How Abu Dhabi Fostered a Burgeoning Contemporary Art Scene

Valentina Buzzi
Dec 8, 2022 4:00PM

Exterior view of Louvre Abu Dhabi. Photo © Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi. Photo by Yiorgis Yerolymbos. Courtesy of Louvre Abu Dhabi.

In recent years, the art ecosystem of the United Arab Emirates has rapidly developed as the result of an important cultural policy strategy that positions art and culture as key drivers of economic development. This investment unfolds differently in the various capitals: Whereas Dubai offers a growing commercial scene represented by the gallery district of Alserkal Avenue, Sharjah is home of the Sharjah Biennial—a major international presentation in the SWANA region.

Meanwhile, the capital of the U.A.E. is home to Louvre Abu Dhabi, the first universal museum in the Arab world. Acknowledged to be a byproduct of European colonialism, universal or encyclopedic museums—such as the British Museum or the Parisian Musée du Louvre—serve the role of showcasing artifacts with global provenance, some acquired as a result of war and looting. In recent years, several discussions have been raised about the geopolitical locations of such museums, their enforcement of a Western-centric world order, and their role in “legitimizing” certain countries as must-visit art world hubs.

Installation view of “Louvre Abu Dhabi Art Here 2022” at Louvre Abu Dhabi, 2022. Photo by Photo Augustine Paredes - Seeing Things. Courtesy of Department of Culture and Tourism - Abu Dhabi.


Entering this discourse in a region that has been at the very hearth of Western imperial dominance, Louvre Abu Dhabi celebrated its five-year anniversary this past November. A contributor to the expansion of the local art ecosystem, it will soon be joined by a new outpost of the Guggenheim, set to open in 2025.

“Previously, audiences that wanted to engage with international art from prominent collections would be required to travel to Europe or the U.S. The establishment of these institutions provides an unprecedented opportunity to encounter a plethora of artworks and antiquities from across the world in the U.A.E.,” said Maliha Tabari, founder of Tabari Artspace, one of the oldest galleries established in the country. “This marks out the U.A.E. as a cultural center in the Middle East and subsequently attracts key individuals from the global art scene.”

Installation view of Tabari Artspace’s booth at Abu Dhabi Art, 2022. Courtesy of Tabari Artspace.

In addition to bringing major international exhibitions to the region—such as the recently inaugurated “Impressionism: Pathways to Modernity,” presented in partnership with the Musée d’Orsay and France Museums—Louvre Abu Dhabi reflects new formulations of what an encyclopedic museum can look like. “We are reinventing the model in a very innovative way by creating dialogues instead of classifying knowledge,” explained museum director Manuel Rabaté. “This way allows you to talk to all communities, a reflection of the diversity that this region offers. Today, our museum manages to have all the seven emirates represented, as well as heritage and art from all of the region.”

Strong community relationships are a key driver not only for the museum itself, but for the entire cultural ecosystem in the U.A.E. With a constant flux of visitors and a population of predominantly expatriates, the federal country celebrates ideas of tolerance, diversity, and cross-cultural conversation. “I find this region inspiring for what it has done to build itself on commonality in an historical site of conflict. It is very close to my own practice and the concept of the Third Paradise,” shared Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto, whose series of mirror paintings are currently in dialogue with Louvre Abu Dhabi’s permanent collection to commemorate the museum’s anniversary.

Michelangelo Pistoletto, installation view at Louvre Abu Dhabi, 2022. Photo © Galleria Continua. Photo by Ela Bialkowska. Courtesy of the artist, Galleria Continua, and Louvre Abu Dhabi.

Louvre Abu Dhabi has also contributed to expanding the demographic of collectors and their tastes: “Without an institutional presentation, galleries had a mission to cultivate the audience, and collectors were more conservative and were mostly composed of Arab and European expats,” explained Yasmin Atassi, director of Green Art Gallery, which has been active in the region for more than 30 years. “Today, we have a much bigger Emirati base, which is wonderful to see. We also have riskier collectors. I am able to show and sell difficult work that I would not have been able to do even a few years ago.”

The growth of Abu Dhabi’s art market can also be credited to annual events like Abu Dhabi Art, which takes place in Manarat Al Saadiyat, a few minutes drive from the Louvre. The fair celebrated its 14th edition this year by waiving entrance fees as part of a wider engagement program.

Installation view of Green Art Gallery’s booth at Abu Dhabi Art, 2022. Photo by Anna Shtraus. Courtesy of Green Art Gallery.

“Although the heart of the fair is of course represented by commercial sales, its identity unfolds in relation to the community in diversified ways,” said Dyala Nusseibeh, who has been the fair’s director since 2016. “We engage with higher level universities, schools, artist residencies, commissions, and prizes, and we try our best to stay relevant to our audience all year round.” This once again reflects the plan of the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism, which organizes Abu Dhabi Art, to set a different tone from most known fairs which are privately owned.

Both Abu Dhabi Art and Louvre Abu Dhabi are committed to promoting local contemporary art, as exemplified by the fair’s “Beyond: Emerging Artists 2022” program and the museum’s “Louvre Abu Dhabi Art Here 2022” exhibition featuring artists shortlisted for the Richard Mille Art Prize. Both present the work of artists from the Gulf, meeting the effort of local players to enhance the possibility of important acquisitions by institutions and collectors—fundamental for a region that has been historically underrepresented.

Marinella Senatore, installation view of Bodies in Alliance, 2021, at Abu Dhabi Art, 2022. Courtesy of Abu Dhabi Art.

Established international artists are not lacking in presence, with the presentation of works by Jenny Holzer and Yan Pei-Ming in addition to Pistoletto at Louvre Abu Dhabi, and Marinella Senatore’s monumental light sculpture Bodies in Alliance (2021) at the entrance of Abu Dhabi Art last month.

The capital of the U.A.E. accompanies countries like South Korea in the developing trend of governments investing in art and culture. West Asia joins East Asia in building this much needed industry decentralization.

Valentina Buzzi