Another step forward for Guggenheim Abu Dhabi: it has a project director

UPDATED Stephanie Rosenthal has been named as the new project director for the long-awaited Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. She joins on 1 September and will take charge of the institution’s much delayed opening – currently forecast for 2025.

This is apparently is a contract that runs only to the launch of the museum, but obviously Dr Rosenthal will be in pole position when the actual full time director is appointed. In the meantime she will be working with Maisa Al Qassimi, long-time acting director for DCT Abu Dhabi’s Guggenheim project — the museum is effectively a joint venture between DCT Abu Dhabi, which owns the building, and the Guggenheim Foundation, which will run it.

Dr Rosenthal (right) will be leaving Berlin’s Gropius Bau, where she has served as the gallery’s first female director since 2018. Before that she had a decade as chief curator at the Hayward Gallery in London, and fitted in a stint as curator of the widely praised 2016 Sydney Biennale.

Claudia Roth, German Minister of State for Culture and the Media, thanked Rosenthal handsomely for her service: “With Stephanie Rosenthal’s departure, the Gropius Bau and Berlin’s art scene will lose one of its figureheads. In the past years, she and her team have modernised the Gropius Bau at a rapid pace and made it into a hotspot for contemporary discourse on art and society — despite the pandemic! Her move to one of the world’s leading collections underscores her great professional competence and international reputation.”

Stephanie Rosenthal’s exhibitions have also been shown in museums around the world. Her hits at Gropius Bau included a Yayoi Kusama retrospective last year, but maybe we get a better sense of direction from the exhibitions by artists Emeka Ogboh (whose site specific ‘village square’ installation is currently filling the Gropius Bau’s Atrium); Otobong Nkanga, who was the Gropius Bau’s In House: Artist in Residence during 2019; and Zheng Bo, who followed her as the 2020 AIR. All built on themes of dispossession and recovery, displacement and reconnection, and our relationship with nature – or as Zheng Bo puts it, “how plants practice politics”.

It was Rosenthal who introduced the gallery’s first artist-in-residence programme, in fact, and we expect that she’ll aim to repeat this at the Guggenheim.

Stephanie Rosenthal told The Art Newspaper that she aimed to make the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi “one of the most progressive institutions of the 21st century”. That’s a laudable ambition, though ‘progressive’ can be a loaded word in the Emirates. She also said “my goal is to create an inclusive institution which is truly rooted in the region, and can grow into one of the most important institutions worldwide” – all which seems definitely doable.

Once completed, the Frank Gehry-designed museum will cover 30,000m2, making it the largest of the four Guggenheim satellites, with something over 12,000m2 of exhibition space. Rosenthal should enjoy working with that – at Gropius Bau she had just 6,500m2 to play with.

The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi’s collection is building nicely, with an initial core of classic Guggenheim artists (like Niki de Saint Phalle, Anish Kapoor, Günther Uecker) but a broader focus on works from North Africa and Asia. Apparently it now comprises some 600 works dating from 1965 to the present, all collected in the last 15 or so years. We’ve seen some of these in two shows at the Manarat, the last of them in 2016 with works by artists including Rasheed Araeen, Mohammed Kazem, Shiraga Kazuo and Tanaka Atsuko.

Interestingly, the press release for her appointment included a comment on the delays to Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, which was first announced in 2006 with a projected completion date of 2012. Seems the numerous delays are due to “various factors including battles with the Labor Coalition over the working conditions of the migrant labourers retained to construct the institution, and the Covid-19 crisis”.

In fact site the issues over working conditions for immigrant labour applied as much to other projects, notably the Louvre and NYUAD, and they did manage to get under way. Nor could Covid issues be adduced as a special factor, though it did probably account for the most recent delay – at the 2019 Abu Dhabi Culture Summit, Richard Armstrong, director of the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum and Foundation, had said that the project was on track to open in 2022 or 2023.

In fact site works began in 2011 for the Guggenheim and were suspended later the same year. The official statement at the time said that was “due to a review of its project procurement strategy” and the rumour mill suggested that the scale of the infrastructure investment on Saadiyat was scaring the bean counters.

In 2017, Armstrong’s predecessor Thomas Krens said that the project might never be realised given the new economic conditions (the hangover from the worldwide recession of the noughties) and fears that the museum could become a target for terrorists.

In the event all the major Saadiyat projects were put on a more leisurely (and presumably more exchequer-friendly) schedule – NYUAD was built first, the Louvre followed, the Zayed National Museum is under way, and it looks like the Guggenheim will actually be happening too. (Zaha Hadid’s swooping concert hall was a very early casualty.)

Hopefully Stephanie Rosenthal’s appointment is a marker for smooth progress from now on. She looks like a good choice, imaginative, clear-eyed and very professional, and we’re keen to see what she’s planning for the opening show.

UPDATED 23 Jun 22 to clarify the nature of Dr Rosenthal’s appointment. We originally described her as ‘director’; in fact her title is ‘project director’.

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