UAE is a scintillating mix of hyper-modernity and deep-rooted tradition. The country has positioned itself behind an aim to make the Middle East a better place to live, succinctly verbalised in 2015 by His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces. For the UAE specifically, this has resulted in an atmosphere of opportunity and possibility, tempered justifiably by cultural considerations.
Despite being a relatively young nation – formed in 1971 – with an even younger arts scene – which arguably only revved up in the mid-2000s – the UAE is culturally sophisticated. If the adage that the past informs the present is true, it begs the question of what Emirati history holds that has permitted the accelerated dynamism of its art scene, which hit a significant milestone when the Louvre opened an outpost in Saadiyat Island’s Cultural District in Abu Dhabi in 2017.
Marking the first opening of several planned major international institutions such as the Guggenheim, it was inaugurated a decade after a landmark partnership between the UAE and France, which simultaneously rooted the UAE’s cultural gravitas while giving the Louvre an important foothold in the region’s most proactive art ecosystem.
Creating a broader local and international understanding of openness within and in relation to the UAE, the collaboration provided the fundamental vehicle of cultural exchange to uplift it to a global stage. Rather than the reality of the Emirates’ relatively fresh artistic history and lack of any large-scale art institutions being an obstacle, it seemed to provide a platform for experimentation. The nation’s flexibility, instead of being prime for a mimetic Westernised institutional imprint, granted the Louvre Abu Dhabi the unique position to reframe museology and offer a new educational platform relevant to the Arab world.
The UAE’s resources have facilitated the amplification of its cultural impact, but the impetus of a local audience hungry for a globally competitive museum cannot be overlooked. Needing a place to exhibit masterpieces, archaeological finds or decorative arts in dialogue with contemporary creations, or prompt historical and cultural discourse, galleries, art fairs, forums and symposiums stepped up.
As the first of its kind in the region, the institution’s curatorial remit introduced a 600-work collection – both permanent pieces and loans coordinated by Agence France-Museums – that spans civilisations, histories and geographies, from the Palaeolithic era through to today. Coined a ‘universal museum’ – a concept inspired by museums of the Enlightenment – the Louvre Abu Dhabi narrates human technical and intellectual creativity through time.
Bold and cohesive philosophy
It is a bold but cohesive philosophy that guides the museum, taking advantage of an opportunity to shed new light on connections and acting as a meeting point, promoting tolerance and appreciation of difference rather than segregation. The Louvre Abu Dhabi encourages reconsideration of what has been learned, reframes intersections of local and global stories, and deepens understandings of the world by bringing fresh perspective and key works to the region – such as by Rembrandt, Magritte, or rare BCE works from Asia – as well as observing contemporary currents.
Its recent collaboration with the inaugural Richard Mille Art Prize in the form of the ‘Louvre Abu Dhabi Art Here’ exhibition – showcasing the seven UAE-based shortlisted reflecting on a theme of ‘Memory, Time and Territory’– exemplifies the museum’s capacity to initiate dialogue that resonates locally and globally.
“We have found a true partner – in values, in a shared mission to support creativity and contemporary artists in this region making this the first prize of its kind for contemporary artists with a universal museum as it’s platform,” says Manuel Rabat, Louvre Abu Dhabi Director, of the partnership with the Swiss luxury watchmaker. “‘Louvre Abu Dhabi Art Here’ has been many years in the making, the museum has taken a strong interest in contemporary artists since we opened ‘Co-Lab: Contemporary Art and Savoir-faire’, a 2017 exhibition by the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi, the French embassy and Institut Francais, including regional and UAE contemporary artists in our permanent display and international exhibitions.”
The initiatives – as well as activities through its Children’s Museum, Research Centre and Symposiums – build upon the Louvre’s multidimensional foundations, consistently following a line of what it means for a museum to be part of its territory, and the role of various art modes and movements in the context of a universal museum. It wants to be a leader and continuously revaluates its curatorial approach in relation to public response and current events: following COVID-19 isolation, it reinforced its position as a mindful museum and introduced an Arts for Health and Wellbeing Programme.
It also engages self-reflection. Focused on global, timeless narratives, it does not deny it is also an institution integral to its specific localisation, which is laden with its own diverse traditions. Symposiums in 2018 and 2020 tackled how to continue to break free of Western-centric models, the challenges and outcomes of a universal museum approach, and its civic role. Discussions also considered how to remain relevant in transmitting heritage in rapidly shifting times. The Louvre Abu Dhabi has constantly interrogated itself to help forge new frameworks for museum practice to showcase artworks while still respecting its regional and institutional roots in preserving heritage in increasingly globalised, and perhaps uncertain future.
An active new member of the international museum community, it is evolving with careful homage to art history, the trajectory of museology, and the history of the UAE. This is discerned through its architecture and existence as a museum-city in the sea. The Jean Nouvel-designed “floating” structure composed of 55 buildings and possessing its own microclimate is inspired by traditional Emirati homes, the narrow pathways of the Arabian media and falajs, Islamic geometrics via a monumental dome, and the refracted light play or ‘rain of light’ inspired by Abu Dhabi’s palm trees. Accessible by land or sea, Nouvel described the design as, “A welcoming world serenely combining light and shadow, reflection and calm. It aims to belong to a country, to its history, to its geography – without being a simple interpretation.”
The poetry of the building embodies the ambition of the UAE as a cultural player as much as the permanent artworks, artefacts and temporary exhibitions it displays within its 6,400-square-metres of galleries. However, the support the UAE provides its cultural sphere with from the top-down is met by the collection of the like-minded individuals who call it home who have built an open, welcoming cultural environment.