I’m going to make a very rough metaphor, bare with me. Someone pompous once said that “you can take the boy out of the Midwest, but you can’t take the Midwest out of the boy.” Similarly, the nouveau riche United Arab Emirates throws money at massive international projects to put themselves on the map (and perhaps compensate for being culturally irrelevant up until a half century ago), but do the ruling Sheiks really have a passion for the arts or do they just want the acclaim? I think that attempted parallel failed. Regardless…
Abu Dhabi, one of the seven Emirates that make up the U.A.E., has announced a $27 billion cultural development on Saadiyat Island (as an aside, Human Rights Watch has criticized the labor conditions here) that will include a Guggenheim branch designed by architect Frank Gehry, a National Museum designed by Lord Norman Foster, and a performing arts center designed by Zaha Hadid. But getting the most press right now is the Louvre Abu Dhabi, to be designed by Jean Nouvel; the Emirate paid France around $555 million for use of the Louvre’s name, and access to art loans, special exhibition, and “management advice.”
The museum is slated to open in 2013, but the world got its first glimpse at just what a $56 million a year acquisition budget can buy at a preview exhibition attended by the likes of President Nicolas Sarkozy. Highlights include a Bellini Madonna and Child, Jean-Francois de Troy’s Esther Fainting Before Ahaseurus, Manet’s The Bohemian and Still Life with Bag and Garlic (which were originally part of one larger canvas), and a Mondrian purchased from the Yves St. Laurent sale in February. The curators are explicitly trying to make the Louvre Abu Dhabi the first “universal museum” in the middle east, with pieces from all periods and regions.
But, really? How do you properly curate a world-class museum in a country where censorship is such an accepted part of life? Social and political ideas, particularly dissenting ideas, are central to the history of art. Everyone has heard the seriously backward stories coming out of the Emirates that show the difficulty of reconciling economic development and modernization with religious and cultural conservatism (e.g. raped men being charged with homosexuality, foreign couples jailed for allegedly having sex on the beech, etc.). How, for example, could justice be done to, say, the Francis Bacon exhibit at the Met if it were to leave out the essential gay relationships that inspired so much of his work? Would this museum turn down the chance to host such an exhibit, or change (and misinterpret) it substantially, and in doing either fail in its role as a public educator to expose a whole new audience to one of the most important painters of the 20th century?
And don’t get me wrong, I’ve been to Dubai and enjoyed myself– so to counter-balance my criticism, I’ll encourage you all to go visit these works (they’ll be on display until July 2nd) before they go into storage for the next four years. Emirates- an incredible airline- is having a one-day sale on June 4th that offers $100 off any seat booked online. Don’t even think about having sex on any beaches, though.