In the new global cultural economy of creative regions, the United Arab Emirates have aimed high with the Louvre Abu Dhabi. This major and unprecedented project, risky political both for France and the UAE, required considerable creativity, significant investment, and a daring reconciliation between distant worlds that no one could have imagined just a few years earlier.
The innovation is a radical one : the UAE initiative was approved at the highest levels in both countries, making this partnership between the UAE and France unique in the world. The negotiation process was driven by a dynamism not usually seen in French government and by a small number of political, cultural and technocratic personalities who transcended their institutional restrictions, devised unexpected solutions and obtained an exceptional valuation for museum expertise in France, and all in the name of the most prestigious museum in the world, the Louvre.
To date, however, the venture’s momentum has not continued, neither for French cultural policy nor for the development and influence of museums and other major French cultural institutions. This conclusion is the result of a joint analysis by a researcher in management and the general administrator of the Louvre Museum at the time the project was launched.
Genesis of an exceptional project
The 2007 agreement between France and the UAE was exceptional from an international standpoint and even more in France. It was the first time that two countries had made this kind of commitment to a sustainable partnership to create a universal museum of worldwide scope. The then director of the Louvre, Henri Loyrette, defined the Louvre Abu Dhabi as :
“an extraordinary scientific project. It is a matter of assisting our Emirate partners to create a museum where the scientific, cultural, and pedagogical bias will be fixed firmly in new perspectives that we will have to invent, while helping them to build up their collections”. (Foreword, Louvre Annual Report 2007, p. 5-6.).
This was the first time that a museum of the Louvre’s stature had agreed to have its name, with a thousand years of history behind it, associated with a museum outside France – and moreover, one in a part of the world with which it had few dealings. In other words, the Louvre museum, and French heritage in general, opening up a new market.
In 2001 the Louvre filed an application to protect its brand name. It was able to set the brand’s value at a level never before seen – 400 million euros over 30 years for the institutional communication of the future museum plus a share commercial profits – that also put monetary value on French heritage expertise at the highest international standards, 165 million euros. While payments for exhibitions were already largely applied by major French museums, the sums achieved – 190 million euros for the loan of works of art and 195 million euros for exhibitions from 2017 to 2032 – would make opponents of the projects dizzy.
This was also the first time that major French museums found themselves working together, as shareholders, in the joint venture Agence France-Museums (AFM) which would bring the project to fruition, and export and promote French museum know-how.
In the wake of the agreement, the Louvre will benefit from the introduction of endowment funds in France, like those received by the major American museums. These are to be brought in as part of the French Law of Modernization of the Economy, passed in August 2009. The first such fund, created for the Louvre in 2009, will ensure that most of the monies received when the agreement was signed by the Museum (175 million euros) can be preserved so that funding for the museum can be guaranteed over time and will not be affected by any uncertainties in the state budget.
The negotiations by the Louvre received support at the highest level in France, with unfailing support from then President Jacques Chirac, and in turn from the Minister of Culture, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, who ensured that many internal administrative obstacles were able to be overcome.
From the start, the agreement benefitted from the involvement of some remarkable figures : Laurence Des Cars, honorary curator of the d’Orsay Museum, was scientific director and Bruno Maquart, director general of the Centre Pompidou, was director general, serving the cultural and scientific aims of the project and overseeing meticulously all the commitments that were made.
In 2006, the choice of Jean Nouvel, one of the world’s “starchitects”, sent a clear message that French creativity was clearly associated with the project.
In sum, the project was a disruptive innovation, yet it experienced a range of controversies, in particular geopolitical, with the UAE suspected of exploiting the heritage project and France of mercilessly commodifying its own heritage… Without entering into the question of their legitimacy, these controversies can be interpreted as an expression of the unease over the choices made by the Louvre. The project was seen as forcing a paradigm shift, with a radical entry into the arts business, aesthetic capitalism, branding, creative tourism, and more broadly into the global creative economy. However, this movement was long under way with the opening of the Louvre-Lens museum in northern France or the Louvre-Atlanta collaboration being the French contribution to this revolution which was already well established in the 1990s with the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain, and the Tate Modern in London.
2017 : what has been learned collectively ?
As the Louvre Abu Dhabi opens in November 2017, on the one hand there are many articles celebrating the project, and on the other, the persistence of museum-related and geopolitical controversies. Is it not possible to have an open debate on this sensitive subject that would be a useful learning process ? Astonishingly, both partisans and opponents of the project seem to have been silenced, authorizing a single political analysis of the project, at the expense of any cultural and managerial discussion.
First, what is striking is not that the project has finally come to fruition after 10 years, but rather that it is still the only one of its kind. Nothing similar has been launched, and the French Ministry of Culture – which was already marginalized in 2007 – seems to have learned nothing from the prospects offered not only in Abu Dhabi but internationally, not only for the Louvre but also for our major cultural institutions, nor has the question been raised of exploiting a brand, nor that of French museum and cultural expertise.
Now that the inauguration is over, the Agence France-Museums is being dismantled, yet no one has asked whether it should be transformed into a global agency for promoting French heritage and culture. This despite that fact that its activities could clearly have been extended to many artistic fields, first in Abu Dhabi, where they hoped to create a cultural hub that would include several more museums and cultural institutions, but also elsewhere in the world.
France is certainly more than able to project its soft power internationally in the cultural field, but only via traditional channels (literature, exhibitions, tours of live shows and concerts, tourism, network of French Institutes, etc.).
Louvre Abu Dhabi has in no way changed social representations and practices, let alone the ministerial organization, and it has barely affected how other museums operate. That said, they do tend to be more innovative, such as the Centre Pompidou having opened branches in Malaga and Shanghai. Aspirations to become a designer, operator or partner in major cultural projects abroad in markets where the demand for culture is rising sharply. Such initiatives have not flourished, however : passivity is the order of the day, prospection is non-existent, transversality is impossible, and institutions are shackled.
There are still many more questions to be asked about Louvre Abu Dhabi, in particular about supporting this museum until 2037, when the agreement expires. Let us hope that a constructive dialogue can open up between all of the project’s French stakeholders, in an open and contemporary spirit, to enable France’s cultural leadership throughout the world to grow.
Gombault A. and Selles D. (2018), “The Louvre Abu Dhabi Museum : a disruptive innovation with no future ?”, International Journal of Arts Management, to be published.