NEW YORK—The French government stunned the art world when it announced plans to open a branch of the Louvre museum in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. The Georges Pompidou Centre also has announced plans to establish a branch in Shanghai.
The announcements came amid ongoing debate and criticism. In exchange for a sum reportedly between $800 million and $1 billion, the Louvrewill lend its name, artworks and expertise to the Abu Dhabi project. It is one of five museums slated for a multibillion-dollar tourist attraction on the island of Saadiyat, or “Island of Happiness,” which is expected to open in 2012.
According to Le Monde, Abu Dhabi will finance the construction of the Louvre outpost, paying anywhere from $260/520 million for the 20-year use of the Louvre name. The partnership will be managed by a new entity known as the International Agency of French Museums. Reportedly the agency will also represent the Musée d’Orsay; the Musée du Quai Branley; the Chateau de Versailles; and the Pompidou Centre.
The agency reportedly will provide management expertise, for a fee of $91 million; four temporary shows a year, valued at $195 million in total; and as many as 300 artworks for display, in exchange for $260 million over the next decade. Abu Dhabi authorities will spend more than $50 million to build the country’s own collection. (The French culture ministry did not respond to a request from ARTnewsletter for additional information about the new agency.)
Nonetheless, a spokesman for the culture ministry commented on details of the Le Monde report:“No accurate figure has been confirmed. Numbers are widely exaggerated. . . . It has been stipulated, however, that the Louvre’s name would be lent for a period of 20 years while Abu Dhabi is building its collection.”
The new museum will house a wide array of objects, ranging from artifacts and decorative arts to fine arts and contemporary art. What remains to be seen is how nudes or the portrayal of religious subject matter will be handled by Abu Dhabi cultural officials.
Even before the French government gave official sanction—a formal agreement is expected to be signed by both sides later this month—several art experts openly criticized the Abu Dhabi arrangement, as well as the Louvre’s three-year partnership with the High Museum in Atlanta (ANL, 1/9/07).
A sharply worded op-editorial appeared in Le Monde. Headlined “Museums Are Not for Sale,” it was signed by Françoise Cachin, former director of French museums; Jean Clair, former director of the Picasso Museum, Paris; and art historian Roland Recht. Calling the commercial use of masterpieces “shocking,” the piece rhetorically asked if French museums were “selling [their] souls.”
Responded a spokesman for the culture ministry: “We are not selling the Louvre or its name. We should be proud to help, we have the knowledge, and we can use that to build the collection in Abu Dhabi.”
An online French art journal, La Tribune de l’Art, has gathered more than 3,000 signatures on a petition supporting the op-ed viewpoint. Staff members from museums in Spain and France, including several from the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay, are among the signers. A message on the journal’s website encourages people to continue signing and emphasizes that the signers “hope the integrity of the collections of French museums will be maintained.”
Didier Rykner, who had initiated the petition, told ARTnewsletter, “The Louvre is not an art reserve to be given away. It is simply a question of politics and money that we are to be deprived of major works of art from the permanent collection. I am not against the lending of work, but as Cachin, Recht and the others stated, it has gone beyond that.”
In an interview with Le Monde published on Jan. 8, Louvre director Henri Loyrette defended the museums’ collaborations, pointing out thatfunds frequently have been accepted in exchange for international loans from French museums. Furthermore, Loyrette pinpointed specific loans involving Cachin and Clair, wherein their respective institutions had received funds and reaped substantial benefits from such arrangements.
Pompidou Centre Follows Suit
Meanwhile, there has been a flurry of news and comments regarding other international partnerships with French museums. Pompidou Centrepresident Bruno Racine confirmed plans for a Shanghai outpost, expected to be completed sometime before 2010. Racine further confirmed that the Pompidou, too, will lend works to Abu Dhabi. It also expects to open a satellite museum in the historic industrial French city of Metz by 2008.
As might be expected, Rykner is opposed to the idea: “I am against both [the Louvre and Pompidou] projects. Of course, there are exchanges among museums, which is important, but this would be uprooting both collections.” Citing an example, he suggested that the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, had “diminished its collection through dispersing its works.” (Last fall Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation director Thomas Krens agreed to build the institution’s largest museum yet in Abu Dhabi, at a cost that could exceed $200 million [ANL, 5/9/06.)
Asked whether the Pompidou Centre would consider a third location, after Metz and Shanghai, Racine told Le Monde, “We shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. But one must think of India.”
The Louvre’s plan to open a satellite museum in the northern city of Lens has drawn further criticism, Loyrette points out, but Gallic ire has focused mainly on the international partnerships involving enormous sums of money.
In their op-editorial, Cachin, Clair and Recht express the fear that the current Louvre agreements with both the High Museum and Abu Dhabi could bring the art world “down a path of deviance that soon no one will be able to limit.”