In its five years of existence, the New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) Art Gallery has put on a number of notable shows.
It has featured towering sound sculptures by Zimoun, Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti's contemplative The Concrete Tent and most recently, Amar Kanwar's poignant installation The Sovereign Forest.
The public will soon be able to revisit these exhibitions online as the gallery prepares to open its first digital archive on Monday, May 18. It will be launched alongside a series of virtual events, primarily discussions, as part of the gallery's digital programme Trace: Archives and Reunions.
The first release will be materials from Speculative Landscapes, an exhibition on the concept of environment that ran from September to December 2019 and featured commissioned works from four artists living in the UAE.
New archives will become available online every two weeks throughout the summer.
The gallery had been gathering these materials for a book about its history, set to be published in time for its sixth year anniversary in the fall. Half a decade after it opened, it is the first time it is sharing these resources online. Like many other art institutions, the physical experience had always outranked the virtual. However, with the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, which caused schools to take lessons online and art spaces to shut down, the gallery had to recalibrate.
"This [digital archive] was one of those 'someday-we-should-do' plans, but it did not have priority," says Maya Allison, NYUAD Art Gallery's executive director and the university's chief curator. "[Trace: Archives and Reunions] is not something I would have done as a programme this summer … but I realised as we were building these archives that this was something we can offer to help us reconnect. So if we make it public, this is a chance for us to come together, especially now that so many of us are self-isolating."
It can also serve as a valuable learning resource. “There is a lot of content in these archives that I get asked for regularly by scholars who are working on these subjects … Now they can readily access it. I’m really hoping that people will use it for homeschooling or for research from home,” she adds.
Trace: Archives and Reunions will include a range of material related to the gallery's previous shows. Visitors will be able to access book publications, brochures, installation photos, videos, audio guides and NYUAD Art Gallery's youth guides, developed by artist Alaa Edris, who works as their assistant director of publications, and illustrated by artists in the UAE. There will also be highlights from the gallery's auxiliary Project Space, the Christo Award and campus collection.
Curators and artists will also meet in various virtual discussions where they will revisit the exhibition and the latter will discuss current and future work. For the first event on Tuesday, May 19 at 9pm UAE time, the artists of Speculative Landscapes – Areej Kaoud, Ayman Zedani, Jumairy and Raja’a Khalid – will reunite with Allison to discuss their ongoing projects as well as their experiences with the pandemic. Speakers for the following virtual discussions will be announced in the lead-up to the events.
Despite these developments towards NYUAD Art Gallery’s digital outreach, Allison has some reservations about experiencing art in the virtual realm.
“One of the things I struggle with the most is how much we lose when we go virtual with art. I don’t want my exhibition experience to be an online as [the only] option. I want it to be something that adds to it,” she says. “Part of the reason why we decided to do this archive project is that while there is so much more to the art that you experience in person, a photo or other virtual activation will help you remember it.”
In the meantime, Allison considers how this newfound reliance on digital platforms amid quarantine may reshape the way she curates. “I have to curate something that has a meaningful online existence, as opposed to an echo of what I would want to do in the physical world,” she says. “I’m looking at what I can do in the virtual world that is fundamentally meaningful and originates from there. An example would be dialogues and exchanges, the written word,” she says. “I’m considering what you can do where the art can live and breathe in the virtual world that might not be able to do so in a gallery.”
When NYUAD Art Gallery shuttered in March, Amar Kanwar's The Sovereign Forest was on view. Scheduled to close at the end of May, Allison says they are still "considering what's possible" for the exhibition in coming weeks.
Additionally, with schools expected to continue e-learning until September or even to 2021 because of the pandemic, the gallery is waiting to see what it can do next."As [NYUAD Art Gallery] is with an educational institution, we respond both sets of guidelines, that for schools and colleges, and that for public venues…. It is a little early to predict, but we have plans in place for different scenarios."
In the meantime, the digital archive will serve as a resource for students and the public around the world to enrich their insights into the works that have come to the UAE via the gallery's programming.
“Part of how we conceive of our gallery is that we are more nimble and responsive because we are a smaller institution. When I saw what was happening and that we would have to change our exhibitions around, I started thinking, ‘what will be useful for teaching?’, ‘how can I continue to generate something meaningful and useful that would be missed if not there?’”, she says, adding that the gallery’s mission, and her own, will stay the same. “My mission in life is to make these connections with people and between people and ideas”.
NYUAD Art Gallery's 'Traces: Archives and Reunions' can be found on the website