Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 October 2020

A renewed sense of optimism for delayed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi

Despite repeated delays in building the much-awaited Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, once opened the museum will offer a unique story and collection.
A scale mold of the Guggenheim to be built on Saadiyat Island. Work on the museum has been delayed for years and a contractor has yet to be chosen. Galen Clarke / The National
A scale mold of the Guggenheim to be built on Saadiyat Island. Work on the museum has been delayed for years and a contractor has yet to be chosen. Galen Clarke / The National

Despite repeated delays in building the much-awaited Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, once opened the museum will offer a unique story and collection.

Somewhere in a free port in Europe, locked inside a secure, state-of-the-art, climate-controlled storage facility, an almost 240-piece collection of modern and contemporary art sits waiting for a museum.

The reason? The collection belongs to the much-delayed and yet-to-be built Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and, in both its volume and scale, it already outstrips the collection displayed at its sister institution, the Guggenheim Bilbao.

“Some of the pieces are extremely large and transport is a big expense,” says Richard Armstrong, the Guggenheim’s director, announcing the big news in his trademark laconic, no-nonsense style.

“There were existing facilities where we would accommodate the scale of what is being acquired and all of the support services were in place. The collection will be in Abu Dhabi one day soon, but not quite yet.”

‘Not quite yet’ has been the extent of the story so far when it comes to Guggenheim and Frank Gehry’s contribution to the Saadiyat project.

As around-the-clock works have progressed on the Ateliers Jean Nouvel-designed Louvre Abu Dhabi, the 1,400 concrete piles associated with the Guggenheim have sat untouched since they were completed in 2011 and a contractor is yet to be selected.

Originally, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi was scheduled to open in 2013, but in January 2012, the project’s developer, Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC), announced that it had rescheduled the construction programme for its Saadiyat Island museums.

The completion date for the Louvre and Guggenheim projects was moved to 2015 and 2017 respectively, but in October, the TDIC Chairman, Majed Al Mansoori, told Reuters that Louvre Abu Dhabi was “on track for opening in the second half of 2016”.

The announcement followed a statement made by Jean-Luc Martinez in June at a press briefing in Paris, in which the Louvre museum’s president said that Louvre Abu Dhabi would open at the end of 2016, a full year later than previously announced and almost a decade after the inter-governmental agreement was signed between the UAE and France that kick-started the €1bn project on Saadiyat.

Despite the lack of any similar announcement about the Guggenheim, Mr Armstrong will speak to an audience at Abu Dhabi Art this afternoon alongside Mr Martinez and Neil MacGregor, the outgoing director of the British Museum, with what is, the American insists, a renewed sense of optimism.

The talk, Museums and the Stories they Tell, is being moderated by Peter Sloterdijk, one of the best known and widely read German intellectuals writing today and Anna Somers Cocks, the chief executive and founder of The Art Newspaper, and represents one of the most prestigious gatherings of cultural clout in the capital’s history.

“In our case, the news is that there is new leadership at both TCA [Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority] and TDIC, we have had fruitful meetings and we feel re-energised about the prospects,” he says.

“I think the big progress at the Louvre helps TCA to see a path to how the other museums can happen. The fact that the Louvre is opening and will be successful has, I think, re-empowered the project as a whole.”

In Mr Armstrong’s case, the journey to this latest moment of optimism has been less than comfortable.

Despite the fact that construction is yet to start on the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, the project and its parent institution in New York have proved a focus for campaigning organisations, such as the artists’ coalition Gulf Labor, dedicated to improving migrant workers’ living conditions and employed rights.

Earlier this year, on the workers’ rights holiday May Day, Gulf Labor organised a protest in the central atrium of the Guggenheim that eventually forced the museum to close. Mr Armstrong believes that the Guggenheim’s location and accessibility are part of the reason for the protester’s focus.

“Because we are American and Western and image is so crucial, we have a particular kind of vulnerability that makes that kind of contact spark and attract a lot of attention, but we go on having conversations with Gulf Labour and we go on having good conversations with TDIC so that what we are particularly hopeful of is a kind of reconciliation,” the director explains.

“That is a daily hope. I think what has happened on TDIC’s side in terms of accommodation and revisions of labour law have all been really praiseworthy, so my hope is that we can maintain that high standard as construction begins and that together everyone will feel like it is a great achievement when it ends.”

If the demonstrations and delays have proved challenging for Mr Armstrong the opportunity to build a new collection designed not just to draw crowds but to rewrite art history is, the director insists, something that has benefited all of the institutions in what he describes as the ‘Guggenheim constellation’.

“Our acquisition meetings have continued with regularity and we have assembled what we think is an outstanding collection,” he says.

Nineteen of the artworks acquired for the collection were exhibited in Abu Dhabi last year in the exhibition Seeing Through Light: Selections from the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Collection, which exhibited masterworks by established Western artists such as Dan Flavin alongside works a younger generation of artists such Ghada Amer, an Egyptian-born artist who now lives and works in New York.

“To my mind, it is the first museum collection that examines the period after the middle 60s from a global point of view,” explains Armstrong.

“This is not a typical from Pop Art to where? collection, it is going to be very different; I hope more radical, certainly more inclusive.”

At the moment, the collection includes about 230 pieces, almost 50 per cent of which have been produced by artists who are from or work in North Africa and the Middle East.

“The most profound impact has been to force our curators to see the world from a different vantage point,” he says.

“The old prejudices of Europe and North America have melted away utterly and now I would say there are multiple points of view and a willingness to pair things that might previously not have happened either out of ignorance or prejudice.

To illustrate his point, Armstrong refers to the display at Seeing Through Light which placed works such as Robert Irwin’s 1967-68 work, Untitled, in the same space as Le Chemin des Roses (1995-2005) by Rachid Koraichi.

“I thought it was interesting to come around the corner from the Irwin to see the Koraichi piece,” Armstrong explains.

“This important Algerian artist that we knew very little or nothing about and yet his work had incorporations of light yes but also calligraphy, crucial to any kind of aesthetic analysis of that region and it had a poetic, beautiful, physical essence to it that was I think an eye-opener.”

Based on Frank Gehry’s design for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Armstrong estimates that another 60 to 80 works are required to “make sure that the museum looks really tip top on the first day”. For Armstrong, the business of building the museum’s collection is indivisible from the process of designing the building itself.

“Some of the large-scale works, like the Flavin we own or the Bob Irwin discs, are pieces that call for very elegant and adaptable spaces where they can be permanently displayed,” he explains.

“So it’s important that Frank [Gehry] has a good understanding of what is being added. From his generation and mine, typically, it might have been a large-scale painting that would have provided the challenge, but today, we have so many artists working with sound, light and big installation spaces.”

Armstrong describes the effect that he and Gehry are aiming for as a ‘kinaesthetic’ museum-going experience that appeals to all of the senses simultaneously, but to achieve this, certain fundamental issues have had to be addressed in the museum’s design.

“The building is quite challenging in its scale and approach and we need to be sure that it will be a singularly memorable and legible experience. I think there have been a couple of principle preoccupations. One has been circulation and, of course, the other one has always been whether we can conform to a budget!” Armstrong explains.

Ultimately, however, the connection between the organisation of the rooms in the museum and the art they contain has to be symbiotic, Armstrong explains, because the story of art the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will tell will not follow a traditional, Western, decade-by-decade narrative.

“I think this will give us a bigger and broader view of the achievements of Arab modernism and we will also see the sequence of creativity from inside the UAE from its inception as a country and we’ll see a broader context for the region but my hope is that nothing will seem strange because we will be looking at parallel bursts of creativity from around the world.”


Updated: November 17, 2015 04:00 AM

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