Exploring the Gulf: Thoughts On the Art Scene of Qatar and UAE

Stas Chyzhykova
Mar 23, 2014 5:50PM

My first ever trip to UAE, and second trip to Qatar just came to an end. In the past six very intense and busy days, I visited local Islamic and contemporary museums, art studios and fairs, met with artists, gallerists, art collectors and patrons. The trip was extremely thought provoking, and in an attempt to record the multitude of impressions, I wanted share my thoughts with the Artsy community.


They buy the most expensive post-war works (Cezanne’s Cardplayers, Bacon’s triptych), commission stararchitects to build landmark museums and public artworks (I. M. Pei’s MIA in Doha, Damien Hirst’s sculptures in front of the Sidra Medical and Research Center in Doha, Frank Ghery’s Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Jean Nouvel’s Louvre Abu Dhabi), collect Islamic artworks from across the region, launch world-class art fairs and open gallery districts  – Alserkal Avenue – a la Miami’s Wynwood. Why go through all this trouble and major expenses?

International Acceptance and Respect: Qatar and UAE  are amidst constructing past, present and future at an accelerated pace to catch up with Western nations, and become an equally significant global player.

Tourism: Nothing justifies an expensive vacation on the Persian/Arabian peninsula in the middle of Northern Hemisphere’s winter better than a visit to world-renowned museums and galleries, am I right? 


Since the history of Gulf nations has been short and limited, the development of cultural institutions, contemporary art scene and revival of forgotten regional artists are a chance for these countries to reconstruct past, finding a place in the Arab history. 

Their ambitions span beyond domestic borders. In an effort to promote their new identity as cultured, educated, capitalist and developing nations, they introduce national cultural centers across the world, and build museums, such as Aga Khan’s Museum of Islamic Culture that will open in Toronto in the fall.


Gulf dwellers are famously the ones to buy most expensive, record-breaking pieces at New York and London post-war auctions. However, they are deeply invested in local and regional art, a recent trend that shows their development as art collectors. 

Collector phase 1: Recognition. At first they were buying blue chip Modernist works with low investment risks and high immediate return in terms of prestige and social status.

Collector phase 2: Philanthropy and patronage. However, as their tastes and philanthropic traditions developed, they recognized importance of investing in Arab artists. For instance, Art Dubai’s Contemporary Section featured works predominantly by artists from the region. Art Dubai’s Modern Section was dedicated to the revival of local and regional Modern artists.  Also, prominent art patrons, such as Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, Founder of Barjeel Art Foundation, confirmed that he is actively selling his Modern collection of Western art, recognizing the crucial importance of collecting and supporting the artists from the region.


UAE and Qatar, created by Bedouins only a few decades ago have very strong family traditions. Here, businesses, industries and entire countries are run by families rather than individuals. Given a growing tendency of art patronage, individual families are likely to become increasingly more important in the rise of artist careers, art foundations and private galleries.


Given Arabs’ passion for beautiful objects, craftsmanship, previous materials and aesthetics, design has a crucial importance in the Gulf, and Dubai in particular. The Emirate just held its annual world-class fair – Design Days Dubai that brought together design shops and studios primarily from other Arab countries. Another fact that confirms the importance and potential of design in Dubai is the current construction of a large multi-story complex in the center of Dubai.


The 8th edition of this world-class fair showed that despite being remote from the West, the Emirates are capable of organizing world-class fairs and attract galleries and collectors from across the world. The fair’s future is however uncertain. Notoriously, Art Basel Hong Kong has shifted its 2015 dates, which as of now coincides with Art Dubai 2015. Unless Art Dubai shifts its dates to avoid the overlap, Art Basel Hong Kong, might seriously compete with the fair, potentially attracting a stronger set of exhibitors.  Should this happen, maybe Art Dubai will continue to develop its regional focus, becoming the key art fair of Arabic art.


They are few, but they are sending a strong signal. For instance, during Art Dubai, Susan Hefuna had a solo exhibition in Sharjah – one of the more conservative Emirates. Qatar’s Emir's daughter and the head of Qatar Museum Authority, Sheikha Mayassa, – was named the world’s most influential individual in art in 2013.

P.S.  A few words on the future of Gulf’s art scene:

Many may criticize that the rapid art acquisition and art market development is not organic and therefore not sustainable. I disagree. I believe, the well-off Gulf nations will show to the often rigid and archaic West that culture can also be imported, assimilated and perpetuated

Currently the Arab world is lacking a unique cultural center. Beijing is too different and traditional, Tokyo is too far, Deli and Mumbai are lagging behind. Istanbul could easily compete, but lacks resources (read: oil money).  I believe that the Gulf countries will fill that void, becoming the cultural hub of the Arab world


Stas Chyzhykova