France’s storied Louvre museum, home to priceless art works like the Mona Lisa, said Tuesday it will open a new Louvre in this Persian Gulf boomtown, prompting outcries from some who accuse the museum of shilling France’s patrimony for $1.3 billion in oil money.
The 30-year agreement, signed by French Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres and the head of Abu Dhabi’s tourism authority, Sheik Sultan bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, opens the way for the Louvre Abu Dhabi to display thousands of works from some of France’s best museums, such as the Louvre, the Georges Pompidou Center, the Musee d’Orsay and Versailles.
The works will be housed in a huge flying saucer-shaped museum designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, which will be erected on the Abu Dhabi waterfront, opening sometime after 2012.
Abu Dhabi’s rulers are positioning the Louvre as the centerpiece of a cultural district expected to attract millions of well-heeled tourists and diversify its oil-dominated economy.
Donnedieu de Vabres said the venture represents the globalization of French culture, the first step in a long-term cooperation with the wealthy Persian Gulf region. He promised that the Paris Louvre would not sell any of its 35,000-piece collection, nor would the deal weaken France’s cultural policy or its museums.
“We’re not selling the French legacy and heritage. We want this culture to radiate to parts of the world that value it,” the culture minister said. “We’re proud that Abu Dhabi wants to bring the Louvre here. We’re not here to transform culture into a consumer product.”
But prominent figures in the French art world have accused their government of exploiting art for trade and diplomacy and said lending art will overburden French museums. Led by the art historian and critic Didier Rykner, opponents of the Abu Dhabi scheme collected 4,700 signatures to protest it.
“We have lost a battle, but the combat continues,” Rykner wrote this week on his Web site “La Tribune de l’Art,” paraphrasing Charles de Gaulle’s famous remark after Nazi Germany defeated France in 1940.
Rykner promised to fight similar projects, such as plans by the Pompidou Center in Paris to set up a branch in Shanghai, China.
The ruling sheiks of Abu Dhabi have agreed to spend a staggering sum to bring the Louvre to this fast-developing Arab capital. France will receive $525 million for the use of the Louvre brand alone, plus a gift of $33 million to renovate a wing of the Paris Louvre, which will be named for longtime Emirates ruler Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and house Islamic works of art.
A further $750 million will be spent to bring French managers and 300 loaned works of art to fill and staff the Louvre Abu Dhabi, as well as to renovate a French palace and fund an artwork restoration center in Paris.
The price of building Nouvel’s museum design has yet to be calculated and is likely to add hundreds of millions of dollars to the cost, pushing the overall project close to $2 billion.
Louvre director Henri Loyrette said the museum typically lends up to 1,500 works a year, not including its most precious and fragile pieces, like the Mona Lisa. The Louvre Abu Dhabi can expect a loan of about 300 French works during its first year, which would shrink over time as the museum acquires its own collection, organizers said.
Buying artworks to fill the 260,000-square-foot museum once the 30-year loan period expires could be stratospherically expensive. “We’d rather not announce our collection budget,” said Mubarak al-Muhairi, director of Abu Dhabi’s tourism authority. “We don’t want to create a disturbance in the market.”
For its part, France has solid reasons for bringing a Louvre branch to Abu Dhabi, Donnedieu de Vabres said. He said the museum will help reinvigorate France’s postcolonial stature in the Arab world, noting the negotiations with Abu Dhabi’s royal family had already improved bilateral ties.
Donnedieu de Vabres said French President Jacques Chirac sent a message saying the museum is a symbol of a “world which considers the clash of civilizations the most dangerous trap of our time.”
The joint venture is another cultural coup for Abu Dhabi, a once-staid oil boomtown that lives in the shadow of its flashier neighbor, Dubai.
In July, New York’s Guggenheim Foundation announced it would build its largest-yet museum in Abu Dhabi, designed by American architect Frank Gehry and expected to cost $400 million to construct.
The Louvre and Guggenheim are two of four museums to be designed by celebrity architects that will anchor a $27 billion cultural district on the currently uninhabited Saadiyat Island just off the coast of Abu Dhabi. The district seeks to draw 3 million tourists by 2015.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi will have to breach significant cultural barriers before it opens, since representations of the human figure — even when clothed — can be a religious taboo in the Muslim world. One Arab reporter asked during a news conference Tuesday whether the museum would protect its visitors against “pornography.”
Museum officials did not address the issue of nudity in works. But art selection will be done by a committee including Abu Dhabi’s rulers, who understand the sensitivities in this city, one of the more liberal bastions in the conservative Gulf.