PARIS: The oil-rich United Arab Emirates certainly has the wealth of a first-class nation. Now it hopes to buy in the culture of a first-class nation to the tune of 400 million euros ($550 million).
The Louvre Abu Dhabi will open its doors in December 2015 in the Gulf federation – and organizers hope it will put the country on the map for its art collection rather than its flashy hotels, deserts and the world’s seventh biggest oil reserves.
The project has been raising eyebrows among Europeans, who say that culture requires more than just a checkbook.
The Paris Louvre on Tuesday unveiled a preview of the art that the Abu Dhabi project has acquired since 2009.
French President Francois Hollande inaugurated the exhibition of some 160 works entitled “Birth of a Museum.” It includes a 19th-century Yemeni Torah, a 13th-century Gothic Bible as well as a swath of Renaissance and modern masterpieces by artists such as Yves Klein, Rene Magritte and Pablo Picasso.
The generous pot of cash has generated a collection as impressive as it is diverse, unafraid to grapple with themes such as sexuality and different religions.
“[We want to] establish Abu Dhabi as a place for cultural tourism,” said Abu Dhabi Louvre assistant curator Khalid Abdulkhaliq Abdulla at the Paris exhibition.
The Abu Dhabi Louvre intends to be the centerpiece of a planned cultural district that would also include a branch of New York’s Guggenheim, as well as a national museum.
Skeptics in France say the nation known for its nouveau-riche society can’t simply buy itself a “cultured” international profile.
Jean Nouvel, the museum’s renowned architect, brushed off such critics with a Gallic shrug, suggesting detractors were just annoyed or jealous that Europe now doesn’t have the money to embark on such costly cultural projects.
“Do you think we did it any differently in Europe when we used to be more powerful?” Nouvel asked. “It’s normal that an economic power translates this [power] through the act of acquiring cultural art.”
The exhibition curator compared the Abu Dhabi of today to the U.S. in the early 20th century, when it was emerging economically and industrially and private collectors started founding museums to showcase their artistic wealth.
“During this period, we said the same thing ... but with hindsight what do we see?” curator Vincent Pomerade observed. “It’s that European and Asian art are present in the U.S. and participated in making the American culture ... in making the country’s identity. And I think that’s what needs to be remembered.”
One expert noted many European collections were built in less desirable ways.
“Buying in culture is far better than looting it,” observed the Art Loss Register’s Julian Radcliffe, “which is what most nations did for hundreds of years.”
The next hurdle of this ambitious but controversial project will be in convincing the conservatie Gulf Arabs to accept the museum’s bold artistic representations of sexuality and religion. Beyond this, the Abu Dhabi Louvre project’s founders believe the emirate is an ideal location for a universal museum as the UAE itself is a cultural crossroad.
“This idea of a crossroad, this idea of dialogue between civilizations, the meeting of cultures, the meeting of art,” Pomerade added, “was at the heart of the project from the beginning.”