Mil­lions visit Lou­vre Abu Dhabi in two years

Alexan­dra Chaves hears how Lou­vre Abu Dhabi has proved its cul­tural sig­nif­i­cance in the two years since it opened

The National - News - - FRONT PAGE - ALEXAN­DRA CHAVES

Two years ago to­day, Lou­vre Abu Dhabi opened to the pub­lic. Since then, the mu­seum has wel­comed more than two mil­lion vis­i­tors, 70 per cent of whom are tourists.

This fig­ure is a point of pride for mu­seum di­rec­tor Manuel Ra­bate, who ac­knowl­edges the role Lou­vre Abu Dhabi plays in turn­ing the cap­i­tal into a global cul­tural des­ti­na­tion.

“Abu Dhabi, be­ing a ma­jor city, needs to have its fullfledge­d mu­seum strat­egy, and we are also part of this in­cred­i­ble state­ment of the cap­i­tal talk­ing to the world,” he said.

But, Mr Ra­bate said, an­other key man­date for the mu­seum is pro­mot­ing arts and cul­ture ed­u­ca­tion in the lo­cal com­mu­nity. Ful­fill­ing this mis­sion comes in many forms: the mu­seum hosts be­tween 15 and 20 school trips a day, a to­tal of 60,000 pupil vis­i­tors so far; it launched a Chil­dren’s Mu­seum that has brought in 45,000 vis­i­tors since July; and it is de­vel­op­ing a re­search cen­tre for art pro­fes­sion­als.

It is also plan­ning its first fundrais­ing gala, invit­ing cor­po­rate and in­di­vid­ual do­na­tions to help bol­ster its ed­u­ca­tional pro­grammes. Mr Ra­bate notes the im­por­tance of build­ing a ro­bust cul­tural ecosys­tem with other in­sti­tu­tions. “We can­not do it alone. It is about find­ing our place in the net­work of academia ... but also all the North­ern Emirates.”

Two years ago to­day, Lou­vre Abu Dhabi made its world de­but. Since then, more than two mil­lion peo­ple have walked through its doors. And they keep com­ing – when I meet with di­rec­tor Manuel Ra­bate at the mu­seum, the en­trance is teem­ing with tourist groups and fam­i­lies, pho­tograph­ing or be­ing pho­tographed with Jean Nou­vel’s glis­ten­ing dome.

The two mil­lion fig­ure is a point of pride for Ra­bate, who has headed up the mu­seum since 2016, be­fore the of­fi­cial open­ing. While Lou­vre Abu Dhabi may have just turned two, it has been part of his life for the past 12 years. He joined the Agence France-Mu­se­ums soon after the in­ter­gov­ern­men­tal agree­ment be­tween France and Abu Dhabi was signed.

As part of a new strat­egy, the mu­seum has plans to host its first fundrais­ing gala, invit­ing both cor­po­rate and in­di­vid­ual do­na­tions to help bol­ster its com­mu­nity pro­grammes. “What is very im­por­tant is to main­tain the sus­tain­abil­ity of the mu­seum,” Ra­bate says, not­ing that con­sid­er­able re­sources have al­ready been put into its con­struc­tion, col­lec­tion and de­vel­op­ment.

In 2007, France and the Gov­ern­ment of Abu Dhabi signed an in­ter­gov­ern­men­tal agree­ment for $525 mil­lion (Dh1.9 bil­lion), which al­lowed Abu Dhabi to use the Lou­vre name for 30 years. This is in ad­di­tion to con­struc­tion costs of Dh2.4 bil­lion. While to­day the mu­seum makes money from tick­et­ing and re­ceives sup­port from the Gov­ern­ment of Abu Dhabi, Ra­bate says it is ramp­ing up its tar­gets for pa­tron­age and cor­po­rate fund­ing, as most mu­se­ums around the world do.

“For us, as a world-class mu­seum, it was very im­por­tant to make sure that we could also have world-class phi­lan­thropy,” he says. “We plan to launch a gala din­ner to raise funds around all our ed­u­ca­tion ac­tiv­i­ties be­cause we think this is one of our core mis­sions.”

Ra­bate stresses the mu­seum’s ed­u­ca­tional role, talk­ing about the var­i­ous ini­tia­tives and chil­dren’s ac­tiv­i­ties Lou­vre Abu Dhabi cur­rently un­der­takes: wel­com­ing 15-20 school trips daily, ad­ding up to a to­tal of 60,000 stu­dent vis­i­tors so far; the launch of the Chil­dren’s Mu­seum, bring­ing in 45,000 vis­i­tors since July; the de­vel­op­ment of the re­search cen­tre, which would al­low art pro­fes­sion­als to ac­cess the mu­seum’s stored col­lec­tions and ar­chives; mul­ti­me­dia guides and mul­ti­sen­sory dis­plays for vis­ually im­paired vis­i­tors. It all aligns with his views on such in­sti­tu­tions. “I think the mu­seum has a so­cial role, a com­mu­nity role. It is also a learn­ing place … a place of in­spi­ra­tion for artists. A place for en­coun­ters for de­sign­ers. The mu­seum is not an ab­strac­tion. It is al­ways part of a ter­ri­tory,” he adds.

While com­mu­nity ini­tia­tives are cer­tainly part of Lou­vre Abu Dhabi’s man­date, there is also the ob­jec­tive of vis­i­tor num­bers, some­thing Ra­bate is keenly aware of. Over­seen by the Depart­ment of Cul­ture and Tourism, the mu­seum is in­ex­tri­ca­bly tied to the larger aim of turn­ing the Emi­rate into a global cul­tural des­ti­na­tion. “Be­cause Lou­vre Abu Dhabi is part of DCT, we are also part of some­thing that will be the at­trac­tive­ness of the city. All the main hubs of the world have their great cul­tural equip­ment. Abu Dhabi be­ing a ma­jor city needs to have its full-fledged mu­seum strat­egy and we are also part of this in­cred­i­ble state­ment of the cap­i­tal talk­ing to the world,” he says.

I ask him if one goal is more im­por­tant than the other. Is there pres­sure to keep ex­hibit­ing block­buster shows for the sake of foot­fall, and would that take away from lo­cal ini­tia­tives? “We need to do both. Why choose?,” he replies. “The mu­seum is a gen­er­a­tional in­vest­ment. It is Abu Dhabi gift­ing the world with this won­der­ful place and giv­ing some­thing to the chil­dren and chil­dren’s chil­dren liv­ing here … Both work to­gether … We will al­ways have that seg­ment for res­i­dents and an­other for tourists.”

Ra­bate says that part of the mu­seum’s lat­est en­ter­prises have been for­mu­lated to “keep peo­ple com­ing back”. This in­cludes the in­tro­duc­tion of night kayak­ing tours and the open­ing of Fou­quet’s brasserie next year. “All this ex­per­i­men­ta­tion is a way to be at­trac­tive as a so­cial place, and there’s noth­ing wrong with it. On the con­trary.”

Look­ing at the num­bers so far, 70 per cent of the mu­seum’s vis­i­tors are tourists, and the rest are UAE res­i­dents. Within the 30 per cent, 15 per cent are UAE na­tion­als, who are con­sis­tently in the top three of re­peat vis­i­tors.

For Ra­bate, this proves the mu­seum has been able to en­gage the com­mu­nity.

“We have man­aged to root the mu­seum in its ter­ri­tory. For me, this is very im­por­tant. You need to be con­nected to the world and you need to be cen­tred on what you are.”

The road to this root­ed­ness has not al­ways been smooth, as the di­rec­tor points out.

Speak­ing of the pres­sures be­fore the open­ing, he says that there were “huge ex­pec­ta­tions from Abu Dhabi, from France, from the world, be­cause we put two big names to­gether, Lou­vre and Abu Dhabi”.

Even after the in­au­gu­ra­tion, the mu­seum had to find its foot­ing as the first with an in­ter­na­tional name in the re­gion. “In the be­gin­ning, we had no bench­mark. You have to imag­ine that,” he says. As a re­sult, the mu­seum has been dili­gent about its data col­lec­tion, not just count­ing ticket sales, but keep­ing track of the vis­i­tor ex­pe­ri­ence through sur­veys. Now, Ra­bate sees these prac­tices as mod­els for the com­ing Zayed Na­tional Mu­seum and Guggen­heim Abu Dhabi.

In ad­di­tion to these in­ter­nal pres­sures, there were also vo­cal crit­ics around the world. The deal be­tween the French and the Gov­ern­ment of Abu Dhabi raised ques­tions about the in­tegrity of fran­chis­ing mu­se­ums and the prospect of cul­tural im­pe­ri­al­ism on the Mid­dle East.

Two years on, does Ra­bate feel that he has proven crit­ics wrong? “I hope,” he says. “I think we have proven that we can tell the de­cen­tralised his­tory of art. This is not a west­ern way of show­ing the his­tory of the world. All the civ­i­liza­tions and all parts of the world are rep­re­sented fairly.” He gives the ex­am­ple of the Abu Dhabi pearl, cur­rently on view at the 10,000 Years of Lux­ury ex­hi­bi­tion, and a bronze dag­ger found in the Saruq Al Ha­did ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site, on loan from Dubai Mu­nic­i­pal­ity. Both are dis­played next to ob­jects and arte­facts from Europe and Asia.

These ex­am­ples are not sur­pris­ing given Lou­vre Abu Dhabi’s gen­eral “cross­roads” ap­proach to cu­ra­tion, plac­ing items from dif­fer­ent ge­ogra­phies side by side in an at­tempt to weave nar­ra­tives of com­mon­al­ity. “These are an­thro­po­log­i­cal com­mon points, and it’s im­pres­sive to see that places that are so far [apart], you have sim­i­lar art­works and tech­niques ev­ery­where in the world,” Ra­bate ex­plains.

Look­ing ahead, he re­it­er­ates the key­word: ed­u­ca­tion. “We can­not do it alone. It is about find­ing our place in the net­work of academia – New York Univer­sity, Sor­bonne Abu Dhabi, Zayed Univer­sity – but also all the north­ern Emirates,” he says. He also sees Lou­vre Abu Dhabi as part of a larger ecosys­tem of cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions ex­pected to crop up on Saadiyat Is­land. “We are wait­ing for them with im­pa­tience. We are telling the story of the world, putting Abu Dhabi in this story, Zayed Univer­sity will tell the story of the UAE and Guggen­heim Abu Dhabi will ex­plore moder­nity and con­tem­po­rary [art]. I’m re­ally crav­ing to have them close to us.”

After more than a decade of work­ing with Lou­vre Abu Dhabi, Ra­bate has no plans to move on yet, ad­ding that the mu­seum has plenty in store for next year. “[There are] many things com­ing ahead. It’s never fin­ished.”

The mu­seum has a so­cial role … It is a place of in­spi­ra­tion for artists. A place for en­coun­ters for de­sign­ers. The mu­seum is not an ab­strac­tion. It is al­ways part of a ter­ri­tory

Pho­tos Vic­tor Besa / The Na­tional

Top, Jean Nou­vel’s glis­ten­ing dome is as much an at­trac­tion as what’s in­side the mu­seum; above, Manuel Ra­bate, di­rec­tor of Lou­vre Abu Dhabi

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