Abu Dhabi has committed to opening its long-delayed branch of the Guggenheim in 2025, doubling down on the Gulf emirate’s cultural development strategy with the award of a $1bn contract for the Frank Gehry-designed museum.
The development, first announced 15 years ago, has faced protests over labour rights, delays and contract cancellations, as well as doubts around its viability through the global financial crisis and a slowdown in government spending in the wake of the crude price collapse in 2014.
Abu Dhabi has earmarked $6bn for the cultural and creative industries over the next five years as the oil-rich state seeks to supercharge growth out of the pandemic and to prepare for a post-oil future.
The capital of the United Arab Emirates this week announced it had given the contract to a Besix-Trojan joint venture, which is also building the nearby Zayed National Museum scheduled to open in 2023.
“This project is more real today than it ever was,” Mohamed Al Mubarak, chair of Abu Dhabi’s culture and tourism department, told the Financial Times in an interview. “Sometimes, waiting for something is the best thing to do.”
The Guggenheim will be another addition to the Saadiyat cultural complex on an island off downtown Abu Dhabi, where the Louvre opened a branch in 2017 and the Abrahamic Family House, an interfaith facility comprising a mosque, church and synagogue, is under construction.
Mubarak said the contemporary art museum would offer “unheard of” opportunities for artists from the Arab world, west and south Asia, and Africa. The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi has acquired 600 works from 300 artists from 60 different countries.
It will showcase Emirati artists, such as Hassan Sharif and Farah Al Qasimi, alongside more established names of modern art such as Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
“These are not built as tourist attractions — obviously that is a beautiful add on — they are built as educational institutions because culture is the building block of any society that wants to prosper,” Mubarak said. “It is done for the next generations.”
The Abu Dhabi branch will be the Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation’s largest outpost, which includes museums in New York, Bilbao and Venice.
The massive, complicated design — an irregular combination of buildings interconnected with porous conical structures — has been “refined” to make it more sustainable through more efficient materials. The museum’s 27 galleries will encompass 11,600 square metres, roughly on a par with the exhibition space at London’s Tate Modern.
Mubarak said the project would “create a ripple effect” across Abu Dhabi’s economy, assisting businesses buffeted by the pandemic’s lockdowns.
The construction period is likely to increase scrutiny of workers’ conditions and alleged human rights abuses in the authoritarian UAE. Mubarak said Abu Dhabi had already been working to enforce better labour conditions. The government is also considering new measures, such as a minimum wage and paying off debts incurred by labourers paying recruitment fees to secure work contracts in the region.
“You will see massive new reforms in this regard in the very near future,” he said.