Abu Dhabi's Warehouse421 to offer new open calls and artist grants, including one up to Dh75,000

Providing a safe space for early and mid-career artists has become a top priority for the centre

Artists on the Gulf Photo Plus-Warehouse421 collaboration that resulted in its current show, Mina Zayed: Reflections on Past Futures. Warehouse421 is moving further into traineeships and grant schemes for its programming. Courtesy Warehouse421
Artists on the Gulf Photo Plus-Warehouse421 collaboration that resulted in its current show, Mina Zayed: Reflections on Past Futures. Warehouse421 is moving further into traineeships and grant schemes for its programming. Courtesy Warehouse421

Warehouse421, the exhibition space in Mina Zayed, Abu Dhabi, has today announced a major new five-year plan for public programming.

The team is taking a radical step in a new direction, saying it will generate about 80 per cent of its programming using the results of new training schemes and grants. This includes five open calls, which will offer mid-career artists and curators across the Menasa region a chance to improve their work.

“We asked ourselves, 'How we can build an infrastructure to raise capabilities locally and regionally?'” says Faisal Al Hassan, general manager of Warehouse421. “We widened the scope of our partnerships and looked at how we could support creative practitioners beyond just putting up exhibitions. Exhibitions will continue to be the core of what we do, but behind them are programmes that serve the exhibition and provide educational opportunities.”

Open calls and new grants

The annual open calls will be produced in partnership with local and regional entities, such as the Bombay Institute for Critical Analysis and Research, and the Institute of Emerging Art in Dubai.

When announcing the new plans, Al Hassan and programmes manager Mays Albaik had the giddy, enthusiastic air of artists on opening night, waiting for the public to arrive.

“What you’re seeing is the result of months and months of conversation,” Al Hassan says.

Warehouse421 head Faisal Al Hassan. Courtesy Courtesy Warehouse421
Warehouse421 head Faisal Al Hassan. Courtesy Courtesy Warehouse421

In the early stages of the pandemic, Warehouse421 convened a rotating focus group that met monthly to think through what the organisation could offer to the region and how it would achieve it.

“We found the need for mid-career rather than just early career practitioners,” says Albaik. “They already have a demonstrable commitment to their creative fields. This gives them space to rigorously research the topics of their interest. We're supporting art and creative practices as ways of thinking about the world. This includes writers, designers, curators and musicians.”

The flagship programme is the Artistic Research Grant, which offers a budget of up to Dh75,000 ($20,422), and is open to two or three Menasa artists per year. It will fund research-based artworks – the kind of critical pieces that travel on the biennial circuit – and will be flexible when it comes to the end result. Each artist or collective will exhibit the fruits of their labour in the form that suits the project best, such as an exhibition or published project or performance.

Another grant for artists, run with the Institute for Emerging Art, will focus on younger practitioners living in the UAE, and will result in an exhibition in the Mina Zayed space.

Boosting curatorship

Warehouse421 is also focusing on curators, an area of professional development that is under-represented in the UAE’s art-educational landscape. In the Curatorial Development Exhibition Programme, chosen applicants will receive up to Dh20,000 and work with a mentoring team to develop their projects.

The winners will also participate in what Warehouse421 calls its colloquium, a series of seminars to run this year in conjunction with Bicar, and including artists Ala Younis, Bijoy Jain, Lawrence Abu Hamdan and the Raqs Media Collective.

Warehouse421 Programs Manager Mays Albaik. Courtesy Warehouse421
Warehouse421 programme manager Mays Albaik. Courtesy Warehouse421

The organisation will continue its existing residency programme, now known as the Homebound Residency, after this year’s pandemic meant its participants could not come into the site’s studios. The format was so well-received that Warehouse421 formalised it, appointing curator Reem Shadid, former deputy director of the Sharjah Art Foundation, to broaden its reach across the Menasa region.

Capacity-building pays off

As the continuation of the Homebound Residency suggests, the announcement of the new programmes is less a change in mission for Warehouse421 than an embedding of priorities. This capacity-building for artists has always been vital for the exhibition space, as well as for its parent organisation, the Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation.

Warehouse421 has always run workshops and generated exhibitions, events and film programmes via collaborations, notably with Cinema Akil. Its current exhibition, Mina Zayed: Reflections on Past Futures, for example, is the result of a year-long programme with Gulf Photo Plus in Dubai, in which artists shot images of Mina Zayed. GPP worked with the artists on topics from composition to contextualisation.

We're not expecting everything that we do to come out presented in the best way possible. But we're giving creative practitioners the tools and the space to develop

Faisal Al Hassan, general manager of Warehouse421

Similarly, the show that will go up in the autumn, which focuses on representations of womanhood, was organised with Abu Dhabi's Banat Collective in a pilot version of the Curatorial Development scheme.

Even so, the decision to largely give over the programming to open calls, rather than exhibitions devolving from an in-house curator, is unprecedented, particularly when you consider the importance placed on “brand identity” for art institutions worldwide. (Some grants will be made by invitation, however.)

Warehouse421 has provided an important space for ambitious shows recently – for example, the ongoing cycle of exhibitions by Murtaza Vali, investigating the urban infrastructure of the Gulf, or How to Maneuver (2019-2020), which looked at the boundaries of publishing in the Arab world.

By departing from this typical mode of exhibition delivery, Warehouse421 seems to acknowledge the limitations of the “if you build it, they will come” strategy of putting exhibition sites before capacity-building. And Warehouse421 is hoping its focus on early and mid-career artists and curators will pay off in the long run – and that, even in the short-term, missteps are more beneficial to a holistic art scene than polished shows.

Encouraging critique in the UAE art world

Recent events back this up.

The Mina Zayed exhibition was the subject of a negative review in the NYUAD student publication The Gazelle, in which the authors alleged an imbalance of representation. The article sparked public debate, with Al Hassan and Mohamed Somji of GPP addressing the concerns in a letter to the editor. It fostered a spirit of critique many feel the UAE lacks: points were cogently made, and cogently responded to.

Warehouse421 was delighted.

“It was absolutely amazing for us,” Al Hassan says. “For years I've been looking for this type of engagement from the community, and from the media in particular. To see that constructive critique of programmes and exhibitions in writing – we’re hoping to see more and more of that. The article extends the thought process beyond the exhibition's opening to the audience and larger community.

“Our mission is to support emerging and early creative practitioners,” he says. “That support comes with allowing them to make mistakes and allowing them to grow. We're not expecting everything that we do to come out presented in the best way possible. But we're giving creative practitioners the tools and the space to develop – and to engage with the rest of the public community in a safe place.”

Published: May 16, 2021 03:18 PM

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