x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The French connection

the journey that brought Pablo Picasso to Abu Dhabi.

Travels with Pablo: Anne Baldassari, the director of the Musee National Picasso, at Emirates Palace.
Travels with Pablo: Anne Baldassari, the director of the Musee National Picasso, at Emirates Palace.

Gallery One at the Emirates Palace hotel had become a collage of world fashion. Black ties faced crispy starched white dishdashes while Armani gowns brushed up against designer abayas. Thomas Krens, the director of the Guggenheim, warmly greeted eminences both local and international, while more than one discrete kiss of welcome and congratulations grazed the cheek of Anne Baldassari, the director of the Musee National Picasso in Paris and the curator of the first Picasso exhibition ever to take place in the Middle East.

As warm-ups go, Picasso Abu Dhabi was an impressive one. But it was a warm-up: a means, albeit a historic one, to an end. And that end is the development of an informed public - local, regional, and international - that will be necessary for Abu Dhabi's ambitions to remake itself as the cultural capital of the Middle East. To use a sport metaphor, Abu Dhabi is a player in the lower leagues, learning the ropes from those who have been playing the game at the highest levels for years. Its first serious warm-up came in the form of The Arts of Islam: Treasures from the Nasser D Khalili Collection, which over four months earlier this year attracted more than 61,000 visitors to Gallery One. The Tourist Development and Investment Corporation (TDIC), which produces the shows at Emirates Palace and is also building Saadiyat Island, has declared that show a success.

Thematically, it was a perfect first outing for Abu Dhabi, generating interest from Emiratis, expats, and tourists alike. The press reception was also warm, with serious coverage in the The New York Times and other international papers alongside excellent notices in the local and regional press. Picasso Abu Dhabi constituted a more ambitious step into the top leagues, breaking parochial boundaries of taste, culture and history and focusing on an artist who, more than anyone else, is synonymous with the artistic revolution that took place in the West in the 20th century. And the exhibition did not come cheap. Payment to the Musee Picasso alone came to €4.55 million (Dh26.6m).

The initial fee for the exhibition, essentially a rental fee that doubled as a donation towards renovation of the Musee Picasso, was €3m (Dh17.3m). The bill for the Musee Picasso's production work came to €1.55m (Dh9m) and covered the cost of the transportation of the works from Paris to Abu Dhabi and back, the cost of insuring the work and the cost of mounting the show - designing and setting up the space, hanging the work, and creating the audiovisual materials and the education centre.

The Reina Sofia in Madrid paid a slightly higher base fee - €3.5m (Dh20.2m) - for an exhibition that covered nearly four times the space available at Emirates Palace and included more than twice as many pieces from the Musee Picasso, alongside a significant number of works already in the Reina Sofia's collection. The Reina Sofia spent €1.5m (Dh 8.7m) for design, installation, transportation and insurance, two-thirds of that going to transport of the artworks to Madrid and back by train.

But money - or profit - was not at issue, say the show's organisers. "I think it should be understood," explained Mubarak al Muhairi, the director general of Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, "that the staging of Picasso Abu Dhabi is not primarily a profitmaking or economically driven initiative. It is part of the ongoing arts and education programme being progressed by TDIC in the lead-up to the opening of Saadiyat Island."

Picasso's journey to Abu Dhabi began in 2006 when the French Ministry of Culture appointed Anne Baldassari, one of the world's foremost authorities on Picasso, to head the Musee National Picasso in Paris. The museum, a 17th century Marais mansion originally known as Hotel Salé, is comprised mainly of works that Picasso kept for himself; they were donated to the French government by the Picasso family at the time of the his death in 1973 in lieu of what would have presumably been an astronomical inheritance tax.

Among the first tasks facing Baldassari was to refurbish the facility. The beautiful old structure had undergone extensive renovations in 1985, but today it is in need of both cosmetic and structural repairs. "I had to come up with a way to raise the money to make the renovations," she said. Shrugging off criticism that a worldwide tour designed to raise funds amounted to the commercialisation of Picasso's art - "We must get over the division between the market and the art museum" - the new director formulated a plan for a touring retrospective, composed of a core of works that would appear at every stop, augmented with additional selections at each venue that reflected the influence of a particular place or culture.

Baldassari, who was born in Algeria, says she has long harboured a desire to bring a Picasso show to the region. She has been involved since the earliest stages in planning the Louvre's expansion to Abu Dhabi, and met in March 2007 with officials from TDIC at a gathering organised by the Abu Dhabi Ministry of Culture. "I talked with them and, you know, I got a good vibration," Baldassari explained in her heavily-accented English. "I said that we should do something together... I was putting together the Picasso world tour, at the time, and they liked the idea of bringing it here very much."

Madrid's Museo Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, where the exhibition ran from Feb 6 to May 5, had already been confirmed as the tour's first stop. Other cities around the world were already lined up - and the only available slot for a stop in Abu Dhabi was the summer of 2008. "It's miraculous that we made it happen," Baldassari said by phone from France in mid-June. "It was very hard work and we did it very quickly."

A couple of weeks later, however, as she vacationed with family in the south of France, she was more sanguine about the effort. "Yes, it was more than we usually do," she said, "but only maybe, say, 10 per cent more than Madrid. Every show is different and has its own requirements." But without a great deal of experience staging travelling art exhibitions on the scale of Picasso, the UAE lacks the skilled labour force and the infrastructure required to host such events, and it fell to the Musee Picasso to produce the show from the ground up.

When the Madrid show closed May 5, the works could not be sent directly to Abu Dhabi; the insurance policy (a Spanish government indemnity) only covered the work as it travelled to and from Paris. Baldassari negotiated a deal with a Paris-based insurance company to cover the works in transit to and from Abu Dhabi and during their stay here, while TDIC recruited Etihad Crystal Cargo to transport the invaluable goods.

"We were basically given two months notice," explained Leo Seaton, spokesman for Etihad, "and it took four to five weeks to pull it together." As all art movers do, the Musee Picasso and its handling company constructed their own packing crates, specially designed to protect the works and to absorb any shock they might encounter in transit. According to Seaton, a number of smaller pieces were actually loaded into the climate-controlled cargo bays of four passenger planes making direct flights from Paris to Abu Dhabi, raising the prospect that a box of files coming from the Paris branch of your company rode alongside priceless Picassos on their way to town. The remainder of the pieces were trucked to Frankfurt, Etihad Crystal Cargo's hub in Europe. The lorries, equipped with climate-controlled trailers and GPS systems, were provided police escorts for the 592-kilometre trip from Paris to Frankfurt. Representatives of the Musee Picasso accompanied the lorries overland as well as travelling on each of the four dedicated cargo flights that flew the Picassos from Frankfurt to Abu Dhabi.

By the time the works arrived, representatives of the Musee National Picasso and their appointed architect had already inspected Gallery One at the Emirates Palace hotel and recommended a number of changes. The gallery space was widened in some places and restructured in order to emphasise themes in the exhibition. Once the Picassos arrived in Abu Dhabi, no time was wasted transporting them to the Emirates Palace. "We got great co-operation from police and customs," said Seaton. "All of the paperwork was facilitated and within two hours the works had gone through customs and were off to the museum."

At Gallery One, there were personnel on hand from art handlers from Paris and Dubai who assisted in moving the art from room to room, but only the Picasso team actually hung the work. Meanwhile, TDIC and its in-house and outside PR operations began to spread the word about the exhibition. It is doubtful that Picasso Abu Dhabi will reach the attendance figures racked up in Madrid - 547,810 visitors who paid up to €6 to view the show (there were reduced rates for seniors and students and special times during which no admission was charged) - but TDIC is satisfied with the turn out so far.

"The response has been truly excellent," said Lee Tabler, the CEO of TDIC. "The exhibition is averaging around 600 visitors a day - much more on weekends when we have reached a daily peak of just over 1,800 per day." There has been abundant regional and international press coverage and, according to Muhairi, "We know that many of the visitors are from outside Abu Dhabi, indeed, outside of the UAE, and have travelled to Abu Dhabi specifically for the exhibition. This we know from visitor comment feedback. As yet we are unable to quantify the precise percentage of overseas visitors although TDIC is currently designing a data capture system which we hope to put in place for future events."

Exactly what the future holds does, in some ways, depend on the success of Picasso Abu Dhabi. At one point, Baldassari called the importance of the undertaking "scientific", saying that it was necessary "to be perfectly sure about the work as, being the first of its type in the region, there was a lot riding on it. The goal was to prepare the show "at the lowest price under the best conditions and of the highest quality". Using this criteria, Baldassari deems Picasso Abu Dhabi a success. She praised "the very small and personal staff" from TDIC that she and her colleagues worked with, explaining, "Our people were supervising, but all decisions were taken together".

Clearly, there are still a few wrinkles to be ironed out of the system before Abu Dhabi secures a permanent spot in the pantheon of world art cities. Although the Saadiyat Island project is well-funded and carefully designed, there are still no projections (released to the public, at least) regarding the economic impact of major art shows on the city, which will be necessary for the city's business community to fully embrace the city's cultural development.

Also, Abu Dhabi's public cultural institutions are not yet able to operate at the same level of transparency as their foreign counterparts. For this article, Spain's Reina Sofia museum provided a complete breakdown of expenses associated with hosting its version of the Picasso show. As Picasso Abu Dhabi opened, Le Monde, the French newspaper, published financial figures regarding both Madrid and Abu Dhabi, figures that were subsequently confirmed by The National.

As Tabler says, "The arts and cultural sector within Abu Dhabi and the Middle East is just coming of age." @Email:jsipe@thenational.ae