A report on Versailles by the French Court of Accounts

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Le château de Versailles
Photo : Didier Rykner
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The Court of Accounts’ reports on public cultural institutions are always interesting reading and most of the time raise excellent questions. Their only limitation is, sometimes, a lack of knowledge of the heritage issues facing the organisations they audit, although this is relative as some members of the Court are very familiar with these questions. As the role of the Court of Accounts is to "ensure the proper use of public money", it can sometimes judge that expenditure is excessive or poorly controlled, even though it is essential for the French national heritage, the running of a museum and the upkeep or restoration of a historic monument. The Court has just published a report that can be downloaded here (https://www.ccomptes.fr/fr/publications/etablissement-public-du-chateau-du-musee-et-du-domaine-national-de-versailles-epv) on the public establishment of the Château de Versailles.

Thus we do not agree with one of the report’s remarks, which seems to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the institution’s acquisition policy. If there is one thing that works particularly well at Versailles, alongside exhibitions (a subject not addressed in the report), it is acquisitions. Even though the museum does not have a ’Scientific and Cultural Project’ that sets out in black and white how the works to be acquired are chosen, this policy is pretty much self-evident to anyone who takes an interest. So much so that very often, when a painting, a sculpture or an objet d’art comes up for sale, we can tell in advance whether there is a good chance that the museum will preempt it. We have very often anticipated purchases because they seemed so obvious, and we have rarely been disappointed.

In fact, the public institution’s response states that the main areas of acquisition that will soon be formalised (and which were sent to the auditors) are as follows: "the refurbishment of Versailles and the Trianon châteaux; works illustrating the cultural and political history of the Ancien Régime and the life of the Court; a national portrait gallery in the French style; a modern interpretation of the Musée de l’histoire de France; a collection to facilitate understanding of the château; an illustration of the influence of Versailles in modern and contemporary times". While the notion of a "modern interpretation" of the Musée de l’histoire de France may seem a little esoteric to us, everything else is perfectly in keeping not only with what we can expect from the Château de Versailles, but also with the acquisitions it is making. The desire to also develop the collection of portraits of personalities from French history and history not necessarily linked to Versailles, in order to create the equivalent of a "National Portrait Gallery", also helps to explain certain purchases that were not entirely clear to us, such as the portrait of Jules Breton by Jean Carriès (see the news item of 25/1/22).

On the other hand, the report is absolutely right to stress that the collections are "[unequally accessible to the public]". Due to the lack of caretakers, who cannot be hired because of insufficient funding from the Ministry of Culture (outside the Covid period, of course), entire sections of the museum, particularly the painting rooms on the second floor, are virtually never accessible. An acquisition policy that would involve sending works directly into storage or into rooms closed to the public (fortunately this is not too often the case) is harder to justify.
As for the storage facilities, here again the report is right to highlight the very worrying situation at the château in this respect, a state of affairs that is also shared by the curators: "The dispersal of the collections, and above all the poor state of the storage facilities, have been highlighted on numerous occasions by both the management of the public institution and the château’s team of curators. As the public institution itself points out, "the dispersed collections were installed over time, according to opportunities and the availability of land, without any coherent overall development of the estate, nor any grouping of collections or consideration of the conservation requirements of heritage collections". In 2009 (fourteen years ago!) we gave an idea of what some of these storerooms might look like in our article "The ghosts of Versailles". Unless we are mistaken, this sculpture storage is still in the same state, since the report states that: "the situation is critical [...] for the sculptures stored at La Poulinière".

It is regrettable that this report does not criticise certain horribly expensive works in the master plan, in particular those relating to the air-conditioning of the château - modestly described as "cooling production" and which we learn are now planned in the "North central body" and in the "apartments of the Cour de Marbre". The aim is to adapt the monument to the flow of visitors, rather than the other way round. However, the report rightly sees the over-visiting of the château, which was interrupted during the health crisis but is now picking up again, as a problem that is jeopardising its conservation. In this respect, it is distressing to note that the former president of the Château de Versailles, Catherine Pégard, in the public institution’s responses to the Court of Accounts’ report, claims that this overcrowding does not exist when any visitor can see it by visiting the grand flats in conditions that are sometimes worse than the metro at peak times.

There are other points that would no doubt be worth commenting on, such as the work on the Pavillon Dufour, which has not been restored as reported, but vandalised, as indeed has the whole of the Vieille Aile (see articles), but we will end on the issue that we have already discussed on several occasions, that of the failure to appoint a new president of the public institution. In view of the fact that "Mrs Pégard is now exercising her functions beyond the age limit of 67, she is holding a number of mandates in excess of what is permitted by the statutes of the public establishment, adopted by decree in the Council of State, i.e. a form hierarchically superior to a ministerial decision". The Court of Accounts describes this as a "unprecedented legal situation" and explains that it is "problematic", adding in particular that "the decisions it takes, and those delegated to its directors, could be challenged in the courts, particularly in terms of the commitment of expenditure". The report goes on to say that "the situation of Mme Pégard could even be assimilated to a form of misuse of power insofar as the failure to appoint a successor for more than twenty-seven months now is the result of a failure on the part of the State, if not of deliberate intent, then at least of a lack of foresight". How delicately - but clearly - these things are said. It is to be hoped that an association will finally take this case to court.

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