France's Louvre Museum Plans Branch in Abu Dhabi

France's storied Louvre museum, the world's premier shrine to art and home to priceless works like the Mona Lisa, announced Tuesday it will open a new Louvre in the Persian Gulf boomtown of Abu Dhabi.

French purists decried the move, saying the museum is shilling France's patrimony for US $1.3 billion in oil money.

The 30-year agreement, signed by French Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres and the head of Abu Dhabi's tourism authority, Sheik Sultan bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, opens the way for the Louvre Abu Dhabi to display thousands of works from some of France's best museums, such as the Louvre, the Georges Pompidou Center, the Musee d'Orsay and Versailles.

Those works will be housed in a huge flying saucer-shaped museum designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, which will be erected on the Abu Dhabi waterfront, opening sometime after 2012.

Abu Dhabi's rulers are positioning the Louvre as the centerpiece of a cultural district expected to attract millions of well-heeled tourists and to diversify its oil-dominated economy.

Donnedieu de Vabres said the "noble" venture represents the globalization of French culture, the first step in a long-term cooperation with the wealthy Gulf Arab region. He vowed that the Paris Louvre would not sell any of its 35,000-piece collection, nor would the deal weaken France's cultural policy or its museums.

"We're not selling the French legacy and heritage. We want this culture to radiate to parts of the world that value it," the culture minister said. "We're proud that Abu Dhabi wants to bring the Louvre here. We're not here to transform culture into a consumer product."

He also said French President Jacques Chirac sent a message saying the museum is a symbol of a "world which considers the clash of civilizations the most dangerous trap of our time."

But prominent figures in the French art world have accused their government of exploiting art for trade and diplomacy and said the lending of art will overburden French museums. Led by the art historian and critic Didier Rykner, the opponents of the Abu Dhabi scheme collected 4,700 signatures on a petition.

"We have lost a battle, but the combat continues," Rykner wrote this week on his Web site "La Tribune de l'Art," paraphrasing De Gaulle's famous remark after Nazi Germany defeated France in 1940.

Rykner promised to fight similar projects, such as the plans by the Pompidou Center in Paris to set up a branch in Shanghai, China.

The ruling sheiks of Abu Dhabi have agreed to spend a staggering sum to bring the Louvre to this fast-developing Arab capital. The French government will receive US $525 million (euro400 million) for use of the Louvre brand alone, plus a gift of US $33 million (euro25 million) to renovate a wing of the Paris Louvre, which will be named for longtime Emirates ruler Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.

The Sheik Zayed wing of the Louvre, in its Pavillion de Flore, will provide a prominent home for Islamic works of art, organizers said.

The further US $750 million (euro575 million) will be spent to bring French managers and 300 loaned works of art to fill and staff the Louvre Abu Dhabi, as well as to renovate a French palace and fund an artwork restoration center in Paris.

The cost of building Nouvel's museum design has yet to be calculated and is likely to add hundreds of US millions of dollars more to the cost, pushing the overall project close to US$2 billion (euro1.5 billion). Nouvel's design renderings revealed a white discus-shaped building with galleries illuminated by shafts of sunlight streaming through irregular-shaped windows in the roof.

Beyond the construction cost is the stratospheric price of buying the artworks that the Louvre Abu Dhabi will need to fill the 24,000 square meter (260,000 sq. feet) museum once the 30-year loan period with France expires.

"We'd rather not announce our collection budget," said Mubarak al-Muhairi, director of Abu Dhabi's tourism authority. "We don't want to create a disturbance in the market."

Al-Muhairi said an Abu Dhabi government-led purchasing committee would concentrate on classical European art, but would also target the hot new market of Indian and Middle Eastern painters, as well as Islamic and Oriental art.

For its part, France has solid reasons for bringing a Louvre branch to Abu Dhabi, Donnedieu de Vabres said. The museum will be a major manifestation of France's contributions to global civilization, reinvigorating France's flagging postcolonial stature in the Arab world.

He said the museum negotiations with Abu Dhabi's royal family had already improved bilateral relations.

"We saw that Abu Dhabi's investments in culture were really significant and we thought this was worth encouraging," Donnedieu de Vabres told reporters after signing the agreement in a gargantuan government palace.

The announcement is another cultural coup for Abu Dhabi, a once-staid oil boomtown that lives in the shadow of its flashier neighbor, Dubai.

Abu Dhabi has in the past two years began to challenge Dubai's supremacy as the Gulf's cultural hub, announcing real estate projects worth tens of billions of dollars.

In July, New York's Guggenheim Foundation announced it would build its largest-yet museum in Abu Dhabi, designed by renowned American architect Frank Gehry. The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will cost more than US$400 million (euro300 million).

The Louvre and Guggenheim are two of four museums to be designed by celebrity architects that will anchor a US$27 billion (euro21 billion) cultural district on the currently uninhabited Saadiyat Island just off the coast of Abu Dhabi. The district seeks to draw 3 million upscale tourists by 2015.

The Louvre must breach significant cultural barriers in its foray into the Muslim world, in which the representation of the human figure — even when clothed — can be a religious taboo.

One Arab reporter asked during a press conference Tuesday whether the museum would protect its visitors against "pornography." A French journalist asked whether the museum had sufficient protection against "Islamic extremists" who might threaten the Louvre Abu Dhabi or its collection.

Museum officials did not address the issue of nudity in works. But art selection will be done by a committee including Abu Dhabi's rulers, who understand the sensitivities in this city, one of the more liberal bastions in the conservative Gulf.

Sheik Sultan assured the audience the museum's works would be secure.

Louvre director Henri Loyrette said the museum typically lends up to 1,500 works a year, not including its most precious and fragile pieces, like the Mona Lisa. The Louvre Abu Dhabi can expect a loan of about 300 French works during its first year, which would shrink over time as the museum acquires its own collection, organizers said.

The loaned pieces will include some Donnedieu de Vabres described as masterpieces.

Abu Dhabi is one of seven emirates that form the United Arab Emirates, which harbors 9 percent of the world's proven oil reserves and 4 percent of its gas reserves.