How are museums different today than in the late nineteenth century when the first great national museums of the West started to appear? What are the institutional trends in the Middle East with its explosion of new museums, and how does this relate to the regional art scene? These, and other questions were at the forefront of the panel discussion I took part in at New York's Asia Society on March 1st.
I was joined by Anna Somers Cocks, founder of the Art Newspaper, journalist and critic, in making respective presentations moderated by Asia Society Director Boon Hui Tan. Even the bitter weather was not a deterrent in ensuring a full turn out, and we both engaged the audience in questioning the state and future of the rapid cultural growth in the Gulf and beyond.
Anna Somers Cocks looked at the two strands of the current art scene: appreciation and dominance of the modern masters of Middle Eastern art, and the new generation of contemporary artists who are blazing a path, at times not without risk. She looked at the work of ground-breaking Saudi artists such as Ahmet Mater and Abdul Nasser Gharem, as well as female artist Manal Al Dowayan, all of whom have only recently been able to become full-time artists. Pioneering establishments in Cairo such as the Townhouse, and the Ashkal Alwan in Beirut (both founded by well-wishers) were mentioned, as being typical of how and why local non-profits were started - as a means to support budding talent in the absence of other vehicles. In cultures where there are different types of constraints, art has often been the favoured mode of expression. Nowhere is this more apparent than the 'organic' growth of the art and culture scene in Sharjah with its progressive and highly acclaimed Sharjah Biennal and Art Foundation.
Underpinning the boom in art production, institutions and museums have sprung up as part of nation-building and turning cities into cultural destinations. I told the audience about the chronology of museum-building in the Middle East, starting with the pioneering Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art in 1977, and culminating in the extraordinary inaugurations of the IMPei Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, and last November, the Abu Dhabi Louvre. From modest types of private museums such as the Sadbirk Hanim in Istanbul inaugurated in 1980, the region has come fast-forward to some of the most advanced and innovative museum concepts anywhere in the world. The yet-to-be-opened Kind Abdul Aziz Centre for the Arts in Dhahran will feature the latest in museum technology and know-how, proposing to combine highlights of local heritage alongside an IDEALab, science and technology - nurturing both inventors, innovators and artists. The Sheikh Jaber Cultural Centre, once completed, will become the world's largest cultural complex, featuring a dazzling array of facilities. These are not the only plans for exceptional institutions - Beirut, Dubai, Egypt, all have significant projects.
In the meantime, the Louvre Abu Dhabi (the first 'universal museum in the Arab world') has enchanted every visitor with its beautifully-curated inaugural show and will entice many more visitors once the hotly-anticipated Leonardo Salvator Mundi arrives to join the other Leonardo on view, the Belle Ferroniere which is truly worth the journey. Watch out for the many museum trips and tours which will undoubtedly spring up to offer eye-opening visits to this new hub of cultural tourism. It will not disappoint.