Building an art culture from the sand up

Doha// Call it the fourth power.

Along with diplomacy, media and sport, Qatar is promoting culture as another facet of its budding regional and international reach, and as part of a long-term plan to diversify its economy.

This small, wealthy emirate has in recent years organised successful negotiations on Darfur and Lebanon, built Al Jazeera into a leading global news source and, after hosting the Asian Games in 2006, is now bidding to host the 2022 World Cup.

Spearheading its cultural ambitions is the Qatar Museum Authority. The brainchild of Sheikha Mayassa, the US-educated, 26-year-old daughter of Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani and his second wife Sheikha Mozah bin Nasser al Missned, QMA was created in December 2005 to oversee the museums of Qatar, rediscover the country's national heritage and transform Doha into a regional arts hub.

“They see culture as a leading aspect of their vision for the growth and development of this country,” Roger Mandle, QMA executive director since July 2008, said in a recent interview.

Their flagship is the Museum of Islamic Art, a $1.6 billion, I.M. Pei-designed, cubist masterpiece set on its own island across from the skyscrapers of Doha's West Bay. The museum's 700-object collection is worth hundreds of millions and includes an amulet of Mughal ruler Shah Jahan and a 9th century white earthenware bowl from Iraq.

In the 18 months since it opened the museum has had more than half a million visitors, or nearly a third of the country's total population. Half of them have been Qatari. “We've established a very high level of quality and expectations,” said Mr Mandle. “Out of that is a challenge, in that every building we build has to be that good or better.”

Up next is the Qatar National Museum, set to begin construction later this year. Designed by another Pritzker-winning architect, Jean Nouvel, the building reflects a strong sense of place: its shape mimics that of a desert rose, small, naturally occurring formations of gypsum found in arid deserts.

When the museum opens in 2013, interactive displays will detail Qatar's history, geology, and cultural life, from Bedouin times to seafaring and pearl diving, and from contemporary Qatar to the near future. At 40,000 sq metres, it will be larger than the Museum of Islamic Art.

QMA is looking to build a dozen new museums and expand its cultural education efforts. There has been talk of photography and contemporary art museums, but plans have yet to be finalised.

With the future museum designs Mr Mandle hopes to move away from international names and nurture young local talent. “They're not limiting their search to exclude well-known architects,” said Mr Mandle. “But surely one of our responsibilities is to promote artists, architects and designers from this region.”

Qatar has some company on that score. Abu Dhabi is spending billions to create its own cultural mecca on Saadiyat Island, with four museums and a performing arts center. Local versions of the Louvre and the Guggenheim designed by Jean Nouvel and Frank Gehry, respectively, are set to open in 2013.

Wooing similar crowds, the two cities often appear headed in the same direction. Phillipe de Montebello, the former director of New York's Museum of Modern Art who is now a special adviser to New York University Abu Dhabi, has been in talks with Mr Mandle, an old friend, about contributing to QMA in some capacity.

And while Mr Mandle has often described his mission as “building a Smithsonian from the sand up,” the Smithsonian Institute, based in Washington, DC, is a key adviser to Abu Dhabi's Bedouin Heritage Museum.

Yet rather than competition, QMA sees opportunity. It has hosted two conferences for Gulf arts and cultural leaders. The most recent, held last month, was attended by cultural representatives from all GCC countries but Oman. “We've taken the initiative to invite our colleagues to discuss how we can work together, not how we're competing but how we can cooperate,” said Mr Mandle.

The group hopes to create a joint cultural calendar so events complement rather than collide and develop joint training and education programs.

“Anywhere in the world, you have the best result if people collaborate rather than compete,” said Antonia Carver, who has been working in the UAE art world for nearly a decade and will take over Art Dubai next month.

“There's a huge difference between Doha and Abu Dhabi,” she said. Doha has focused on heritage and Islamic art and uses the emir's family collections, says Ms Carver, while Abu Dhabi's museums reflect greater international influence.

She envisions Western tourists visiting museums in both Doha and Abu Dhabi on a single trip. “If they start to replicate then it's maybe self-defeating,” said Ms Carver.

One advantage Abu Dhabi might have over Doha is the proximity of major arts shows like Art Dubai and the Sharjah Bienniale. Still, despite the presence of highly regarded international universities like NYU and Carnegie Mellon, the two cities have few art schools, curators, writers and studios.

“Building a complex and beautiful building is nothing compared to connecting to the local population and building a vibrant arts community,” said Ms Carver. “That's infinitely more challenging.”

originally ran in the July 2, National, www.thenational.ae

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