I really should not have left it two years from the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi to pay a visit to what is probably the best-known museum in the Middle East, but thanks to the hospitality of director Manuel Rabate and his team, it was well worth the wait.
The museum opened in November 2017 to great international fanfare and some controversy. It is the UAE’s biggest contribution to the cultural renaissance underway in the Arabian Gulf, set firmly in the tradition of universal museums exemplified by its Parisian namesake and partner, and the likes of the British Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
Rabate has been with the project almost since its inception 12 years ago. He is an enthusiastic and eloquent advocate for the museum, for what he calls the “thriving cultural ecosystem” of the Middle East and the “special relationship” between France and the UAE in art, culture and business.
“I see the Louvre Abu Dhabi as the flagship of the fleet of the cultural ecosystem in the region,” he said, against a background of excited children’s chatter in the part of the museum devoted to younger culture vultures.
He reeled off a list of the big artistic and cultural initiatives underway in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Riyadh and Jeddah as evidence of the blossoming of cultural enterprises in the Gulf, and described his role in the Louvre “project” — “except it isn’t really a project anymore, but a world-class museum fully open to the public.”
It certainly is. On a relatively slow Tuesday in December, the central gallery of the museum — built as a “floating dome structure” overlooking the Gulf from Saadiyat Island’s cultural district — was busy with an international crowd ambling through its galleries and exhibition halls.
Some 2 million people have visited in the two years since it was opened, and Rabate is very satisfied with the attendance demographic.
Some 70 percent of visits in year two were by tourists to the UAE, slightly more than the first year, with the balance coming from Emirati nationals and resident expats.
UAE citizens make up the biggest single category of repeat visitors, Rabate said with some satisfaction, and 50 percent of the museum’s employees are Emirati.
“We’re now well-integrated into all the tourist flows,” he added. Indians and Chinese are the biggest nationalities among overseas visitors, and Saudis are “a very important segment.”
Rabate is well aware of the cultural revival simultaneously underway in Saudi Arabia. He is in frequent contact with the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, which is overseeing the drive to make the Kingdom a center for artistic and cultural attractions as part of the Vision 2030 strategy.
He highlighted the work of organizations such as the MiSK Foundation, Ithra (the King Abdul Aziz Center for World Culture) and Art Jameel (with activities in Jeddah, Riyadh and Dubai) as examples of Saudi Arabia’s artistic and cultural aspirations, as well as the many Saudi artifacts on display in the Louvre.
It recently staged the “Roads of Arabia” exhibition, highlighting the Kingdom’s archaeological treasures.
“We work with them and exchange works all the time. It would be un-humble for me to say I advise them (the Saudis). They don’t need our advice — they’re our partners,” Rabate said.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi is an encyclopaedic museum designed to tell the story of humanity through its artistic and cultural achievements, with a strong anthropological approach.
It also has an instantly recognizable French quality. Some 50 percent of the works on display come from the Louvre in Paris and other French museums, with the rest from Abu Dhabi’s growing collection and other regional museums.
Such an intermingling of cultural standards might be expected to provoke some issues. Cultural and artistic standards are not universally applicable, and what might win gasps of admiration along the banks of the Seine might not be appropriate on the shores of the Arabian Gulf.
But Rabate said he has not experienced serious problems in this regard, nor has he felt the need to compromise on what he is allowed to exhibit.
“I’ve been very favorably impressed by what we’ve been able to achieve. I haven’t been looking for provocation, but rather looking for areas where we can come together,” he said, pointing to the recently awarded status of UAE Pioneer for the Louvre’s contribution to tolerance in 2019.
That spirit of tolerance and inclusion is very much on display in the museum itself, with classical Qur’ans on show side-by-side with illuminated Christian Bibles and ancient Jewish Torahs, as well as Hindu and Buddhist religious works.
In Paris, of course, all visitors make a beeline for Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” a must-see on any artistic tour of Europe.
Rabate said Abu Dhabi has not yet been open long enough to develop one star attraction.
“It’s a little too early to talk about icons,” he added.
However, he believes that the stunning “Mari-Cha Lion,” a 12th-century Italian bronze with strong Islamic and Arabic features, has the potential to be Abu Dhabi’s biggest attraction, or maybe the 19th-century painting “Young Emir Studying” by Turkish artist Osman Hamdi Bey.
Other big hits have included on-loan pieces such as “Whistler’s Mother” by American artist James Whistler, and Rembrandt’s “Head of Christ.”
I was personally stunned to turn a corner in the exhibition halls and catch sight of the painting “Napoleon Crossing the Alps” by Jacques Louis David.
The museum is also designed to play a role in the social, educational and moral life of the UAE and the wider region, he added, pointing to the aphorism of the disabled American author Helen Keller that adorns the walls of the children’s section of the Saadiyat complex — “the main outcome of education is tolerance.”
Making the building accessible to people with disabilities was a top priority in its design, and the Louvre recently extended an offer to the city’s low-paid taxi drivers to allow free entry.
“We’ve placed a huge emphasis on building a museum that’s accessible to visitors of all ages, and we’re building a new generation of culture leaders through training programs and career opportunities,” Rabate said.
The lively children’s section is an integral part of this “strategy of education and experimentation,” as he calls it.
Younger visitors are encouraged to get to know the art world through virtual reality technology that puts them in the picture — literally.
“It’s game-ification, but we always want them to use the technology and the computers to bring them back to the artwork,” Rabate said.
In the glorious aesthetic of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, it seems almost philistine to ask about the finance.
The government of Abu Dhabi footed the bill for the building of the complex and the deal with the French that allows it to borrow works of art.
But does Rabate — trained in business and finance before moving into museum administration — have to work with a view to eventually turning a profit?
“This is an investment, for sure. There are high maintenance costs, and it has to be as financially sustainable as possible. But we’re not talking about it being profitable or even close to break-even,” he said.
Most entrance charges are augmented by sponsorship deals with corporate partners, and a “patron’s circle” of sponsors will be unveiled soon.
Food and beverage outlets, and the obligatory souvenir shop, are also money-making opportunities.
“There’s no equivalent institution, in Paris, London or New York, that’s profitable. We’re ambassadors of culture, here to tell the story of the world, with Arabia in it.”