FRENCH CONNECTION: Olivier Meslay left Paris to become the DMA’s senior curator of European and American art. photography by Elizabeth Lavin

The Frenchman Who Left the Louvre for the Dallas Museum of Art

Doesn’t every curator at the Louvre want a job in Dallas and a McMansion in University Park? Apparently Olivier Meslay did.

So the grass is always greener on the other side? Or should I say, L’herbe est-elle toujours plus verte ailleurs?

When I was a lad learning languages, I was enamored of everything French, especially France itself. At 22, when I saw Paris for the first time, I thought: “Yes, the City of Light is the center of civilization. To live near the Luxembourg Garden would give the most sublime pleasure.”

A decade after I was immersing myself in old-world sophistication, 23-year-old Olivier Meslay was taking a six-week Greyhound bus tour of the United States with a girlfriend: New York to D.C. to Miami, New Orleans, Arizona, Los Angeles, and back, with a detour to Mexico City to visit an uncle at the French embassy. Home again in Paris, he enrolled in a course at the Sorbonne on American Indian art. He was one of only five students.

And now he finds himself in Dallas. Meslay, as of August the Dallas Museum of Art’s senior curator of European and American art and the Barbara Thomas Lemmon Curator of European Art, has left his position at the Louvre and some of its satellite facilities. Even more curious to a Francophile like me, he has left the gorgeous art- and book-filled flat his wife still owns in a quiet courtyard off the Boulevard Saint-Germain and has settled into a spanking new University Park house. His wife, Laure, an elegant, soft-spoken woman of deep intelligence and exquisite manners, has joined him, as have their two sons, Cyprien and Gabriel, now enrolled at Highland Park High School. The eldest child, Melanie, remains in Paris, at university, studying politics and social science. How are they all doing? Jes fine, as we might say here.

I met Meslay in February, at a swank Turtle Creek dinner party during his interview process with the DMA. I saw him again last June, at home in Paris. Still the impressionable boy from the provinces, I gazed around in wonder at the floor-to-ceiling bookcases, the 18th- and 19th-century furniture, and the beautiful pictures. “You can’t find new houses with bookcases in Dallas,” I said. “Oh, we know that,” they replied. “We’ll get them at Ikea.”

And, indeed, they did. Their furniture, paintings, and ornaments all look as though they have been in University Park for centuries. The Meslays are thrilled with the house, whose square footage amounts to roughly three times that of their Paris apartment, and its super-sized American bathrooms are luxurious by old-world standards.

Can a man who used to go to work by walking across the Seine to the Louvre adjust to Dallas’ car culture? Sure, but when the weather is favorable, Meslay prefers to walk to the Lovers Lane DART station and take a quick ride to the museum. Voilà! It’s not the Paris Metro, but it’s close.
The couple has come to know the territory here very quickly. Laure told me about Scardello Artisan Cheese shop on Oak Lawn before I heard of it myself. They are trying out Texas wines, and Pilates classes at the Park Cities Y. They have been to Tyler. They drove to Oklahoma their third week here to visit a museum.

They alit in Dallas mid-August, not exactly the most welcoming season, but according to Olivier: “The weather was not as bad as we expected. Everyone promised us hell, but it was only purgatory. Anyway, Paris was ferociously hot when we left.” And their new house came equipped with a swimming pool. Because Mme. Meslay had arrived five days before her work visa was valid (she is making a catalogue raisonné of all French sculpture in American collections), she was given a tourist’s visa and told she’d have to re-enter the country. The Meslays gamely drove south to the Mexican border three days after they arrived in Dallas. Olivier waited on one side while Laure with her tourist’s visa walked over to Laredo, then re-entered the United States with a new work visa. The couple piled back in their car and returned to Dallas.

For all his savoir-faire and dignity, Meslay carries himself with an air of worldliness laced with innocence. He looks like a precocious schoolboy, full of eagerness and gratitude, but also gracefully at home in his body. Trim from years of biking, he was wearing, the cool October day I interviewed him at the DMA, a beautiful French scarf that complemented his suit.

The whole sequence of events by which he got his job there sounds like a combination of pluck and luck. Two years ago, he alerted some American friends to his availability. Someone pointed him to the DMA position. Initially skeptical, he remembered a quick 1984 visit to Texas, when he was the courier of a picture to the Kimbell, and the cordiality of Ted Pillsbury and others. Laure had the same experience when she brought something over from the Musée d’Orsay several years later.

He also realized that the position might have been tailor-made for someone like him, whose interests in American and British art could be put to better use in the States than in France, where British art was barely recognized as interesting until late in the 19th century. He went to the DMA website and saw the job posting. In November 2008, he wrote to Bonnie Pitman and enclosed a CV. The courtship was speedy. The process, he says, of getting hired here is both more elaborate and less authoritarian than in France, “where the guy in charge just makes up his mind.” In the States, collaboration and politeness go hand in hand.

When he started at the Louvre, Meslay was told by Pierre Rosenberg, the director, that there were no positions in French art, but there might be something in British. Would that suit? With a spirit that we would label “American,” the young curator stepped up and said, “Mais oui.” That was 17 years ago. He’s always had something of an adventurous spirit. As a child, he grew up in Morocco, before going to Toulouse in southwest France at the age of 12. His wife—from a family of diplomats and jurists—has an equally international pedigree.

Meslay is still acquainting himself with the variety and depth of the collections at the DMA. He says he wants to rehang the European paintings in order to make the circuit more visible, more accessible. He’d like more color on the walls. His chief curatorial role, he says, is “to give pleasure and to let people discover something they do not know.”

Rick Brettell, former DMA director and someone who knows how to give pleasure to his many audiences, said about the Meslay hire: “Meslay’s decision is heartening for those of us who work in the American museum world because what it tells us is that a big, vibrant general museum in the middle of America proved to be preferable—to a supremely well-trained French museum professional—to the Louvre. American recruiters take note: DMA Director Bonnie Pitman has taught us all a lesson.”

Meanwhile, the new senior curator is settling into Dallas and getting to know its citizens, who impress him with what he calls their “severe elegance,” which certainly goes against the Texas stereotype. At the same time, he finds it hard to accept our “tear it down, make it new” philosophy of building. “In France,” he says, “you keep a house for 500 years, and you become respectable.” Much to our credit, however, he seems wowed by our sense of civic virtue, our charitable commitment to giving back. This was the Ray Nasher philosophy, of course. After being courted by museums all over the world, the late real-estate developer decided that his collection should go in the place where he made his fortune. Frenchmen had this kind of generosity before World War II, Meslay says, but afterward, given state control and socialism, they have backed away from donating to museums, even though tax benefits are more favorable in France than in the United States.

Dallas has opened a new chapter in its history. When I arrived here, in the medieval period, the only bread came from the late Mrs. Baird. Now we have baguettes that we can almost be proud to serve to a Parisian. Since the opening of the Nasher (and Fort Worth’s new Modern Art Museum, as well as the expansion of the Amon Carter Museum), we have begun to earn a reputation as a weekend getaway for art lovers. And for the Meslays? Even if you are not old enough to have been around 90 years ago, you may remember the peppy post-World War I song “How Ya Gonna Keep ’Em Down on the Farm, After They’ve Seen Paree?” After leaving the Maison Meslay one evening, I kept singing to myself, “How ya gonna get ’em back to Paree, after they’ve seen Big D?” Or words to that effect.

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