Featured image: Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi (provided by author).

I just got back from a jam-packed trip through the Gulf where they are making the arts a priority. As some of you might know, major “starchitects” are being brought in, and even out of retirement (I.M. Pei), to construct monumental new museums across the Gulf. It does not end there – even more projects from galleries to performing arts venues to specialized museums are popping up next door in these cultural districts. Here is my account of the arts scene unfolding in the Gulf.

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Selection of pieces from an Al Serkal gallery taken by Helene Genetos.

I began in Dubai where I wanted to get my bearings and be a bit of a tourist. The arts community there ranged from being cold and distant to exceptionally warm and inviting. I spent a day in the Al Serkal Avenue gallery district where a body shop is flanked by galleries, a new private museum and a small café/pop-up-you-name-it. My thesis is looking at the success and sustainability of museums in the Middle East. I will accomplish this by looking at tourism, the art market, urbanization, socio-economic and political issues and more. The thesis interviews I tried to set up in advance were met with an overall hesitancy to share openly and honestly. It was the galleries I stumbled upon that surprised me. At one gallery, they invited me to join a staff birthday celebration. There, the staff’s mix of expats and locals spoke candidly with me when I revealed my thesis topic. While they felt that the boom in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was about to reach a breaking point and the economy was struggling, they were thrilled to see the government continue to invest in the arts. Al Serkal’s 4 rows of warehouses are set to expand by more than double in a few months thanks to this investment. This growth did not worry the galleries with an increase in competition as there are so many artists that find Dubai to be a safe space for their art, especially refugees who have nowhere else to go. The cultural district and its many gallerists redeemed Dubai and reminded me that even the least likely spots can become a haven.

Abu Dhabi is still coming into itself. It has a few galleries, but they are far apart from each other and hard to find. None of its museums are done yet and what is done over there is like a leasing office meets branding campaign advertising their much delayed projects on Saadiyat Island. By comparison, it made Dubai look like it had heart. There was a forced quality to the cultural projects there. Perhaps it was because there was nothing there yet to experience or because like much of the Gulf, these projects seem like a mirage in the middle of the desert.

The trip thus far is full of surprises from the openness or silence of some Dubai gallerists to the forced fake culture of Abu Dhabi. Next up: Doha!

Written by Helene Genetos, EALS Finance Director. Helene has been spending her fall semester at Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London. For her fall break, she took a trip to Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and Doha, Qatar to work on her thesis. She brings us our first account of what is going on in the world outside of the US and her typically candid account of what she saw on her explorations. 

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