After Louvre Abu Dhabi: Dreams of Potential Partnerships for Cultural Exchange

Category: Global Thinking
View of a portion of the Louvre Abu Dhabi with intricate interwoven structures and windows framed within.
Photo by Alvaro Pinot on Unsplash

We watched the opening of Louvre Abu Dhabi a few months ago, many having followed the saga surrounding the establishment of the new museum in the Gulf since its official announcement in January 2007. In spite of the politics, money, and catalytic power of institutional branding that dominated criticism as the project was taking form, its core ambition i.e. the long-term exhibition of works of art collected and stored in one location shared with populations elsewhere, remains a high-profile addition to the cultural exchange practices of our time. Yes, there was money—lots of it —greasing this opportunity. This was combined with the promise to develop facilities and infrastructure to accommodate most of the lending institutions’ anxieties regarding transport, interpretation, and display. It’s been a museum model much discussed and debated. One suspects, however, that the contentious details of the earliest years of Louvre Abu Dhabi will recede in the public’s consciousness as the institution begins to function on its own—so often the case with media-catalyzed turmoils surrounding the establishment or transformation of art museums.

It might be useful to take this example of asset exchange in the cultural sphere to reflect on the possibilities of future models of global partnerships, ones that may not have the depth of the Louvre’s collections or the wealth of Abu Dhabi at their foundation. Could the international museum community ever consider exchange initiatives that update the utopian ideals on which museums were founded—art collections formed for public experience and education—doing so for audiences far as well as near with money being one but not the only catalyst for exchange? A dream of common stewardship of the world’s cultural patrimony would seem no more ambitious than that of seventeenth and eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophers who imagined the collecting and presenting of objects from multiple cultures and diverse histories together in one specially conceived architectural space (the “compendium of the world, microcosm of the macrocosm”, as museum historian Andrew McClellan has put it). As unlikely as the realization of such a dream might have seemed at the time, that early vision has been expressed with different degrees of completeness in urban art museums throughout the western world, accompanied though it must be said with a critique of such collecting ambitions (“bourgeois” or “imperial”…. “decontextualizing” and “tomb”-like) expressed periodically, with varying degrees of outrage, from the eighteenth-century to the present day.

There have been attempts to explore the possibility of sharing art and human resources between so-called “encyclopedic” museums of the West and those of  “source” countries whose collections and mission are primarily national in focus, doing so in ways not solely driven by short-term special exhibition initiatives (as important as these exhibitions have been in the last decades for both scholarship and public experience). Ten years have passed since 60 representatives from around the world met to discuss the “Freer Circulation of Cultural Artifacts” in Salzburg in May 2008, a conference that attempted to address issues limiting cultural exchange among museums in spite of the sector’s contentious and uneven international playing field. It’s been the aim of a few programs, most notably those of the British Museum, to mitigate institutional inequalities as they encourage networks to form through the experience of well-functioning larger institutions. There has been, however, anything but a groundswell of interest in the possibilities of long-term exchanges of art and people in spite of the fact that we live in a moment of greater connectivity, a time when arts institutions trans-nationally have shown a common commitment to address the preservation of cultural patrimony, a shared value catalyzed by the recent destruction of archeological sites and museums.

Is it not time to initiate more energetic programs of collaborative stewardship, of collections exhibited and variously interpreted at different sites around the globe through expanded, long-term international partnerships? Such initiatives may at first seem utopian in their ambition, but this dream, even if only partially realized, would result in greater access to the vast number of works in storage facilities of our larger museums and archeological sites, utilizing collections through the sharing of objects, taking them from the invisible to the visible and contextualizing them variously and creatively in the process of interpretation and display through diverse curatorial interventionsIt’s a dream of collection exchange that could be decades long, involving many objects, exchanges that could be accompanied by the establishment of near-permanent ties between disparate institutions with shared collections being the common thread, a talisman for cultural contact and understandingSome might fear that the resulting programs would bring only the mediocre up from storage, but such an attitude overlooks the potential of curatorial imagination and administrative initiative when programmatic creativity in this, a period of canon reformation, is directed at scholarly interest linked to public benefit. It’s a dream that would take years of practice, with a corresponding record of successes, to establish its long-term value and permanent effect. But, I ask, why not start in spite of the challenges and why not start now.

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The storage of collections represents a major cost for arts institutions, a particular conundrum given the fact that many institutions see access to their publicly held collections as a special responsibility. Yet in spite of professional efforts which range from open storage schemes to regional branches for certain national museums, the majority of works in museums—from those in the West that house so-called “encyclopedic” collections to those of national museums and archeological sites in “source” countries—are for the most part off view, available by special appointment hard to arrange for anyone, especially the general public. There are millions of objects nationally or institutionally owned which are off view. In the United States, individuals and foundations have occasionally tried to address the issue on a national scale. The Museum Loan Network, a product of the Knight Foundation, operated for about 10 years arranging loans among American museums before its work ceased in the early 2000s. More recently new contemporary arts institutions begun by private individuals have launched their museums with a special focus on accessibility following pioneer Dominque de Menil, who spoke of her collection in 1973 at the time of her husband’s death:  “We will circulate it.  We will lend it, make it completely alive”.  The new Broad Museum in Los Angeles represents the values of many museums recently founded by private collectors who have expressed long-term loans as a core operating principle. A new collection-sharing initiative, Art Bridges, is directed at bringing American art to audiences with limited access to significant collections.  With generous funding from founder Alice Walton, it promises to succeed.

But can robust exchange initiatives be tried on an international stage? There are barriers, to be sure, from common immunity from seizure agreements to insufficiently funded national indemnity schemes, to the current policies of many cultural ministries to limit the length of loans to foreign institutions. Museum professionals, however, should not be stifled by the seeming impossibility of addressing current administrative and diplomatic hurdles. Trial ventures resulting in successful outcomes are the only way to address such obstacles and we are at an opportune moment to confront the challenges that such trial ventures present. It’s a time when a younger generation is skeptical of institutions generally, aware as they are that art museums are made up of fragments of objects of cultures past and that museums are neither as ancient nor as forever stable as their practitioners might want the public to believe. We are conscious, too, that the politics and populations of the period when western art museums were founded neither mirror today’s geography nor the cultural influence of many post-colonial urban centers. With the cultural world supporting the growing economic and artistic influence of these new artistic centers, one can ask whether institutions should not recognize this population shift further. The question of museum storage as an idea (“storage for whom?” and “storage for what purpose?”) is alive as well, vehemently in some quarters, along with questions of what such storages contain and to whom those objects belong. The politics and economics of stored collections have been, up to now, a little-discussed mode of institutional power, but the “whose objects are these?” debates are animated, whether we speak of First Nation rights to possess sacred or ritually significant works or archeological objects taken recently or long ago from “source” countries. With acquisitions from Africa, South America, Asia and the Mediterranean lately so curtailed by national legislation and international conventions, works from many cultures will have limited public accessibility unless they are shared. Debates and actions regarding restitution and repatriation are commonplace in museum dialogues on cultural property, heated conversations fueled not only by professionals but by politicians and cultural ministers conscious of the political value of linking cultural property to national identity. The return of the vast majority of objects now residing in public collections other than those of their country of origin is taken as a practical goal by very few in the field, however. Nor should it be given current discourse with notions of “stewardship” vs. “ownership” expressed regularly by museum professionals.

But numerous factors challenge the dream and keep it from being realized in the near term and on a large scale. Museum professionals would certainly proclaim an interest in sharing collections if asked, but institutions are by nature conservative organizations whose preservation mission is supported by the attitudes and professional training of curators and conservators. While the profession has been able to transfer objects with care far more successfully in recent years than in the past, there is reticence to move art and artifacts from their current site to the uncertainty of transport damage or exhibition at a location that one does not control. In addition, many larger museums see themselves as libraries for objects, study centers for research with collections available and accessible to scholars. To address public interest and responsibility open storage is often the institutional answer, a taxonomic if not excitingly curated opportunity for display given its almost “cabinet of curiosity” exhibition form. The commonly expressed goal of fully realized digitally accessible collections as a virtual means of sharing also passes as a substitute for exchange in spite of the fact that all those associated with museums accept that the digitized object is no substitute for the experience and power of the real, the engagement between object and viewer that is the foundation of the museum experience. And why lend, of course, conscious as we are that the largest museums in the West’s mega-cities have become centers of cultural tourism attracting an increasing number of visitors from around the world to their museum sites?

Partnerships are hard as well, especially when institutions are uneven in their resources and have different value systems based on history, mission, national and cultural traditions. It is a challenge to reconcile the different perspectives of potential museum partners when institutions are at different stages of development in terms of conservation, security, curatorial expertise and financial support. There’s also the skepticism of schemes that attempt to be “global” without recognizing regional identities in a period, like our own, when works of art and other forms of material culture are regularly linked to political power and ethnic pride. And the tactically centered museum culture of the last decades, focused as it is on institutional survival through the development of ever-expanding sources of income, has come to see their collections as a special kind of capital, a source for operating revenue through loan fees, as well as its museum brand as something that not only can be leveraged by institutions at home but at sites abroad as well. This new capital asset assumption has inspired traditional organizations to think in ways one might never have thought possible in the past, allowing objects to go to other venues for large amounts of money for defined periods of time. This was, of course, the catalytic agent resulting in Louvre Abu Dhabi. Money, indeed, has a two-sided reality in resource sharing in the cultural sphere as it can both facilitate as well as limit exchange as only certain institutions, in certain countries, can afford to participate.

But unevenness of resources and the difficulty of partnerships institution to institution and country to country will change as the world’s economies rebalance in the future. The wisdom of partnerships begun and practiced in the near term will prove increasingly far-sighted in the longer term as currently disparate institutional resources and internal cultures align. Over time the vast collection storages of unseen objects will be increasingly difficult to justify and to sustain economically as well and, I would suggest, harder to justify politically and socially. The public will begin to take greater notice. In preparing for this eventuality, we can grow in our realization that our museum audience broadly writ will benefit from institutional partnering in creative, long-term ways. The “what’s in it for me” question that emanates from parties currently coming to the table for potential partnership discussions will include the benefit of professional cooperation and stronger programmatic impact as staffs work together and the broader public enjoys the benefits of such partnerships. Recognizing monetization in exchange as simply one form of benefit, but not the only form, will result in more meaningful, less transaction centered interactions in the future, contributing to a flattening of the playing field among museums in ways that can benefit all. In this process staff, trustees and audience will become part of a larger world, exciting the public in new ways with benefits both direct and indirect.

How do we achieve this? I suspect it’s not governments who will fund such initiatives although certain governments might encourage the effort. And professional organizations, too, like the American Alliance Museums (AAM) and the International Council of Museums (ICOM) can provide a forum for discussion, but may not represent a further catalyst. It will take entrepreneurial individuals leading specific institutions with ambitions to partner towards programs beyond their current scope, individuals developing initiatives supported by boards of trustees and patrons, whether individuals or foundations, that will break down current national restrictions and psychological barriers one project at a time. Each new program will contribute towards a shift in values as the field develops fresh models for collections stewardship in the twenty-first centuryIt is, as I have said, the work for years to come.

Public art museums have survived as a sector over their 200 plus years of existence by adapting their founding ideals to changing public attitudes and policies, civic and national priorities, economic and aesthetic philosophies, all of which have altered their mandate and practice over time. Given our moment of global consciousness, of institutional skepticism, this moment when ownership is being challenged by tribal descendants and nation states when “stewardship” vs. “ownership” are values much discussed in the professional realm, are we not at a time when museums should initiate programs that address things anew? The next century can be one that embraces different models of collection sharing with programs developed around that ideal. It’s exciting to consider this new frontier, embracing its possibilities and extending them to a currently unimagined level, exciting our museums as they become, in the process, more responsible institutional citizens of the world.


Michael Conforti is the former Director (1994-2015) of the Clark Art Institute and is currently a member of the Faculty at Williams College Graduate Program in the History of Art. In addition to teaching at Williams College, he serves on the Trustee Executive Committee of the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth and is a trustee of the Menil Collection in Houston, the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, MASS MoCA, and the Philip Guston Foundation. A member of the International Advisory Committee of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the Zentralcustodie of the University of Goettingen, and the Aspen Institute’s Artist Endowed Foundation Initiative, he also chairs the Collections Committee at Hancock Shaker Village near his home in Williamstown. Conforti is a former trustee of ICOM US (International Council on Museums) and was on the CIHA (Comité international d’histoire de l’art) National Committee for the History of Art from 2000–12.  In June 2010, he stepped down from a two-year term as President of the Association of Art Museum Directors, where he also served as a trustee (2001–04, 2007–12).

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