UAE’s promise of a Guggenheim

Abu Dhabi's Saadiyat cultural district, featuring world's largest Guggenheim museum, Louvre Abu Dhabi, Shaikh Zayed National museum, a maritime museum, is set to change the cultural climate of the UAE. Mohammad Abu Hawash goes behind the scenes of this Dh99.17 billion project to bring you this report.
The Community By Mohammad Abu Hawash
Published on August 1, 2014

ABU DHABI The immense potential of Abu Dhabi’s extravagant $27 billion (Dh99.09 billion) Saadiyat Cultural District project cannot be undermined despite the backlash that it received from artists and critics. So what are the doubts that have been looming in the air since the day this project was launched? The price tag perhaps? However, it can certainly be justified. There’s a need to understand that these museums are not just sharing artworks from parent organisations, but also forming their own permanent collections. Anyone who is familiar with the current prices in the art market will know how Shaikha Mayssa of Qatar managed to single-handedly inflate the prices to these levels which they are currently at. The Louvre and the Guggenheim are not buying 10-dirham souvenirs or little kids’ sketches; they are collecting artworks worth millions of dollars a-piece. Besides, Abu Dhabi managed to bring in Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel and Tadao Ando to work on this project. The first thing that might come to your mind when you hear of this is the rebuilding of St.Peter’s Cathedral, when Michelangelo, Bramante and Leonardo were working within earshot. The four architects who designed the cultural district are just as important to the art world as Michelangelo, Bramante and Leonardo. Yes, there is no doubt that this project has unprecedented scope. While the price tag can be justified when taking into account the scope of the project, its goal remains unclear. The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about its goal is — of course — tourism.

However, The UAE’s tourism industry is already booming, with Dubai alone hosting around 12 million visitors a year. The country doesn’t need a Saadiyat cultural district to attract tourists, and this project was not made to do so. What it will do is reserve Abu Dhabi’s front-row seat when it comes to art world affairs. A meeting with Sultan Suood Al Qassemi, a renowned figure on the social media platform, an art patron and founder of the Barjeel art foundation (devoted to promoting art in the Arab world), confirmed this. According to him, this project will bring ‘soft power’ to Abu Dhabi. “The Saadiyat Cultural District will be used as a tool for soft diplomacy, not as a source of income,” he said, adding, “Abu Dhabi will be involved in a whole new world of art that is worth hundreds of billions of dollars.” Nevertheless, he reiterated, Abu Dhabi is not in it for the money, but to exert its rightful influence on it. “Abu Dhabi will be involved with major players like UNESCO. The UAE will play a crucial role in the global cultural society. This project will be its gateway to the world of art.” However, despite such noble goals, the international coalition of artists have pledged to snub the Guggenheim Museum Abu Dhabi over worker conditions on Saadiyat Island. While there are some “valid points” to this boycott, the boycotters have “a clear double standard”, said Sultan, adding, “Why, for example, don’t they exert the same pressure on China?” Abu Dhabi has alteady taken measures against human rights abuses.The labourers now have shorter working hours and a 24-hour emergency hotline to report any abuse. They also do not work from 12 noon to 4pm during the summer, when temperatures are extremely high. While there might be still a lot left to be done for the labourers, Sultan said, “A little bit of pressure might be good.” Every great city in the world of art was once the underdog, the hidden gem or the forgotten one. Some were not even on the radar — like New York! Whoever expected that it was to become the centre of the art world back in the 19th century.

Artists in the Arab world create art for the same reasons that artists do everywhere: Peace, social justice, love and what not. They have the potential to innovate and bring in breakthrough ideas. What they don’t have is sufficient patronage. Without support, artists will not be able to devote themselves to bettering art in the region, and this is exactly what we want from them. Indeed, Picasso couldn’t have created cubism had Gertrude Stein not supported him financially. The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is buying all sorts of Arab Art. The money, which it is spending, will support both established and start-up artists. The same goes for the Louvre, which will be showcasing a variety of international artworks. The Saadiyat Cultural District will help create a pro-art culture that will influence neighbouring countries. This project, along with Qatar’s and Saudi’s huge investments will encourage rich people to become art patrons. The Community longs for a day when the Arab world becomes a flourishing art hub. Art should not be viewed as a peripheral sect of society, but rather a major player in forming its identity. Art is beauty, and in a region where turmoil rejuvenates every few years to create ugliness, we surely need the beauty of the painting, the sculpture and the poem to battle that.

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