Fifty years after welcoming its first visitors, the château is facing a new development: the professionalisation of its governance. A real undertaking, where commercial imperatives mingle with scientific rigour.
"Just a tiny earring, and we can save the chapel roof! […] Everyone has their own idea: mine is smoking a quiet cigarette in a backyard two-room flat; yours is to keep the château, even if it means turning it into a hotel." Jean Rochefort's line to Madeleine Renaud in Le Diable par la queue is distinctly sarcastic when it comes to letting strangers into the family château. There was a rather amusing synchronicity between this comic 1969 fresco by French film director Philippe de Broca about the penniless aristocrats who devise tricks to fleece some tourists lost in their ramshackle residence, and the opening to the public, the same year, of the Château de Breteuil at Choisel in the Chevreuse valley. A year previously, Vaux-le-Vicomte had also taken the plunge. "We hadn't seriously thought about opening Vaux to the public," says Patrice de Vogüé, who received the monument as a wedding present in 1967. "But we needed the money. We made the decision in March 1968. But with the petrol shortage and the disruptions caused by the French "May Revolution", our opening couldn't have been more of a failure!" His wife Cristina continues: "We are very privileged, even if it wasn't easy to keep a monument like that going on a daily basis. I remember cooking an omelette for the first four or five customers in the bistro when we opened the château. Today, we cater for around 600! We are a historic monument, not a cash register. We have to know where we're going with this château, and what role to give it. "
Balancing a sometimes staggering budget (€3 M for Cheverny, one of the Loire châteaux; triple that for Vaux-le-Vicomte) often comes down to squaring the circle, given the lack of substantial state subsidies (€50,000 for Vaux). Given the crippling cost of regular, non-standard restoration work (the average annual cost of safeguarding Vaux's château and garden is €1.3 M; €4.8 M for work on the Bohier building at Chenonceau in 2015), running these private behemoths makes it vital to diversify activities. The usual gift shops (with an average turnover of €700,000 at Vaux and €900,000 at Cheverny each year) are not enough to make ends meet every month. Every family outdoes the others in inventiveness just to stay on the competitive map of historic monuments. After creating the Tintin Museum in 2001, designed to boost annual visitor numbers of 350,000, Cheverny has been offering suites for hire in its outbuildings for several years now, and is planning to start up a vineyard by 2020, which will eventually produce ten thousand bottles a year – similar to the initiative of Chambord, its state-run neighbour. At Chenonceau, the Menier family has introduced a gastronomic restaurant as well as boat trips, late-night tours and mediation using iPods (a pioneering move at its launch in 2004) to satisfy some 850,000 visitors each year. At Choisel, Henri-François de Breteuil has been drawing on Charles Perrault's famous fairy tales since 1981 to entertain visitors with picturesque scenes, with the story of Bluebeard getting a revamp last winter.
Well-versed in staging egg hunts, Christmas evenings and its popular weekly candle-lit events with fireworks, Vaux now plans to turn to contemporary art, as Chenonceau has been doing for some years, like Versailles in the public sector. The first step was the opening in May of flowerbeds of temporary metal ribbons by Philippe Hourcade, while awaiting the restoration of André Le Nôtre's box bush embroideries. "Fouquet (its first owner – Ed.) should be an inspiration, but you have to be aware of the trend effect where contemporary art is concerned," warns Alexandre de Vogüé, co-owner of the château. "We are currently thinking about how to enter into dialogue with artists in an effective way – perhaps through residences." His mother, Cristina de Vogüé, adds: "Today, the most difficult thing to manage is what the public are after. Visitors have changed; they want fireworks, events and spectacular entertainment. Previously they wanted a setting, a story, a château. People no longer just look at exhibitions; nowadays there has to be a specific staging. But where historic monuments are concerned, one has to think in the long-term, and to resist the passing fads of the public. We can't do just any old thing to attract people." Duly noted. In 2016, the family abandoned the "chocolate palace" in its grand salon after eight editions, because "the show wasn't worthy of the château," says Alexandre, who took over management of the monument in 2015 with his two brothers.
The new generation's arrival at the helm has been somewhat of a revolution. "We are looking at a hundred years on from here," smiles the co-owner, who has taken a decisive step towards professionalising the management of a monument. Created in 1994, the family-owned property company is now supported by a board of directors in 2015, open to people from varied backgrounds like dealer and expert Étienne Breton, and architect Cyril Bordier. "Governance is now more fluid, because it enables us to take discussions about the château's future beyond the family fold," says Alexandre de Vogüé, who is happy to have broken even at last for the last four years, and to be able to open the doors of public administrations again. While the local authorities had turned their backs on the château and the Ministry of Culture had pared down its subsidies each year, the new position taken by Vaux has produced results. Firstly, the DRAC (Regional Directorate of Cultural Affairs) has made a commitment this year – in principle – to contribute to the financing of infrastructure restoration projects like the hydraulic system and the Triton sculptures in the ponds and fountains (€570,000) and the future project for the Grand Salon, scheduled for 2020. Secondly, the Île-de-France region is providing €700,000 over three years, which enabled a new spatialised sound circuit on the life of Nicolas Fouquet to be opened in May.
Dialogues with Versailles and Fontainebleau
The new alliance with the public sector isn't just a simple administrative dialogue. The creation of a scientific committee consisting of well-known curators and historians has enabled this 17th architectural jewel to join the network of national institutions, leading to an increasing number of loans. "Even though we are not going to stage exhibitions, because it isn't profitable, we are trying to work more closely with châteaux like Versailles and Fontainebleau. It's still hard, because they are very much hampered by their administration, while we are drowning in day-to-day management," says Alexandre de Vogüé. "Our ways of functioning are still too different. We are above all a company that has to ensure it has no deficit, while the role of a public establishment is to open to as many people as possible, and among other things this involves free admissions." Although entry costs much the same at Vaux (€16.90) and public institutions like Chambord (€14.50) and Versailles (€18), there is a big difference: free admission is limited to small children at the private château, when the others receive subsidies from the Ministry to set off free entrance for young people under 26. This is astonishingly unequal treatment for a "public interest" establishment in a country that has made cultural democratisation a priority.