Stephanie Rosenthal, Director of Berlin’s Gropius Bau, Will Leave to Head the Long-Delayed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi

Stephanie Rosenthal, the director of Berlin’s Gropius Bau, will leave the museum to head the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi starting in September, marking the latest in a string of institutional shakeups in the German capital.

The highly anticipated United Arab Emirates museum, designed by Frank Gehry, is still under construction almost 20 years after plans to build it were first announced. The museum, which will be the largest of the Guggenheim franchise, has been marred by construction delays as well as boycotts over unjust working conditions. It is now set to open in 2026.

Rosenthal will oversee the Modern and contemporary art museum’s formidable collection, and steer a program focused on West Asia, North Africa, and South Asia. The museum is a collaboration between Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

The news of Rosenthal’s appointment comes on the same day as the death of UAE president Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, which has left the oil-rich nation in a state of flux.

She will also leave Berlin at a time when its museum landscape is profoundly changed. After Rosenthal’s departure, four of Berlin’s top museums will have new leaders by January: Klaus Biesenbach at the Neue Nationalgalerie; curatorial duo Till Fellrath and Sam Bardouil at Hamburger Bahnhof, who both began their posts in January; and Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung at the helm of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, starting in January 2023.

Artist Lee Bul and Gropius Bau director Stephanie Rosenthal. Photo: Mathias Voelzke.

“With Stephanie Rosenthal’s departure, the Gropius Bau and Berlin’s art scene will lose one of its figureheads,” said Claudia Roth, Germany’s minister for culture. Rosenthal took the helm of the non-collecting institution in 2018 and revamped the historic building into a major hub. During her tenure, she oversaw a blockbuster exhibition by Yayoi Kusama, as well as solo projects by Lee Bul, Wu Tsang, and Otobong Nkanga.

Rosenthal restored the former arts and crafts museum, which was home to studios and workshops before the breakout of World War II, back to a site of artistic production. The pioneering Berlin Program for Artists ran its studios out of the building for a time, and she also founded “In House: Artist in Residence” which allowed Bul, Lee Mingwei, and Dayanita Singh to work on-site.

“The decision to leave the Gropius Bau was a difficult one,” Rosenthal said in a statement. “I now look forward to the challenge and responsibility of building up and shaping a museum with an outstanding collection in a dynamic and exciting part of the world.”

The cultural sector in Abu Dhabi has been booming in recent years, but it has also been called into question by human rights and labor organizations who’ve documented abysmal working conditions in the nation, particularly at the Saadiyat Island museums, where the Guggenheim is being built. There have been reports of the exploitation of migrant workers from South Asia, whose employers confiscated their passports, withheld salaries, and enforced inhumane around-the-clock work hours.

Rosenthal previously worked as chief curator of the Hayward Gallery in London for 10 years. She was also a curator at the Haus der Kunst in Munich and curated the 20th edition of the Sydney Biennale in 2016.

Her final show at the Gropius Bau, a group exhibition titled “On Caring, Repairing, and Healing,” will open September 16.

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