United Arab Emirates: competitiveness and big cultural projects

 Abu Dhabi  |  17 September 2017  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

Determined to exit from a “petrol only” economy, the United Arab Emirates have been backing, since 2007, the transformation of culture into a profit-yielding product. Massive investments, grandiose museum projects… Abu Dhabi and Dubai aspire to position themselves as cultural centres of a globalised 21st century while Sharjah is investing in less onerous projects.

The three main emirates of the UAE federation don’t take the same approach when it comes to diversifying their economy. Nor do they have the same financial means. Abu Dhabi remains the most ambitious of the three, with its Saadiyat Island (literally, “Felicity Island”) complex created completely from scratch in the last decade. Thanks to colossal investments estimated at 25 billion euros according to The Financial Times, this emirate has constructed a district entirely devoted to culture, with no less than four big museums and a live arts centre, whose programming is set to rival with that of London or New York. On paper, the project looks attractive, but since 2007, only one museum has emerged from the sand, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, constructed by Frenchman Jean Nouvel. Apart from this museum, the building of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi (Frank Gehry), the Zayed National Museum (Norman Foster) and the Maritime Museum (Tadao Ando) have also been scheduled. The Centre for Performing Arts was meant to be constructed by Zaha Hadid.

With an opening long announced for 2013, then 2016, the Guggenheim had its preliminary works stopped in 2011 when thousands of concrete piers started being formed, following the repercussions of the Arab Springs, and a controversy surrounding the conditions of workers. To date, according to the press service of the Guggenheim Foundation, construction “has not yet begun”. The reason is an absence of any agreement with a construction company despite the launching of a call for tenders several years previously. Estimated at 600 million euros, the museum set out to be an example of cultural dialogue through modern and contemporary art: the idea was works to come from the collections of the Guggenheim New York, on top of the institution’s own acquisitions and loans. While the details of the contract signed with the Guggenheim Foundation remain confidential, this type of agreement is characteristic of the museum projects in Abu Dhabi.

Ten years of negotiations, five years of works

In the absence of a building, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi has nonetheless shown samples of its future collection on two occasions, once in 2014, then again at the start of 2017, at Manarat Al Saadiyat, the cultural centre of Saadiyat. In “The Creative Act” held in March 2017, the museum presented works by Niki de Saint Phalle, Anish Kapoor and Mohammed Kazem to retrace the links between creation and performance since the 1970s. Commissions from some of the big names in contemporary art are expected to fill out the collections, namely a work by Jeff Koons. But despite reassuring official declarations, the museum seems to be caught up by virulent controversies regarding the deplorable working conditions on its construction site – a debate that causes serious harm to the Guggenheim’s image. American journalist and art critic Lee Rosenbaum already suggested, in 2015, that the Guggenheim Foundation should “cut its losses and pull out of the Abu Dhabi misadventure”. No opening date has been announced for now.

The Louvre, on the other hand, is well and truly ready to open 11 November 2017, after ten years of negotiations and five years of works. Born from a joint desire shared by the Emiratis and France since 2007 to create a “universal” museum for the 21st century, it has taken advantage of the expertise of Agence France Museums, a company created in 2007, and Jean-Hubert Martin’s firm until 2013. Seen by the latter as a place to “redefine art”, the Louvre plans to innovate scenography by presenting works in a new, less Western-focused way. Jean-Hubert Martin has also advocated cutting down on plates and texts on the basis, in his opinion, that “ a museum should not be a place where you read but […] where you look”. On top of substantial loans from the Louvre Paris and recent acquisitions, visitors can also admire the building itself: a white dome featuring mashrabiya-like openwork which covers the unwalled exhibition rooms and galleries while an indoor pond recalls the Emirates’ relationship with their seashores. In this museum estimated at costing 600 million euros, the catchword seems to be “circulation” – as much in the art collections as in the cultures being presented.

Highlighting reciprocal influences

Works therefore come from loans from the Louvre and acquisitions made upon the advice of France Museums, with a yearly budget of 40 million euros. This budget does not, however, offer the museum access to certain masterpieces, as many experts point out. Among the 600 or so works acquired to date, only a few are renowned, including one Picasso, one Mondrian and one Gauguin. As the president of the Louvre Paris points out, “the painting collection does not aim at exhaustiveness” as there are not so many major paintings up for grabs out there… nor can the Louvre Paris do without all of its masterpieces for a few years. Other museums, such as the Orsay, will also be loaning works. Ultimately, scenography will create a dialogue between older objects and newer works, with the aim of highlighting reciprocal influences and archetypes rather than differences in culture. Indeed, it is a characteristic of the Emirates’ museum projects to seek positioning as new globalised cultural centres free of the Western prejudices that have governed the history of art. The TCA (Tourism and Culture Authority) of Abu Dhabi therefore emphasises that the project aims to present the emirate as “an international cultural destination” and create “a place where diverse parts of the world can meet to exchange ideas and culture”. Hence its highly structured communication, famous architects and prestigious partnerships.

The same method is adopted for the Zayed National Museum, supposed to be constructed by the British architect Norman Foster, and dedicated to the life and political initiatives of the UAE’s founder, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. The museum is intended to hold several hundreds of objects and works that once belonged to the sheikh, as well as themed exhibitions on the topics that mattered to him, such as the unification of the emirates, economic modernisation, or traditional falconry. Based on a permanent collection of works, the museum will also host loans of archaeological works from the British Museum in London. Details on the agreement have not been publicised, but in Britain, a debate is underway: indeed, the British Museum generally makes loans free of charge, but in this case, it seems that it has asked for remuneration. The works in question, selected amongst the museum’s “musts”, are to be loaned for an initial five-year period even though the British Museum usually does not make loans for longer than six months. In the face of division among art historians, the museum’s press service indicates that “these loans will only supplement the permanent collection of Zayed Museum”. In other words, they are not meant to remain in Abu Dhabi. Here again, we find an active policy of building a partnership with a major overseas museum so as to juggle between a permanent collection and occasional loans. Could this be the ideal formula for reconciling museum excellence and global ambitions? Nothing is less certain, given that the Zayed Museum is yet to be built …

The two other projects planned for Saadiyat Island remain in a virtual state: Tadao Ando’s Maritime Museum has not yet made any announcements on its opening while the construction of Zaha Hadid’s Center for Performing Arts was brutally interrupted by the architect’s death in 2016. Mixed results, therefore, for Abu Dhabi’s cultural institutions in 2017.

Rethinking strategic position

After seeking to rival with its neighbour, Dubai has finally decided to back two less costly economic sectors than modern and contemporary art: namely local heritage and digital technology. After abandoning the Museum of Middle Eastern Modern Art (MOMEMA) project attributed to architecture firm UNstudio, Dubai is rethinking its strategic position and seeking to draw foreign investments. Much weakened by the 2008-2009 real-estate crisis, the emirate has cut its spending. But it has recently opened its Museum of the Future, a futuristic building whose façade, architect Shaun Killa explains, is meant to evolve over time. Robotics, connected objects, drones, algorithms… all aspects of 2.0 innovation will be handled. In the building taking the form of a gigantic ring, robots and prototypes will circulate in the alleys while workshops will initiate the public to the new technologies. Research will also be a fundamental component of the museum, as indicated by Dubai authorities and the Future Foundation which express a wish to attract “inventors and entrepreneurs from around the world”. And indeed, big GAFA (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple) type companies have replied present, hence ensuring the museum international visibility. The venue will be the cornerstone of Dubai’s strategy for the 2020 Universal Exposition: a wager on innovation and the future.

However, the emirate is also promoting its heritage, namely the traditional Bedouin way of life. In this way, the Dubai Museum, first opening in 1971, presents themed exhibitions on life in the desert or falconry, while a new museum, the Etihad Museum, retraces the history of the unification of the Emirates (etihad in Arabic). Opening in January 2017, the museum constructed by Canadians Moriyama and Teshima therefore rivals with Abu Dhabi’s Zayed Museum, and skilfully sets Dubai on the regional political scene. One last museum project seems to be scheduled, that of the Dubai Museum of Contemporary Art (DMOCA). Overseen by collector Ramim Salsali and architect Alia Dawood, this museum will be housing part of the Salsali collection representing Arab and Iranian artists, as well as works directly acquired by the museum. The mode of financing is original as it is based on the purchase of investment bundles of shares by individuals or private and public institutions. However, this museum remains in a project state for now, despite its opening being announced for 2018. Dubai’s interest in contemporary art is nonetheless genuine, namely expressed by the Art Dubai fair set up in 2006. But a fair is no doubt more lucrative than a museum!

Beyond cultural frontiers

Sharjah, finally, seems to have made a decision in the 1990s to invest in art and culture, but by taking a long-term perspective without planning the construction of any grandiose museums. An archaeological museum and a museum on Islamic civilisation recall the emirate’s history and its place in the Arab empires, while insisting on its influences from India, Iran and China. As far as contemporary art goes, the Sharjah Biennial serves as a spinal cord for the emirate’s initiatives. Set up in 1993, the event has undergone many transformations, and this year offers a programme that sends it to different locations including Dakar, Ramallah and Beirut. The selected artists and structures include Frenchman Kader Attia and the Lebanese art centre Ashkal Alwan. Apart from the Biennial, the Sharjah Art Museum presents artists from Arab countries and the Muslim world, with a clear-cut leaning towards figurative painting and artists from the Gulf countries. In terms of private initiatives, the Barjeel Foundation showcases the collection of Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, who above all supports artists from the Arab world. Recent exhibitions thus presented works by Ghada Amer, Adel Abdessemed, Youssef Nabil and Zoulikha Bouabdellah. Partnerships with overseas institutions help increase the foundation’s renown, in Jordan or the United Kingdom. The aim, according to the management, is to “create an open-ended enquiry that responds to and conveys the nuances inherent to Arab histories beyond borders of culture and geography”. This may well be a way to sum up Sharjah’s cultural policy.

The United Arab Emirates therefore aim to boost their economy through culture to limit the risks related to fluctuating petrol prices. While art makes up the common base of investments, pragmatism is sometimes the guiding thread, as is the case in Dubai. However, a certain local competition feeds these policies, leading to utopian projects destined not to bloom: a costly museum isn’t necessarily one that will raise money…



Museum Louvre Abu Dhabi. Opening 11 november 2017. Saadiyat Cultural District, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. www.louvreabudhabi.ae




The museum and the sea

“All climates like exceptions. Warmer when it is cold. Cooler in the tropics. People do not resist thermal shock well. Nor do works of art. Such elementary observations have influenced the Louvre Abu Dhabi. It wishes to create a welcoming world serenely combining light and shadow, reflection and calm. It wishes to belong to a country, to its history, to its geography without becoming a flat translation, the pleonasm that results in boredom and convention. It also aims at emphasizing the fascination generated by rare encounters. It is rather unusual to find a built archipelago in the sea. It is even more uncommon to see that it is protected by a parasol creating a rain of light. The possibility of accessing the museum by boat or finding a pontoon to reach it by foot from the shore is equally extraordinary, before being welcomed like a much-awaited visitor willing to see unique collections, linger in tempting bookstores, or taste local teas, coffees and delicacies. It is both a calm and complex place. A contrast amongst a series of museums that cultivate their differences and their authenticities. It is a project founded on a major symbol of Arab architecture: the dome. But here, with its evident shift from tradition, the dome is a modern proposal. A double dome 180 meters in diameter, offering horizontal, perfectly radiating geometry, a randomly perforated woven material, providing shade punctuated by bursts of sun. The dome gleams in the Abu Dhabi sunshine. At night, this protected landscape is an oasis of light under a starry dome. The Louvre Abu Dhabi becomes the final destination of an urban promenade, a garden on the coast, a cool haven, a shelter of light during the day and evening, its aesthetic consistent with its role as a sanctuary for the most precious works of art.”

Jean Nouvel, architect of the Louvre Abu Dhabi


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