Louvre accused of 'selling' its soul
Critics noted that the government had been in a hurry to sign the billion-euro deal before next month's presidential elections, which could have seen the lucrative plan come to an untimely end if the Socialist opposition wins.
The government's decision has provoked outrage across the country, with more than 4,700 people - including museum directors, curators, art historians and archaeologists - signing an online petition protesting at the "sale" of its museums.
France will make vast sums of money out of the deal by leasing out the famed Louvre name and loaning its prized collections overseas. Opponents have dismissed the project as a gimmick which will deprive the Louvre's 8.3 million annual visitors of some of the museum's most celebrated works.
Despite their protests, the culture minister, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, concluded the deal with the head of the Abu Dhabi tourism authority, Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoun al-Nahayan, yesterday morning at the Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital.
Mr Donnedieu de Vabres defended the project, arguing that it "should be a source of national pride".
"There is no downside to this agreement," he said.
"If France wants to remain a top tourism destination, we need to put everything into it," he said, adding that "French cultural bodies do not travel enough".
The signing paves the way for construction of the new 24,000-square-metre "Louvre Abu Dhabi" to begin later this year. Designed by the renowned French architect Jean Nouvel, it is due to open in 2012 and will cost an estimated 83 million to build. The tab will be picked up by Abu Dhabi, the largest and wealthiest of the UAE's seven oil-rich members.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi will be one of five museums, including a Guggenheim contemporary art museum taking its name from its New York parent, to be built in a "cultural district" on Saadiyat island in the Gulf. The island will also boast a vast complex of luxury hotels, golf courses, marinas and private villas for some 150,000 people, set for completion in 2018.
The creation of this world-class resort is part of an effort by the government of Abu Dhabi to attract a larger slice of the Gulf region's booming tourist industry.
France stands to make a great deal of money by leasing out the Louvre name. The government of Abu Dhabi has pledged to pay hundreds of millions of euros over 30 years for the privilege of displaying works from the Louvre and other prestigious French museums who have agreed to lend works for periods of up to two years.
Under the agreement, some 300 works will be loaned out in the first four years of which a "reasonable number" must come from the Louvre, home of the Mona Lisa and many other legendary art works including the Venus de Milo.
The government of Abu Dhabi will pay 400 million just for the Louvre brand name, the first 150 million instalment of which is to be paid within a month. The Louvre's chairman, Henri Loyrette, yesterday called this a fair price.
But while the French culture ministry maintains that the deal represents an "exceptional chance" for the French art world, many of the leading figures in that world are furious. They argue that France's artistic heritage is being used for commercial ends.
"The purpose of a gallery should not be to make money," said Didier Rykner, an arts writer who is the driving force behind the petition, which is posted on his website La Tribune d'Art.
"People talk about a cultural exception for cinema. There should also be a cultural exception for art," he said.
Mr Rykner believes the project was not designed with the best interest of art in mind and fears that loaned works will be displayed in a "random, unscientific" way in Abu Dhabi. He is also concerned that transporting hundreds of fragile works is fraught with risk.
"The logic of this project is purely political and diplomatic," says Mr Rykner, who points out that the UAE is a major export customer of France.
Those opposed to the project are also concerned about censorship issues. Yesterday's agreement sets the stage for the establishment of a universal museum dominated by classical western art covering "all civilisations and all eras, including the contemporary era", while respecting the two sides' "cultural values".
This last clause has led to questions about which works can be exhibited in a country in which all nude representations or crucifixion scenes would be deemed offensive. "Thank goodness Monet painted waterlilies," quipped the left-leaning daily Liberation.
One Arab reporter asked during a press conference in Dubai yesterday whether the museum would protect its visitors against "pornography", while a French journalist asked whether the museum had sufficient protection against "Islamic extremists" who might threaten the Louvre Abu Dhabi or its collection.
Museum officials did not address the issue of nudity in works. But art selection will be done by a committee including Abu Dhabi's rulers, who understand the sensitivities in this city, one of the more liberal bastions in the conservative Gulf.
The Sheikh Zayed wing of the Louvre, in its Pavilion de Flore, will provide a prominent home for Islamic works of art, organisers said.
City of riches emerges from the shadows
THE Louvre announcement is another cultural coup for Abu Dhabi, a once-staid oil town living in the shadow of its flashier neighbour, Dubai.
Abu Dhabi has begun to challenge Dubai's supremacy as the Gulf's cultural hub, announcing real estate deals worth billions of pounds.
In July, New York's Guggenheim Foundation announced it would build its largest-yet museum in Abu Dhabi, designed by the renowned American architect Frank Gehry. The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will cost more than $400 million (200 million).
The Louvre and Guggenheim are two of four museums to be designed by celebrity architects that will anchor a US$27 billion (13 billion) cultural district on the currently uninhabited Saadiyat Island just off the coast of Abu Dhabi. The district seeks to draw three million tourists by 2015.
Beyond the construction cost is the price of buying the artworks that the Louvre Abu Dhabi will need to fill the museum once the 30-year loan period with France expires.
A government-led purchasing committee will concentrate on classical European art, but will also target the new market of Indian and Middle Eastern painters, as well as Islamic and Oriental art.
The Abu Dhabi deal is also part of a developing trend. In addition to the Guggenheim, both the British Museum and London's Victoria and Albert Museum have created tie-ups with museums in China, and an increasing number of French museums are following suit.
They include Paris's Pompidou contemporary art museum, which is to open an annex in Shanghai in the next few years and the Rodin Museum, reported to be planning a branch in Brazil.