Has the grande dame of museums, the Louvre, been reduced to acting as a paid concubine for an oil-rich Arab sheikh’s grandiose tourist visions?
That’s the subtext of the criticism for the ambitious collaboration between France and the United Arab Emirates on the Louvre Abu Dhabi museum. Set to open in 2013, the 260,000-square-foot floating museum (one-third of which will be exhibition space) aims to join the ranks of top-notch global cultural institutions. And filling that enormous space will be pricey; spurring broad concerns in France that money is subverting (or perverting) the nation’s sacred art heritage.
Click Image to View Our Gallery of the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
In a country in which art is widely interpreted as an expression of the national soul, passions began to flare almost as soon as word of the project emerged. Early on, a trio of prominent French art-world intellectuals captured a popular sentiment when they penned a statement in Le Monde—that was supported by thousands in an online petition—saying that France’s “Museums Are Not for Sale.”
But they may be for rent. At the right price. Such thinking explains the nearly $1.4-billion deal that grants Abu Dhabi a sort of franchise use of the legendary Louvre name, as well as the expertise of a key swath of Paris’ museum intelligentsia (including curators and acquisitions experts), not to mention the skills of visionary French architect Jean Nouvel, who designed the elegant dome-topped edifice now being built on Saadiyat Island. In addition to the big payout, Abu Dhabi is giving France-Muséums an additional $40 million annually to purchase art (in Paris, London, New York and elsewhere), while the broader deal includes promises of revolving short-term art “loans” from a variety of top French institutions to the Louvre satellite. (A total of about 300 works of art are to be lent during each of the first four years of the agreement, with slightly declining numbers over the rest of the decade. Additionally, over a 15-year period, three temporary exhibits of varying size will be held annually.)
Critics are taking potshots at well-paid French art-world figures who are supposedly helping a foreign nation to France’s art coffers. Of the highly esteemed art historian Pierre Rosenberg, a columnist for the online Art Tribune wrote contemptuously: “We knew he was in favor of the Louvre Abu Dhabi project, but we never imagined that he would actively join in acquiring works for this museum.”
Taking such hints of artistic nationalism a step further, former Louvre employee Daniel Alcouffe told Le Monde newspaper that when he had attempted to purchase a 5th-century Merovingian fibula bone clip of an eagle, he lamented that the France-Muséums Agency procured it (one assumes for a higher price) for Abu Dhabi. “This object should have ended in the Louvre,” Alcouffe told Le Monde. He called it “high treason.”
But why would the French government risk such wrath in such a sensitive domain? Because even back in 2007, when the deal was signed, prior to the global financial crash, the government was already searching for innovative new revenue streams, and budgets to trim, including cultural ones. Prominent museum figures from the Orsay, Guimet and Branly museums, and the Pompidou Center—in addition to those at the Louvre, obviously—got the message.
So what exactly is France losing? As of last week, France-Muséums had purchased about 40 works (in less than 10 months). The first purchase—and one that would have been a big catch for the right French museum—was an approximately $30-million abstract painting by Piet Mondrian from 1922 that was obtained from fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent’s collection. (The painting inspired the design for a famous 1965 dress by YSL). Other major purchases include works by Cézanne, Bellini’s Vierge à l’enfant (1480-1485), two Manet paintings ( Nature morte au cabas et à l’ail, and Le Bohémien, both from 1861-1862) and his stamp of Les Gitanos. Murillo’s Dream of Jacob (from 1665) and a Christ sculpted in teal wood that dates to 1515 are also going to reside in Abu Dhabi, as will a decorative stool by Pierre Legrain (around 1920) that cost about $600,000 (and that was also purchased from YSL’s collection).
Abu Dhabi already got a peek at the first 19 pieces (ranging from the 6th century B.C. to the 20th century) beginning last May at the Emirates Palace, a showing that coincided with French President Nicolas Sarkozy setting the first stone of Abu Dhabi’s Louvre in front of the Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince.
France’s Ministry of Culture argues that the Louvre Abu Dhabi museum will share the lens of the European Enlightenment with the Arab world on Arab soil, in addition to highlighting art from Arabia, Africa, Asia, and Muslim lands.
The French government also contends that such international collaboration will ultimately strengthen France’s art world by allowing it to bolster its art infrastructure and make more acquisitions, as well as allowing French culture to “shine” overseas and play a role in the “dialogue between civilizations” with a moderate Arab nation.
That is surely true, but that doesn’t mean that the French want to see the most famous museum on the planet linked to an agreement that is akin to, say, having the local ballpark sell naming rights to a phone company for a few decades. (In this case, the naming rights alone are reportedly worth 400 million euros, and the Louvre Abu Dhabi can change its name as of 2037, if the Emirate wants.)
Obviously, the Louvre is not the first museum involved in such revenue-generating deals. Frank Gehry’s gorgeously designed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi—which looks like a cluster of tipped buildings in a group hug—will open around the same time, as part of a plan to create a tourist and vacation Mecca on Saadiyat Island. (The vast cultural district will also include a maritime museum, an opera house, a performing center and Norman Forster’s Sheikh Zayed National Museum.) But somehow the Guggenheim deal, reportedly for $400 million, seems less shocking given that it has already arranged franchise deals in Bilbao and Berlin, where it collaborated with Deutsche Bank on the Deutsche Guggenheim.
But for a country such as France, where museums have long been publicly owned and supported, and where art exhibits are traditionally loaned (and not rented), disgust at the “commodification” of the finest arts is, for many, a deeply held sense. But perhaps everything, even the French soul, has its price.
Eric Pape has reported on Europe and the Mediterranean region for Newsweek Magazine since 2003. He is co-author of the graphic novel Shake Girl, which was inspired by one of his articles. He has written for the Los Angeles Times magazine, Spin, Reader's Digest, Vibe, Courrier International, Salon, and Los Angeles from five continents. He is based in Paris. Follow him at twitter.com/ericpape