Guggenheim Foundation builds its largest museum in Abu Dhabi

AbuDhabiGuggenheim 88ap (photo credit: AP)
AbuDhabiGuggenheim 88ap
(photo credit: AP)
The Guggenheim will open a Frank Gehry-designed art museum in Abu Dhabi, a cultural coup for a small Persian Gulf nation in the midst of a mammoth building boom, and an adventurous expansion by one of the world's most famous foundations. The New York-based Guggenheim Foundation, which attracts over 2.5 million visitors each year to its collections, said Saturday that Abu Dhabi would host its biggest museum ever. "This is hugely ambitious, the scale of it is amazing, and they have the resources to do it," Guggenheim Foundation director Thomas Krens said after signing a deal the government and royal family of the United Arab Emirates. "It will have an enormously beneficial impact on how creativity is viewed in this part of the world," Krens said. The museum would sit on a manmade spit of land that juts into the Persian Gulf from the currently uninhabited Saadiyat Island, which lies adjacent to Abu Dhabi. Authorities said the museum would cost slightly more than US$200 million (euro 160 million) and would be completed in just over five years. One of the world's most famous architects, the Jewish, Canadian-born Gehry designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain; the Experience Music Project, a music museum in Seattle dedicated to American rock icon Jimi Hendrix; and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, among other buildings around the world. Gehry said Saturday that he had only recently committed to building the new museum, and had not yet decided on a design. But he said the Arabian desert had a "much different feel" than the desert near his California home, and would require him to "invent a different kind of architecture that belongs here." "I want to play off the blue water and the color of the sand and sky and sun," Gehry told The Associated Press. "It's got to be something that will make sense here. If you import something and plop it down, it's not going to work." He said a design would be unveiled in November, when the Guggenheim Foundation brings a collection of Russian modernist paintings to Abu Dhabi. The exhibit is set to open in temporary quarters in the massive gilded Emirates Palace hotel. Gehry dubbed the four-month deadline "a rush job" that normally takes six. In announcing plans for the museum, Abu Dhabi's crown prince Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan served notice to the art community that Abu Dhabi would become its next big player, setting out to acquire a worthy collection to fill the museum by the time it opens in 2012. The project brought striking cultural juxtapositions: A museum named for a major Jewish-American family and designed by a Jewish-American architect would rise in the capital of an Arab country that refuses diplomatic ties with Israel. A foundation that has become a pillar of U.S.-European culture would establish its largest presence in a Muslim country with no world-class art museums. But Abu Dhabi, like its flashier neighboring emirate of Dubai, is a liberal, freewheeling city in the midst of an energy-fueled economic boom that is quickly filling with luxury housing, office towers and resorts. The Emirates may not recognize Israel, but Israelis and Jewish foreigners have business ties and even homes here. Observers said the development of a world-class art museum could defuse critics who complain Mideast cities lack the cultural amenities of other international capitals. One of the first dilemmas facing the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, dubbed GAD, was whether it show nude works that might offend conservative Muslims. Krens said the topic had yet to be discussed. "This is a minor issue," he said. "Our objective is not to be confrontational, but to engage in a dialogue." Guggenheim hopes to repeat the success it found with Gehry's flamboyant, curvaceous museum in Bilbao, Spain, which quickly became the centerpiece of a cultural renaissance in the Basque industrial city and a huge tourist draw. Krens said 80 percent of its visitors come from outside Spain. Abu Dhabi, although a wealthy city, is in a similar position as Bilbao was, with little to recommend it as a cultural destination, Krens said. Most tourists opt for the five-star hotels and beach resorts of neighboring Dubai. "I have faith in Frank," said Krens, a frequent visitor to the Emirates, where he rode in a December motorcycle rally with actors Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons and Dennis Hopper. Hopper, who lives in a Gehry-designed house, also attended Saturday's announcement. "Working together we can create something that's powerful and that's unique," Krens said.