Monday, January 8, 2007

PARIS — Plans to export a version of France’s most famous museum, the Louvre, to a resort in the oil-rich city of Abu Dhabi have sparked accusations the government is sacrificing cultural standards for profit.

The plan, backed by the Ministry of Culture, is part of a drive by the United Arab Emirates to create a luxury tourist destination. French newspapers have reported the contract to bring the Louvre to the Gulf to be worth more than $655.2 million.

But the project to create a “Louvre in the sands” has triggered opposition from analysts in France, who fear it will distort the museum’s true function as center of scholarship and home to some of Western art’s greatest treasures from the “Mona Lisa” to the “Venus de Milo.”

“If we care about preserving and displaying our heritage, by what principle should we be using works of art as currency of exchange?” three of France’s leading art historians asked in an article in the daily Le Monde.

The arts journal La Tribune de l’Art says a petition against the project has attracted 1,300 signatures including those of 90 museum directors and curators and hundreds of art historians, teachers and even Culture Ministry officials.

The project, which would involve technical support, loans of art works as well as permission to use the Louvre name, sets cultural values against potent economic incentives in a crucial region for France.

As well as oil, the Gulf states are a key market for French exporters of products ranging from luxury goods to the A380 superjumbo, and critics have been quick to point the finger.

“You don’t have to look far for the reasons for this cultural escapade,” the Liberation daily said in an editorial. “Oil is expensive and the Airbus has been selling badly recently.”

French governments have traditionally seen the country’s rich cultural heritage as an instrument for furthering its political interests.

The director of France’s national museum service, Francine Mariani-Ducray, said it was important that France’s vast wealth of art treasures should be shared.

“Our works of art should circulate in the world,” she said.

Other museums, notably New York’s Guggenheim Museum, have moved toward creating world museum brands by establishing “branches” in other cities and the Guggenheim has also agreed to an offshoot in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE.

Details of the Louvre project remain vague, and the Culture Ministry in Paris has made little comment on talks between authorities in Abu Dhabi and French officials.

But Liberation quoted sources close to the case as saying permission to use the prestigious Louvre name was key to a deal.

Abu Dhabi has been making a determined push to lure visitors, and its $27 billion development on Saadiyat Island will include two golf courses and marinas for 1,000 boats, as well as museums and cultural centers.

For France, the project may point the way toward future deals to use its standing as one of the world’s cultural heavyweights to increase its influence in the world.

It has already agreed to set up a branch for the Sorbonne, the main Paris university since the 13th century, in Abu Dhabi, and the Center Pompidou, one of France’s main modern art museums, is looking at setting up an annex in Shanghai.

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