Appointment of Frenchman Manuel Rabate, veteran of prestigious cultural institutions, as first director of Louvre Abu Dhabi, and Emirati Hissa Al Dhaheri as his deputy, paves the way for its highly anticipated opening next year.
In the same office on the 13th floor of the headquarters of Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA), two new desks sit at right angles to each other.
Neither takes advantage of the view of the Arabian Gulf that is on offer, but the new name plate each bears, rendered in the same monochrome livery of the yet-to-be opened Louvre Abu Dhabi, delivers a message that is guaranteed to generate headlines and to cause a stir in major museums and galleries around the world.
One belongs to Manuel Rabate, the 40-year-old Frenchman whose appointment as the museum’s inaugural director was officially confirmed yesterday.
The other name plate belongs to his deputy, Hissa Al Dhaheri, a 32-year-old Emirati who will assist Mr Rabate in delivering Abu Dhabi’s Louvre, a project that has been the subject of unprecedented levels of anticipation and scrutiny.
The product of an inter-governmental agreement between Abu Dhabi and France that was signed in 2007, the Louvre Abu Dhabi was originally meant to open in 2012.
But the building – designed by French architect Jean Nouvel – which now sits on a man-made peninsula on the north-west corner of Saadiyat Island, is still a building site.
Substantive works on the other institutions planned for the wider Saadiyat Cultural District – the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, designed by Frank Gehry, and Zayed National Museum – have yet to begin.
"This is a very important milestone for the project," Mr Rabate says. "The team has its leadership, almost all the key players are ready, and we will now move to open the museum as soon as we are able to."
With the confirmation of Mr Rabate and Ms Al Dhaheri, their employer, the TCA, has said that the museum will definitely open next year, leaving the director and his deputy with only a few months to transform a construction site into an institution of intellectual relevance and international clout.
This is the first time in quite a while that TCA have proposed an opening date for the museum.
The previous proposal from the museum’s developer, Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), stated that the museum would open this year, while other dates – all of which have passed – have also been put forward by its architect, the director of the Louvre Museum in Paris and French ministers.
Despite the impending deadline, Mr Rabate refuses to be drawn on the million-dirham question, the precise date on which the museum will finally open to the public.
"When it comes to the opening, there is a technical route and there is a political route," he says.
"On the technical route we need to have a building that is perfect in terms of quality and that has always been a commitment because we are going to put world masterpieces in this museum.
"So the environmental controls have to be correct, the security has to be in place and there are a lot of other requirements that have to be ready before TDIC is off the hook and the building can be considered ready.
"We have also always said that the moment of the [building’s] handover to the opening would take at least four months because we have to organise the logistics of the transport, shipping and installation of the artworks."
For Mr Rabate however, the politics surrounding the museum will play almost as much a role in determining the date of its opening as the readiness of its galleries and displays.
"Of course there is a lot of discussion between the two states [France and the UAE] but the opening of this museum is such a powerful message from Abu Dhabi, with the help of France, that the final decision has to be down to the leadership," he says.
That message is a multi-layered one. The Louvre Abu Dhabi aims to make history, not just by its mere existence and the gargantuan act of vision and ambition that represents, but intellectually as well through the adoption of a radical new perspective on the history of art and civilisation.
The aim is to create what Mr Rabate describes as an intellectual "route of discovery" through the museum and through time that is both particular and global, contextual and connected and, by inference, so very different from the one offered by older institutions such as the British Museum and the Louvre Museum.
"This will be the first time that visitors will be given the opportunity to experience a universal narrative from the very beginnings of beauty in pre-history that always has artworks and civilisations in co-visibility and co-existence," Mr Rabate says.
"This balance, this energy, will be one of a kind that cannot be seen in other universal museums, which still have a compartmentalised approach that organises objects by technique, by material or by location."
Despite not being an art historian or a curator, Mr Rabate – who speaks French, English and German and is learning Arabic – has spent his career in prestigious French institutions that adopt a more conventional approach to culture and to understanding the art of the past.
After graduating from the Paris Institute of Political Studies and the HEC business school, Mr Rabate, the son of a professor of English and comparative literature and a headmistress, joined the Louvre Museum in Paris in 2002, where he served as the deputy director of its auditorium – the venue for public lectures, concerts, readings, films and symposiums on art history, archaeology and museum studies.
In 2005 he joined the Quai Branly Museum as deputy director of cultural development, managing the launch of the museum’s first travelling exhibitions, including Masques – Beaute des Esprits at the Bahrain National Museum.
Mr Rabate later joined Agence France-Museums, the organisation responsible for supporting the development of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, in 2008. He rose from being an administrative and financial officer to general secretary and eventually to chief executive. He has lived in Abu Dhabi with his wife and two daughters, the second of whom was born in the UAE, since 2010.
If Mr Rabate’s elevation to the directorship of a universal museum has been swift in international terms – he is younger than the directors of the Louvre Museum, British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum – Ms Al Dhaheri’s rise has been even more meteoric.
The 32-year-old joined the Louvre Abu Dhabi team in 2010, initially as an educational outreach officer with responsibility for overseeing the development and delivery of the museum’s public engagement programmes. She was later appointed as programme manager and project lead.
Whether it has been as a moderator for Louvre Abu Dhabi-related events in the UAE or as a delegate at international events – such as the Thinkers and Doers Conference at the Arab World Institute in Paris last year or the New York Times’s Art for Tomorrow Conference in Doha this year – Ms Al Dhaheri has always represented the project’s public face.
In TCA’s statement yesterday, its chairman, Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, introduced Mr Rabate and Ms Al Dhaheri as leaders of the Louvre Abu Dhabi museum.
"Louvre Abu Dhabi is an essential vehicle for encouraging cultural dialogue and exchange on an international stage. The appointment of Manuel Rabate as the director and Hissa Al Dhaheri as the deputy director celebrates the spirit of the museum," he says.
"Their combined alliance and strong track record leading the team here in Abu Dhabi will be indispensable as we embark on the next pivotal stage of Louvre Abu Dhabi."
That spirit of teamwork extends not just to their decision to share an office but to the overlap they envisage between their new roles.
"I worked with Agence France-Museums for six years and we always attempted to address the universal," says Mr Rabate. "It was in the DNA of the text that formed the inter-governmental agreement between the two countries. It’s in Jean Nouvel’s dream of a building, and it’s in the curatorial content. But it’s also reflected in the way we work.
"This is an Emirati museum and so both of us will be working for Abu Dhabi and the Abu Dhabi Government through the TCA umbrella, but we have to embody the bridge between the two countries which is at the heart of the project."
It is an assessment with which Ms Al Dhaheri agrees, but it is clear that she feels an added sense of responsibility as an Emirati.
"Because, to a certain extent, this project represents two nations coming together, my role is also to represent the Abu Dhabi government," she says, likening the pair’s new roles to that of conductors in an orchestra in which the curators, like musicians, are responsible for the content.
"Our main objective is to open this museum. This isn’t a moment to re-challenge anything, the curatorial decisions have already been addressed by the team and we’ve had many years of preparation. We are now in the process of making final decisions and getting things done."