$1.3 Billion for Louvre of the Desert

Jean Nouvel to design the French museum's outpost in Abu Dhabi

Ending months of speculation and controversy, the governments of France and Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, signed an agreement yesterday that will create a Persian Gulf outpost of the Louvre. The French museum will occupy architect Jean Nouvel's contribution to the Saadiyat Island Cultural District, a collection of high-profile art museums and cultural spaces planned for an undeveloped strip of land just off the shore of Abu Dhabi.

The 30-year agreement is reported to be worth nearly $1.3 billion. Under its terms, Abu Dhabi will use the Louvre's name and receive artworks on loan from it as well as other French institutions including the Musée du Quai Branly, Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée d'Orsay, and the Château de Versailles.

The Louvre will occupy a 260,000-square-foot space originally tagged as a "classical arts museum" when plans for Saadiyat Cultural District were unveiled in late January. Nouvel designed a small village of one-room galleries, covering it with an umbrella-like roof that will measure 590 feet wide and 80 feet high. This structure will be intricately perforated with an Islamic-style filigree, casting dappled shadows below.

"I think it's Jean Nouvel's best building ever," Thomas Krens, director of the Guggenheim Foundation and one of Saadiyat's planners, told RECORD in January. "It's amazing."

The new Louvre branch is expected to open in 2012. Word of the deal between France and Abu Dhabi began circulating last fall, sparking protests among leading French intellectuals and museum directors who contended that the nation was "selling its soul." More than 4,000 people signed a petition to protest what they felt was the government's use of artwork for "political, diplomatic and financial reasons."

Henri Loyrette, who heads the Louvre, responded in the French press that money is not the driving force behind the museum's overseas operations, and that it will only loan artworks until Abu Dhabi's new institution has built up its own collection.

In addition to the Louvre, the Saadiyat Cultural District will include a Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim outpost, as well as buildings by Tadao Ando and Zaha Hadid. Krens, who worked with Abu Dhabi's Tourism Investment and Development Company on this project, explained that the Persian Gulf state wants to become the region's leading arts and culture destination.

"The Middle East is an obvious place for this, let's call it, alternative diplomacy," Krens said. "I think it's just about to gather momentum."

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