Beyond Patronage

Time Capsule

Features from May/Jun 2013
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

In her 2008 report “Waqif Art Center Invigorates Qatari Art Scene,” Maymanah Farhat struck an optimistic note. Five years on, the future of independent initiatives in the Gulf is not as promising. 

“Since opening in March 2008, the Waqif Art Center in the newly restored Souq Waqif market district in Qatar’s capital, Doha, has become a much-needed hub for the underdeveloped Qatari art scene.”

“Because the local art scene has witnessed a number of false starts in recent years, Waqif’s remarkable turnouts have created a lot of buzz.”

“Since 2005, several setbacks have marred the Qatar Museums Authority’s development of world-class museums along Doha’s Corniche waterfront.”

-Extracts from “Waqif Art Center Invigorates Qatari Art Scene,” ArtAsiaPacific, issue 60, 2008.

Long before it opened its doors, Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art already existed as a working collection with a significant profile. Built over several decades by Sheikh Hassan bin Mohamed bin Ali al-Thani, a member of the Qatari royal family, pieces from this impressive compilation were often loaned out as though they were from an actual institution with an exhibition space—when in fact it had neither the foundation of a viable organization nor a physical location open to the public. Captions referring to a “Museum of Modern Arab Art,” for example, can be found in a variety of unaffiliated books, catalogs and monographs dating back to the 1990s. After Sheikh Hassan offered his collection to the Qatar Foundation in 2004, which then transferred it to the Qatar Museums Authority in 2009, a physical museum was finally built and inaugurated in 2010. While the collection is the single greatest of modern and contemporary Arab art in the world, Mathaf’s peculiar history is not unlike that of many of Qatar’s other cultural institutions over the past decade.

It is estimated that in just seven years, the Qatari royals have spent USD one billion dollars to expand the emirate’s international art holdings, while injecting another USD 25 billion into its art and cultural scene. Unfortunately, infrastructure building is an involved process, and one that also depends on the strength of local art scenes and their audiences within the context of broader cultural histories. At this point, Qatari participation in the regional and global art scenes is barely visible, outside of Doha’s newly acquired status as the Gulf’s museum capital. Historically, Qatar’s national art scene has been low-key, with only a handful of prominent artists, all of whom have looked to neighboring Gulf countries to establish their careers. Blockbuster exhibitions as diverse as “Gifts of the Sultan: The Arts of Giving at the Islamic Courts” at the IM Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art, and Cai Guo-Qiang’s solo show “Saraab (Mirage)” at Mathaf, have aimed to engage local viewers while positioning the country as a global destination for art. A series of subsequent exhibitions that opened in late 2012, however, such as Mathaf’s “Tea with Nefertiti,” a varied showcase of contemporary art responding to the global understandings of Egypt through its ancient and popular imagery, and “Forever Now,” a selection from the museum’s permanent collection, has been met with mixed reviews, and some terse feedback regarding the public relations agency’s use of Orwellian tactics during the preview events. In “Forever Now,” a significant emphasis was placed on Sheikh Hassan’s personal views on art, indicating that Mathaf has yet to make the formative leap from royal collection to public institution.

If the emirate seeks to evolve from a celebratory, state-sanctioned cultural narrative—which Qatari writers and artists have complained has been the norm since the emirate’s independence more than four decades ago—into an international art hub, what is needed is a culture that can sustain visual arts practices beyond official patronage. Some observers argue that Qatar’s policy of mass development through a “build it and they will come” strategy has overlooked independent art spaces and the economy and logistics to maintain them.

Opened in 2008, the Waqif Art Center was one of the first local attempts to create this much-needed environment, housing commercial galleries such as an outpost of the Dubai-based Third Line Gallery and the homegrown al-Markhiya Gallery. However, the Waqif Art Center could not survive the global financial crisis and was taken over by the government. The Third Line closed its doors well before Waqif reopened in 2010. One insider cited a lack of Qatari collectors and the absence of basic art-world amenities such as local framers, art handlers and shippers.

The recent opening of the Katara Cultural Village, a new arts district that is home to the Doha Tribeca Film Festival, the Qatari Fine Arts Society and curator Mayssa Fattouh’s recently established independent space, the Katara Art Center, was pushed through with the patronage of Qatar’s emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. It could be the boost that Doha’s art scene requires. Several promising events, including a show by the Sharjah-based Barjeel Art Foundation, are underway. The Katara Art Center is expected to provide a certain edge, given that Fattouh is known for her creative approaches to working in a variety of settings, from a pop-up show in Beirut to a commercial gallery in Manama, Bahrain. However, with recent controversy brewing over the imprisonment of “Jasmine” poet Mohammed al-Ajami for insulting the emir, there is currently talk of a cultural boycott among artists and intellectuals in the Arab world. In order to fully realize its cultural project, the Gulf state will have to relinquish a bit of power by laying the groundwork for independent, nongovernmental projects and voices.