Guggenheim Abu Dhabi: “on track, on budget” … or not?

Coming soon (hopefully): Gehry's Guggenheim Abu Dhabi

The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will be ready for opening in “approximately four years”, according to an interview given by Guggenheim Foundation director Richard Armstrong on the sidelines of the Culture Summit Abu Dhabi 2019 last week. The Guggenheim Foundation led three panels at the Culture Summit on the themes of cultural responsibility and new technology.

Armstrong was confident and positive, if a little imprecise on dates. “We are on track, we are on budget and we are looking forward to the commencement of the building construction soon,” he said.

Or maybe he was just being too optimistic. Here’s an official statement provided to the US news site Hyperallergic a few days later: “Recent coverage of an updated timeline for the construction and opening of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi was erroneous and was corrected by multiple media outlets several days ago.

“There is no construction on Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, no contractor has been selected, and no timeline has been set.”

Hyperallergic had been pushing the Guggenheim Foundation for comment on a Gulf Labor Coalition call for artists to boycott the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi if there are no commitments about the labour standards – the museum, says the group, is being “built on the back of exploited, indebted, and abused workers”.

Or rather it isn’t, since the Foundation says it’s not being built at all at the moment. There appears to have been some preparatory work on the site, but when we checked there was little evidence of major activity.

“There is no construction on Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, no contractor has been selected, and no timeline has been set …”

“It is a big building and parts of it are quite complex and it should take a little bit of time to put together,” Armstrong observed with commendable understatement (Frank Gehry doesn’t design simple prefab boxes). Past experience suggests though that when things start to happen on major construction projects in the UAE, they can progress with dramatic speed.

The stunning building that Gehry has designed would house the largest collection of modern art in the area. At around 30,000m2, it would also be the biggest museum in the Guggenheim portfolio; and it would have more space than Jean Nouvel’s Louvre Abu Dhabi (24,000m2).

Nouvel’s other localish museum design – the new National Museum of Qatar – spreads over 40,000m2 and gets the current mine-is-bigger-than-yours bragging rights in the Gulf; but then the proposed Zayed National Museum on Saadiyat, should it ever get the green light, would come in at 44,000m2 to restore national pride.

The deal to build a Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi dates from 2006, with the opening scheduled at the time for 2012. Then a number of factors including the slump in oil prices and perhaps the Arab Spring produced a series of postponements. The 2012 opening was shelved, as was a revised estimate of 2017; no wonder no one is committing to a specific date.

A couple of years ago the former director of the Guggenheim Foundation and the man who negotiated the deal, Thomas Krens, took part in a podcast chat. At the time he suggested that the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi could/should be postponed further or scaled back, largely because of concerns about security and/or international positioning: “The world financial crisis and the Arab Spring has changed the equation radically”, he said. “It may not be such a good idea these days to have an American museum … with a Jewish name in a country [that doesn’t recognise Israel] in such a prominent location, at such a big scale”.

Jean Michel Basquiat’s Cabra, already part of an extensive collection acquired for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi

But maybe that’s not the overriding issue. High-end culture tourism is of course the commercial rationale for the Saadiyat museums, and it was interesting to read an Arabian Business interview recently with Khalid Anib, chief executive of Abu Dhabi National Hotels (ADNH). He said there had been an uplift for tourism from the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, “but not to the level that we had expected … I think the Louvre by itself is not enough”. He believes a group of museums is needed to realise the potential of Abu Dhabi as a cultural destination.

In the meantime, the Guggenheim has been “actively developing a curatorial strategy” and collecting work for the future museum. We’ve seen some of the fruits of this both in exhibitions and public programming like the Talking Art series.

Still, despite all the excited chatter in the local media following Richard Armstrong’s perhaps unguarded remarks (you’d think the director of the Foundation would know that “there is no construction on Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, no contractor has been selected, and no timeline has been set”), it looks as though we’re no further forward with the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. Too bad.

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