Build­ing an art scene

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ast month, Art Jameel un­veiled plans for a 10,000-square-me­tre con­tem­po­rary art space in old Dubai. The de­signs show a group of glass-fronted, white blocks sit­ting atop and aside one other, fac­ing out onto Deira Creek and con­nected by a shaded plaza. It looks like, well, a mu­seum. And when it opens next year, it will act like one, too, show­cas­ing a vast col­lec­tion of con­tem­po­rary in­ter­na­tional and Mid­dle Eastern art, host­ing a re­search li­brary and fea­tur­ing ro­tat­ing, short-term ex­hi­bi­tions.

But it’s not a mu­seum, or not strictly so. The com­plex will house the non-profit art in­sti­tu­tion Jameel Arts Cen­tre, run by Art Jameel, a fam­ily foun­da­tion with ties to the Saudi com­pany Ab­dul Latif Jameel. The Jameel Arts Cen­tre is among a num­ber of pri­vate foun­da­tions that are defin­ing the land­scape of art in the UAE as it evolves. Oth­ers in­clude Tash­keel, Alserkal Av­enue, the Jean-Paul Na­jar Foun­da­tion, and the Atassi Foun­da­tion, all based in Dubai; the Bar­jeel Art Foun­da­tion, in Shar­jah; and the Sheikha Salama bint Ham­dan Al Nahyan Foun­da­tion, in Abu Dhabi. In a field of sub­stan­tial state wealth – and, of course, de­lays in flag­ship mu­seum projects – pri­vate foun­da­tions have taken the lead.

L“Pri­vate foun­da­tions are al­ways a fea­ture of so-called emerg­ing cities, like Is­tan­bul or Moscow to­day,” says Shu­mon Basar, who ad­vises at the Prada Foun­da­tion in Mi­lan and is the com­mis­sioner of Dubai’s Global Art Fo­rum. “When you re­search the in­au­gu­ral ex­hi­bi­tions of es­tab­lished art in­sti­tu­tions, they were of­ten held in draw­ing rooms or an­nexes to pri­vate houses. There’s a de­cep­tion that when you look at Tate Mod­ern, it’s al­ways been in that vast ar­chi­tec­tural form. But that’s just the most re­cent pos­ture.” Tate Mod­ern and Tate Bri­tain, Basar notes, are named af­ter the British sugar mag­nate Henry Tate of the Tate & Lyle em­pire, in thanks for his do­na­tion of art­works and fund­ing for the mu­seum’s con­struc­tion.

Pri­vate foun­da­tions are play­ing a num­ber of dif­fer­ent roles in the Emi­rates – from of­fer­ing stu­dio spa­ces (Tash­keel) to fund­ing the UAE par­tic­i­pa­tion at the Venice Bi­en­nale (Sheikha Salama Foun­da­tion) to mount­ing ex­hi­bi­tions and main­tain­ing archival re­sources for schol­ars. Long known for its com­mer­cial en­ter­prises, these new in­sti­tu­tions sug­gest that the Dubai art scene is be­gin­ning to con­sider its long-term fu­ture as a site for the public dis­play and con­sump­tion of art.

“We thought a lot about what a pri­vate foun­da­tion and a civic mu­seum can of­fer,” says An­to­nia Carver, direc­tor of Art Jameel. “Part of our work over the past year has been look­ing at what’s al­ready avail­able and what’s needed, and the cen­tre will be highly in­vested in the public dis­course.” The Jameel Arts Cen­tre’s re­search li­brary, for ex­am­ple, will pro­vide ac­cess to schol­arly re­sources in a re­gion where those have of­ten been lack­ing. “We want to doc­u­ment, an­a­lyse and re­cover art his­to­ries from this place.”

Tra­di­tion­ally a city’s art scene has been an­chored by its ma­jor mu­seum, which has played a role of city brand­ing. This model has been dis­rupted in the past 20 years with the rise of bou­tique mu­se­ums and pri­vate foun­da­tions – which have pro­lif­er­ated due to the bur­geon­ing amount of global bil­lion­aires and the pop­u­lar­ity of art as an as­set – and these tend to have smaller, more in­di­vid­u­ally cu­rated col­lec­tions. This de­vel­op­ment has oc­curred along­side a decline in state fund­ing for the arts and that has weak­ened the vaunted, if some­what fic­ti­tious, split be­tween public and pri­vate in­sti­tu­tions. State in­sti­tu­tions are now deeply de­pen­dent on pri­vate giving.

The UAE, how­ever, is one of the few places in the world where the state has both deep cof­fers and a strong com­mit­ment to sup­port­ing arts and cul­ture. But so far, the con­tem­po­rary-art sec­tor has largely been left alone. Mu­seum projects in Dubai are cur­rently fo­cus­ing on cul­tural her­itage, and the Guggen­heim Abu Dhabi, which should be the coun­try’s ma­jor mod­ern mu­seum, does not yet have a per­ma­nent pres­ence. “In Dubai the pri­vate sec­tor has led in­ven­tive think­ing,” says Basar. “This hap­pened with Art Dubai: it be­came in­ter­na­tion­ally recog­nised and Dubai’s public sec­tor started to pay at­ten­tion. And like­wise for Alserkal Av­enue – once that took off, its po­ten­tial was un­der­stood by other par­ties. It’s a lit­tle like ‘if you build it, they will come’.”

What has emerged is a “mo­saic”, as Vene­tia Porter of the British Mu­seum called it, of dif­fer­ent projects and col­lec­tions, spread out across the Emi­rates. Bar­jeel Art Foun­da­tion, es­tab­lished by Sul­tan Sooud Al Qassemi in Shar­jah, fo­cuses on mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary work of the Arab re­gion. The Jean-Paul Na­jar Foun­da­tion shows western ab­strac­tion from the 1960s and 70s, it is run by the late Na­jar’s daugh­ter, Deb­o­rah Na­jar Jossa. The Atassi Foun­da­tion cares for a col­lec­tion of mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary Syr­ian work that the cou­ple Sadek and Mouna Atassi amassed over decades of run­ning an art gallery in Da­m­as­cus and a book­shop in their home city of Homs.

While some of these foun­da­tions, such as the Jameel Arts Cen­tre, are highly in­vested in the land­scape of Dubai, oth­ers use the Emi­rates as a base to reach a wider au­di­ence, both re­gion­ally and in­ter­na­tion­ally – pro­to­types for global, no­madic in­sti­tu­tions that fit the age of the gig econ­omy, with its preva­lence of free­lance work and short-term con­tracts, and con­tin­u­ous travel and com­mu­ni­ca­tion. The Bar­jeel has taken on tour­ing as in­te­gral to its pro­gramme, play­ing the role of a global ad­vo­cate for Arab art. “The UAE is, thank­fully, sta­ble, but we are in geo­graphic and cul­tural prox­im­ity to re­gions that are not,” says Karim Sul­tan, a cu­ra­tor at the Bar­jeel. “We think about our tour­ing pro­gramme sys­tem­at­i­cally... Lo­cal is a place like the Maraya Art Cen­tre in Shar­jah [where Bar­jeel has a per­ma­nent home].

“Then re­gional is places like Egypt, Jor­dan, Iran and Kuwait, where there is an aware­ness of our art his­tory, but they might not know of any par­al­lel works. And lastly we tour to more in­ter­na­tional places, like the Whitechapel Gallery [Lon­don], where au­di­ences might not be very aware about the art in this re­gion.”

The Atassi Foun­da­tion has cho­sen to fully forego a per­ma­nent home in favour of trav­el­ling to var­i­ous in­ter­na­tional in­sti­tu­tions. This is as much a strate­gic de­ci­sion as it is a re­ac­tion to the sit­u­a­tion in Syria. “The UAE is the plat­form for Arab cul­ture right now and the works can gain the best vis­i­bil­ity here,” says Mouna Atassi. But the “works are even­tu­ally go­ing back to Syria, to Homs”.

For pri­vate foun­da­tions, dis­tin­guish­ing them­selves from a com­mer­cial gallery is im­mensely im­por­tant to their rep­u­ta­tion, and they seek to pub­licly sig­nal their sta­tus in var­i­ous ways. Or­gan­i­sa­tions of­ten en­list a star mu­seum ar­chi­tect, even for a smaller project, which gives the gallery the look of a mu­seum, and the star fac­tor can be high­lighted on press ma­te­rial and on­line for an in­ter­na­tional au­di­ence. Alserkal Av­enue com­mis­sioned the Dutch ar­chi­tect Rem Kool­haas to de­sign its new space for com­mis­sioned pro­gram­ming, Con­crete, and the Na­jar Foun­da­tion had its site de­signed by Mario Jossa of Mar­cel Breuer & As­so­ci­ates. Na­jar Jossa also had her foun­da­tion ac­cred­ited as a mu­seum by the In­ter­na­tional Coun­cil of Mu­se­ums, and set up a gift shop in De­cem­ber last year. “It sounds like a lit­tle thing,” Na­jar Jossa says, “but it re­in­forces the mes­sage that we are a mu­seum rather than a gallery that sells work.”

The Na­jar Foun­da­tion’s ac­cred­i­ta­tion means it is bound by the non-profit obli­ga­tions of the ICM, but in the UAE, un­til it achieves non-profit sta­tus it is not al­lowed to raise funds. Most spec­u­late that this in­junc­tion against fundrais­ing, and the ambiguity of non-profit law more gen­er­ally, al­lows the govern­ment to en­cour­age en­trepreneur­ship among pri­vate in­di­vid­u­als, but also to strictly reg­u­late the flow of do­na­tions that non-prof­its rely upon to en­sure com­plete trans­parency.

For the pri­vate sec­tor, this means that or­gan­i­sa­tions have dif­fi­culty scal­ing up­wards be­yond their ini­tial in­vest­ment funds. While in the West many small foun­da­tions be­gin by hav­ing a strong pa­tron or a cir­cle of donors, in the UAE, get­ting off the ground is only pos­si­ble if you have a sub­stan­tial col­lec­tion to be­gin with – such as the Na­jar Foun­da­tion or the Atassi Foun­da­tion – or if you are lucky to enough to have sub­stan­tial wealth at your dis­posal. That the lat­ter is more com­mon in the UAE has helped the pri­vate-art scene reach its diver­sity. Many foun­da­tions here are a prod­uct of dy­nas­tic suc­ces­sion and fam­ily en­ter­prises, such as that of Art Jameel, whose pres­i­dent is Fady Jameel of the Ab­dul Latif Jameel group.

There is a move now to make it eas­ier for foun­da­tions to fundraise. Mah­naz Fancy, a Dubai-based in­de­pen­dent con­sul­tant who pre­vi­ously worked in the United States as the head of a num­ber of non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tions, is putting to­gether a cul­tural-phi­lan­thropy event with the Na­jar Foun­da­tion and Alserkal Av­enue next fall. “Pri­vate giving al­lows dif­fer­ent mem­bers of a so­ci­ety to be recog­nised,” she says. In New York, she con­tin­ues, she “re­lied on the sup­port of in­di­vid­ual phi­lan­thropists and pri­vate foun­da­tions to in­tro­duce Arab artists to new US au­di­ences.”

Like­wise, dur­ing the re­cent Abu Dhabi Cul­ture Sum­mit, the direc­tor of the US-based Ford Foun­da­tion, Dar­ren Walker, ex­plained how foun­da­tions can con­test elite cul­ture, rep­re­sent­ing de­mo­graph­ics that have been left out of es­tab­lished art his­tory. For ex­am­ple, Ford re­cently helped sup­port an ex­hi­bi­tion of the black Amer­i­can artist Kerry James Mar­shall at the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art, where the mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary col­lec­tion is dom­i­nated by white male artists.

Pri­vate foun­da­tions pro­vide an av­enue for the Emi­rates’ art am­bi­tions, but also a voice – if prop­erly sup­ported – for the dif­fer­ent pop­u­la­tions that live here.

Melissa Gron­lund is the au­thor of Con­tem­po­rary Art and Dig­i­tal Cul­ture (Rout­ledge). She lives in Abu Dhabi

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