Social change through art at Abu Dhabi's Cultural 'Davos'

CultureSummit organisers say the event promotes a global cross-fertilisation of ideas to benefit society

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - Saif Ghobash, Director General of Department of Culture and Tourism Authority, at the Abu Dhabi Cultural Summit at Manarat, Saddiyat on April 8, 2018. (Khushnum Bhandari/ The National)
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"Culture drives political views," says David Rothkopf, chief executive of the Rothkopf Group – one of the organisers of CultureSummit 2018, which began yesterday at Manarat Al Saadiyat. "In the UAE, there's an acute sense of the power of cultural diplomacy, both in terms of bringing people here, and in terms of dealing with some of the issues we've been hearing about – not just combating extremism, it's also empowering women, fighting climate change, and so forth."

Art's potential for social change is the idea behind the CultureSummit 2018, which is co-organised by the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi (DCT) and TCP Ventures. It is the second such summit, focusing on ideas and opportunities that arise from "unexpected collaborations" between cultural producers and those in other sectors.

This is a line of thinking cultivated in Abu Dhabi, where investments in art and culture such as the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas (Aliph) and Louvre Abu Dhabi promote the potential of culture to connect, moderate and act as a force of tolerance.  

“We focus on the areas of thought leadership, education, and dialogue,” says Saif Ghobash, DCT director general. Ghobash likens CultureSummit to a “cultural Davos”. “Today, there is no one place in the world where you can bring leaders from culture and other sectors to discuss things that have culture embedded in their solutions,” he says.

The idea was sparked in a restaurant in Abu Dhabi, when Rothkopf and Carla Canales, chief executive of TCP Ventures, were having dinner with Noura Al Kaabi, then the director for twofour54, the umbrella media organisation. The plan was quickly put into action and DCT were brought on board as co-partners, given its track record in major events.

Rothkopf and Canales, who are married, themselves exemplify the promise of a partnership between policy and art: he is a political scientist and she is a classical opera singer.

I asked if the CultureSummit was a labour of love – but was quickly told it was more. "It's a passion," says Rothkopf, explaining that in his former role as chief executive of Foreign Policy, "there was always a focus on this narrow slice of politics. But all these other factors are real drivers – economics, finance, technology, culture – and they don't get discussed".

In the event’s second year, it is clear that the programme is both more focused and that the ambitions are wider. The organisation appears to be toying with a long-term, year-round role for the summit, beyond the four days it currently occupies, where cultural leaders and producers are invited for talks, performances, and workshops in Abu Dhabi.

Titled Unexpected Collaborations: Forging New Connections Between Heritage and Innovation, Near and Far, Creativity and Purpose, this year's event includes for example, Maqsoud Kruse, executive director of Hedayah, the Abu Dhabi-based anti-extremism foundation; Keri Putnam, executive director of the Sundance Institute, a film-financing foundation attached to the Sundance Film Festival; and Volker Gerling, a theatre artist.

Ghobash adds that the event will benefit the arts as much as the arts benefit other sectors. “Culture can be seen for itself, but it needs money to go around, to make its wheels turn, and the problem in today’s world is that culture is one of the sectors that is always financially more at risk, because people cannot financially understand its outcomes. We need to find ways – that do not trespass on the holiness of culture – that quantify its returns, so that people who are not within the sector, who can play a big role in funding, can connect to those within it.”

There are also new additions to the programme this year, which, though invite-only, is being made available on the internet. The programme has increased its weighting of Middle Eastern artists, and is launching the artists’ incubator programme.

“The performances are far more ambitious,” says Canales, “We’re bringing a 120-piece orchestra to Abu Dhabi.”

In the incubator programme, 50 artists of all types – musicians, visual artists, dancers, photographers – will take part in brainstorming sessions throughout the week.

“We’ve pared them down into six groups,” says Canales. “We give them questions. How would they provide a solution to that problem – for example, combating extremism? How could the arts find a solution to that problem? And those solutions are offered up in a shark-tank style to panelists on the last day.”

CultureSummit is another step in Abu Dhabi’s remit of expanding its cultural reach internationally: the event is co-produced with two United States-based institutions, with participants and guests from more than 80 countries.

“It’s about thought leadership,” says Ghobash. “Yes, we are doing a lot on the hard side – we have a museum, we have exhibitions – but we also need things that can transcend our borders. We want to be regarded as thought leaders, not just by running events in town, but also being recognised on a global scale.”

The CultureSummit is on until April 12 at Manarat Al Saadiyat. See