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On the Louvre Abu Dhabi: Pre-Opening

- By Sophie Arni

The Louvre Abu Dhabi, the talk of the town. For what seems (and actually is) years, the capital of the UAE has been anticipating the grand opening of the institution that will enhance its cultural scene and profoundly change its international image. Abu Dhabi indeed has the ambition to become, I quote, "the cultural capital of the Middle East."

And knowing the determinism and enthusiasm found in this region of the world, this ambition might become true to some extent. Like its neighbor cultural city Doha (Qatar), the government of Abu Dhabi has created an entity dedicated to promoting arts and culture in the city. TCA Abu Dhabi is the umbrella entity overseeing the Louvre Abu Dhabi and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi projects on Saadiyat Island, the future capital epicenter of this multibillion initiatives.

I, alongside 600 or so students, happen to live on that island-in-construction.

I, alongside 600 or so students, happen to live on that island-in-construction. We see it from far away every time we cross the Sheikh Khalifa bridge, linking the city of Abu Dhabi to Saadiyat Island. Construction cranes lay the foundations of the spectacular Jean Nouvel designed dome.

I will try to cover two things in this article. My thoughts on the potential of the Louvre Abu Dhabi to be the world's first truly global, art museum. Second, I will presents contextualize its opening within the local art scene of Abu Dhabi.

Louvre Abu Dhabi, dome under construction. October 2014.

Image via Construction Week Online

Map of Abu Dhabi and Saadiyat Island.

The city of Abu Dhabi is on the left of the image, and Saadiyat on the right. See the Sheikh Khalifa bridge linking the island to the mainland.

via Google Maps.

On the Louvre Abu Dhabi's future collection and curatorship

The Louvre Abu Dhabi presents itself as a universal museum. Its main statement is that it will not adopt any centric view of the world. The narrative they will provide is not nationalistic in any sense.

The curators will present the history of the world through a selection of objects from as many cultural backgrounds as possible. An Oba wooden statue from Benin will be standing next to a Greek marble bust, a Buddha statue or a Shiva statue. The portrait of a European emperor on a horse will be interacting with a Mughal miniature painting of a prince on his own horse. The photograph taken by an English orientalist will interact with an Ottoman court oil painting. The only logic that will be used is time. Objects will be arranged in chronological order in different rooms, grouping them under similar (yet culturally different) thematic content, subject matter, medium, or colors. Multicultural understanding will be visually stimulated. Whether multicultural understanding will be fostered is another question, that time can only help elucidate.

From the Collection of the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

Screenshot of the Louvre Abu Dhabi's official website, January 2016 (

Before delving into the curatorship decisions, it is first important to discuss the collection itself. The list of objects the Louvre Abu Dhabi has at its disposal will dictate how they are curated, like in any other exhibition setting.

The collection is comprised of the Louvre Abu Dhabi's own, acquired, collection of objects and loans from a partnering selection of French museums (including the Musée du Louvre and le Musée d'Orsay).

Some of the Louvre Abu Dhabi own collection's objects are featured on the museum's official website. These were supposedly acquired specifically for the Louvre Abu Dhabi. This means that they were acquired in recent years, since 2007 to be exact (the date of agreement between the French and Emirati governments for the museum opening). The Louvre Abu Dhabi project is funded by the government of Abu Dhabi - its collection's budget included I assume.

The curators and board members of the Louvre Abu Dhabi had a wonderfully difficult task at hand. As exquisite it is to go in around the world at art dealerships and auction houses to source the best objects to represent the world's history, it is a daunting task to do in ten years and under the limitation of the art market's supply. What if a certain object, representative of a certain part of world history the curators wanted to showcase, could not be found on the global art market? Board members and curators might have had to make compromises. The collection of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, as globally-minded as it is, will perhaps not feature some art movements because they could not find representative objects from the particular art practice they wanted to showcase.

The 21st century will be a century marked by interdependence and globalization. We are re-living the European exploration of the world of the 16th century. In a multi-centric world, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is a museum of its time. But the word 'global' tends to be used and abused. It's the story of Global Art Daily itself. Let's talk about the elephant in the room. What exactly is 'global'? There is no right answer. Ever since the notorious 1989 'Magiciens de la Terre' exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, 'global art' has become such a buzzword I wonder if it can be considered as an art movement in itself.

Installation by Huang Yongping and cover of exhibition catalogue for 'Magiciens de la Terre' exhibition, Pompidou Centre, Paris, 1989.

Image via Asian Art Archive.

Is it even possible to maintain a neutral point of view when forming a collection? All collections are personal stories. Objects attract a certain curator's, art historian's, or collector's eye. That's fundamentally how they get picked for exhibition or academic study.

What is even a 'neutral point of view'? The Louvre Abu Dhabi has the ambition to be a universal museum. Its point of view is global. Is global, neutral? Is global, unrooted? Is global, cosmopolitan? Is global, corporate? Is global, multicultural? Is global, dictatorial? Is global, pedagogical?

Indeed, as much as the Louvre Abu Dhabi mission and initiative is truly extraordinary, it attacks the iceberg surrounding our society today. Can we live in a peaceful, understanding, multicultural world? If you ask me, I truly hope and believe so. I think what the Louvre Abu Dhabi is doing is courageous and should be appraised of the highest honors. Writing 'global art history' from a non-West-centric point of view, as a team of French-educated art historians (or 'conservateurs'/'commissaire') is no easy task. But that's exactly what this list of scholars are working towards every day. It's nevertheless important to remember that the results of their work will not be universalists nor authoritative. The answers they will find will be interpretative and affected by many personal choices.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi.

Photograph from the official website:

Carlo Massoud, Capture, 2015. Work presented by House of Today, at the Warehouse 421 inaugural opening, November 2015, Al Mina, Abu Dhabi.

On the Louvre Abu Dhabi's effects on Abu Dhabi's art scene

Abu Dhabi's art scene might feel like it takes a top-down approach. But as we have been waiting for the big LAD and GAD to open, a number of homegrown initiatives have spurred and reversed the balance to a bottom-top one. I am thinking of the fabulous work of the Sheikha Bint Hamdan Foundation, who keeps fostering careers of local artists (see this interview with Ghaleya al Mansoori) and recently is overseeing the Warehouse 421, a hangar-like space presenting enormous potential for large scale contemporary art installations. I am thinking of Art Hub or the Art Space, some independent non-for-profit art spaces serving spaces for curating shows and permitting various artists in residence programs. I'm thinking of my university's gallery spaces, the NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery and its Project Space which may easily be the most academically-forward art space in town.

Art Hub, in Abu Dhabi.

Image via Time Out Abu Dhabi

Warehouse 421

In Abu Dhabi, Opened November 2015.

Image via visit abu

NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery. Headed by chief curator Maya Allison, it is located on Saadiyat Island. Installation view of the inaugural exhibition, November 2014. Image via Hypsos.

These various institutions and initiatives are great additions to the city's art scene. Of course, we are not at NYC's or Berlin's level (yet) in terms of the number of museums, commercial galleries and independent art spaces. But the Louvre Abu Dhabi opening has been and I believe will be a driving motor for art entrepreneurs from the UAE and beyond. As Richard Armstrong, director of the Guggenheim, said during a conference given at the last Abu Dhabi Art fair: "if there was a city that would be the home of the first global art museums, it would be a city that sees and engages in today's globalism. And that is Abu Dhabi today".

#unitedarabemirates #middleeast

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