The ‘mosaic’ of private art foundations shaping the scene in the UAE

Private foundations are playing different roles in the Emirates – from offering studio spaces (Tashkeel) to funding the UAE participation at the Venice Biennale (Sheikha Salama Foundation) to mounting exhibitions and maintaining archival resources for scholars.

A rendering of Dubai’s Jameel Arts Centre. Courtesy Serie
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Last month, Art Jameel unveiled plans for a 10,000-square-metre contemporary art space in old Dubai. The designs show a group of glass-fronted, white blocks sitting atop and aside one other, facing out onto Deira Creek and connected by a shaded plaza. It looks like, well, a museum. And when it opens next year, it will act like one, too, showcasing a vast collection of contemporary international and Middle Eastern art, hosting a research library and featuring rotating, short-term exhibitions.

But it’s not a museum, or not strictly so. The complex will house the non-profit art institution Jameel Arts Centre, run by Art Jameel, a family foundation with ties to the Saudi company Abdul Latif Jameel. The Jameel Arts Centre is among a number of private foundations that are defining the landscape of art in the UAE as it evolves. Others include Tashkeel, Alserkal Avenue, the Jean-Paul Najar Foundation, and the Atassi Foundation, all based in Dubai; the Barjeel Art Foundation, in Sharjah; and the Sheikha Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation, in Abu Dhabi. In a field of substantial state wealth – and, of course, delays in flagship museum projects – private foundations have taken the lead.

“Private foundations are always a feature of so-called emerging cities, like Istanbul or Moscow today,” says Shumon Basar, who advises at the Prada Foundation in Milan and is the commissioner of Dubai’s Glob­al Art Forum. “When you research the inaugural exhibitions of established art institutions, they were often held in drawing rooms or anne­xes to private house­s. There’s a decepti­on that when you look at Tate Modern, it­’s always been in th­at vast architectural form. But that’s just the most recent posture.” Tate Modern and Tate Britain, Basar notes, are named after the British sugar magnate Henry Tate of the Tate & Lyle empire, in thanks for his donation of artworks and funding for the museum’s construction.

Private foundations are playing a number of different roles in the Emirates – from offering studio spaces (Tashkeel) to funding the UAE participation at the Venice Biennale (Sheikha Salama Foundation) to mounting exhibitions and maintaining archival resources for scholars. Long known for its commercial enterprises, these new institutions suggest that the Dubai art scene is beginning to consider its long-term future as a site for the public display and consumption of art.

“We thought a lot about what a private foundation and a civic museum can offer,” says Antonia Carver, director of Art Jameel. “Part of our work over the past year has been looking at what’s already available and what’s needed, and the centre will be highly invested in the public discourse.” The Jameel Arts Centre’s research library, for example, will provide access to scholarly resources in a region where those have often been lacking. “We want to document, analyse and recover art histories from this place.”

Traditionally a city’s art scene has been anchored by its major museum, which has played a role of city branding. This model has been disrupted in the past 20 years with the rise of boutique museums and private foundations – which have proliferated due to the burgeoning amount of global billionaires and the popularity of art as an asset – and these tend to have smaller, more individually curated collections. This development has occurred alongside a decline in state funding for the arts and that has weakened the vaunted, if somewhat fictitious, split between public and private institutions. State institutions are now deeply dependent on private giving.

The UAE, however, is one of the few places in the world where the state has both deep coffers and a strong commitment to supporting arts and culture. But so far, the contemporary-art sector has largely been left alone. Museum projects in Dubai are currently focusing on cultural heritage, and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, which should be the country’s major modern museum, does not yet have a permanent presence. “In Dubai the private sector has led inventive thinking,” says Basar. “This happened with Art Dubai: it became internationally recognised and Dubai’s public sector started to pay attention. And likewise for Alserkal Avenue – once that took off, its potential was understood by other parties. It’s a little like ‘if you build it, they will come’.”

What has emerged is a “mosaic”, as Venetia Porter of the British Museum called it, of different projects and collections, spread out across the Emirates. Barjeel Art Foundation, established by Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi in Sharjah, focuses on modern and contemporary work of the Arab region. The Jean-Paul Najar Foundation shows western abstraction from the 1960s and 70s, it is run by the late Najar’s daughter, Deborah Najar Jossa. The Atassi Foundation cares for a collection of modern and contemporary Syrian work that the couple Sadek and Mouna Atassi amassed over decades of running an art gallery in Damascus and a bookshop in their home city of Homs.

While some of these foundations, such as the Jameel Arts Centre, are highly invested in the landscape of Dubai, others use the Emirates as a base to reach a wider audience, both regionally and internationally – prototypes for global, nomadic institutions that fit the age of the gig economy, with its prevalence of freelance work and short-term contracts, and continuous travel and communication. The Barjeel has taken on touring as integral to its programme, playing the role of a global advocate for Arab art. “The UAE is, thankfully, stable, but we are in geographic and cultural proximity to regions that are not,” says Karim Sultan, a curator at the Barjeel. “We think about our touring programme systematically... Local is a place like the Maraya Art Centre in Sharjah [where Barjeel has a permanent home].

“Then regional is places like Egypt, Jordan, Iran and Kuwait, where there is an awareness of our art history, but they might not know of any parallel works. And lastly we tour to more international places, like the Whitechapel Gallery [London], where audiences might not be very aware about the art in this region.”

The Atassi Foundation has chosen to fully forego a permanent home in favour of travelling to various international institutions. This is as much a strategic decision as it is a reaction to the situation in Syria. “The UAE is the platform for Arab culture right now and the works can gain the best visibility here,” says Mouna Atassi. But the “works are eventually going back to Syria, to Homs”.

For private foundations, distinguishing themselves from a commercial gallery is immensely important to their reputation, and they seek to publicly signal their status in various ways. Organisations often enlist a star museum architect, even for a smaller project, which gives the gallery the look of a museum, and the star factor can be highlighted on press material and online for an international audience. Alserkal Avenue commissioned the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas to design its new space for commissioned programming, Concrete, and the Najar Foundation had its site designed by Mario Jossa of Marcel Breuer & Associates. Najar Jossa also had her foundation accredited as a museum by the International Council of Museums, and set up a gift shop in December last year. “It sounds like a little thing,” Najar Jossa says, “but it reinforces the message that we are a museum rather than a gallery that sells work.”

The Najar Foundation’s accreditation means it is bound by the non-profit obligations of the ICM, but in the UAE, until it achieves non-profit status it is not allowed to raise funds. Most speculate that this injunction against fundraising, and the ambiguity of non-profit law more generally, allows the government to encourage entrepreneurship among private individuals, but also to strictly regulate the flow of donations that non-profits rely upon to ensure complete transparency.

For the private sector, this means that organisations have difficulty scaling upwards beyond their initial investment funds. While in the West many small foundations begin by having a strong patron or a circle of donors, in the UAE, getting off the ground is only possible if you have a substantial collection to begin with – such as the Najar Foundation or the Atassi Foundation – or if you are lucky to enough to have substantial wealth at your disposal. That the latter is more common in the UAE has helped the private-art scene reach its diversity. Many foundations here are a product of dynastic succession and family enterprises, such as that of Art Jameel, whose president is Fady Jameel of the Abdul Latif Jameel group.

There is a move now to make it easier for foundations to fundraise. Mahnaz Fancy, a Dubai-based independent consultant who previously worked in the United States as the head of a number of non-profit organisations, is putting together a cultural-philanthropy event with the Najar Foundation and Alserkal Avenue next fall. “Private giving allows different members of a society to be recognised,” she says. In New York, she continues, she “relied on the support of individual philanthropists and private foundations to introduce Arab artists to new US audiences.”

Likewise, during the recent Abu Dhabi Culture Summit, the director of the US-based Ford Foundation, Darren Walker, explained how foundations can contest elite culture, representing demographics that have been left out of established art history. For example, Ford recently helped support an exhibition of the black American artist Kerry James Marshall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the modern and contemporary collection is dominated by white male artists.

Private foundations provide an avenue for the Emirates’ art ambitions, but also a voice – if properly supported – for the different populations that live here.

Melissa Gronlund is the author of Contemporary Art and Digital Culture (Routledge). She lives in Abu Dhabi