Well, We Have a Frank Gehry

To compete with the eye-catching skyline of its neighbor, Dubai, Abu Dhabi has signed on the famous architect to build a Guggenheim Museum

With neighboring emirate Dubai gaining global attention for luxury tourism and eye-catching architecture, Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, is looking to use culture to engage travelers' imaginations. As part of that effort, officials are seeking to recreate the “Bilbao Effect” very, very exactingly: The emirate has signed separate deals with the Guggenheim Foundation and Frank Gehry to build a new branch of the museum of the architect's design.

While Dubai's development has been rapid in pace and spectacular in results, Abu Dhabi is planning its development carefully, and envisions the Guggenheim as a part of a larger cultural district on Saadiyat Island. This natural landmass, located 500 meters off shore, will also be home to national, classical art, and maritime museums, a performing arts center, and art park. "They are transforming themselves into a Western-oriented cultural destination," says Anthony Calnek, deputy director of communications for the Guggenheim Foundation.

Under a memorandum of understanding between the government and the Guggenheim Foundation, the emirate will build, own, and maintain the building. It will acquire its own permanent inventory of contemporary art, with Guggenheim curators programming the building and guiding acquisitions. The New York–based museum will also lend pieces from its own collections network. In a separate agreement, the government has contracted Gehry Partners to design the 30,000-square-foot building, the largest Guggenheim facility to date.

The project would once again unite Gehry and the foundation after a planned museum in Lower Manhattan was shelved in 2003. (Later that year, a Brazilian court blocked the Guggenheim's plans to build a satellite in Rio de Janeiro.) According to Calnek, the Abu Dhabi branch is more of a sure bet than any of the other Guggenheim projects in development because the money is coming from one source with very deep pockets, the Emir, rather than from municipal or provincial governments.

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