Creating a truly egalitarian arts institution

Opening in 2018, Jameel Arts Centre Dubai promises to be a nexus for the Middle East arts scene that still stays grounded to its roots. Antonia Carver, Director of Art Jameel, explains why the city – and the wider region – is crying out for a physical touchstone like this

Marinetti’s 1909 ‘Manifesto of Futurism’ urged its public to “destroy museums, libraries, academies of every kind… cemeteries of empty exertion, Calvaries of crucified dreams, registries of aborted beginnings.” Its band of Italian Futurists claimed that it was these “passive” institutions that were holding back true progress.

A manifesto that glorifies war as well as “scorn for woman” cannot be taken too seriously in this day and age, but it is an argument worth considering. Why should we settle for passive glorification of sculptors and painters long passed – isn’t admiring an old picture a waste of action, of creation?

Yet when looking at a model of Jameel Arts Centre Dubai, the new cultural institution set to open on Dubai’s creek at the tail-end of 2018, there is every sense that this is a good step – the right step – on the ladder of progress for a new city.

The creation of the centre has a long and winding history. It is financially propped up by ALJ, or Abdul Latif Jameel, now of the largest private companies in Saudi Arabia. Starting off as a humble gas station in Jeddah in 1945, its owner Abdul Latif Jameel started to import Toyota cars from Japan. Now as well as leading in the automotive and engineering sectors, it has a diversified range of businesses that range from financial services to energy, real estate and consumer products.

Aside from its profitable businesses, the Jameel family has shown a dedicated, lengthy interest in both social enterprise and the arts. Community Jameel began 14 years ago to promote positive social change; addressing job creation, global poverty alleviation, arts & culture and food security are just a handful of its causes.

antonia carver
After seven years art Art Dubai, Antonia Carver is taking on the role of Director at Art Jameel

Art Jameel is one of Community Jameel’s initiatives. It fosters and promotes contemporary art, cultural heritage protection, and creative entrepreneurship across the Mena region and beyond, partnering up with powerhouses like the V&A Museum in London as well as fostering local projects such as the outdoor sculpture museum in Jeddah.

I meet Art Jameel’s Director Antonia Carver in Alserkal Avenue, a well-known arts district tucked among the industrial area of Al Quoz. The organisation is set up temporarily here until the centre’s opening next year, with the open-plan space lending the perfect opportunity to eavesdrop on visitors’ as they walk among the pieces, jokes one assistant.

For someone in charge of perhaps the biggest cultural project in Dubai in recent history, Carver is curiously calm. Having made her own stamp on the region heading up Art Dubai for the last seven years, this was “just too much of an exciting opportunity to pass up,” she says: “however much I loved my old job.”

There are various initiatives that fulfil aims of the organisation, including a collaboration with the Prince Charles’ school of traditional arts that produces “incredible tiling and ceramics using Islamic geometry,” says Carver.

We speak to artists who say, ‘I’ve developed my work to a certain extent here but where can I have my first big solo show in a museum environment? Do I have to leave to do that?

These skills are also carried over into city restoration; with participants renovating centuries-old houses in Al-Balad, the historical area of Jeddah, as well as Cairo. 

“Currently Art Jameel is known in different ways to different people,” notes Carver. “Some people know us as a heritage organisation, while others see us as focused on Islamic art. The challenge now is to bring that under one umbrella and communicate what it is we do, and why we’re doing it.”

“We want to bring together traditional arts with highly contemporary artists, and that’s something unique to us – I don’t see other arts organisations in this region doing that.

“The way we can do that is with physical space.”

The culmination of this intention is the 10,000 square metre, three-storey multi-disciplinary space designed by UK-based firm Serie Architects.

Carver’s insistence on a centre that is grounded in the geography in which it resides is felt in the location, with the space overlooking Dubai Creek, on the nose of Culture Village.

Landscape architect Anouk Vogel has also drawn inspiration from the desert biome for the courtyards that punctuate the building: each outdoor space represents a distinct desert environment, and include rare plants from the UAE.

Jameel Arts Centre
A close-up of the centre, which will contain a large event space, public library, and rooftop cinema

Throughout the space’s creation, the creative communities of Dubai consulted throughout, says Carver. Talking to those in the arts community, from artists and writers to compatriots such as the Sharjah Biennale, gaps started to spring up. One was the lack of a public arts library.

“This has been a such fast moving society that it is only now that people are really starting to engage with history,” says Carver, citing periods such as the explosion of contemporary art in the 80’s as one of the topics it will be possible to research in the centre. “We see the library really as the epicentre of the space”.

Another gap was the lack of not-for-profit arts institutions in Dubai. “There are fantastic galleries in Alserkal, residency working spaces in Tashkeel, historical museums such as Etihad. But, we speak to artists who say, ‘I’ve developed my work to a certain extent here but where can I have my first big solo show in a museum environment? Do I have to leave to do that?’”

As well as a dedicated gallery space and open-access research centre dedicated to artists and cultural movements of the GCC and wider Arab world, there will be additional flexible events spaces; a roof terrace (designed for film screenings and events); an outdoor sculpture area; and a café, restaurant and bookshop.

Maha Maamoun
Maha Maamoun's 'Beach', from the series 'Domestic Tourism' in 2005, recently acquired by the Met in New York via the Jameel fund

“Part of our research over the last six months – I joined last September, and its felt like a lifetime since then! – is to look at what’s available around the region already and what’s needed,” says Carver. She is adamant that the centre needs to be grounded within the context of where it is created, and should not take any inspiration from other contemporary arts centres around the world, instead focusing on its own USP.

When I ask about the themes of identity and place that I consistently see artists from the region unpacking – and whether those ideas could run out of steam – Carver is unwavering in her belief in the depth of the artistic scene in Dubai.

“We have a particularly rich environment in a constant state of flux, and actually when I travel to Europe, I find certain arts scenes there quite staid. Artists here are asking challenging questions: Who are you? Where are you going? What is the nature of this society we are living in? Is this even a society? They’re asking provocative questions – even though they’re not about sex, drugs and rock and roll.”