x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Museums must tell UAE's unique story

Abu Dhabi's new cultural institutions should be for, of and about the people of the capital and the country at large.

For the past 10 days, The National has put the spotlight on progress in the UAE - and there is much to write about. Yesterday's focus was on tourism and the fact that Abu Dhabi's planned cultural attractions are expected to attract large numbers of international visitors in coming years.

Joining the capital's branch of the Louvre - already under construction and due to open in 2015 - will be the Abu Dhabi Guggenheim museum of modern art and the Zayed National Museum. There are also longer-term plans for a performing arts centre and a maritime museum to join them in the Saadiyat Cultural District.

The buildings, designed by some of the world's leading architects, will be works of art in themselves. But buildings are not enough on their own. What goes inside them - in terms of physical exhibits and the human capital involved in their creation- is vitally important. Making space available for the display of artworks and historical artefacts is one thing; nurturing and reflecting a cultural landscape is another.

We already have a taste of what's coming to the Louvre thanks to the Birth of a Museum exhibit, which continues at Manarat Al Saadiyat until July 20. There are works by Picasso, Magritte, Bellini and Gauguin, a bronze from Benin, ceramics from Iznik, Turkey, and more.

When the museum itself opens, only about 300 of the works on display will be on loan from the parent museum in Paris; the great bulk of the collection will be purchased for, and remain in, Abu Dhabi.

The combined size of the exhibition spaces in the new museums - all of which will have to be filled - presents a great opportunity for this country's artists and curators. It also throws out a challenge to everyone in the UAE to think about how best to reflect the face of the nation and the region through artistic endeavour. We should be asking how we foster new talent and increase cultural production.

This involves establishing networks among artists and audiences and government support for the arts. It also means encouraging patronage. This week saw Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the Minister for Culture, Youth and Communities Development, announce the launch of an ambitious plan to develop and strengthen all aspects of Emirati culture and identity.

Earlier this week, columnist Ayesha Almazroui suggested the establishment of a fund to encourage emerging writers. Similar endowments could be applied to the visual arts, performance and filmmaking.

But grants, gifts and prizes only go so far. Indeed, there is a risk of them going too far, creating a dependency on the state or the patron, or even stifling artistic expression through the perceived need to please.

True cultural blossoming has to be organic and inclusive. The Louvre, Guggenheim and Zayed National will be museums for the world, and big tourist draws, but they must also be for, of and about the people of Abu Dhabi and the country at large.