Tuesday, December 13, 2011

What's Happening in the Middle East

In the coming months we will focus on the private and public art markets and institutions in the Middle East. Having lived there for almost four years I can attest that only the past is certain. Inshalla is a word meaning Allah willing and is the ultimate disclaimer tacked on to any promise. If the promise wasn't kept,  the deal wasn't concluded, or the contract wasn't fulfilled, then clearly Allah didn't will it. The past five years indicate that the markets in China, Russia, and the Middle East are important to sustaining growth that is not happening in Europe and the United States.

abu dhabi. “The Guggenheim is certainly not cancelled,” the US ambassador, Michael Corbin, told me. “It’s just delayed due to cash flow problems and the Arab Spring”. This was at an exhibition of Middle Eastern artists hosted in the residence to show his general support for the role that art is playing in Abu Dhabi policy. There were more signs of official approval for the idea of art. A huge red ball is appearing in surprising places, such as the Zaha Hadid-designed bridge, and in shopping malls. This is an installation by Kurt Perschke to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the founding of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Sheikha Salama, wife of the powerful Crown Prince, and her sister-in-law, Sheikha Shamsa, gave parties worthy of The Arabian Nights in their palaces for artists, dealers, journalists and assorted panjandrums, and Zaki Nusseibeh, adviser to the president of the UAE, invited lecturers at Abu Dhabi Art and artists to his house in the oasis of Al Ain. The Sorbonne Abu Dhabi has joined forces with the Louvre and Ecole du Louvre for a curatorial training programme.

So why the general feeling of uncertainty about the future for art in Abu Dhabi? Much of it can be put down to the chronic secrecy with which public affairs are conducted, fed by uncertainty about where the focus of power is at any moment. What is certain is that central government (that is, Abu Dhabi, the energy-richest emirate and the capital of the UAE) has been pouring money into the four, poor, northern emirates for infrastructure projects over the past year. This is an indirect response to the unrest in other countries in the region, which has not occurred in the UAE but has changed the priorities in the Executive Council, and led to the increased influence of Sheikh Hazza bin Zayed Al Nahyan, ­national security adviser and deputy chairman of the council, a relative conservative who believes that housing and hospitals come before museums.

The cash flow problems are real. Hundreds of expatriate staff have been let go from government offices; the British architects Austin-Smith: Lord (see facing page) have not been paid; the staff at Jean Nouvel and Foster & Partners, architects of the Louvre Abu Dhabi and Zayed National Museum respectively, are barely working, and the tendering process for the Guggenheim, a complex design by Frank Gehry considerably bigger than his Bilbao museum, has been cancelled, which may well mean that in the process of moving from concept to detailed design stage it has turned out to be simply more expensive than Abu Dhabi will accept and the design is being renegotiated. The Guggenheim director and curatorial team, who were much in evidence at Abu Dhabi Art 2010, did not come down this year due to “an unusually intense concentration of commitments”, as they told The Art Newspaper. This was interpreted by many at the fair as showing an undiplomatic lack of commitment on their part, and that top-notch acquisitions for the future museum would not be made this year; after all, who was to advise the buyers?

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