Museums News United Arab Emirates

Bad feelings over Abu Dhabi’s unspent €25m gift to the Louvre

Letter leaked to left-wing French newspaper reveals not all has been well between emirati and French authorities

Abu Dhabi gave €25m to the Louvre to open spaces on one floor of its Pavillon de Flore to the public, named in honour of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founder of the United Arab Emirates. Photo: Wilfred Patrick Thesiger/Pitt Rivers Museum

Not all has been well between the Abu Dhabi and French authorities over the development of the Louvre Abu Dhabi. This is revealed in an article that appeared in the left-wing French newspaper Libération ten days before the 200 works of art bought so far for the Louvre Abu Dhabi went on show on Saadiyat Island last month. The newspaper had been leaked a letter of remonstration written on 15 February 2012 by Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoun Al Nahyan, the chairman of the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, to the then director of the Louvre, Henri Loyrette. Its most embarrassing revelation is that the museum has, since 2007, been sitting on €25m, which the Gulf state paid the Louvre for spaces on one floor of its Pavillon de Flore, currently housing the Centre de Recherche et de Restauration des Musées de France, to be opened to the public and named in honour of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (above), the founder of the United Arab Emirates. This money is over and above the €1bn that the Gulf state is paying over 30 years for the Louvre Abu Dhabi project.

Changing the use of the Pavillon de Flore depends on the conservators relocating to a new building that was planned under the previous government to house the stores of the major Paris museums outside the city’s flood-risk area, but the unions have baulked at moving and the building has been postponed by the current, left-wing government at the same time as it cancelled “certain projects, planned in a superficial and, more importantly, unbudgeted manner by the Sarkozy team” (Agence France Presse, 10 September 2012).

The Louvre and Abu Dhabi are currently negotiating to find some other suitable project in which to invest the €25m and commemorate Sheikh Zayed.

Another complaint in the letter is about the manner in which the works of art have been bought for the Louvre Abu Dhabi. It reveals that, besides the average of €40m allocated by Abu Dhabi for purchases every year, the experts at the Agence France-Muséums, the body set up to manage the project, were getting through €800,000 a year in travel expenses when looking for suitable works, while the Emiratis felt insufficiently involved in the purchasing process. The contract between the French and Abu Dhabi governments does in fact say that the Emirati side should be the one to buy the works on its own behalf, but in reality it is only presented with a “shortlist” of items, selected by the agency and its museum consultants.

As a whole, the letter makes plain that Abu Dhabi feels that the agency, which operates out of a large Paris office, is not sufficiently engaged with the reality in the Gulf: it should have more than two representatives in Abu Dhabi, it should already be training Emirati specialists for when the museum opens in 2016 and it should be liaising better with the authorities there. Libération quotes the French ministry of culture, which seems anxious to distance itself from the museum agency, as saying: “We are not aware of the everyday relations [between the Agence France-Muséums and Abu Dhabi], over which we have no influence. This management has all the marks of the period when the ministry was overwhelmed and the cultural operators, having gained a lot of independence in the 2000s, were very strong.”

This suggests that the left-wing ministry is trying to get control of the agency, which is very much a creation of the previous, right-wing governments. In fact, it may well be that Sheikh Sultan’s letter, a copy of which had originally been sent to the ministry, was leaked to the newspaper by the ministry itself.

Oil on troubled waters

What is certain is that Henri Loyrette, strongly backed by President Hollande, who made a very flattering speech at his huge send-off from the Louvre on 9 April and has just appointed him to the Conseil d’Etat, the government’s top legal council, will be advising the agency in the future, although no precise job description has been announced. Loyrette reveals what is on his mind in the Libération article. He says: “Abu Dhabi needs first of all to create legal and organisational structures [for the Louvre Abu Dhabi],” a comment with which the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and the British Museum’s advisers to the Zayed National Museum will certainly agree.

In the meantime, major diplomatic bridge-building was going on at last month’s exhibition opening in Abu Dhabi: en mission were Loyrette himself, the new director of the Louvre, Jean-Luc Martinez, the curatorial director of Agence France-Muséums, Laurence des Cars, and the minister of culture, Aurélie Filippetti, not to mention a train of functionaries.

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