Iconic French Museum Opening Branch in Middle East

France's Louvre is opening a branch in the Middle East. In a deal worth hundreds of millions of dollars, one of the United Arab Emirates will get to use exhibits from, and the name of, the Louvre. But critics say the deal is nothing more than crass commercialism.

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Consider it a trend; you go where the money is. The most famous museum in Paris, the Louvre, will open a branch in the Middle East. That's much to the disgust of many members of the French cultural elite. In a deal worth millions of dollars, the government of Abu Dhabi, one of the United Arab Emirates, right there in the Persian Gulf not far from Dubai, will get expertise, exhibits and use of the Louvre name.

Some art historians have accused the French government of selling the nation's cultural heritage in return for money, trade and diplomatic influence. Eleanor Beardsley reports from Paris.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Under the 30-year agreement signed Monday, Abu Dhabi will pay $525 million, and that's just for the Louvre brand name. The Abu Dhabi Louvre will pay more for art loans, special exhibitions and management advice. French Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres was barely off the plane from the Middle East when he was forced to defend the deal at a press conference.

Mr. RENAUD DONNEDIEU DE VABRES (Minister of Culture, France): (Through translator) This deal is a strong symbol and we should be proud. French savoir-faire in restoration, conservation and science will be used to help spread French and European culture in the world. The operation will also benefit museums in France because we'll be able to undertake significant investments. If a foreign country wants to benefit from French expertise, why shouldn't they? Let's be generous.

BEARDSLEY: But critics say the Louvre's generosity is nothing more than crass commercialism. And 4,800 people, including dozens of museum directors, curators and art historians, have signed a petition in protest. Didier Rykner, editor of a French art magazine, spearheaded the effort. He says the Abu Dhabi project is shameful and that French masterpieces should be loaned, not rented.

Mr. DIDIER RYKNER (Art Historian): The Louvre is the palace of the king of France. The Louvre is in Paris. The Louvre is the museum that tourists are happy to come to see. And the Louvre is not a trademark, you know, and they want to sell it like a (unintelligible). And I think you cannot go at Abu Dhabi to visit the Louvre. It's nonsense.

BEARDSLEY: Rykner says he was shocked to learn that portions of the Louvre and the Chateau at Fontainebleau, renovated with money from the deal, would bear the names of two members of Abu Dhabi's ruling al-Nahyan family. For a government-owned cultural institution in France to carry the name of a corporate or foreign donor is a first.

In the past, the Louvre has turned down offers of financial help with names attached. But in recent years the French Ministry of Culture has flirted with commercialism. Major Hollywood productions like "The Da Vinci Code" and "Marie Antoinette" were filmed at the Louvre and the Palace of Versailles. And the Louvre currently rents out art works to the city of Atlanta under a three-year commercial contract.

Outside the Louvre, tourists with cameras swarm around I.M. Pei's glass pyramid. Parisian Natalise Chukow(ph), who is taking her daughter to visit the museum, says she doesn't think the agreement between the Louvre and Abu Dhabi is necessarily a bad thing.

Ms. NATALISE CHUKOW(ph): (Speaking Foreign Language)

BEARDSLEY: If we can safely transport the artworks there, then why not, she says. It is a bit of a change in philosophy and a bit about marketing art, but so what? We're lucky in France to have such a rich artistic heritage, why not share it?

But while the art world argues, the French government says it's pleased with the deal. France sells weapons worth billions of dollars to the Emirates. Exports to the Gulf region are increasing, and Paris regards Abu Dhabi as an important friend in a strategic region.

For NPR News. I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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