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European Sculpture & Works of Art

The Middle East and Great Collections of the World at the Royal Academy

Recently I gave a talk exploring the fascinating topic of Great Collections from around the world in a new lecture series, part of the Royal Academy's Academic Programmes, led by Anna Dempster and which coincided with the RA’s brilliant new show, Charles I: King and Collector. It was humbling to follow on from a host of renowned speakers, including Sothebys own Philip Hook whose latest book Rogues’ Gallery, a History of Art and its Dealers (2017), recently published.

Reference to the significance of both historic and comparatively new collectors has interested the public for some time, and the session on March 14 had its own engaged and curious audience intrigued to hear about the region and its culture, history and a view to the future. Who are these great collectors? How does their private collecting interface with the public domain? How do they perceive the role of their collection? These and many more questions were addressed during a session that extended well beyond its allotted hour.

The well-known history of patronage in (what is now) the Middle East can be traced back to the great Safavid rulers in Persia and to the Ottoman Empire in Turkey, even though the benefactions of Timurid rulers in Herat have been compared to the Medicis. Qajar rulers in eighteenth and nineteenth century Persia encouraged the flourishing of the arts, while the earlier Mamluks in Egypt also left a rich legacy.

 

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PREVIEW OF CHARLES I: KING AND COLLECTOR. PHOTO BY JACK TAYLOR/GETTY IMAGES

Modern times have seen the pioneering Empress Farah Pahlavi strongly supporting the arts, and the founding of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Arts through her architect cousin Kamran Diba - a museum which has the finest collection of Western art outside the West. In the 80s, smaller private museums opened in Istanbul, and examples of different types of museums were seen - mainly to highlight the rich local legacy and heritage in order to preserve it for future generations.

The traditional model of the great Western museums (such as the British Museum, the Louvre and the Met) has been 'disrupted' with the boom in the new, starchitect-driven, destination-style museums in the Gulf, the most talked-about being the Louvre Abu Dhabi which opened to rave reviews on November 2017.

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LIFE ROOM, RA SCHOOLS, BURLINGTON HOUSE, PICCADILLY, LONDON © ROYAL ACADEMY OF ARTS

Sustainability is a clear goal for museums such as the Doha Islamic Art one where footfall is less than optimal, however the robust educational programming throughout the Gulf (and now inclusive of Saudi Arabia) means that there will be more local uptake for the future. With cuts in government funding of museums in the West, we see a rise in private museums; however private museums in the Gulf seem to grow despite state-backed support for national institutions. It is a fascinating time to be watching the developments, as innovations and change sweep this region which has long been a hub for transport and exchange between East and west, Africa and Asia. The question of great collections, and great collectors, what inspires them and why they are important both locally, regionally and internationally, is something worth the conversation.

MAIN IMAGE: PREVIEW OF CHARLES I: KING AND COLLECTOR. PHOTO BY JACK TAYLOR/GETTY IMAGES).

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