Guggenheim to Build Museum in Abu Dhabi

The Associated Press
Saturday, July 8, 2006; 4:04 PM

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates -- The Guggenheim announced plans Saturday for a Frank Gehry-designed art museum in Abu Dhabi, a coup for the small Persian Gulf nation and the latest international franchise for the ambitious foundation.

With its flagship museum in New York and branches in Las Vegas; Berlin; Venice, Italy; and Bilbao, Spain, the Guggenheim said its new outpost in Abu Dhabi would be its biggest venture yet.

"This is hugely ambitious, the scale of it is amazing, and they have the resources to do it," foundation director Thomas Krens said after signing the deal with the government and royal family of Abu Dhabi, one of the seven city states of the United Arab Emirates.

"It will have an enormously beneficial impact on how creativity is viewed in this part of the world," Krens said.

The museum would sit on a manmade spit jutting into the Gulf from the currently uninhabited Saadiyat Island, which lies adjacent to Abu Dhabi. With a price tag of just over $200 million, the building would be completed in about five years.

The renowned Gehry designed Guggenheim Bilbao _ with its distinctive titanium-sheathed curves _ considered by many to be his masterwork and one of the world's great modern buildings. His other projects include a Seattle museum dedicated to rock icon Jimi Hendrix and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

Speaking to The Associated Press, the Canadian-born architect said the Arabian desert has a "much different feel" than the desert near his California home and would require him to "invent a different kind of architecture that belongs here.

"I want to play off the blue water and the color of the sand and sky and sun," Gehry said Saturday. "It's got to be something that will make sense here. If you import something and plop it down, it's not going to work."

He said his design would be unveiled in November, when the Guggenheim Foundation plans to bring a collection of Russian modernist paintings to a temporary exhibition space in Abu Dhabi's Emirates Palace hotel.

Announcing the new museum, Crown Prince Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan said the nation plans to acquire a prestige collection for the museum by the time it opens in 2012.

The project poses some striking cultural juxtapositions, bringing a museum named for a powerful Jewish-American family and designed by a Jewish architect to the capital of an Arab country that refuses diplomatic ties with Israel. The foundation _ established by millionaire philanthropist Solomon R. Guggenheim in 1937 _ is a pillar of U.S.-European culture yet will have its largest presence in a Muslim country with no world-class art museums.

But Abu Dhabi, like its flashier neighboring emirate, Dubai, is a liberal, freewheeling city in throes of an energy-fueled economic boom. It is quickly filling with luxury housing, office towers and resorts, and Israelis and Jewish foreigners have business ties and homes here.

Still, one of the first dilemmas facing Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, dubbed GAD, is whether to exhibit nude works that might offend conservative Muslims. Krens said the topic had yet to be discussed.

"This is a minor issue," he said. "Our objective is not to be confrontational, but to engage in a dialogue."

The Guggenheim hopes to repeat its success in Bilbao, where Gehry's museum became the centerpiece of a renaissance in the once-decrepit port city and a huge tourist draw, with 80 percent of its visitors coming from outside Spain.

Abu Dhabi, though wealthy, is in a similar position as Bilbao was, with little to recommend it as a cultural destination, Krens said.

Positioned between Europe and Asia, the Emirates is a luxury travel hub and a top draw for second-home buyers from Europe and South Asia, yet most tourists opt for the five-star hotels and beach resorts of Dubai.

"I have faith in Frank," said Krens, a frequent visitor to the Emirates, where he rode in a December motorcycle rally with actors Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons and Dennis Hopper. Hopper, who lives in a Gehry-designed house, also attended Saturday's announcement.

Krens said the foundation set out to establish a museum in the "underserved" Middle East and that 130 cities expressed interest. Yet others were discouraged by the estimated $400 million cost of building a museum and collection or, like Dubai, couldn't match the scope or sophistication of Abu Dhabi's cultural development plans.

The crown prince envisions the Guggenheim as one of the anchors of a $27 billion "upscale cultural district" on Saadiyat Island that would seek to draw 3 million tourists by 2015.

Guggenheim Abu Dhabi would cover 322,920 square feet, making it a fourth larger than Bilbao, currently the foundation's biggest branch. But while the design is up in the air, one thing is certain: Abu Dhabi has plenty of cash to pull it off. It harbors 9 percent of the world's proven oil reserves and 4 percent of its gas reserves.

"We don't see financial investment as a major obstacle," Sheik Mohammed said.

© 2006 The Associated Press