Louvre Abu Dhabi to open in November as cultural district takes shape

Francoise Nyssen and Mohamed Khalifa Al-Mubarak

:: The Louvre Abu Dhabi will finally open to the public on Nov. 11, over a decade after the project was launched, Francoise Nyssen, France’s culture minister, has announced.

The gallery, part of the Saadiyat Cultural District in the UAE capital, is the first establishment outside the original Louvre in Paris, home to the world’s largest art collection, to carry the famous name.

Nyssen said the opening, expected to be attended by French President Emmanuel Macron, will demonstrate that the West and the Arab world are united in the face of terror attacks and intolerance around the globe.

“At a time when culture is under attack this is our joint response. It is civilization responding to barbarity,” he said.

The museum aims to attract people from neighboring Arab countries and around the world, according to Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al-Nahyan, the UAE culture minister.

“Just as the Louvre is the crown jewel of Paris, so the Louvre Abu Dhabi is destined for such a distinction,” he said.

While the excitement was palpable, there was also undoubtedly a huge sense of relief. The project has been beset by problems over funding, construction and workers’ rights, and was originally scheduled to open in 2012.

On top of that, from the start there have been frequent criticisms of the 30-year partnership between France and the UAE, worth $1.1 billion, which will see many top French museums loan art to Abu Dhabi. Some have accused the Louvre of “selling its soul.”

However, museum Director Manuel Rabate said that once open, Louvre Abu Dhabi will prove to be a brilliant example of cultural exchange.

“It’s exceptional… This is the first time a project of this kind has been launched in the Middle East. But that’s what’s so unique about this project,” Rabate said in response to the critics.

The waterfront gallery will display pieces from pre-history to the contemporary era. Besides Middle Eastern artefacts and paintings, it will include works by artists such as Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso and Cy Twombly.

“You have nude statues in the museum, contemporary paintings. You also have religious images from all religions,” Jean-Francois Charnier, scientific director of Agence France-Museums, revealed.

Major pieces include an Egyptian funeral set from the 10th century BC, a 15th century depiction of the Madonna and child by Giovanni Bellini and an 1878 Turkish painting titled “A Young Emir Studying” by Osama Hamdy Bey.

They will be housed in a series of white buildings topped by a cross-hatched steel dome, designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, to let in shafts of light.

Mohamed Khalifa Al-Mubarak, chairman of the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, tried to allay worries about the transportation of the art and the conditions in which it will be stored, in a country where temperatures soar well above 40 degrees Celsius in the summer.

“Their protection is vital to us and we have made sure we have the systems in place to protect them against the environmental conditions,” Al-Mubarak said.

Guarded by Emirati forces, in coordination with French experts, including civil defense and terrorism security forces, the exhibits are protected by “state of the art security systems and procedures, in line with international standards,” Al-Mubarak added.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi is part of the the UAE capital’s drive to promote the city as a cultural hub of the Middle East, and as a patron of the arts in a region increasingly focused on soft power.

About 5 percent of the overall museum will be dedicated to contemporary and modern art. The rest will focus on telling the story of world history and religions.

In the gallery of world religions, a sixth century Qur’an, a gothic Bible and a Yemeni Torah face each other, open at verses that give similar accounts.

“To send that message of tolerance is really important for our time,” Al-Mubarak said.

The gallery forms just part of the city’s cultural drive. Branches of the Guggenheim and the Zayed Museum, the national museum named after the country’s founder, are both under construction on the same island.

The hope is that the combination of world-class art and cultural tolerance will make a statement about the UAE’s values.

“We’re definitely not this closed-off society that’s putting a massive wall up,” said Mubarak.

“We (the UAE and France) have exactly the same goal: we both want to tell the world how our history is connected.

“Through culture the world can become a better place.”

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