The rise of the Middle Eastern mega-museum

Published 14 December 2015

In recent years there has been rapid growth of major museums in the Middle East. Anthony Downey investigates the social, political and ethical challenges that face these new institutions.

  • From the Winter 2015 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    In the past decade, the United Arab Emirates has witnessed an unprecedented level of investment into cultural institutions. Many of them are to be located in Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island (Arabic for “Happiness Island”), now under construction and set to become the location of the world’s largest cultural district. When complete, it will feature among its many projects the latest iteration of the Guggenheim Museum, an outpost of the Louvre, a Zaha Hadid RA-designed performing arts centre, and a New York University campus.

    Meanwhile, in Qatar’s capital Doha, the Qatar Museums Authority, under the guidance of Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, has already overseen the opening of the Museum of Islamic Art in 2008 and Mathaf, the Arab Museum of Modern Art, in 2010. Mathaf has showcased artists as diverse as the Egyptian artist known for his use of puppets Wael Shawky, the Palestinian-born video artist Mona Hatoum, Algerian-born conceptual artist Adel Abdessemed and Iranian-born Shirin Neshat, known for her lens-based work.

    Nearby, the Dubai Art Fair attracts galleries and collectors every spring, while in Sharjah, a 25-minute drive from Dubai, a series of buildings in the historic centre has been redeveloped for the region’s increasingly respected art biennial.

    The motivations and costs involved in these projects are subject to ongoing speculation and criticism. In some quarters, these initiatives are viewed as a strategic shift away from a longterm dependency on oil revenues across the Gulf and towards an economic model based on the global tourist industry. In other quarters, accusations of hubris and direct condemnation of the treatment meted out to the millions of workers hired to construct these buildings continue. The one element that does remain relatively uncontested, however, is that despite significant realignments in world markets and oil prices, the United Arab Emirates – a federation of the seven emirates Ajman, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al-Quwain – is fast becoming a major cultural and tourist destination.

    The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi has already released some details of its acquisitions, which includes works from Iranian artists Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian and Y.Z. Kami, the Californian installation artist Robert Irwin, and the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. There is a notable trend of apolitical abstraction in the choice of works that speaks to the imminent need to be sensitive to local sensibilities – on issues concerning politics and representations of the body, for example. The internationalist inclinations of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi are mirrored, to some degree, in the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s ambition to look at both so-called Western culture and local cultures in the Middle East.

    Nevertheless, such institutions remain caught between the competing demands placed upon them in an age of globalization – the need to attract an international audience, for example – and restrictions in terms of what can and cannot be shown in public spaces within the UAE. Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Dubai each have long, rich histories of cultural production, across multiple forms and media, but museums of contemporary art are relatively new to them.

    While such concerns are, for now at least, partially speculative, the one criticism that has steadfastly refused to go away involves the use of migrant labour to build these projects and accusations of widespread abuse. In 2011, Gulf Labor, a coalition of international artists, was set up to ensure that the rights of migrant workers are protected during the construction and maintenance of museums in Abu Dhabi. In March 2012, despite noting improvements since the beginning of their involvement, they observed continued failings in relation to the building of Saadiyat Island. More recently, individual members of Gulf Labor, including the artist Walid Raad, have been refused entry into the UAE.

    All of which gives rise to a decidedly caustic conundrum: the Guggenheim, an institution that owns work by Raad, will most likely show his work in their new museum. This contradiction can only erode faith in the long-term sustainability of a project that proposes, according to its own publicity, to be concerned with forms of “dynamic cultural exchange”.

    If we consider the rapid investment in cultural institutions across the Gulf States as a none-too-subtle instrument of a political will to diversify the economic basis of a country, then we must pose a further question: in what way is this different from, say, processes of gentrification in Bilbao, Berlin, Birmingham and Barcelona? Culture, along with its institutions, has always been an instrument of politically motivated goals, be they to whitewash otherwise questionable records on human rights or to develop former industrialised sites and gentrify cityscapes. There is nothing new here; nor, alas, is it a problem unique to the UAE.

  • Anthony Downey is an academic, editor and writer. He is Programme Director of the MA in Contemporary Art at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, London and Editor-in-Chief of Ibraaz.


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