An Emirati collection starts life in France

For its first decade, many of the Louvre's core exhibits will be owned by the French. But its permanent collection is already taking shape.

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ABU DHABI // In its present state, the patch of Saadiyat Island on which the Louvre will eventually sit reveals little about its future. Only a few thousand workers are on site as the preparatory work on Saadiyat starts. Not until 2013 will the futuristic dome of the Louvre Abu Dhabi be complete.

Work is already well under way some 3,300 miles away in Paris, where the first steps are being taken to decide which art will fill the museum's 8,000 square metres of exhibition space. Speaking before yesterday's unveiling of the first artworks that will grace the new museum, Christine Albanel, France's minister of culture and communication, said the Louvre would seek to strike the right balance between its French heritage and its new surroundings.

Even though the expertise, the name and the brand are all French, the museum will be distinctly Emirati; the final decisions on the collection will be taken in Abu Dhabi. The gallery will have an annual budget for purchases, on top of what has been spent on acquiring the Louvre name and the 30-year deal to host artworks from France. "We need to do a project which is a universal museum and one that covers all periods while achieving a coherence," said Mrs Albanel.

She said the Louvre Abu Dhabi was "a great adventure which I believe in, and is in fact unique in the world", adding that it was "an investment in culture and knowledge". From the French side, the project is being managed by Agence France-Museums, a body that comprises 12 institutions including the Louvre, the Musée d'Orsay, the Centre Pompidou and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Established in July 2007, it is responsible for sculpting the ethos of the Louvre Abu Dhabi. From next year it will start training UAE staff in the way of the Louvre.

Bruno Maquart, the agency's chief executive, said it would help Emirati authorities conceive the Louvre and, during the first years at least, support the museum in its "cultural, technical and organisational aspects". He said he was in almost daily contact with the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) the developer of Saadiyat Island. As well as working with the architect Jean Nouvel, the agency is identifying artworks that will "give this universal museum its own artistic and cultural personality".

However, Mr Maquart said the core collection would not be complete by the time the museum opened in 2013. "When it opens, you will have 6,000 square metres dedicated to showing the permanent collections," he said. "There you will find pieces lent by French museums as well as pieces from the UAE collection. "But acquiring pieces for a museum takes time. This is why, during the first 10 years, there will be loans from France and after 10 years, the Abu Dhabi collection will occupy the area.

"There will also be 2,000 square metres for temporary exhibitions, as in any other museum." Art used in the temporary exhibitions will come from museums all over France, not just the Louvre. Mrs Albanel said: "Certain pieces will also be lent by the Louvre in Paris. There will be temporary exhibitions for something like three months, as with any temporary exhibition, and there will be loans of pieces over two years. This is part of the governmental agreement.

To build up the permanent collection, a committee made up of the curators of some of France's largest museums will meet three times a year to discuss which artworks to recommend for purchase by the Louvre Abu Dhabi. These recommendations will then be passed on to the TDIC, which will give final approval on all purchases. The issue, said Christophe Tardieu, a co-director of the cabinet with France's Ministry of Culture and Communication, was selecting works of only the highest quality.

Mr Maquart said: "We advise the Emirati partners on the constitution of the collection, which must be coherent with the museum and the spirit of the museum. "The Louvre is seen here as the museum of museums, it is the largest in the world. So we want both to follow this tradition and create an original, 21st-century, universal museum for Abu Dhabi that puts into contrast the art of yesterday and today.

"It won't be a museum of classical art. It will include the contemporary period and living artists. It will not only focus on western art but also on Arabic and Muslim art, as well as Asian arts. "The idea is to show and compare what has been done in the world at the same time and in different areas. "It is to reinvent a universal museum that is adapted to this country, which is at the crossroads of east and west and which intends to play a key role in the region.

"This is not an extension to the Louvre Paris. We are speaking about agreements with a completely different museum that will bear the name during 30 years but is an Emirati museum. We are only bringing the know-how. "The training will be done by the Louvre in Paris. It will have the quality of the Louvre, with the working methods of the Louvre. It will be different but very close." Work on training future Louvre staff selected from Abu Dhabi will begin next year, Mrs Albanel confirmed. "The first internships in France will start next year. People from the Emirates will come to the Louvre and different French museums and will be trained to the approach to the public, for instance."

She said the French ministry was in talks to establish higher education projects in institutions, including the Abu Dhabi Sorbonne, to create a master's degree in arts professions. Education of another sort will also feature prominently on the agenda. Mrs Albanel said: "Within the Abu Dhabi Louvre there will be a section dedicated only to children. We call it the children's museum. "The children will come with their families or with the school. We want to work with the schools here and transfer experiences."

The project is still some way from completion, but events such as Talking Art: Louvre Abu Dhabi, artparis-Abu Dhabi and the Picasso exhibition at the Emirates Palace hotel over the last year are helping build expectation and knowledge of art in Abu Dhabi. More taster events are planned, Mrs Albanel said, and a semi-permanent Louvre presence can be expected in Abu Dhabi before the opening of the museum itself.

"All these projects have created big expectations. The idea of these pre-exhibitions is also to give more reality to these projects. "It will become very concrete and increase their attractiveness to the people of Abu Dhabi."