2017-11-07 09:49:03
Louvre Abu Dhabi, a Cultural Cornerstone Where East Meets West

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — A decade ago the French architect Jean Nouvel sketched the bare outlines of a fretted dome on flimsy paper. Today this enormous metallic-silver canopy rises over desert sands and the Persian Gulf — marking the new Louvre Abu Dhabi museum and the global ambitions of France and the United Arab Emirates to deploy art as a diplomatic tool they call “soft power.”

The vast dome and clusters of waterfront galleries beneath it will open to the public on Nov. 11, with sunlight cascading through a lacework of stainless steel and aluminum and layers of star-shaped patterns. It’s been a long wait for those thousands of stars to align — with five years of construction delays and technical challenges to build the estimated $650 million flagship on Saadiyat Island, by a lagoon near this capital city.

And the museum’s history is also turbulent — a saga of economic downturn, collapsing oil prices, regional political tensions and fierce French intellectual debates about the risks of lending its national treasures to the Middle East in exchange for petrodollars. Through it all the Louvre Abu Dhabi has brought together East and West and also managed to unite France’s fractious national museums, which submerged envy and ego to cooperate on the project brokered by two governments.

“Although a lot has changed, not a lot has changed here,” said Mr. Nouvel, inspecting the museum “village” last week, where workmen rushed to plant garden blooms and dig one courtyard for a Rodin sculpture recently arrived from France. “The principle is that it remains a museum that belongs to the geography, and culture and identity of the country.”

But which country is that? Since the opening date was announced in September, planes have been roaring out of Paris about every two days for Abu Dhabi, with national treasures. The precious passengers include a self-portrait of van Gogh, Monet’s 1877 painting of the Saint-Lazare railroad station and Napoleon himself — a portrait of the emperor crossing the Alps on a rearing white horse, by Jacques-Louis David.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi is the result of a rare government accord in 2007 between France and this young, oil-rich monarchy on the Persian Gulf. The U.A.E. is leasing the powerful Louvre brand for 400 million euros (about $464 million) for more than 30 years. Eventually it will pay a total of 974 million euros for French expertise, guidance and loans.

In return, 17 French museums and institutions shipped 300 art works here this year, from Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of “La Belle Ferronnière” to massive marble nymphs from Versailles. French museum experts are also advising the Emiratis on what to acquire and organizing temporary exhibitions for up to 15 years.

“Soft power is now the catchword of all diplomats”¨ said Zaki Anwar Nusseibeh, the U.A.E. minister of state, who was an adviser from the beginning when the museum was simply a sketch and its future site was inhabited by nesting turtles and seashells. “It means it is no longer sufficient to have military or economic power if you are not able to share your values. Exchange — this is what soft power is about.”

The public opening on Saturday — with an appearance on Wednesday by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and flyovers with the Louvre’s name on the wings of the country’s national Etihad airlines — comes as the monarchy is also engaged in a diplomatic boycott of neighboring Qatar, over allegations that Qatar supports extremists.

Mr. Nusseibeh, the state minister, said his government considers the Louvre Abu Dhabi part of a cultural strategy to counter tensions in the region. The Emirates’ ultimate aim is to promote the capital as a tolerant global city, and its flagship museum as a bridge between civilizations.

“The priority is to invest heavily in education and culture,” he said, speaking at his art-filled country home outside Abu Dhabi. “This has become more important because of what happened with the radicalization of groups that have kidnapped Islam” for their own political purposes. “It is against everything that this country stands for,” he added.

Despite those lofty goals, the gritty reality of geopolitics intrudes in the country’s budding cultural sphere. In late October, as preparations were underway to hang the paintings, a local judo athlete at Abu Dhabi’s international Grand Slam tournament refused to shake hands after losing to an Israeli competitor.

Image-conscious government sports officials rushed to apologize formally for the snub and to pose for photographs with the Israeli athletes.

Maymanah Farhat, an independent curator and art historian, said that the nation’s new cultural projects do not always deflect intolerance. She cited several incidents, including that of Andrew Ross, a labor specialist, who was barred by the United Arab Emirates from entering the country to conduct research at the new N.Y.U. satellite campus after he criticized construction conditions for workers in Abu Dhabi. Since then, Mr. Ross said he remains doubtful about the intentions of government leaders, calling their cultural strategy “promotional rhetoric.” (Mr. Ross, a co-founder of the Gulf Labor Artist Coalition, said the advocacy group is continuing its boycott of the Saadiyat Island cultural district to seek improvement in workers’ wages.)

This year, a journalism professor was denied entry to teach there and he blamed the ban on government suspicions about his Shiite Muslim background.

Meanwhile, the Emiratis are pressing forward with their higher ambitions — led by officials often educated in the United States and more likely to speak flawless English than French.

In many ways, the government regards its costly cultural strategy to open the Louvre Abu Dhabi and then another long-delayed museum outpost — the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, designed by Frank Gehry — as the diplomatic approach of the 15th-century house of Medici that solidified its power, influence and image from Florence, Italy, through the patronage of art and architecture.

The ambitious project “was a bit far-fetched to a lot of people,” said Mohamed Khalifa al-Mubarak, chairman of the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, and a Northeastern University graduate in economics and political science.

Ten years ago the global museum community was united in opposing the notion of “renting” national treasures and risking damage by shipping them afar. But time has worn critics down, along with the general acceptance of the constant travel of art works globally for exhibitions.

“I was completely against this project,” said Didier Rykner, director of La Tribune de l’Art, a French online art publication, who organized petitions against the project because he believed the deal was motivated purely by politics and finance. “But with time, with the contract, you must do it. It should be done. But I think it shouldn’t be done this way.”

His concern remains the possibility of damage during the transport of artworks. He also says that the Louvre Abu Dhabi has rushed to open to coincide with an Abu Dhabi contemporary art fair in the capital. And Mr. Rykner questions whether security preparations are adequate.

Museum officials contend that they are ready and that the site has been inspected recently by the French ministry of culture for security and temperature controls.

“It’s completely secure,” said Laurence des Cars, the director of the Musée d’Orsay and the former curatorial director for the Abu Dhabi project, who is sending the self-portrait by van Gogh and “The Fifer,” by Manet.

The bounty is evident for many of the 13 French museums in the consortium. The Fontainebleau castle is lending a giant 16th-century bronze, the Apollon du Belvédère. In turn, it is receiving a check for about $5.8 million that it will invest in the restoration of its own Imperial Theater, which will be renamed for Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the president of the United Arab Emirates.

The Musée de Cluny, which is lending a jeweled 13th-century box, is funding half of an $8.8 million renovation of its reception area with money from the Louvre Abu Dhabi project. .

A small part of the Louvre Abu Dhabi is dedicated to contemporary and modern art. The rest focuses on telling the story of world histories and religions, with an emphasis on mixing works from different places.

Beyond loans, the team of six curators have been scouting for art from private collections. They have acquired more than 600 works, including Piet Mondrian’s 1922 “Composition With Blue, Red, Yellow and Black,” bought in 2009 for $27.9 million from Christie’s auction of the collection of Yves St. Laurent and Pierre Bergé. Another important purchase was a Renaissance painting of the Madonna and Child by Giovanni Bellini, which museum officials say demonstrates a commitment to highlighting works that reflect different religions.

“What is the Louvre Abu Dhabi? It’s a narrative of humankind from the beginning of knowledge, using art as a witness of the times,” said Jean-François Charnier, the project’s chief curator and scientific director for Agence France-Museums.

Some museum curators feared the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s buying spree could send global art prices surging. But Jean-Patrice Marandel, a curator for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, said the new museum “has not affected the market at all.”

“It does not have an image yet or a brand or a flavor,” he added.

A constant question for the new museum is how bold it will be. Ms. des Cars, who as former director of acquisitions had placed the winning bid for the Mondrian painting at an auction, insisted that cultural officials here have taken some “daring positions dealing with religion and nudity.”

Mr. Mubarak took pains in an interview to praise the beauty of a newly acquired Yemeni Torah. It will be exhibited with a sixth-century Quran and gothic Bible.

The museum commissioned a new piece by the American artist Jenny Holzer, who carved three stone walls with historic scripts in cuneiform, Arabic and French, drawing from a Sumerian “Creation Myth” and an essay on self-determination by Michel de Montaigne, the Renaissance philosopher.

“I had to have the content reviewed, but no one said no,” she said, when asked if there were any restrictions. She hopes to create an app for museum visitors to pick their own creation myths to project on the stone walls.

Abu Dhabi officials are already preparing for the future. Mr. Mubarak predicted that the Louvre Abu Dhabi will have a domino effect and that the construction contract for the long-planned Guggenheim Abu Dhabi could be awarded next year. (A Guggenheim spokesman declined to comment.)

In the meantime, Jean-Luc Martinez, the director of the Louvre Museum, said the project has already had a dramatic effect in France. “Thanks to the Louvre Abu Dhabi, our museums were forced to work together after 50 years of development.”

“We have some egos,” he added, with Gallic understatement. “That’s a revolution in mentality.”