From Louvre to Guggenheim: Why Abu Dhabi has big plans for art

Why We Wrote This

In the young and oil-rich United Arab Emirates, culture is seen as one key to moving away from a fossil fuel economy, and art has become more than just a philanthropic pursuit – it’s a national priority.

Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters
The Louvre Abu Dhabi, off the coast of Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Jan. 3. The ultramodern universal arts museum was created under an agreement with France and the Louvre in 2007 and opened its doors to visitors in November 2017.

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On the shores of the Persian Gulf, the United Arab Emirates is building up an oasis of international and Arab art. And as the Emiratis build a tourism economy and make their country a must-stop destination for culture, they are sparing no effort or cost. Lacking the rich histories of Arab capitals like Damascus, Cairo, or Baghdad, the UAE – a young country flush with cash and stability – has set out to become a beacon for international and Arab art and artists.

The ultra-wealthy ruling families, themselves collectors and patrons of the arts, have elevated their private pursuits to state policy: They’re buying up Western and Arab art to bring home to their citizens. The centerpiece of their vision is the Louvre Abu Dhabi – designed to anchor an entire island devoted to arts and education – which opened to visitors in November 2017.

“We don’t have to go travel the world to see Rembrandt or Da Vinci,” says Fatemah, an Emirati university student visiting the latest visiting exhibition in February. “It all comes here for us to see, and it is beautiful to share this with the rest of the world.”

European and Asian tourists drift through the galleries, stopping every few minutes to raise their mobile phones to snap a shot of another timeless classic: Van Gogh’s “Self-Portrait,” Da Vinci’s “La Belle Ferronnière,” Whistler’s “Mother.”

Although the sign outside the spotless museum says “Louvre” and French is one of the dozen languages available on audio headsets, they are a long way from Paris. This is not even Europe. This is Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi.

On the sandy shores of the Persian Gulf, the oil-rich United Arab Emirates is building up an oasis of international and Arab art. And as they build a tourism economy and make their country a must-stop destination for culture, the Emiratis are sparing no effort or cost to place this tiny country on the global art map.

Lacking the rich histories of the Arab capitals of Damascus, Cairo, or Baghdad, the UAE – a young country flush with cash; arid space; a small, educated population; and stability – has set out to become a beacon for international and Arab art and artists.

Since the 2000s, the UAE has worked tirelessly to attract regional and international artists and exhibitions to its shores. In the cool winter and temperate spring months, the country hosts festivals that have become fixtures, including Art Dubai, the Sharjah Biennial, and the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.

The ultra-wealthy ruling families, themselves collectors and patrons of the arts, have elevated their private pursuits to an official state policy: They’re buying up Western and Arab art to bring home to their citizens and inviting up-and-coming and renowned artists, musicians, painters, and filmmakers from across the globe.

Here, the Emiratis say, the arts are not a philanthropic pursuit or a public good – they are a national priority.

Destination Louvre

Officials here say the UAE is counting on tourism and culture to help it move away from the turbulence of a fossil fuels economy. And it’s selling the Emirates’ geographic location – at the tip of the Gulf and at the heart of flight paths connecting Europe and Asia – as a meeting place of peoples, cultures, and traditions.

The centerpiece of the Emiratis’ vision is the establishment of the Louvre Abu Dhabi – an ultramodern universal arts museum designed to anchor an entire island devoted to arts and education.  

Created under an agreement with France and the Louvre in 2007, it opened its doors to visitors in November 2017. It hosts a permanent collection of 600 pieces, many of which were bought up by the UAE government and rulers during a “buyer’s market” in the art world amid the global recession of 2008 and 2009.

The permanent collection ranges from Gauguin, Manet, wood-carved Buddha statues, and Islamic inscribed stones, to a 19th-century portrait of George Washington. On loan are iconic pieces such as “Napoleon Crossing the Alps.”

But perhaps most striking is the museum itself. Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning French architect Jean Nouvel, the Louvre Abu Dhabi stands as a separate city, detached as a domed island floating on the Arabian ocean, connected to Saadiyat Island by a ramp.

The structure’s design is East meets West, in line with the UAE’s vision as a global meeting place, with Arab and Islamic-inspired stars and geometric patterns in the 500-foot-wide dome that filter the desert sun onto walkways linking 55 ultramodern buildings and galleries.

Asian and European expats, tourists, and Emirati students mingle underneath the dome, going from one gallery to the next.

“We don’t have to go travel the world to see Rembrandt or Da Vinci,” says Fatemah, a 20-year-old Emirati university student visiting the latest visiting exhibition – “Rembrandt, Vermeer, and the Dutch Golden Age” – in February.

“It all comes here for us to see, and it is beautiful to share this with the rest of the world.”

The Louvre Abu Dhabi attracted more than 1 million visitors in its first year, the museum says, with the largest number of visitors coming from India, followed by the UAE, Europe, other Gulf states, and China. 

Three miles away from the Louvre, New York University’s Abu Dhabi satellite campus houses a center for performing arts and offers classes including art, art history, preservation, and photography.

Plans for Saadiyat Island also include a Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, a 320,000 square-foot seaside museum designed by Frank Gehry to house modern and contemporary art and act as a center for contemporary and Islamic art and artists.

Taylor Luck
Suheyla Takesh, curator of the Barjeel Art Foundation, points out "La Gardien De La Vie" by Egyptian painter Hamed Ewais, one of dozens of pieces of modern Arab art expressing the political and social changes that shook the region, at the Sharjah Art Museum in Sharjah, UAE, Feb. 20, 2019.

Arab Art

While Abu Dhabi is acting as a beacon for international art with its Louvre and Guggenheim, the sleepy port city of Sharjah, an emirate 100 miles up the coast, is quietly emerging as the leading incubator and center for Arab art.

The private Sharjah Art Foundation runs several workshops, incubators, arts spaces, and residencies at venues across the city for residents and artists across the region.

Among coral stone and simple cement houses with sandalwood-thatched roofs evoking the historical architecture of the port town, the foundation hosts several-month residences for up-and-coming artists and education programs ranging from ceramics, mixed media, and calligraphy for all ages.

Between public art displays and graffiti art, the town resembles more a Brooklyn neighborhood than a centuries-old port 100 nautical miles from Iran.

But perhaps the hidden jewel is the Barjeel Art Foundation, an independent foundation dedicated to supporting, promoting, and researching modern and contemporary Arab art.

The foundation is built upon the private collection of Emirati scholar and founder Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi. It documents the history of the Arab world through visual arts that speak to the social and political currents of the times, and the hopes and dreams of entire peoples and nations.

War, national struggles, heritage, women’s movements, socialism, and cultural ideals are on display in Barjeel’s collection at the Sharjah Art Museum, from Egyptians, Iraqis, Sudanese, Syrians, Palestinians, and others.

It is more than a display; it is a record of history and identity for Arabs and people across the world to discover and study.

“What we are providing at Barjeel and here in Sharjah is a place and a platform for people to view and study modern Arab art, which has sadly been mostly inaccessible for decades,” says Suheyla Takesh, Barjeel’s curator, as she points out a painting of “The Prisoners” by 20th-century Egyptian women’s rights advocate Inji Efflatoun. ”Western canons and terminology have been historically applied to the study of art from the region, and artistic developments have often been filtered through a lens and placed in a framework that were not always applicable to them.”

The art market

Dubai, meanwhile, has emerged as the commercial hub of the UAE art world, complete with auction houses and art dealers.

From this glitzy city of 21st-century spires and skyscrapers, art and artifacts from both East and West are auctioned off for millions as the super-rich and Arab Gulf collectors come to add to their collections of 20th-century Arab greats.

Sensing the growing market, British art dealer Christie’s opened a Dubai branch in 2006 and has since auctioned off more than $215 million worth of Middle Eastern and Islamic art.

Some recent sales include Syrian painter Marwan Kassab-Bachi, Lebanese artist Yvette Achkar, and even a wristwatch that belonged to Libya’s late deposed dictator Muammar Qaddafi.

According to Christie’s, 70 percent of purchases of Middle Eastern art are now made through this auction house.

The Emirates, art observers say, have succeeded in building a “complete ecosystem.”

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