre, for example. Arguing that "the Louvre cannot ignore 70 percent of humanity," Chirac had originally wanted all new primitive galleries to be located in the former royal castle. The president, however, encountered the strong opposition of museum director Pierre Rosenberg. "The Louvre is a big museum - too big, in a certain way," Mr. Rosenberg says. "We believe that Paris should be a universal city, of course. But the Louvre doesn't have to be a universal museum." Citing space restrictions and a collegial concern that the new museum not be stripped of its masterpieces, Rosenberg makes it clear he will fight against any permanent place for primitive art in the Louvre. This attitude, which may simply be part of a good-faith effort to rationalize the sprawling museum, is criticized by detractors as the old-school traditionalism of a clique of art snobs who still cannot accept "tribal objects" as true art. A second dispute has to do with how the objects will be displayed. Display dispute "This is the eternal war between the university people and the aestheticians," says collector Goldet. At the Musee de l'Homme, which has not enjoyed the prestige - or the funding - of other Paris museums, African art is sandwiched between "Prehistoric Man" and "The Turkish House. …