The Louvre Abu Dhabi: international giant or just a local art hero?

The Louvre Abu Dhabi finally opens on 11 November, much anticipated (and much discussed) locally and internationally. Liz Totton joined the preview tour for the world’s press …

You wouldn’t be alone if driving past the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s magical dome on Saadiyat Island produced a small frisson. And a few questions.

Like: Will it ever open? What’s taking it so long? What art will be in there? How about depictions of nudity, or Christian symbols, or politics? What is a ‘world museum’ anyway? Is Abu Dhabi just buying its way into global cultural credibility? These questions and more may have passed through your mind – you and just about every other art lover in the UAE, and many in the world beyond the Gulf.

Now imagine making that turn off the Sheik Zayed Highway, running up to the actual, working, open-for-business Louvre Abu Dhabi, finally seeing the exterior up close, going inside as one of the first people to get into the interior (ok, apart from several thousand workers, museum staff and dignitaries), seeing the hotly anticipated permanent collection.

Imagine being showered in the long-awaited ‘rain of light’, only seen in CGI and renders from Jean Nouvel’s studio.

Imagine standing in front of Leonardo’s La Belle Ferronniere, knowing that it’s been tucked away in the vaults of the Louvre Paris for dozens of years and hidden from all but a few art historians and gallery cleaners.

Imagine today’s the day, your first visit as one of the first visitors.

First thoughts

Driving up to the Louvre, it’s clear there’s still more work to do to get this star to rise. The Saadiyat Cultural District area is a work in progress, still very definitely under construction. Some of the roads and street furniture are in place, but not many buildings.

But that absence of progress in the neighbourhood does not diminish from arriving at the museum. Indeed, without any local distractions there’s nothing to compete with the stunning dome.

And then you walk inside.

It feels like being in Paris, London, New York. It feels like a world-class museum, and it is – or at least it will be. The rain of light is there, just as you envisioned it long before you even enter the galleries to view the art. If you came for the dome and that dapple of light, you would not leave disappointed.

It’s beautiful. It’s everything you’ve seen in photos or read about and more because you are there standing in its glorious light shed.

Beyond the dome and beyond the rain of light, there are the 624 acquisitions in the permanent collection plus 300 loaned pieces from partnering French institutions. Those are serious numbers, and there are some serious works here – not all big names, though many are, but all curated to put art history in context for guests from all over the world and to encourage dialogues about what art history actually is.

There are four wings that represent art history viewed through the prism of time rather than geography, which is the core tenet of the curatorial vision. Respectively these are dedicated to the artwork of Ancient Worlds, Medieval Times, “the First Globalization”, and Modern Times.

The four Wings are curated to showcase how similarly different parts of the world developed artistically rather than to objectify certain parts of the world as being primitive, while viewing others are more advanced. Finally, art history is put in context, and everyone is allowed a seat at the art history table. Viewing art from all over the world in a compelling timeline is such a new idea that visitors may spend much of their first time just mulling this aspiration over and over again just trying to get a handle on this new way of seeing art.

Why Abu Dhabi?

“This building would not work anywhere else,” explains Louvre Abu Dhabi deputy director Hissa Al Dhareri. “This museum was built for this region, and it will be our legacy.”

Louvre Abu Dhabi truly could not exist anywhere else as it will in Abu Dhabi. In part that’s because of the finances; the money has been made available, and while there are underlying motivations (like the Emirate’s soft power aspirations) there is no imperative to make a direct financial return and no commercial or individual sponsors to satisfy.

This museum was built for this region, and it will be our legacy

And the global vision suits the reality. Abu Dhabi is indeed at an international crossroads, and there are people of 190 different nationalities in the UAE. With the UAE at the historic crossroads of Africa, Asia and Europe, cross-cultural exchanges began in this region, and the nation’s rulers feel it’s their duty to continue and encourage that cultural exchange. A museum of the world rather than this particular place really does make sense.

Basics

The official opening is on 11 November. Thereafter the Louvre Abu Dhabi will be open from 10am to 8pm from Saturdays to Wednesdays, and from 10am to 10pm on Thursdays and Fridays – the museum will be closed on Mondays after the opening week.

Regular tickets cost AED 60, while visitors between the ages of 13 and 22 can enter for AED 30 (tickets can be bought online or at the door; there’s no difference in cost). Access is free for children under 13 and for members of the Louvre Abu Dhabi Art Club (unlimited yearly access for you and one guest for AED 450).

Full information: www.louvreabudhabi.ae

Any curator would be challenged to create a collection that represents everyone’s art history as they know it and not as it’s been told in a textbook in a land far, far away. In this respect, the museum’s universal theme is a resounding success as it tells many versions of art history – histories that some may have never learned.

The curators were challenged to create a museum collection that is meant less to educate visitors about art and more to raise questions and initiate dialogue.

The architect Jean Nouvel explained his vision of a museum that is less a warehouse of things and more a “cultural rendezvous of objects” set amongst each other in time and place, so viewers may see how similarly the world’s myriad civilisations developed as opposed to how differently.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi is the world’s first museum to be built as a partnership between two nations (France and the UAE) and it is the first to tackle a theme so universal and so democratic with regard to the history of art. Perhaps there really is no better place than Abu Dhabi for such a museum. It will be both an international art destination and a local hero; and it will be a star.

Top tip: It may be hot outside in Abu Dhabi, but it’s cold in the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s exhibition halls; climate controls are set to protect the artworks, which means it’s pretty chilly in the museum’s interior galleries. Bring a warm jacket if you plan to meander through the four wings.

Opening fun: There are four days of events and performances on 11-14 November to celebrate the museum’s opening. Check out the details on our Agenda listings.

Not the first planning meeting for the Louvre Abu Dhabi but Gustave Caillebotte’s Game of Bezique (1880) from the permanent collection

 

What do you think?

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