A desert island teeming with mangroves and gazelles may seem like an unlikely site for a Yale arts program, but the government of Abu Dhabi, attempting to create the world’s next artistic and cultural haven, is betting that Yale will want to be a part of it.
University officials said they are engaged in high-level talks with government officials in Abu Dhabi, a part of the United Arab Emirates, about possibly establishing an arts institute on Saadiyat Island, an island off the coast of Abu Dhabi. Several major institutions in the arts and education world — including the Sorbonne, the Louvre and the Guggenheim — have already signed on to take part in the proposal, and on Wednesday, planners revealed ambitious designs by top architects for multimillion-dollar museums, performing arts centers and arts pavilions in the near future.
Thomas Krens SOM ’84, the director of the Guggenheim Foundation who has been instrumental in helping Abu Dhabi in planning its new arts district, approached School of Architecture Dean Robert Stern last summer to discuss the possibility of Yale’s involvement, Stern said. Yale administrators, including University President Richard Levin, have met with officials from Abu Dhabi several times — both in New Haven and Abu Dhabi — over the last eight months. Although no agreements have yet been made, a group of faculty members will travel to the emirate in March with Deputy Provost for the Arts Barbara Shailor to develop ideas for Yale’s role in the project.
Yale’s particular distinction in the arts — it is the only university in the country with four top-ranked arts schools — might make it a perfect fit for this project, University Vice President Linda Lorimer said.
“The country as a whole has an ambition to try and develop in a couple of dimensions, one being culture and another being education,” she said. “We’ve got excellence in both.”
The program would be the first of its kind in the Middle East for Yale. While 16 percent of the Yale student body — including undergraduate and graduate students — is international, only one student from Kuwait, one from Saudi Arabia and two from Bahrain are enrolled this year.
The schools of music, drama and architecture would each have their own individual programs and exchanges in Abu Dhabi, Lorimer said.
“We want them to be organic, developing from the individual needs and attractions of each of the schools,” she said.
The School of Art has not yet been involved in the planning process in order to give Art School Dean Robert Storr, who became dean just last year, time to ascertain the particular needs of his school, Lorimer said.
Drama School Dean James Bundy said Abu Dhabi would be an ideal location for such an enterprise because of the unusually strong interest that its government has in promoting cultural development in the arts.
“This is an exciting and important part of the world for Yale to have a meaningful interchange with,” Bundy said. “The representatives of the Emirates have been very, very thoughtful in their consideration of the variety of ways that such an academy might interact and relate to the cultural history of Abu Dhabi.”
But some students said they are not sure that Abu Dhabi is the best place for Yale to be focusing its international efforts in the Middle East.
“Abu Dhabi is very different from the rest of the Middle East,” said Fatima Ghani ’09, who is from Pakistan. “It is much richer, it is much more westernized.”
Stern said the proposed institute may offer symposia and master classes to attract architects from around the region to discuss issues such as environmentalism and sustainability in architecture. The institute may also provide classes to jump-start students from the Emirates who are interested in applying to leading architecture schools, Stern said. Bundy said he imagined a similar scenario — in which a student from anywhere in the world could benefit from a semester or year of Yale arts education — for the Drama School’s involvement in Abu Dhabi.
Architecture School students already participate in advanced workshops in locations around the world, Stern said. This semester, two advanced studios are working on projects in the Emirates, including one in Dubai that is led by renowned architect Zaha Hadid. Hadid is designing Abu Dhabi’s planned performing arts center.
Shailor said the University has not yet determined when it might begin programs in the Emirates but that she is “very excited” about the opportunities for Yale in Abu Dhabi.
“It seems like an extraordinary opportunity given what is already in progress,” she said.
Construction of the arts center on Saadiyat Island will not begin until a bridge from the mainland is completed. Initially, the Yale program would be housed in a temporary facility that would serve as a programmatic test ground for the initiative, Lorimer said. If the plan is successful, Stern said, the hope is to house the institute in a building — to be designed by a first-class architect — that combines studio and possibly residential facilities.
University President Richard Levin said Yale’s efforts in the region are not yet at the level of its efforts in Asia.
“We have some very constructive programs in the Middle East, but not nearly the extent and variety of these endeavors as we do in East Asia,” he said.
The arts initiative is part of Abu Dhabi’s efforts to revamp its education system, said Aleta Wenger, a former member of the U.S. Foreign Service who handles the Middle East for Yale’s Office of International Affairs.
“They are really focusing on education and the arts,” she said. “That’s why Yale is interested. It’s not just a question of putting up a whole bunch of museums and hotels.”