Recovery. This is a common global goal for the foreseeable future. What would it take? How should we mark progress? Beyond vaccination rates and health data, analysts are looking at box office results for film, sports, and other live events to see if a city, a nation, or the world is “back”. Navigating lockdowns and social distancing measures made something glaringly evident: culture is the heartbeat of societies. When people gather in shared spaces to exchange creative ideas, the collective We thrives. After complex challenges experienced by the arts in 2020, this year has been a bearer of better news. The inauguration of the Pinault collection at Bourse de Commerce in Paris, the reopening of Broadway after an 18-months hiatus, and the success of F9: The Fast Saga have made international headlines. The latest sign-of-the-times story is the official announcement that the highly anticipated Guggenheim Abu Dhabi museum is on track for completion in 2025. The billion-dollar Frank Gehry vision has secured a contractor to bring another cultural landmark to the emirate. This will be Guggenheim’s largest outpost in the world adding to its must-see portfolio in New York, Bilbao, and Venice. The groundbreaking collection is dedicated to art from West Asia, North Africa and South Asia prioritizing underrepresented artists and artforms. I spoke with H.E. Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, Chairman of the Department of Culture and Tourism (DCT Abu Dhabi), to find out more about this historic partnership, the changing role of a museum itself, and the rising value of culture for urban development in a post-pandemic world.
Why does Abu Dhabi (or the world) need another art museum?
We celebrate cultural institutions of the world in Abu Dhabi. The more the merrier for they make the tapestry of life richer for all. Besides, we try to lead by example. When this project was initiated over a decade ago, it was becoming clear that contemporary museums did not represent “all” artists in terms of their heritage, gender, and so on. We saw an opportunity to create a new blueprint for a space that does not abide by borders and boundaries. Our concept is based on intersection and interaction, on connections and exchanges. Over the last five years we’ve collected nearly 600 artworks by more than 300 artists from 60 countries. These are artists whose work never had the chance to be seen, to be understood and to be cherished at such a level.
What dictates the geographical scope of the collection?
Everything we do here belongs on a global stage. Even to focus on artists from the Gulf, we must acknowledge that the history of art in this region is an epic story shaped by centuries of trade, migration, and cultural exchange between North Africa and Asia, and later Europe. Guggenheim Abu Dhabi aims to share this vision with a new perspective.
Is a museum still a relevant format for cultural storytelling?
Yes, and. Museums can no longer be places that store precious things. It is not enough to quietly walk around looking at objects. Museums must become spaces where people interact with ideas and engage with each other. A museum must be a place of opportunity and of belonging. Our intention was never simply to attract tourists with incredible buildings, but to foster educational dialogue about architecture, art, urban development. If we do our job right, we get to set the tone of inclusivity and connection for the future.
How is Guggenheim Abu Dhabi assessing the breakthrough in digital arts and NFT sales?
It is clear that this is a new form of expression. It is an important milestone in world art history. Fifty years from now people will write: “By 2021, a new art movement was born.” Of course, we need to be a part of it so are actively developing guidelines and policies to protect the works, the acquirers, and the artists. Then we will integrate NFTs into our collections and programs.
You have previously stated that culture is an essential industry. Do you still hold that true?
More than ever. Keep in mind that businesses and societies must evolve. Our strategy has always identified all aspects of culture as critical for development. Fostering creative minds leads to new platforms for new ideas. Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is both a message of generational change and a center for broadcasting this message. Its economic contribution is vast: from construction to customer service to suppliers and so on. We’ve seen the great impact of Guggenheim Bilbao. It transformed the city from its industrial past into a major cultural hub and destination. We hope this partnership helps governments to see the strong potential of investment in culture. We hope that this is just the beginning of something greater, not just in the Emirates but elsewhere, too.
Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is one of the emirate’s characteristically ambitious efforts. How are other cultural projects coming along?
The beautiful Etihad Arena is now open. It recently hosted Disney on Ice there. It was so great to see families and children enjoying a great show again in public. Along with the presence of the Louvre Abu Dhabi there are a number of cultural institutions already under construction, such as the Zayed National Museum and Abrahamic Family House, with more institutions to be announced in the near future. Now is a good time to plan a visit.
Abu Dhabi is known as a great shopping destination, but it lacks status as a bona fide fashion capital. Could fashion be the next development frontier?
The Gulf is one of the major importers of global fashions. It also has its own rich fashion DNA. We have beautiful traditional styles of abayas, jewelry, footwear which are being modernized by local talents. We want to create a campus that could organically support design, production, and sales for brands based in Abu Dhabi. It’s easier to just put on a fashion show with a famous brand. To think long-term, we are starting to connect artisans with major names for unique collaborations. You can buy a one-of-a-kind Nike that combines brand history with our heritage. It is stunning. Made in Abu Dhabi. Creating a globally recognized fashion industry takes time, but we’ve seen from the example of the Korean and Japanese markets that it’s possible.
What is the most pressing question on your mind now?
How can I continuously enhance the quality of life for people through cultural institutions? Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is neither the beginning nor the end. We are on a very long voyage!