Art in the Desert 'Louvre Abu Dhabi' Gets Green Light

France and Abu Dhabi signed a deal Tuesday to build a branch of the renowned Louvre Museum on an island off the emirate state. La Grande Nation will be €700 million richer -- but is it selling off its national legacy?

It doesn't seem possible to have a Louvre without Paris, as much as Paris just wouldn't be Paris without the Louvre, but that is all about to change. The Louvre Museum is franchizing -- and it's heading to the desert.

On Tuesday the French Ministry of Culture announced that final contracts have been signed on the "Louvre Abu Dhabi," a 24,000-square-meter branch of the famous Parisian museum to be built on the emirate state's Saadiyat Island.

For a €700 million license fee -- €400 million of which are for the rights to the "Louvre" brand -- France will make expertise and art works available from its most prestigious museum. The pieces, drawn from all époques and respecting the "cultural values" of the Arab country, will be on loan for a maximum of two years.

The first agreement of its kind worldwide has been highly controversial in the art world. Critics decry the increasing commercialization in the museum world as well as the the fact that the French are opportunistically tolerating the emirate's religious censorship. And the deal has caused a wave of indignation in France, with the French talking about a selling out of their national legacy.

A petition against the deal, signed by 4,650 museum experts, archaeologists and art historians has insisted that "museums are not for sale." Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, President of Germany's Foundation for Prussian Culture, which runs some of the country's major museums, has accused the Louvre of behaving "like a corporation with a clearly-defined strategy: profit maximization."

But France's Minister of Culture Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres insists that the "Louvre Abu Dhabi" will contribute to the "splendour" of French culture worldwide and should also attract more tourists to France. The income generated by the Abu Dhabi deal will be put towards improving the storage facilities at the Louvre and other Parisian museums against possible major flooding of the Seine. The Parisian newspaper Le Figaro notes that had Paris not grabbed the opportunity, St Petersburg, Madrid or Vienna would have.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi will be housed in a futuristic building, designed by star architect Jean Nouvel, who also designed the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. The museum will cost €83 million to build, and is slated for completion by 2012.

It will be situated on Saadiyat Island ("Island of Happiness"), which is already home to a 30,000-square-meter branch of New York's Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank O. Gehry. Abu Dhabi's ruler, Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, has decided to make the island one of the world's top cultural destinations and a "beacon for cultural experience and exchange." There will also be national and marine museums and an entertainment center, as well as luxury hotels, golf courses and recreational ports. It seems that fears that the "Louvre in the Desert" could turn into a kind of "Disneyland" museum are not completely unfounded.


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