Lost in Translation: The Challenging Future of Satellite Museums

June 20, 2014
Graphic by Megan Eloise/The Gazelle

Graphic by Megan Eloise/The Gazelle

New York— On April 24, the directors of the Centre Pompidou and the Louvre Museum joined the Guggenheim Foundation’s Richard Armstrong in apanel about satellite museums held at the Guggenheim Museum. Presented by the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York, the public panel came after months of increasingly outspoken protest action for the improvement of labor conditions faced by workers involved in the construction of the new cultural district on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island.

While the panel had not been deliberately scheduled to address recentprotest action by the artist coalition Gulf Labor, the matter of labor protection was the lingering elephant in the room. The directors were intent on mitigating rumors of their museums’ alleged role in serious human rights abuses on Saadiyat Island, but before they could address these questions, they began with a firm reiteration of their reasons for becoming involved in the satellite museum project. With international scrutiny tightening in response to reports of wrongful labor practices in Abu Dhabi, the talk came as an opportunity for the directors to set the record straight as to what they hope to achieve through their satellite museums and how they plan to do it.

Generally speaking, the pull towards creating satellite museums consists of several shared historical, logistical, economic and philanthropic factors:

Institutional tradition

Louvre Director Jean Martinez explained the museum’s roots in Enlightenment-era humanism, and to its subsequent history of shared and travelling collections. Already under Napoleon I, the pursuit of universalism had led the museum to stage a series of nomadic exhibitions around Europe; Martinez views the Louvre Abu Dhabi as a necessary and said at the panel that these steps are the “next step in the evolution of universal art.”

French idealism aside, Guggenheim Director Richard Armstrong reminded us of an often-forgotten fact: the original trustees’ papers from 1959 explicitly stated the desire to build multiple Guggenheim museums around the world. While the lucrative opportunity in the Arabian Gulf was no doubt a factor in the museum’s expansion in the region, the Guggenheim had, in fact, begun work on its long-awaited constellation of museums as early as 1997, with satellite museums erected in Bilbao and, less successfully, Las Vegas.

The Las Vegas Guggenheim opened in 2001 in a prominent but culturally ill-advised location: inside the Venetian Hotel. The Guggenheim Hermitage museum lasted only seven years on the Sunset Strip because, as Armstrong explained, the needs and wants of people on-site had not been observed. In a city founded on nightlife and gambling, “[art] was considered … not central to people’s agendas.”

If the Guggenheim wishes to avoid a rehash of Las Vegas in Abu Dhabi — an economically thriving, although currently unremarkable art destination — its success will hinge on fulfilling the social and cultural needs of its audience, a feat that was largely achieved with the Guggenheim Bilbao.

The Bilbao Effect

The Guggenheim Bilbao, which combined the international star power of architect Frank Gehry with a strong focus on local Basque and Spanish art has served as a lucrative long-term investment. Referred to as The Bilbao Effect, the spectacular tourism boost seen with the construction of the Guggenheim Bilbao is now seen as a major motivator in the construction of new museums. Visitor spending in Bilbao in the first three years of the museum opening raised over $110 million in taxes for the regional government, launching a worldwide trend of building satellite projects in urban settings in need of renewal. More than two dozen new museums and cultural centers aredue to be built in the coming decade at an estimated cost of $250 billion.

Bilbao-style projects are viewed by museum directors as mutually beneficial to both the regional government and the museum involved. Satellite museums such as the Centre Pompidou in Metz, France, have helped their home institutions weather recent periods of international recession, which have taken a sharp toll on museum endowments. Richard Armstrong agrees that Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will present a unique opportunity for the Guggenheim Foundation to grow finanically and diversify its art collection.

Growing collections, new priorities

While the Louvre’s collection is drastically larger than the Guggenheim’s — less than half a million objects versus eight thousand — both suffer from chronic spatial shortages in their central Paris and New York locations. The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will be a gargantuan twelve times larger than its New York counterpart, and will be heavily weighted towards post-1960s and Arab art.

The Louvre will also place a greater emphasis on contemporary international and Arab art in its Abu Dhabi collection, both of which remain relatively new areas for the Louvre in Paris. Martinez clarifies that this will be a truly universal curatorial vision, rather than a dumping ground for the Louvre’s permanent collection. “We want to prevent the idea of an offshore museum,” he said.

Martinez anticipates that Abu Dhabi’s site-specific collection, while under the banner of the Louvre brand, will exist in dialogue with the Paris museum.

How much thought the museums have put into the creation of this two-way dialogue is yet to be revealed. Armstrong suggests that the Guggenheim’s existing collection would draw inspiration and evolve in response to their Abu Dhabi counterparts. The Louvre’s curatorial process is being overlooked by an independent advisory of French curators, while the Guggenheim has put together a selection committee comprised of an equal number of Emirati and Guggenheim curators.

In response to concerns over curatorial integrity, Jean Martinez stated that the museums would maintain a strong stance against Emirati favoritism. “It’s not because they are local that they will enter the Louvre collection…We are the experts, and we will help the Emiratis choose.”

These experts are the directors ofAgence France-Muséums, a group of executives representing various French museums in the development of the Louvre Abu Dhabi. They have been charged with the task of overseeing the curatorial aspects and long-term project management of the Abu Dhabi development.

However, Martinez failed to mention that Agence France-Muséums, while created as part of an intergovernmental agreement between Abu Dhabi and France, is financed entirely by the authorities of the United Arab Emirates. There will be no way of knowing whether this funding agreement has affected curatorial aspects of the museum until it opens in 2015. It also begs the question of to what extent French authorities were able to enforce their ownconstruction and labor standards while the museum was being built. This becomes particularly troubling following recent reports of illegal labor conditions on the Saadiyat Island construction site which, if true, directly contradict the values on which the Louvre was founded. According to Martinez, Enlightenment humanism is the cornerstone of the satellite museum concept.

Universalism and access

Martinez and Armstrong are staunch advocates of the universal museum concept and are keen to experiment with new, cross-cultural methods of collecting and displaying art. According to Armstrong, the Louvre and Guggenheim have a responsibility to initiate a movement away from a Western-centric museum design and curatorial process. Saadiyat Island is the first step in shaping the future of international museums.

However, this idea of universal duty becomes complicated in light of recent labor scandals. A museum is a complex, interconnected cultural institution and corporation built on more than just ideas. If anything became clear during the panel discussion, it was that the directors are very happy to discuss their duty towards universality in theory— Arab-inspired architecture, art from all eras and nations — but in practice,their notion of universal responsibility largely falls away.

When the floor opened to the public for question time, Richard Armstrong and Jean Martinez were forced to come head to head with the question of current labor conditions in Abu Dhabi. However, the universal museum did not seem so universal when faced with matters of international human rights. Confronted with how the Guggenheim could reconcile issues of universality with thestark living and working conditions on Saadiyat Island, Richard Armstrong was quick to underplay the Guggenheim’s power.

Armstrong explained the labor violations as a matter of cultural difference, an unfortunate but necessary consequence of interaction between international institutions that operate under different laws. Despite these ideological differences, Armstrong does not believe the current situation warrants more serious sanctions against the Abu Dhabi government, and suggested the adoption of a more relativistic approach, “The interface not to interact with people who are not like you is not particularly interesting.”

Ultimately, there is only so much pressure the Guggenheim can place on Abu Dhabi’s Ministry of Labor and Tourism Development & Investment Company, “We’re a museum, we are not a country … we can only operate within our capacity,” added Armstrong.

Periodic assessments by the independent monitor PricewaterhouseCoopers havereported some improvements with regards to passport access and housing availability for workers. In the long term, Armstrong pledged in the panel to “make the Saadiyat workers the models for the region.”

Whether or not these goals are achieved in accordance with Gulf Labor’s recent list ofrecommendations is to be seen.

Reflection

Beyond labor rights, this is only the beginning of a far greater international experiment. The Louvre and Guggenheim will need to consider a number of acute cultural differences as they forge new relationships with the Arab Emirates: where will the museum draw the line between universal and local when it comes to matters of education andcensorship in the region? What kind of school programs will the museum offer local educational institutions? How will the museum show its support for challenging, contemporary Arab art?

The Guggenheim’smission to provide “dynamic curatorial and educational initiatives and collaborations” will be put to the test in Abu Dhabi, as will its definition of universalism. No matter how international the art collection, a museum is more than the sum of its objects. If the process by which a museum has been constructed does not abide by international human rights standards, and if the strength of a museum’s independent, critical voice in its home culture is compromised, then both the Louvre and Guggenheim will need to reconsider the values they want their satellite museums to uphold because as of now, the universal museum is falling short.

Isabelle Galet-Lalande is a contributing writer. Email her at opinion@thegazelle.org. 

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