Cultural desert? It depends on your meaning

Dramatic changes over the past 10 years have taken the Gulf from a region with little arts heritage to one with some of the most exciting developments in the world. From Abu Dhabi’s big-name museums to the vibrancy of Dubai’s contemporary gallery scene, a successful mix of financial stability and strategic entrepreneurialism has created an exciting new art trail for the Middle East

Cultural desert – a phrase evocative of an endless expanse of beige, bereft of people, texture, inspiration and ideas. Upon the burgeoning of the Gulf’s art scene in the early 2000s, cynics raised their eyebrows at both the calibre and sustainability of a market with no proven track record, historical tradition in the arts or infrastructure for contemporary culture. Less than a decade later, pejorative undertones have been replaced with international curiosity and the cultural desert, having yielded to a dramatic paradigm shift, has become the place to be.

In just a few years, the Gulf has firmly established itself as the arts centre of the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia (MENASA) region. Yet, by no means is this recent surge of activity an unknown phenomenon in the regional arts community, with grassroots organisations like Beirut’s Ashkal Alwan and Amman’s Darat Al Funun laying the groundwork for cultural discourse nearly two decades ago. However, through a successful cocktail of financial stability and strategic entrepreneurialism, the Gulf – chiefly the UAE and Qatar – has developed a framework that has attracted a truly global spotlight.

Alongside its reputation as a centre for art commerce, Dubai has emerged regionally and internationally as a centre for art production, not-for-profit activity and debate – all essential elements of a true art and cultural centre

Ben Floyd, Co-founder of Art Dubai

While institutional ambition puffs its chest in Doha and Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah moves forward with its not-for-profit art centres and biennial, Dubai represents the commercial nervous system of the region’s art market, which is widely acknowledged to have been triggered by Christie’s inaugural Dubai auction in 2006. Since then, the emirate has played host to an ever-expanding community of galleries, art fairs, film festivals, magazines, public spaces, workshops, talks and governmental initiatives established to support cultural growth and civic integration of the arts. Drawing upon the city’s long history as a trading hub and galvanising creative productivity in the region, Dubai has become the conduit wherein cultural production and dialogue of the MENASA intersect with the rest of the world.

Demonstrating the emirate’s escalating global credibility, the fifth edition of annual art fair Art Dubai saw 20,000 visitors this past March with a 30 per cent increase in international guests. The fair acts not only as a hub for galleries and collectors from over 30 countries, but has also positioned itself as a key destination for the transaction of ideas, discussion and opportunity. For example, this year saw the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the V&A’s Jameel Prize and the Abu Dhabi-based Emirates Foundation use the fair as a platform to announce new details about their respective programmes pertaining to the MENASA.

“Alongside its reputation as a centre for art commerce, Dubai has emerged regionally and internationally as a centre for art production, not-for-profit activity and debate – all essential elements of a true art and cultural centre,” notes Ben Floyd, co-founder of Art Dubai. “This keen, knowledgeable audience base is one of Dubai’s great selling points: the arts scene cannot be seen in isolation – it stands alongside Dubai Media City, Dubai International Film Festival, the Gulf Film Festival, and other initiatives, as part of the knowledge economy, the home of the creative industries in the Gulf.”

A number of global auction houses have ventured successfully into the region, with Christie’s pioneering the trend in 2006, shortly followed in 2007 by Bonhams, as well as Sotheby’s 2008 debut in Doha. In April of this year, the Christie’s Modern and Contemporary Arab, Iranian and Turkish Art sale grossed nearly US$8m, with an excess of US$1m benefitting Edge of Arabia, a multi-faceted organisation advocating the increased awareness of and discussion relating to artists hailing from Saudi Arabia.

Managing Director of Christie’s Middle East, Michael Jeha, says: “While we may be based in Dubai, we very much have a regional outlook and are focused on the Middle East as a whole – on average in our sales we have sellers from 15 different countries and interest in the sale from 23 countries. Just last year we held exhibitions in Abu Dhabi and Doha and regularly work as partners for charity auctions around the region.”

While Dubai continues to drive the region’s commercial pulse, neighbouring Doha and Abu Dhabi have rigorous plans to introduce world-class museums to the MENASA. Doha hurtled onto the global arts stage with the 2008 opening of the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA), designed by renowned architect IM Pei.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi, scheduled to open in 2013, announced its first set of acquisitions in 2009, featuring works by masters including Edouard Manet, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and Piet Mondrian. The second set of acquisitions will be announced in 2011. Subsequent to the Louvre’s debut, the Zayed National Museum planned under the advisory supervision of the British Museum is scheduled to open in 2014 while the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will open in 2015.

In Dubai this determination to promote the arts emanates from the top down, through such government initiatives as the annual Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum-sanctioned Patrons of the Arts Award. “Dubai has become the centre of the Middle East, a global city, through the vision of His Highness and the Crown Prince,” says Rashid bin Shabib, Editor in Chief of Brownbook magazine. “The city inspires you to do, and get into the culture of creating something out of nothing.  We are very privileged to be from such a global city, and we are privileged to have such wise leadership.”

Various forms of patronage not only reiterate Dubai’s role as cultural pioneers, but also provide opportunities for global education about the region, a paramount example being the Abraaj Capital Art Prize (ACAP). “From the very beginning, ACAP has had an evolving strategy of exhibitions which encompass national, regional and global art venues,” remarks Savita Apte, Chair of the Prize. “ACAP displays have instilled a sense of regional pride in audiences as they have offered a presentation of creative excellence from artists working with a variety of media. The international exhibitions have focused audience attention on the pluralistic centres of artistic production in the MENASA region.”

Global platforms for regional discourse and production are of increasing importance, and as such, the UAE recently celebrated its second participation in the Venice Biennale, the largest contemporary art event in the world. “The UAE Pavilion’s job is to showcase Emirati art to the world, says Dr Lamees Hamdan, Commissioner of the UAE Pavilion. “The fact that the UAE was the first Gulf state to participate in the Venice Biennale reinforces our country’s role in being the epicentre of art and culture in the region.”

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