Abu Dhabi: France on 6 March signed a billion-euro deal to set up a satellite of the Louvre on an island in the United Arab Emirates despite charges that the famed art museum was “selling its soul”.
The project has sparked outrage in France where about 4,650 people, including dozens of museum directors, curators and art historians, have signed a petition in protest.
Under the 30-year agreement, the government of Abu Dhabi, capital of the UAE, will pay 400 million euros ($525 million) just for the Louvre brand name.
“This is a fair price for using the brand name,” Louvre chairman Henri Loyrette told AFP.
The Abu Dhabi Louvre is one of five museums to be built on Saadiyat island in the Gulf, a vast complex of luxury hotels, golf courses, marinas and private villas set for completion in 2018.
French Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres and the head of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoun al-Nahayan, signed the unprecedented accord at the city’s luxury Emirates Palace hotel.
Critics accuse the Louvre of “selling its soul” by loaning out its prized collections overseas, and dismiss the Abu Dhabi project as a gimmick that will deprive the Louvre’s 7.3 million annual visitors in Paris.
“There is no downside to this agreement,” the culture minister said in an interview in Le Figaro newspaper, arguing that the project “should be a source of national pride”.
“If France wants to remain a top tourism destination, we need to put everything into it,” Donnedieu de Vabres said, arguing that “French cultural bodies do not travel enough”.
He strongly denied French museum-goers would be deprived of their national heritage. “All the guarantees are there,” he said.
Le Figaro also jumped to the defence of the deal. “Make no mistake: if Paris had not stepped in, then Saint-Petersburg, Madrid or Vienna would have readily taken its place.”
Construction of the 24,000-square-metre (260,000-square foot) gallery designed by French architect Jean Nouvel will start later this year and cost 83 million euros ($109 million).
The government of Abu Dhabi, the largest and wealthiest of the UAE’s seven members, will pick up the tab.
The accord sets the stage for the establishment of a universal museum dominated by classical Western art covering “all civilisations and all eras, including the comtemporary era”, while respecting the two sides’ “cultural values”.
French museums will loan out artworks for a maximum of two years on a voluntary basis to the museum, in an arrangement that will last 10 years. Some 300 works will be loaned out in the first four years.
A “reasonable” number of the artworks will have to come from the Louvre.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi will be one of four prestigious museums, including a Guggenheim contemporary art museum, to be built in a “cultural district” on Saadiyat.
The Abu Dhabi government plans to turn the island into a world class tourist resort and a home for 150,000 people by 2018 as part of an effort to snare a larger slice of the Gulf region’s booming tourist industry.
Critics in France have also slammed a decision to loan out works under a three-year partnership between the Louvre and the US city of Atlanta.
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 more and more French museums are following suit.
Paris’s Pompidou contemporary art museum is to open an annex in Shanghai in the next few years, and the Rodin Museum is reported to be planning a branch in Brazil.