The Museums of Saadiyat

As NYU Abu Dhabi prepares to move to its new home on Saadiyat Island this summer, it is worth investigating who our neighbors will be. While our campus ...

Jan 25, 2014

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As NYU Abu Dhabi prepares to move to its new home on Saadiyat Island this summer, it is worth investigating who our neighbors will be. While our campus nears completion, the work on museums nearby continues. Both the exhibition space and cultural center at Manarat Al Saadiyat have been open for several years and have hosted several NYUAD theater productions. Manarat Al Saadiyat will soon be joined by several other museums: the Zayed National Museum, the Maritime Museum and the Abu Dhabi outposts of both the Louvre and the Guggenheim. All of these museums will be situated in the Saadiyat Cultural District, next to the marina neighborhood NYUAD will call home.
These developments are all part of an effort to transform Saadiyat into “a leading destination for the arts in all its forms,” according to the Saadiyat Cultural District’s website. While the Zayed National Museum and the Maritime Museum will focus on Emirati heritage, the Louvre and the Guggenheim will house international collections. The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will focus on Middle Eastern contemporary art, while the Louvre Abu Dhabi will be the first universal museum in the Arab world.
The plans for each museum are certainly exciting — the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, for example, will be the largest Guggenheim in the world. However, as with any development, they are not without challenges. The museums have all been plagued with building setbacks. The Guggenheim, originally scheduled to open in 2013, is now planning to open in 2017; while the Louvre website still states the Louvre Abu Dhabi is ‘slated to open in 2014’, the Saadiyat site now says the museum will open in 2015. Meanwhile, an exposé by The Guardian published in December alleged that workers on both museums, whose construction is supervised by the Tourism Development and Investment Company, are subject to abysmal living and working conditions.
Additionally, each museum must contend with opening a site in a relatively new country without the supply of trained museum professionals. For museums built on a European model such as the Louvre, which promises to “[transfer] to an Arab country a cultural form born in Enlightenment Europe,” it is, for the time being, necessary to hire people familiar with such form. As each institution develops, however, hopes are that more Emiratis will become involved with their upkeep; the Louvre, in particular, aims to “play a major educational role,” starting with the Ecole du Louvre project which will train Emiratis and other students in museum studies.
To anticipate what kind of impact the new museums might have, one might look next door to Doha, where the Qatar Museums Authority oversees the Museum of Islamic Art, the Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, the Orientalist Museum and the National Museum of Qatar. These projects have earned international praise for both their commitment to Islamic and Arab art and for their inclusion of international artists such as Damien Hirst, whose work was exhibited in Doha last fall. Last year, Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the sister of Qatar’s emir and head of the QMA, was named the most powerful person in the contemporary art world by ArtReview; the magazine reports that the QMA spends an estimated 1 billion USD per year on art.
As ArtReview says, “the QMA’s drive to transform a carbon-based economy ... into a culture-based economy is a living advert for the international exchangeability of contemporary art.”
Sophomore Megan Vincent, who traveled to Doha last fall, praised Qatar’s art scene as “impressive  . . .  even more so in that it is self-led and growing without leaning on foreign museum brands.”
Therein lies the essential difference between the Doha museums and those being built in Abu Dhabi: Despite the influx of international artists like Hirst, the Doha museums are owned and managed by the QMA. All of them have a focus on Qatari and other Arab and Islamic art, while the Abu Dhabi museums have more international intentions and are managed by outsiders.
The reception of these museums in Abu Dhabi remains to be seen. It will be several years before any NYUAD students will be able to take the afternoon off to stroll through the Louvre or the Guggenheim. The city certainly hopes the breadth of the collections will be a draw, bringing remarkable pieces to new audiences. In the meantime, educational programs such as the Louvre’s and continued funding and support of Emirati artists means that, as the institutions grow, they will likely develop a more national focus. Eventually, the differences between Doha and Abu Dhabi may benefit both, as Abu Dhabi hopes to give citizens and visitors alike the opportunity to enjoy art from across civilizations, drawing connections between cultures collected under the same roof and on the same island.
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