‘An Oasis in the Desert’

Governments in the United Arab Emirates are spending billions of dollars in an ambitious, unprecedented effort to create cultural districts with world-class museums—along with a support system of creators, dealers, and collectors. But many Western art professionals wonder if this massive undertaking, launched at a dizzying scale and pace, can be successful.

The warm, emerald shallows of the Persian Gulf gently wash the shores of Saadiyat Island, and dolphins now play on the spot where the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is about to rise in a helter-skelter cubist silhouette against the sun-blazed sky. Currently a 27-mile-square expanse of flat, white sand off the coast of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, Saadiyat Island is poised to dramatically change the landscape of art, architecture, and museums. With four world-class museums on the drawing board and another three in the planning, the island’s $27 billion–plus cultural district is the linchpin of what may well be the most ambitious cultural agenda ever to take shape in such a limited time and space.

The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, designed by Frank Gehry, and the Louvre Abu Dhabi, designed by Jean Nouvel—the latter expected to cost upwards of $1.3 billion—are among the first major museums that will form a new global cultural hub in the tiny countries of the Gulf. The Gehry and Nouvel museums will be joined on the coastline by a performing arts center designed by Zaha Hadid, a maritime museum by Tadao Ando, and a national museum by Norman Foster, with the first phase of the cultural district to be completed as soon as 2012.

But Abu Dhabi, the largest of the seven emirates in the UAE, is not alone in what amounts to a cultural arms race in a region rich with petro-cash, and eager to spend it on symbols of good taste and refinement. Dubai, whose ambitions and pace of development outstrip even those of Abu Dhabi, has announced plans to build several major museums, including one devoted to modern Middle Eastern art, designed by Amsterdam architect Ben van Berkel; another dedicated to the prophet Muhammad; and a universal museum, curated by three German institutions, for which the content has not yet been defined. Dubai cultural officials say the plan is to build at least eight major museums in the coming decade. And Qatar, a smaller but even richer country down the Persian Gulf from Dubai, intends to build 10 to 12 major museums in the next decade. The first major museum in that country of 800,000 opened in November in Doha. Designed by I. M. Pei, it is a soaring space devoted to Islamic art, floating in the waters of the Gulf.

“There is an explosive quality to the growth of cultural life in this region,” said Roger Mandle, executive director of the Qatar Museums Authority and a former president of the Rhode Island School of Design. “It’s like the birth of a civilization—Russia after glasnost, China after it opened up. There is a desire to enjoy the same opportunities as the rest of the world in terms of educational and cultural pursuits.”

This agenda has far-reaching implications for the world of art, creating new jobs for curators and conservators, a burgeoning market for dealers and auction houses, and unexplored territory for artists themselves. Headhunters are already reaching into the far corners of the art world to fill top jobs and midlevel curatorial positions at these embryonic institutions, even pursuing a kind of museum czar to head Saadiyat Island’s cultural initiative. (The initiative extends beyond museums; the Metropolitan Museum’s outgoing director, Philippe de Montebello, is already a special adviser to New York University Abu Dhabi.)

But the implications for the region itself are more profound, and not without risk. The museums, UAE officials say, are part of a concerted strategy to lessen the emirates’ dependence on oil revenue by creating a new income stream in the form of cultural tourism. It is not yet clear what impact, if any, the recent drop in oil prices and the bursting of an inflationary bubble in Dubai may have on government plans for museums.

With its cultural district on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi hopes to nearly double the number of tourists visiting the country by 2012, from 1.7 million to 3 million a year. Dubai is seeking to attract 15 million tourists by 2015, hoping to re-create the success experienced by Bilbao, where Frank Gehry’s landmark design for the Guggenheim branch drew millions.

“The audience will be any person interested in architecture, art, culture, and the experimentation of new art,” said Rita Aoun-Abdo, the art and culture adviser to Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development Investment Company (TDIC), which runs the new cultural district. She was speaking outside an exhibit at the Emirates Palace Hotel devoted to the project. It features maquettes and scale models of the new museums, and a wall charting the statistical success of Bilbao: “9.2 million visitors, 1998–2006. Jobs = 4,355/year. ROI [return on investment] = 12.8%.”

Saadiyat Island is designed for people who will come from afar to see the marquee museums while enjoying golf, shopping, beaches, and five-star hotels.

But there is also a longer-term strategy at work, articulated by on-message officials at all levels in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Qatar: to build institutions in the Gulf that will educate their people and create a new model of cultural exchange in the Middle East.

“We believe that culture is an integral part of educating our people,” Sheikh Sultan Bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family, told ARTnewsat an exhibition organized by Christie’s. The sheikh is chair of both the TDIC and the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage. “One of the essential goals for us is to create a cultural bridge. In 20 years Abu Dhabi will be a beacon of peace and culture, an oasis of culture and peace.”

But many art professionals in the West wonder if this undertaking, launched at such a dizzying scale and pace, can be successful.

Is it possible, some academics and art experts ask, to create an “oasis of culture” in a place that has no history of museums, no community of artists to speak of, no collectors, no donors, and where the local passions run to falcons and racehorses rather than to Pablo Picasso and Jeff Koons?

“The important thing is to develop an audience in the Middle East,” said John Martin, a London art dealer and the director of Art Dubai, an annual art fair hosting 65 galleries from around the world. “If that fails, then you’ll have a bunch of white elephants. Big boxes.”

Those leading the Abu Dhabi enterprise agree that this is the crux of the challenge. But they say they are working intensively to build interest among the local populace with exhibitions like one last year of works by Picasso, curated by the Musée Picasso in Paris and visited by hundreds of Abu Dhabi schoolchildren. Other TDIC initiatives include establishing local art galleries, holding seminars on art-related topics, and sponsoring educational programs, so that by the time the museums open, Abu Dhabi will have a support system of art collectors, dealers, and artists to nourish them.

“I can build the most wonderful building. But if I don’t give it the right spiritual meaning, you’ll feel bored,” said Bassem Terkawi, spokesman for the TDIC. “If we don’t start work in the local community today, we’ll have fantastic buildings, amazing collections, and zero visitors locally.”

Still other undefined challenges hover vaguely over the horizon. No one yet knows what will happen when Western cultural institutions are transplanted into desert Islamic societies in the throes of tumultuous social and economic change. What kinds of compromises will be necessary to allow Western museums, with their proud democratic traditions, to function in an Arabian context, with its proud desert traditions?

Some wonder whether openly gay curators will feel at ease in a society that bans homosexuality. Or if Jewish scholars or artists might similarly feel out of place in countries where vilifying Israel is a norm, if less so than in other Arab countries.

And what of artistic freedom? To what degree will the ruling families allow artists free rein to push the boundaries of their craft and their ideas? Or for curators to create provocative and innovative shows?

Compromises will be necessary, said Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosophy professor at Princeton University who writes frequently about cultural conflict. “If the Guggenheim wants to start with Mapplethorpe, it will have trouble,” he says. Even so, he went on, “it’s going to be interesting. So much of Western art before the Enlightenment is religious, and Christian. Will women be allowed to see paintings of Saint Sebastian with hardly anything on? These are questions that arise, and the list is endless. If they haven’t been thinking about it, they’re going to have to.”

In the UAE, officials say they have been thinking deeply about these very questions, and have laid the groundwork for the ambitious journey ahead.

So far, there has been plenty to think about just to realize such daunting building targets. The Guggenheim, scheduled to be completed around 2013, will be a spectacular landmark built on a sandbar extending 50 feet out into the waters of the Gulf, visible from Abu Dhabi’s urban center to the east as well as from both coasts of Saadiyat Island.

The scale model on display at the Emirates Palace Hotel is a building defined by a series of giant cubes and cones leaning against one another. A shimmering blue tunnel forms the entrance, leading to a central gallery inspired by the traditional Gulf wind tower called a barjil.

With 450,000 square feet of space, the Guggenheim will be the largest of the four initial museums under construction in Abu Dhabi. Much of the content of the collection is still being discussed, but one gallery will be devoted to Middle Eastern contemporary art and will feature artists living in the region. The permanent collection of acquired art and long-term loans will account for 130,000 square feet of the exhibition space, while 40,000 square feet will be devoted to temporary exhibitions.

Aoun-Abdo, a vivacious Lebanese whose job it is to oversee Abu Dhabi’s “cultural identity,” has a background in consulting with Arab governments on developing cultural initiatives, though her primary training is in theater arts. From her perspective, Saadiyat Island is a laboratory for the creation of something never before seen.

“There is no analogy. It’s something new, experimental,” she said. “It won’t be like the Guggenheim Bilbao, or New York. It will look like Abu Dhabi because of the collection, the involvement of Middle East and Arab artists. It’s a lab. People who come from the outside with prejudgment need to forget all that and look again.”

The billion-dollar Louvre Abu Dhabi ($525 million estimated for the building, and another $747 million estimated for curatorial services and artwork) will quickly follow the Guggenheim, a universal museum for the 21st century in 260,000 square feet. The design proposed by Jean Nouvel is an elegant white dome made of Islamic-style latticework, creating a light-dappled experience for visitors below.

But as for the contents and ethos of the museum, those creating the Louvre Abu Dhabi say it will be unlike the original Louvre, or any traditional universal museum. The Louvre Abu Dhabi will not be divided by section, whether Asian, Islamic, European, or modern and contemporary art. The work may be shown chronologically, but won’t follow traditional categories.

“People will judge by the results,” said Bruno Maquart, CEO of the French Museums Agency, a private company created specifically to work on the Emirates Project, which has been controversial among France’s intelligentsia, who have protested that the country is selling its culture for petrodollars. Contents for the Louvre will be chosen from 12 French national museums, among them the Pompidou and the Musée d’Orsay—but a director won’t be chosen until a year before its opening, according to Laurence des Cars, chief of the agency.

Said Aoun-Abdo: “It has nothing to do with importing Western art. It’s importing Western expertise and know-how to train people here, and create institutions that will be East to East, East to West, and national in scope.”

Thomas Krens, the former director of the Guggenheim and the senior adviser for international affairs at the Guggenheim Foundation, has been leading the effort to curate and plan the new venue. He will be working with Juan Ignacio Vidarte, the director of the Guggenheim Bilbao and the chief officer for global strategies at the Guggenheim Foundation, who is now responsible for day-to-day management of Abu Dhabi, including hiring a director and curators. One curatorial assistant has been hired thus far, Dana Farouki, who is working in New York, according to a Guggenheim spokesperson, but the director position is not close to being filled. Krens canceled scheduled interviews for this story.

A spokeswoman for the TDIC said the organization is actively seeking a “leader” to head up the entire cultural district initiative, but that Krens is not a candidate.

Fred Henry, a Guggenheim Museum board member who has been to Abu Dhabi some 30 times since 2005 advising the TDIC, said the goal is to create the right community around the museum. “This is about the role Abu Dhabi can play in the next 20 years in education and cultural basis,” he said. “It’s about a certain vision of the role that culture, education, and communication play in the larger world. They have a vision of their role in establishing peace and harmony in the world. As I see it, this is the foundation for doing that.”

But Henry notes that the challenges are significant. “They don’t have schools, curators, writers, studios; they don’t have enough of the stuff that exists in Berlin, Paris, Buenos Aires—you name it—that’s in any vibrant art community that is viral and self-organizing,” he observed. “And this is not something that Art Dubai or the TDIC develops. It has to be given nourishment and support, and come from a lot of sources.

“What I’d like to see in five years is a real art community,” he continued. “Big institutions all by themselves are not enough.”

A number of Emiratis are watching these changes in the cultural sphere with something like suspicion. This is a society in the midst of historic social upheaval. Only 10 percent of the current United Arab Emirates population is native, with the rest coming from around the Middle East, Europe, and mainly South Asia, whose labor force feeds the country’s insatiable construction needs.

This demographic shift is fundamentally altering the DNA of a country that only 50 years ago subsisted on pearl and date farming. Today, one rarely hears Arabic in Dubai, a city that is a cacophony of ethnicities where no single culture dominates.

Dr. Rima Sabban, a sociologist who has lived in Dubai since the 1990s, is among those concerned by the explosive growth. “As a sociologist, I’m so overwhelmed,” said Sabban. “The communities don’t interact. It’s like wheels interacting on the surface only. All the wheels work together to create the great energy that moves the city, but we don’t know where these changes are going.”

Hashim Sarhan, a sociologist from the University of Sharjah—in a neighboring emirate, which has its own art fair along with a biennial and a Museum of Islamic Civilization that opened last July—had a harsher perspective. “I don’t know why the government of Abu Dhabi is trying to bring the Louvre here—that’s European culture,” he said. “What is the aim behind it? When other people want to see French and British culture, they’ll go to Paris and London, not to Abu Dhabi.”

Sarhan sees the arrival of Western museums as cultural imperialism, pure and simple. The United Arab Emirates should nourish their local culture, in his view. “Why should we wear other people’s clothes?” he asked. “We have to wear our own clothes. If we wear other people’s clothes, we will not feel comfortable.”

The misgivings expressed by local observers are reflected by concerns among Western groups tallying the human cost
of such breakneck development.

Human Rights Watch, the international watchdog organization, has documented the systematic exploitation of construction workers throughout the UAE, where laborers are packed into barracks and paid virtually save wages—$150 to $200 a month. In many cases the workers are essentially indentured servants, working to pay exorbitant fees to recruiting agencies who bring them there and confiscate their passports. This is against the law in the emirates, but the law is generally ignored, according to observers.

“What we want to see is the Louvre and the Guggenheim and NYU make public their commitments to not rely on exploitive, slavelike labor conditions,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, the director for Middle East and North Africa of Human Rights Watch. (New York University is building a sprawling campus in Abu Dhabi, and will be granting degrees.)

“We want them to commit publicly to say that anyone involved in construction of this project will be treated with fairness and dignity,” she said. “And that they will verify that they have not paid recruiting fees or had their passports withheld, that they are given decent housing and a minimum wage.”

Aoun-Abdo and Terkawi of the TDIC said that Saadiyat Island officials have heard the concerns over labor standards, and responded. A village for 40,000 laborers on the island is opening in phases starting this month, Aoun-Abdo said, and contractors there will have to conform to the laws. “They will live in housing that conforms to international standards,” she said. (Laborers more commonly live far from the big cities, in some cases in temporary barracks made out of shipping containers.)

Whitson said the Louvre has been the most forthcoming in offering assurances on this score, and the Guggenheim and NYU have been less eager to engage the question, though Guggenheim officials are in talks with the nonprofit group.

“Since we are still at a very early stage in the project, there is not a lot to say yet,” said Eleanor Goldhar, the Guggenheim’s deputy director of external affairs. “We don’t open until 2013 at the earliest.” Frank Gehry did not return calls about labor issues in building his Abu Dhabi museum.

Said Aoun-Abdo: “All our partners know what we’re doing. I’m honestly not concerned about this.”

Terkawi said the royal family has committed to artistic freedoms at the new museums, even as local cultural and religious norms would need to be respected.

“There is no form of censorship to be imposed on any art displayed here. This is written into the agreements,” he said. “However, we have found good partners who have a mutual understanding of both cultures. We have our culture, our social codes. Our partners will make sure that the displays will be in line with that—and it is normal to expect that.”

But he said the questions about Western norms reflect a “complete misunderstanding” of how the emirates regard such matters. “The UAE is one of the few places in the region where you see respect and tolerance for other cultures,” he said.

As regards homosexuality, gay people live in the emirates, but do so discreetly, he said. Jewish people live freely in the emirates, he insisted; some are “of high position.” However, the Anti-Defamation League reports that an Abu Dhabi think tank (now closed) hosted a 2002 symposium challenging the reality of the Holocaust, where one speaker referred to Jews as “the enemies of all nations.”

Israeli participation is more difficult, said Terkawi, because the UAE has no diplomatic ties with Israel. “In special cases, Israelis have come to attend conferences here. They submit requests, and a decision is made,” he said.

Yoram Morad, the cultural attaché at the Consulate General of Israel in New York, did not address the question directly, but observed: “Any cultural dialogue will be more than welcome on our part.”

In the ruler’s suite, beneath a soaring dome on the very top floor of the $5 billion Emirates Palace Hotel, the smell of frankincense wafted through the air, tended by veiled Nubian servants for the pleasure of the princesses of the Abu Dhabi royal family. Some 80 women, wearing designer outfits beneath their head-to-toe black abayas, sat in a circle in the traditional majlisstyle.

The purpose of this gathering of the sheikhas with the wives of local ambassadors was high culture. They had come to hear a lecture by Paul Hewitt, an expert from Christie’s, on great women collectors in the history of art. Hewitt carefully followed instructions to make no eye contact with the women as he told them about the art collections of Catherine the Great; Farah Diba Pahlavi, the empress of Iran; and Peggy Guggenheim.

An hour or so later Sheikha Salama bint Hamad Al Nahyan and her daughter swept silently and grandly down to the ground-floor ballroom for a private tour of the exclusive Christie’s presale exhibition: a famed Monet, Dans la prairie(1867), estimated at $25 million; Renoirs; some Warhols; contemporary paintings from China; and a multitude of monumental diamonds.

Between the top and bottom floors, other cultural events were taking place. In the same hotel that week, Elton John performed in one auditorium, the Bayreuth symphony played in another, and Jeremy Irons presided over a musical evening featuring groups from around the world.

Abu Dhabi is on a fast track to experience culture of all kinds, funded by the government’s deep pockets. “They’re going through the gradients of a cultural experience that we’ve gone through in decades—in literally minutes,” said Hewitt, marveling at the pace. “But they have the education, the money, and the intelligence to do it.”

Last October Christie’s held its first event in Abu Dhabi, following the lead of other auction houses such as Sotheby’s, which began holding biannual sales in the region in 2006. The Middle East, led by the emirates, has become a huge market for the auction houses (see “An Emerging Market”).

“We’ve moved very, very fast here because of the appetite for the arts,” said Jussi Pylkkínen, the president of Christie’s Europe and Middle East. He noted that his auction house has quadrupled its sales in the Mideast since 2004.

Abu Dhabi and Dubai are both buying art aggressively to fill permanent collections for their museums, but then so is Qatar, which made headlines last year when royal collectors reportedly purchased a Rothko for $72.8 million, a Bacon for $53 million, and a Damien Hirst for $19.2 million.

Later in the evening, after the Christie’s auction, a cocktail reception brought together the elite of Emirati high society. Abayaswere seen, but so were strappy party dresses, and Champagne was served despite the Islamic interdiction against alcohol and the presence of Sheikh Sultan of the royal family. Pylkkínen walked the sheikh and his advisers through the exhibition, pausing for a long time before the Monet.

“We are a young country, and we’ve made an extensive effort to develop our infrastructure over the last 30 to 40 years,” explained Mubarak Al Muhairi, TDIC’s managing director and one of the sheikh’s top advisers on cultural development. “Now the government sees the moment to develop our human resources—education, culture. It’s a reflection of the ambition of Abu Dhabi to develop its society while building culture. Thirty years from now, this will play a role in strengthening tolerance.”

Like many of his generation of the royal family, the 38-year-old Sheikh Sultan was educated in the United States—after getting a B.A. in architecture from the UAE University, he received a master’s in international relations from the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

What does he say to those who see Saadiyat Island as Abu Dhabi’s attempt to buy its way into high culture? “It’s not true,” he responded in fluent English. “We have a clear vision of complementing culture with education. We believe in the benefits of developing culture, raising our overall standard of living, building world-class institutions for our visitors.

“Of course, we are realistic,” he went on.

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