Buying Culture From the West

Tough negotiations are nothing new to Jean d'Haussonville. The special adviser to France's Foreign Ministry has represented Paris in major negotiations with both the EU and NATO in recent years. But nothing prepared him for the high-stakes deal he struggled to hammer out over the past year and a half: an unprecedented agreement to open a branch of the Louvre in Abu Dhabi, the tiny capital of the United Arab Emirates. Persuading his compatriots to part with a portion of their cultural heritage was no easy matter; founded by Napoleon in the 18th century, the home of the Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa had never before established a presence outside France. And there was plenty of resistance to opening the first foreign outpost in a country that had gone from barren desert to glitzy shopping haven in the space of 30 years. The general feeling, as Sorbonne president Jean-Robert Pitte summed it up, was, "Can we really bring culture to camel riders and carpet sellers?"

Abu Dhabi, led by its crown prince, Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, believes they most certainly can. And what France stands to gain is not inconsequential: a geopolitical foothold in a strategically important region. D'Haussonville says his country liked the idea of helping "to deter fundamentalism through culture." But that was nothing compared with the real deal sweetener: cash. Abu Dhabi, which sits on 10 percent of the world's oil supply, has agreed to pay $520 million just to use the name "Louvre" for 30 years; it also plans to pony up $747 million more for art loans and advice. "It was all about the money," says Marthe Bernus-Taylor, the honorary general curator of the Islamic-art department at the Louvre.

Winning over the Louvre was merely the first step in Abu Dhabi's grand plan to transform itself into the cultural capital of the Middle East. The new museum will be housed in a massive $27 billion complex called Saadiyat Island, perhaps the most ambitious cultural-development project ever conceived. The 27-square-kilometer island, expected to open in phases beginning in 2012, will eventually include 29 luxury hotels and a huge park for a biennial arts festival, as well as branches of many of the world's most illustrious museums and academies—including the Guggenheim, the Sorbonne and most likely Yale—all designed by the biggest names in architecture: Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Jean Nouvel, to name just a few. "We're bringing together the top architects of the past 100 years," says Mubarak al-Muhairi, the director of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA), which is overseeing the project. "If you took any one of these museums, it would be a major international attraction on its own."

A project of such spectacular ambition was bound to be controversial. But the speed and ferocity of the backlash against Saadiyat Island has startled even the skeptics. While Abu Dhabi's leaders say the island will enrich its own population as well as serve as a link between the gulf and the West, sharp attacks are coming from all quarters. French critics—including some of the Louvre's curators—have blasted the museum for selling out and raised fears that its collection could be compromised. Academics have ripped into their universities for collaborating with an authoritarian state. And intellectuals across the Arab world have lambasted Abu Dhabi for slavishly promoting Western rather than indigenous culture. What unites the critics is a core question: Can culture be bought? And who is really enriched by the process?

Abu Dhabi's future depends on those answers. Only 30 years ago, the Emirates were a barren desert sparsely populated by Bedouin tribes. Then, in the 1980s and '90s, they began to capitalize on their oil wealth. Parts of the U.A.E. built garish skyscrapers, megamalls and resort complexes. At first Abu Dhabi sat back and watched its upstart neighbor Dubai splurge on over-the-top construction projects like indoor ski resorts and palm-shaped islands. But while Abu Dhabi sneered, Dubai, currently under the leadership of the thoroughly modern Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktum (following story), became one of the most lucrative tourism hot spots in the Middle East. Abu Dhabi's leaders quickly realized that if they didn't act fast, they'd be left behind.

In the autumn of 2004, the government formed the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, which quickly decided to zero in on high-end tourism. But how? After weeks of brainstorming, the answer became clear: art and education. "In all the studies we have undertaken, culture has been shown to be a strong driver of the kind of tourism Abu Dhabi has identified as its primary market: upscale, high-repeat visitation," says ADTA chairman Sheik Sultan bin Tahnoon al-Nahyan. World-class cultural institutions would not only educate the locals and create the perfect draw for well-heeled tourists but also help Abu Dhabi distinguish itself from its déclassé neighbor. "It sees Dubai as the Nescafé of culture, while Abu Dhabi wants to be the cappuccino," says Lisa Ball-Lechgar, the editor of the U.A.E.-based magazine Canvas. So the ADTA resolved to build a new tourist mecca—Saadiyat Island, Arabic for Island of Happiness.

The Adta began to study cities that had revitalized themselves by building splashy museums. First stop: Bilbao, Spain. Located in the war-scarred and economically depressed Basque country, Bilbao built a Frank Gehry-designed branch of the Guggenheim in 1997. Since its opening, the museum has drawn more than 9 million visitors and helped create more than 4,300 new jobs a year, contributing a total so far of $2 billion to Spain's GDP.

To replicate this model, the ADTA quickly hired the award-winning California design group Gensler Associates, as well as the architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which is designing Manhattan's new Freedom Tower. Then in 2005, Sheik Mohammed went to Paris to try to line up the Louvre. It took 18 months of deliberations: d'Haussonville had to persuade the Louvre to lend its name—and its art—to an unproven endeavor, and to assure the Emiratis that they wouldn't just be getting the Louvre's leftovers. "Let's just say it was very delicate finding a consensus," the Frenchman says.

In addition to paying for the name, Abu Dhabi agreed to renovate a wing of the Louvre and the theater of the Château de Fontainebleau, as well as to pay for an art-research center in Paris. In exchange, France promised Abu Dhabi access to thousands of works not just from the Louvre but from other top museums, including the Pompidou Center, the Musée d'Orsay and Versailles. Revered French architect Jean Nouvel, best known for his work on the Arab World Institute in Paris and the Opéra de Lyon, has been enlist-ed to design the Louvre Abu Dhabi. It is expected to cost more than $100 million and be housed in a 24,200-square-meter whitewashed complex modeled after a traditional Arabian souk.

With the first part of the puzzle in place, Abu Dhabi went after the original source of Saadiyat's inspiration: the Guggenheim. At first Thomas Krens, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, was not impressed with the Gensler master plan. It had all the components of a tourist destination—hotels, three marinas, two golf courses and hundreds of ocean-view apartments—but the cultural district seemed "vague and amorphous," he says.

Rather than turn Abu Dhabi away, however, Krens decided to help it expand its ambitions. "My driving concept was to create a critical mass that by definition would be—rather aggressively—the greatest concentration of contemporary cultural resources in the world," he says. Krens was soon hired, and worked feverishly with his team to hammer out the details. "We looked at what existed around the world, looked at the resources and the scope, and designed our plan to surpass everything," he says.

Even Abu Dhabi's virtually unlimited bank account wasn't enough to make it happen. "Real-estate development in [the U.A.E.] has had a theme-park atmosphere," making it hard to attract prestigious architects, says Krens. But he used his personal relationship with Gehry to persuade the architect to design the new Guggenheim outpost, a cone-and-block-shaped structure that draws inspiration from the U.A.E.'s traditional wind towers. The 30,000-square-meter complex, slated to be completed by 2012, will be the Guggenheim's largest branch. With Gehry onboard, Krens was then able to enlist other star architects: Iraq-born Zaha Hadid will design a 6,300-seat performing-arts center (New York's Lincoln Center is currently in talks to provide programming), and Japanese architect Tadao Ando will create the island's new maritime museum.

Luring educational institutions proved more challenging. Abu Dhabi set its sights first on the Sorbonne. But Pitte, the university's president, initially had misgivings about opening the renowned institution's first branch outside France in a place like the U.A.E. "My first impression is they only wanted prestige," he says. "They want[ed] the Louvre, the Guggenheim and the Sorbonne like their ladies want handbags from Christian Dior." He faced intense opposition from the school's administrative council. "They complained that the Emirates are not democratic, the ladies have to wear the veil, there is only monarchy, they have no culture," he recalls. But the financial incentives proved irresistible to France's impoverished free-university system. "For the first time we could have normal financial resources," says Pitte. The Sorbonne's Saadiyat Island campus, established a year ago in temporary quarters, aims to introduce high-level liberal-arts education to the region. Almost all instruction is in French, and the degrees offered are identical to those issued in France.

With an endowment of $18 billion, Yale University, which the U.A.E. approached next, does not face anything like the Sorbonne's financial constraints. Yet according to vice president Linda Lorimer, the university was attracted to the "world-class cluster of cultural institutions" that Abu Dhabi was assembling. The new location offered another advantage: Yale, which currently has only four students from the gulf, thought having a presence there "might draw more people to New Haven," says Lorimer. Though the details have yet to be worked out, Yale is thinking about offering liberal-arts classes and intensive beginner courses that will qualify Arab graduates to apply to U.S. schools.

But just as momentum for the complex was starting to build, a firestorm erupted. The fiercest attacks came from France. Françoise Cachin, honorary director of the French Museum Association; Jean Clair, former director of the Picasso Museum, and the art historian Roland Recht published an op-ed in Le Monde titled "Museums Are Not For Sale," declaring that "artworks belonging to our heritage are not consumer goods" to be sold to outsiders. It asked, "Isn't [the Louvre deal] selling one's soul?" The article quickly turned into a petition, which has collected almost 4,500 signatures from prominent figures, urging the government to "stop [using] French museums ... for political or financial ends."

The Louvre's own curators joined the fray. Catherine Goguel, the emeritus director of research in the prints and drawings department, condemned the "mercenary nature" of the project. "It is obvious that [the deal] is about the petrodollars and the military relations," she told The Art Newspaper. Other curators raised pragmatic objections; Islamic-art curator Bernus-Taylor worried that the inexperienced Emiratis would not take proper care of the museum's fragile works. And such an extensive lending commitment was certain to deplete the Louvre's resources. "Some of these [pieces] will be in Abu Dhabi for a long time, and they'll simply be unavailable for our French visitors and tourists," says Cachin. She also draws an ominous parallel to the Guggenheim in Las Vegas. "Look what happened [there]—nobody went," she says. "The same thing will happen at Saadiyat Island—people will come to play golf and lie on the beach, not for the art."

Still other critics have blasted the Abu Dhabi deals on moral grounds. They worried that Western institutions would have to compromise their principles to accommodate their new conservative hosts, particularly regarding artwork featuring nudes or religious images. "Thank goodness Monet painted waterlilies [and not nudes]," said a recent editorial in France's Libération. D'Haussonville insists that the Louvre will not be restricted from showing any art: "[Abu Dhabi's government] just asked that we be tactful and sensitive to their population." The French government has also set up an advisory committee to ensure that the new branch abides by the same standards as Paris. Still, the U.A.E. will retain the final say. "At the end of the day, it is their country, and their museum, so they can refuse any pieces," d'Haussonville admits.

Academic experts balked at the U.A.E.'s policy forbidding Israelis to enter the country. The University of Connecticut earlier this year dropped plans to open a campus on Saadiyat because the Israel boycott violates the school's anti-discrimination policies. Yale is also looking closely at the visa challenges and discrimination questions before finalizing all its arrangements, says Lorimer.

Others objected to the idea of imposing culture on a glittering desert oasis that bears far more resemblance to Las Vegas than to Florence. The Egyptian commentator Youssef Ibrahim mocked Abu Dhabi's pretensions: "Even the fabulously oil-rich cannot buy that yearning of the mind and soul called culture with a fistful of dollars," he wrote in The New York Sun. The Arab News columnist Abeer Mishkhas lamented that Abu Dhabi is "buying the souls" of others rather than building its own identity. Cachin questions who will ultimately benefit from the riches on Saadiyat Island: "Who is this really for—the poor Pakistanis on the construction sites?"

Saadiyat Island's proponents scoff at such complaints. D'Haussonville argues that much of the criticism is "shameful, close to xenophobia or just anti-Arab." Besides, says Pitte, promoting art has always required flush backers. "Don't people understand that we have Michelangelo and Donatello because the Medicis were so rich?" he asks. Officials at the Louvre argue that the benefits of the new branch will far outweigh the drawback of diluting the museum's collections. "The money will restore France's capacity to acquire pieces on the international market," d'Haussonville says.

And Saadiyat's boosters argue that the museums and universities could help reverse the U.A.E.'s somewhat tawdry reputation. Krens believes the Middle East is ripe for a highbrow renaissance. "Look at the great cultural cities of the region—Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad. These cities were doing it way before the Europeans had cultural centers," he says. "Are there any rules that cities in the Middle East can't attain that status again?"

In fact, some believe that investing in cultural institutions in the U.A.E. will help stabilize and modernize the whole region. "The U.A.E. is surrounded by countries that would rather blow up a Guggenheim than build one," says Jane Bristol-Rhys, an anthropology professor at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi. "If East and West can't mix in the [relatively liberal] U.A.E., then where can they?" D'Haussonville is confident that the Emiratis aren't merely trying to acquire something; they're trying to change attitudes and encourage local talent. "It is an investment in their future," he says. So far the signs are promising: when the Sorbonne imported 10,000 books for the Saadiyat branch's library last year, says Pitte, "[despite] all the pictures of nudes, there was no problem." The Sorbonne is also the only academic institution in the U.A.E. that doesn't have a prayer room—one of Pitte's demands in keeping with the school's secular principles.

The Emiratis are hopeful that their embrace of high-profile Western schools and museums will eventually yield an organic national culture. "By bringing in these international institutions, we are creating interest in the arts," says the ADTA's al-Muhairi. The French agree, which is why they've leased the Louvre's name for only 30 years; by the time the lease expires, they reason, Abu Dhabi will have built up its own collections. Locals seem sanguine that the bet will pay off. "We are all celebrating the birth of Saadiyat Island," says Huda Kanoo, director of the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation. "When different cultures meet, something new—something exciting—will certainly emerge." And everyone profits from that.