Sharon Lorenzo takes in a new branch of the Louvre in the United Arab Emirates.

There have been traces of human occupancy found on the Arabian peninsula since 125,000 BCE. Today 9.2 million people occupy a small territory known as the United Arab Emirates. A conglomerate of seven regions united under the UAE umbrella, 1.4 million of these people are local and 7.8 million are foreigners. It was ruled by the British from 1819 until independence in 1971, and today it is the 7th largest owner of oil in the world and the 17th of natural gas. Evolving out of oil and gas dependency is their new goal, and as a result tourism and visitors have become a high priority. With this has come an enormous investment and the creation of a cultural district in an area known as Saadiyat Island just outside of Abu Dhabi. In addition to a new branch of the French Louvre, there are plans for a modern art wing of the Guggenheim to be built by Frank Gehry, a concert hall to house 6000 guests designed by the late Zaha Hadid, a maritime museum by Tadao Ando from Japan and a national museum of culture to be completed by Norman Foster. Scholars and critics are calling this the “Bilbao effect,” where entities are counting on the cultural district to bring rapid growth to the region as the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum has done in northern Spain.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi is an enormous enterprise of 260,000 square feet with both permanent galleries of 65,000 square feet and 22,000 square feet of space for visiting exhibitions. Begun in May of 2009 with pilings sunk into the sands by German construction specialists, Bauer International, the building was finally opened to great fanfare in November of 2017 with French President Macron and his wife and ministers shaking hands with the Prime Minister of the region, Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. A thirty-year contract will provide art loans, curatorial expertise, and educational training for museum staff with over one billion dollars going to the French government and its Louvre operations.

November 2017 Museum Opening

Louvre Abu Dhabi Interior

The building itself is indeed a work of art made of 7850 aluminum stars that have created a woven roof dome which floats on the base surrounded on three sides by water. Excellent day and night time dining by the sea is wonderful and strolling through the galleries is like walking through a fairyland. The two shows currently on view for us this January were Rembrandt and Vermeer from France and the Netherlands as well as the Roads of Arabia: Archaeological Treasures from Saudi Arabia. The permanent galleries were full of recent acquisitions that ranged from ancient to modern objects and paintings. A few stars were the Van Gogh self-portrait of 1887 and the Bellini Madonna of 1480.

Bellini Madonna 1480
Van Gogh Self-Portrait 1887

A few loans from France were in intriguing juxtaposition: George Washington by Gilbert Stuart was placed with Napoleon on horseback by Jacques- Louis David under a heading called: Leadership. A prize by Leonardo Da Vinci from 1490, La Belle Ferronierre, was supposed to be placed with the star-studded purchase of his Salvator Mundi, 1500, sold at Christies in December of 2017, but this picture has not yet showed up as promised. Prince Bader of Saudi Arabia had paid $450.3 million for the work consigned by Russian owner, Dmitry Rybolovlev, who had paid $127.5 million for same in 2013. Much ado was made of the authenticity of the work where finger prints of Da Vinci were found in the paint, and forensic testing authenticated the canvas and stretchers to the time period of his work. No one has heard of the recent whereabouts of this painting.

Jacques- Louis David- Napoleon 1801   Gilbert Stuart- Washington 1822
La Belle Ferronnierre 1490
Salvator Mundi 1500

Cultural diplomacy is now big business in our modern times, as art and politics join hands in so many ways. While the United Nations and OPEC are able to negotiate with some success, this kind of “soft power” is also useful in making deals on many levels. In a space without much green grass and the burden of Islamic suppression of many freedoms, especially for women, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is a shining star for all to enjoy during a visit to the United Arab Emirates.