‘Most of them have a tendency to delve into abstraction,” Sarah White, the former director of Bait Al Zubair Museum in Oman, once told me, referring to budding local artists. She found this inclination disturbing, not unlike the propensity to cross a river by jumping in, rather than using the bridge.
White, an English artist who worked relentlessly to promote and develop the fine arts in the Sultanate until her death last year, had a point. One that was admirably illustrated by the two young Emirati abstract painters I recently met in Abu Dhabi Art. Ahmed Al Kuraishi, an IT professional, explained that he enjoyed looking “beyond” real forms. His friend Mohammed, who also pursues art as a hobby, said that in his search for a unique style he ignored all suggestions of figuration from the beginning, preferring instead to use the “power of colour and texture”. Mohammed said he needed structured guidance, which would help him find his way.
The plaintive appeal chimes with White’s cherished project – an art school in Oman that would attract students from the UAE as well. The lack of one forces many to choose other vocations; perhaps even give up on art as a hobby. It’s death for an artist, White said.
There are many painters like Mohammed in the region, who rue the fact that they were not professionally trained. It’s debatable if formal education is a pre-requisite for an artist, but White, for one, believed that the tendency towards abstraction was often the result of a lack of training. She thought the untrained artist’s abstract work generally betrayed a lack of articulation and clear vision.
Al Kuraishi endorses this. An art school in this country could help individuals like him hone their skills and sharpen their vision, he says. “It could have changed the course of my life.”
The gap in art education is a paradox: Abu Dhabi will soon be home to the legendary Louvre and Guggenheim; while Dubai is on course to establish itself as the regional art hub with more than 85 art galleries – up from just five in 2006 – and Sharjah continues to play host to the 20-year-old art show called the Biennial.
As the UAE seeks to draw an aesthetically compelling picture of itself, for itself and the world, it’s time it consider building a world-class art school. It would not only help local talent blossom, but encourage many to consider the fine arts as a career option. That said, the importance of an arts education goes much beyond. The notable Polish sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz famously said that “art does not solve problems, but makes us aware of their existence”. Arts education, on the other hand, can solve problems: research shows that intelligent behaviour is inextricably linked to some kind of sensory perception. What’s not so well-known is that art and wealth have a correlation too.
In its study of the characteristics of artists and those interested in art, the RAND Corporation, an American institution that helps improve the policy and decision-making process through research and analysis, found that art education has historically been the “the single best predictor of participation in the fine arts”.
The study also found that those who go to museums generally have higher incomes. It also found a relationship between income and education, suggesting that people who earn more tend to be more educated. An arts education adds value to the arts as it helps people appreciate the work.
With time, this appreciation and the increased levels of interest in art will create a population that is culturally and artistically nurtured. Once that happens, it is inevitable that art appreciation will start to translate into value. But it will take more than big names in museums, multiplying galleries and extravagant art fairs to make this happen. Instead, it will need the infrastructure that will nurture and promote talent. An art school will complement the rest of the art infrastructure by creating local jobs. With the fine arts occupying an increasingly prominent space in this country’s developmental goals, the time to set up an educational institution is now.